This is a guest post, written by The American Left-Footer, about what Liberation Theology gets right, and how they get it wrong.
Since the election of Pope Francis, liberation theology has once again risen up from the black lagoon where we keep the other parts of the ‘70s that embarrass us, such as leisure suits and Jimmy Carter. Because the former Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio is an Argentinean and a Jesuit from a certain time, the amateur theologians in the media deduced that he must be a practitioner of that philosophy which has plagued the modern Church. Although the Pope has been very frank about his dislike for that strain of theology, this hasn’t stopped commentators from asking why the
institutional Church doesn’t support liberation theology. Don’t they care about the poor? Don’t they stand up for the marginalized? The answer to both those questions is obviously yes. So why not support Liberation Theology?
When discussing liberation theology, coming up with a good definition for it is an important first step. According to James Nickloff, a follower of Rev. Gustav Gutierrez, the founder of the movement, liberation theology is about raising the consciousness of those at the base of society. I’ll let him explain to you exactly how this is done, based on a quote from the National catholic Reporter:
The first is social, political, economic, structural transformation. The political and theological projects come together in the second level, which is psychological transformation. The third level is transformation in Christ, which is the turn from self-centeredness and sin to God.
I won’t discuss the second and third levels here, as it that enters into some odd, scientology-esque territory. However, the first level seems reasonable. Why don’t we want to transform society in a way that benefits the poor and marginalized? The answer: we do, but not in the way liberation theologians seem to want. After all, liberation theologians make clear that they are interested in liberation, not mere charity which is preached by the institutional Church. This difference becomes most profound when discussing the way in which social change should be won in wider society, which for them means through the state. This explains why the political aspect of liberation theology is so important; the state is influenced by the will of its people, whether that will is expressed through protest in the streets or choices made in the ballot box. Political activity is popular among Christians across the political spectrum, whether they are fighting against abortion or the death penalty, for traditional marriage or for universal health care. The problem is that for the sort of problems liberation theologians want to fix (and all problems really), the place to fix them is on the most basic society: the family. But all Catholics should already know this, of course, because Pope Leo XIII beautifully explained it over 100 years ago in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, the foundational document of Catholic social teaching.
Rerum Novarum is the Church’s response to the Industrial Revolution and everything that came with it. For Catholics, especially those interested on what the Church has to say about economics, it should be required reading. It manages to refute the main tenets of Liberation Theology despite being written before Gustav Gutierrez was even born. To quote the previously mentioned document,
“Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body”.
This is to say, man can exist without the state, and so has a right to his labor and the fruits he bears from it. Thus, man has a right to private property. But what happens when a man has a task too big for himself to care for alone? Doesn’t he need the state to step in and help him? No. The most pertinent point, and the most dangerous to forget, is that the family is the fundamental building block of society. Not the individual, not the state. As Pope Leo XIII says:
A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father . . . the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community.
Here lies the central flaw in liberation theology. In attempting to fix all of society’s social problems on the level of the state, liberation theologians deny the primacy of the family as the heart of society. Each family is its own state, with its own sovereignty, only relying on the community and the State for what it cannot do itself. The amount that the family can or cannot do is a topic up for debate, though certainly one for another day. But no one can deny that, at the very least, we ought to attempt to solve these problems on the simplest level possible, that of the family, before taking them into politics and the level of the State. We must help those within our own families with their struggles, as well as the other families around us. But until that point, we should not attempt to bring the state into the lives of our families. Liberation theology insists on going to the state immediately and, in doing so, contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church.
“Left Footer” is a mildly obscure epithet for Irish Catholics. It came into being because the Catholics in Ireland continued to use their left-footed spade instead of the technologically superior two-sided spade that was adopted by Protestants. Therefore, the term “left-footer” referred to those who continued to use those left-footed spades, showing themselves to be stubborn and technologically backward. This is a term that could be used for practicing Catholics throughout the world today, holding on to a philosophy and faith that is seen as backward by the modern world. As a Catholic he wears this title proudly.