The fifth general meeting of the Latin American Catholic Bishops Conference, held in May at the Marian shrine of Aparecida in Brazil, gives us a window through which to view the status of liberation theology today. While the long-term results of that meeting remain to be seen, once again—as has been true for decades—much of what is said about this theology today is wrong.
Even such a highly touted reporter as John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter summarized liberation theology as "designed to break the traditional alliance of the Latin American church with social elites and to support justice for the poor." This description infers that at some point groups of activists decided to bend the gospel to fit a political agenda.
That is not what liberation theology is about. Rather, it has been and continues to be an informed and serious questioning and challenging of Christian faith life in the context of enormous impoverishment in Latin America and around the world. "What does our scripture and tradition have to say about stunted and truncated human lives in our world?" is the way the liberation theologians have framed the question. Unfortunately, this legitimate theological inquiry has been misinterpreted by outside observers for several decades.
Nevertheless, judging from initial reports from Aparecida, liberation theology is alive and well and enjoying a kind of "second spring" in the church of Brazil and presumably in the rest of Latin America. In his homily at the Mass that opened this historic meeting, Pope Benedict XVI used the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 as a paradigm for what would take place at Aparecida. "The Church's leaders discuss and argue, but in a constant attitude of religious openness to Christ's word in the Holy Spirit. ... This is the "method" by which we operate in the Church." Yes, there are differences among us, the pope clearly seemed to be saying, but they do not signify ruptures in the fabric of our unity. Pope Benedict had to be thinking of liberation theology as he spoke those words, given his personal history with it (especially, as Cardinal Ratzinger, in his pre-papal role as the often-harsh enforcer of a conservative interpretation of church doctrine).
On the other side of the ledger, some Brazilian bishops in the run-up to this meeting stated clearly that a priority at Aparecida would be the church's oft-stated "preferential option for the poor." This vision, call, and challenge, of course, is an acknowledged cornerstone of liberation theology. In fact, it was the early liberation theologians who coined this phrase after the second general assembly of the Latin American Bishops Conference in 1968.
The Brazilian National Council of the Laity wrote a manifesto on the eve of Aparecida that specified even further the evolution of liberation theology as we move into the 21st century: "Without a spirituality integrating the struggle for ecological freedom, there will be no fruit and we run the risk of destroying the place of the covenant of God with human beings and with all creation." Growing concern in the developing world for the health of our environment has gripped liberation theology as well. In the past 15 years, the liberationists have embraced what is being called "Indian Theology," with its urgent concern for Mother Earth. This trend exemplifies the second spring for liberation theology and opens important new vistas for its practitioners.
There is a lesson here for us who have to rely on secular media for our information and ultimately our worldview: They are not reliable sources of theological insights. Better to wait, for example, until the actual document from Aparecida gets published before judging the impact that liberation theology made on its deliberations. To paraphrase what the Athenians said to Paul after his discourse at the Areopagus: You may want to hear us again on this matter.
Joe Nangle, a Franciscan priest who spent 15 years serving the church in Latin America, was associate pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Northern Virginia when this article appeared.