In August 1984, and again in April 1986, liberation theology hit the front pages of the world's newspapers. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the controversial prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued two instructions that either explicitly or implicitly criticized liberation theologians.
The second was more positive than the first. Far, far too long, repetitive, and abstract, it made one yearn for the day when seminaries will insist that degrees in theology will be awarded only to those who have passed a Good Writing course. But in effect it justified the New York Times headline [April 6, 1986]: "Vatican Backs Struggle by Poor to End Injustice." The negative part followed in the subhead: "But Document also Sees New Forms of Slavery."
Neither instruction quoted or mentioned any liberation theologians. Not so understandable was the failure to quote Marx, especially when Ratzinger, in the first instruction, made such sweeping generalizations as this: "Atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and his rights, are at the core of Marxist theory." A case could be made for the statement, but it should be made.
Another weakness of the first instruction was the false impression that absolute pacifism is part of Catholic teaching, that violence in pursuit of justice is never justified. Fortunately, this was corrected in the second instruction. Someone must have reminded Ratzinger that Paul VI, true to the teaching of Aquinas, had written in 1967 that "a revolutionary uprising" could be justified "where there is manifest, longstanding tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country" (Populorum Progressio, 30 and 31).
In fact, any number of Latin American countries may have qualified as such tyrannies. You have to ask yourself, "'if I lived in such a country, and I were young and healthy, shouldn't I be out there in the bush with the guerrillas, fighting to free the people from hunger and oppression?" And a second question: "If I didn't have the courage to join the guerrillas, would I have the right to complain very bitterly because those who did have the courage also had some crazy Marxist-Leninist ideas which they proceeded to implement once the tyrant had been overthrown?"
Bitterly perhaps, but not very bitterly.
Karl Popper, sitting safely somewhere in England, once gave this excellent advice to revolutionaries: "The use of violence is justified only under a tyranny which makes reforms without violence impossible, and it should have only one aim -- to bring about a state of affairs which makes reforms without violence possible."
But then, Popper did not live in Latin America, waiting half a lifetime for an honest election, then see a man elected who had promised "reforms without violence" and watch him either: (a) sell out to the rich and the military, or (b) if he meant business, be replaced by the military in behalf of the rich, often with the overt or covert assistance of the United States of America, leaving hunger and oppression precisely where they were before. Small wonder that "reformism" and "compromise" and "democracy" (usually with the prefix "bourgeois") and "United States of America" have become dirty words in Latin America and frequently appear so in the writings of liberation theologians.
All this being cheerfully, or sadly, admitted, one must also admit that there is ground for criticizing liberation theology. And let us take the best of its representatives, Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest who in 1971 published what is still regarded as its Magna Carta, A Theology of Liberation. More than any other person Gutierrez has been responsible for yanking the attention of us comfortable, complacent Christians of the North and forcing us to focus on the misery of the South, compelling us to consider to what extent we share in responsibility for that misery. He has also done more than any other person to place the question of Christian socialism on the agenda of the Catholic church and the whole contemporary world.