Transformed by Hope: Liberation Theology After 40 Years

by Sebastian MacDonald, C.P.

In Chicago from October 29-31, 2008, Catholic Theological Union and DePaul University co-hosted a scholarly conference entitled Transformed by Hope. This “hope” was of a special kind: the kind associated with liberation theology, initiated by the pastoral concerns of the Latin American bishops (whose collaboration is frequently designated as CELAM). From 1968 to the present, these bishops have met in a series of significant gatherings at places like Medellin, Puebla, Santo Domingo, and Aparecida.

The bishops were attempting to fashion a pastoral program for the church of Latin America, in response to directives set out by the Second Vatican Council. The program they began shortly after the closing of the Council soon spread beyond the confines of their continent, to other places, including North America (the U.S. and Canada), and facilitated the late Pope John Paul II’s desire that our two continents begin thinking of ourselves as America, without the distinctions of “north” and “south”.

Leading representatives of these three regions assembled at the Chicago conference: Francis Cardinal George of Chicago (President of the USCCB), James Weisgerber of Winnepeg (President of the CCCB) and Sidney Fones, (Secretary General of CELAM.) They were joined by nearly 600 registrants that included many from Latin America, Canada and various parts of the U.S.

Forty years of change

The purpose of this conference was to celebrate the achievements of liberation theology over the past forty years, with a view to developing a social theology that speaks effectively to our contemporary era, by generating hope that liberation or freedom can become available to all.


Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P. (at right), frequently called the “father” of liberation theology, was the keynote speaker. He, however, defers to the 1968 gathering at Medellin as the true parent of this theology. But he certainly has been its eloquent spokesperson, and, at times, the “target” of some who criticize this type of theology. Early on, it was accused of being overly Marxist in its analysis of problems facing the Latin American church, and in its proposed solutions. However, these criticisms have become more muted over the decades.

Pope Benedict’s approach

Pope Benedict XVI was an early critic of liberation theology, but, with the passage of time, has proposed his own version. His is a more explicitly faith-based approach, giving less emphasis to economic and political factors, and placing more emphasis on a liberation from sin, achieved for us by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, which broke the bonds of our enslavement. In this way, Pope Benedict could argue that liberation theology maintains continuity with a familiar tradition in the church, even while introducing elements of change that expand the notion of liberation to include other kinds of entrapments oppressing us.

Notwithstanding the changes that liberation theology has undergone over the years, there have been some unchanging constants, the primary one being “the preferential option for the poor”. The poor represent those whose freedom has been curtailed. Of course, we can understand this in various ways, whether they be spiritual, referring to those lacking faith in God, or secular, looking to those lacking economic or political opportunities to improve themselves. Regardless, it’s desirable that every form of poverty be diminished and even eliminated. This is the hope that animated this conference, as the consequence of a social theology showing the way forward in this effort.

An interesting comparison emerging from this diversified gathering of people merits further consideration. It concerns a difference that soon became apparent between the Latin American participants and their North American counterparts.

Those from the south evidenced a more recognizably faith-centered understanding of the issues confronting liberation, along the lines, just mentioned, that Pope Benedict XVI had earlier pursued. In contrast, North American presenters were more prone to identify the secular dimensions of the problems facing us, and were correspondingly more oriented toward constructing a social theology utilizing these secular disciplines to help secure freedom from these constraints.

Conversion still the key

It would be ideal, of course, if both approaches collaborated in the task of liberation. On the one hand, this would include the call for vigorous evangelization on the part of the church to break the bonds of sin. On the other hand, formulations proposed by the social sciences, centering on solidarity and subsidiarity, can be effective in fashioning programs that help people collaborate effectively in achieving goals by dividing responsibility among themselves for greater efficacy.

One area where a convergence occurred among the proponents was that of conversion. There was general agreement that only a change of outlook and of heart can provide the kind of setting for hope to lodge, clearing the way to secure the kind of liberation that enables people to achieve a life of peace and tranquility.

Proselytizing a looming issue

Other points of difference in the outlook of participants centered on the “problem” that needed to be addressed. While it is true that those from Latin America in the 60s and 70s exhibited concern about elements of Marxism infiltrating Latin American society, they have gradually revised their perception of the problem. They now regard religious pluralism as a looming issue. This fairly recent development has been triggered by aggressive proselytizing efforts on the part of Protestant evangelical groups, some from North America, plying their version of Christianity, especially in those parts of Latin America where there is a severe shortage of Catholic clergy. This has led to a new experience for the people, nearly all of whom have been Roman Catholic, though poorly trained in the faith, suddenly encountering another form of Christianity, and this has confused them. As a result, a pluralism of religious choices has arisen, which is leading some of them to adopt the new evangelistic religions, abandoning Catholicism. This is becoming a major problem, and is leading to a strong emphasis on Catholic evangelization, frequently mentioned in the course of these proceedings, as a way to offset a clear and present danger.

U.S.’s ‘saving grace’?
Our Lady

By way of contrast, those reflecting a North American point of view see the problem that hope must address today, by means of a newly structured social theology, as a combination of factors, especially individualism and consumerism. These pervasive attitudes channel the interests and ambitions of people in this part of the world away from the strong communal sense that has characterized Catholicism, and which the term “common good” has traditionally represented throughout recent Catholic history. The upward economic mobility of U.S. Catholics has brought about a sense of independence and autonomy among them, and diluted the awareness of bonding and mutual responsibility that formerly provided a basis of cohesiveness. Perhaps the new period of increased immigration into the U.S., once the problematic parts of this surge have been handled, will prove to be the kind of saving grace for the U.S. Catholic church, that it was a hundred years ago, since most of the current immigrants are again Catholic.

The hope for this conference was to ignite collaboration on a social theology, on the part of the churches of the north and the south, to address these problems, and enhance our shared faith. However, we in North America will soon become aware of our numerical disadvantage, since the church of Latin America, despite its problems, vastly outnumbers us. But, far from alarming us, this prospect should come as a welcome phase of development in our shared faith, since the belief of others can serve to enliven and re-ignite our own trust in and love for God. This can happen especially by way of our mutual sharing in the care and protection of the Blessed Mother, who is revered as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and throughout Latin America, as the Immaculate Conception, who is patroness of the U.S. church, and as Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, whose shrine is in Canada.

A social theology open to these faith factors will be the most effective way of structuring the hope that this conference sought to promote, in the wake of forty years of liberation theology. End

Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. holds a doctorate in Moral Theology and has recently published “The Sacramental Roots of Human Freedom: A Catholic Basis for Morality” (Lewiston NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008).