Liberation theology is dead but not departed; it still occasionally twitches

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a stern critic of liberation theology as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti)

The Pope has recently reminded us of how far we still have to go in eliminating from the Church the secularism still underlying the mindset of many senior Churchmen. It isn’t easy, of course; we live in society, and society naturally generates secular solutions to secular problems, solutions which we have to assess on their merits. But Newman reminds us that for Christians to become too much engrossed in the world and in the problems of mankind is to exclude the real purpose of the Church’s revelation of God in Christ:

…. this well-ordered and divinely-governed world, with all its blessings of sense and knowledge, may lead us to neglect those interests which will endure when itself has passed away.… And hence it is that many pursuits in themselves honest and right, are nevertheless to be engaged in with caution, lest they seduce us; and those perhaps with especial caution, which tend to the well-being of men in this life. The sciences, for instance, of good government, of acquiring wealth, of preventing and relieving want, and the like, are for this reason especially dangerous; for fixing, as they do, our exertions on this world as an end, they go far to persuade us that they have no other end

The focus on this world rather than the next became characteristic of various modernisms, both of the last century and this. It was characteristic of the immanentist movement of the first decade of the last century, which Chesterton addressed in Orthodoxy by a strong corrective emphasis on God’s transcendence, and which Pius X addressed at the same time in Pascendi (§37): “Now the doctrine of immanence in the Modernist acceptation”, observed the Pope, “holds and professes that every phenomenon of conscience proceeds from man as man. The rigorous conclusion from this is the identity of man with God, which means Pantheism.” In the ancient world, asserted Chesterton, ‘[t]hat transcendence and distinctness of the deity which some Christians now want to remove from Christianity, was really the only reason why any one wanted to be a Christian”.

Immanentism of this kind (“every phenomenon of conscience proceeds from man as man”) was also a characteristic of liberation theology (with which the present Pope did battle at the CDF for two decades): one of its characteristics was the avoidance of transcendence, of the understanding of this life in the context of the next, sub specie aeternitatis. The Church, it was believed by these Marxist-inclined theologians, should address the problems of the world on the world’s own terms, and its analysis was that the sinfulness the Church should oppose was in the structures of society rather than in the nature of man. The CDF criticised liberation theology precisely on these grounds; that by focusing on institutionalised or systemic “sin”, it apparently excluded individual responsibility. This was, in fact, what many found attractive about it. As one Protestant theologian, Matthew L Lamb, put it approvingly in the mid 1980s:

Liberation theologies in Third and Fourth World countries, as well as political theology in First and Second World countries, are addressing … systemic class injustices by intellectually and religiously supporting and fostering egalitarian communities committed to more just economic and political orders.

The question was, where did God come into it?

Though liberation theology as such now troubles the Church little if at all, this kind of thinking is still with us. As the Holy Father was reported on Monday as saying:

…. we [can] run the risk of reducing things to a horizontal dimension which perverts the identity of the Church and the announcement of the faith. The Church is not a social or philanthropic organisation, like many others that exist: she is the Community of God, she is a community which believes and loves, which adores the Lord Jesus and opens her ‘veils’ at the breath of the Holy Spirit; thus she is a community capable of evangelisation.

Many men and women of our time need to encounter the Lord, or to rediscover the beauty of the God Who is close, the God Who in Jesus Christ reveals His face as Father and calls us to recognise the meaning and value of life. … [Underlying the current disorientation] is the negation of the transcendent dimension of man and of the basic relationship with God. For this reason it is vital for Christian communities to promote valid and compelling itineraries of faith.

As I say, the notion that “every phenomenon of conscience proceeds from man as man”, so evident in Liberation theology’s focus on “systemic class injustices”, is still with us in some episcopal utterances: I wonder if I discerned a spot of it in Archbishop George Stack’s installation homily?

Whilst continuing to care for those who are poor in any way, and the support of the alienated and dispossessed, we must also have the courage to challenge those structures of injustice which deprive people of the “tools for conviviality” which are essential if every person is to make a proper contribution to a civilised society.

That tell-tale phrase from the 1980s about defending the poor and alienated by challenging the “structures of injustice”, which, he implied, are the real problem the Church faces in society, sounds to me like a typical bit of residual liberation theology. Am I being unfair? Probably. Certainly, his homily shows, as has the general comportment of many English bishops generally pigeonholed as “liberals”, the influence the Pope has had on some of them during and after his transforming visit to this country. Archbishop Stack speaks of hope as being “a living faith that even in turmoil and confusion there is a meaning and a purpose to existence which cannot be fully explained in the here and now”: a distinctly Benedictine emphasis. All the same, I think that “structures” is a word best avoided. It’s not structures or systems that are the problem. It’s the individuals who create them. The problem, said the Pope this week, is “the negation of the transcendent dimension of man and of the basic relationship with God”. “Fixing… our exertions on this world as an end”, said Newman, goes far “to persuade us that they have no other end”. The tendency (the pope again) is “reducing things to a horizontal dimension”.

It’s a tendency we continue to suffer from as a Church; all the same, a change is taking place: and Archbishop Stack’s homily, though the tendency was still there, more importantly also displayed the change. I really think we might now be on our way.