Liberation Theology Comes to the Vatican

by Mark Hertenstein


In a surprising twist in the complicated saga of Vatican relations with liberation theology, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the same position once held by the Pope Emeritus), published an editorial praising that theological movement in the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano - alongside that of Father Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P., considered the founder of Latin American liberation theology.

Gutierrez, who championed the importance of a “preferential option for the poor,” said in his editorial, “We are not with the poor if we are not against poverty… That is, if we do not reject the condition that oppresses a significant part of humanity… This is what is happening today in face of the dominant presence of neo-liberalism which appears behind an economy increasingly more independent from politics.” For Gutierrez, the structures of the economy show a social order that is disposed to keeping some in poverty and unjust socio-economic conditions, imposed by those with wealth and power. Thus, by siding with the people, the poor, those on whom the whole system relies and which the system cannot ignore, human dignity is upheld and produces a healthy society, humanity, and environment.


In a later interview with Father Ugo Sartorio, Gutierrez says this theology “is not social liberation theology, although the release has a social aspect; there is also a personal liberation, which concerns the mentality, and then there is liberation from sin. This set is called salvation, which is therefore not only salvation from sin… Liberation theology seeks personal freedom, humanity, freedom from injustice, wrong mindset and ultimately from sin.”


In his editorial, the Prefect praises the work of Gutierrez as important for its emphasis on Jesus Christ as the liberator of humanity from injustice. And in his evaluation, Müller says, “The Bible describes Christ as the savior who brings liberation... He frees man from sin – both personal and structural, which ultimately… is the cause of all injustice and all oppression. Only Christ makes us free… Based on this liberty we are called to help people, since each and every poor person in need is our neighbor.” He also praises the movement for creating a diversity of Catholic theology. Following the lead of Gutierrez, he concludes that “to practice the truth brings us to take the side of the poor.”


That editorials appeared in the Vatican paper is surprising enough. Even more so is the fact that Müller, who is a known supporter of liberation theology, is prefect of the same dicastery once headed by the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. It was Pope Benedict himself who appointed Müller to this post in 2012.


As Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger issued two documents cautioning against certain elements of liberation theology, suspicious of Marxist elements of thought in “some” unidentified works of liberation theology, and he also silenced Father Leonardo Boff on two occasions. More recently, in 2007, Müller’s direct predecessor, Cardinal Levada, also issued a notification and admonishment concerning Father Jon Sobrino, S.J.


In the context of Pope Francis calling for “a poor Church for the poor,” as well as signs of heavy interest in the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, this theological moment for Latin America could signal a shift in perspective across the Church from the current Western lines of thinking to the centers of great vitality and growth in the Church in the global South.


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