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Liberation Theology
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger


The following is to a "private" document which preceded the Instruction of Fall 1984.

Preliminary Notes

1. Liberation theology is a phenomenon with an extraordinary number of layers. There is a whole spectrum from radically marxist positions, on the one hand, to the efforts which are being made within the framework of a correct and ecclesial theology, on the other hand, a theology which stresses the responsibility which Christians necessarily hear for the poor and oppressed, such as we see in the documents of the Latin American Bishops' Conference (CELAM) from Medellin to Puebla. In what follows, the concept of liberation theology will be understood in a narrower sense: it will refer only to those theologies which, in one way or another, have embraced the marxist fundamental option. Here too there are many individual differences, which cannot be dealt with in a general discussion of this kind. All I can do is attempt to illuminate certain trends which, notwithstanding the different nuances they exhibit, are widespread and exert a certain influence even where liberation theology in this more restricted sense does not exist.

2. An analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church. At the same time it must be borne in mind that no error could persist unless it contained a grain of truth. Indeed, an error is all the more dangerous, the greater that grain of truth is, for then the temptation it exerts is all the greater.

Furthermore, the error concerned would not have been able to wrench that piece of the truth to its own use if that truth had been adequately lived and witnessed to in its proper place (in the faith of the Church). So, in denouncing error and pointing to dangers in liberation theology, we must always be ready to ask what truth is latent in the error and how it can be given its rightful place, how it can be released from error's monopoly.

3. Liberation theology is a universal phenomenon in three ways:

a. It does not intend to add a new theological treatise to those already existing, i.e., it does not wish to develop new aspects of the Church's social ethics. Rather it sees itself as a new hermeneutics of the Christian faith, a new way of understanding Christianity as a whole and implementing it. Thus it affects theology in its basic constitution, not merely in aspects of its content. So too it alters all forms of Church life: the Church's constitution, liturgy, catechesis, moral options.

b. While liberation theology today has its center of gravity in Latin America, it is by no means an exclusively Latin American phenomenon. It is unthinkable apart from the governing influence of European and North American theologians. But it is also found in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Taiwan and in Africa, though in the latter case the search for an "African theology" is in the foreground. The Union of Third World Theologians is strongly characterized by an emphasis on the themes of liberation theology.

c. Liberation theology goes beyond denominational borders:
from its own starting point it frequently tries to create a new universality for which the classical church divisions are supposed to have become irrelevant.

I The concept of liberation theology and its origins and preconditions

These preliminary remarks have brought us right to the heart of the subject, without, however, dealing with the central question: what is liberation theology?

Initially we said that liberation theology intends to supply a new total interpretation of the Christian reality; it explains Christianity as a praxis of liberation and sees itself as the guide to this praxis. However, since in its view all reality is political, liberation is also a political concept and the guide to liberation must he a guide to political action:

"Nothing lies outside ... political commitment. Everything has a political color." A theology that is not "practical"; i.e., not essentially political, is regarded as "idealistic" and thus as lacking in reality, or else it is condemned as a vehicle for the oppressors' maintenance of power.

A theologian who has learned his theology in the classical tradition and has accepted its spiritual challenge will find it hard to realize that an attempt is being made, in all seriousness, to recast the whole Christian reality in the categories of politico-social liberation praxis. This is all the more difficult because many liberation theologians continue to use a great deal of the Church's classical ascetical and dogmatic language while changing its signification. As a result, the reader or listener who is operating from a different background can gain the impression that everything is the same as before, apart from the addition of a few somewhat unpalatable statements, which, given so much spirituality, can scarcely be all that dangerous.

The very radicality of liberation theology means that its seriousness is often underestimated, since it does not fit into any of the accepted categories of heresy; its fundamental concern cannot be detected by the existing range of standard questions.

I would like to try, therefore, to approach the basic orientation of liberation theology in two steps: first by saying something about its presuppositions, which make it possible, and then by referring to some of its basic concepts, which reveal something of its structure.

What could have led to that complete new orientation of theological thought that is expressed in liberation theology? In the main I see three factors which made it possible.

1. After the Council a new theological situation had arisen, again characterized by three assertions:

a. The view arose that the existing theological tradition was largely no longer adequate, and that, as a result, an entirely new theological and spiritual orientation needed to be sought directly from Scripture and from the signs of the times.

b. The idea of a turning to the world, of responsibility for the world, frequently deteriorated into a naive belief in science which accepted the human sciences as a new gospel without wanting to see their limitations and endemic problems. Psychology, sociology and the marxist interpretation of history seemed to be scientifically established and hence to become unquestionable arbiters of Christian thought.

c. The criticism of tradition applied by modern Evangelical exegesis, in particular by Rudolf Bultmann and his school, similarly became a firm theological authority, cutting off the path to theology in its prior form and so encouraging people all the more to produce new constructions.

2. This changed theological situation coincided with a changed intellectual situation. At the end of the phase of reconstruction after the Second World War, which corresponded roughly to the end of the Council, a tangible vacuum of meaning had arisen in the Western world to which the still dominant existentialist philosophy could give no answer. In this situation the various brands of neo-marxism became a moral impulse, also holding out a promise of meaning that was practically irresistible to the academic youth. Bloch's marxism with its religious veneer and the strictly scientific appearance of the philosophies of Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas and Marcuse offered models of action by which people believed they could respond to the moral challenge of misery in the world as well as realize the proper meaning of the biblical message.

3. The moral challenge of poverty and oppression presented itself in an ineluctable form at the very moment when Europe and North America had attained a hitherto unknown affluence. This challenge evidently called for new answers which were not to be found in the existing tradition. The changed theological and philosophical situation was a formal invitation to seek the answer in a Christianity which allowed itself to be guided by the models of hope apparently scientifically grounded put forward by marxist philosophies.

II. The basic structure of liberation theology

This answer takes very different shapes, depending on the par­ticular form of liberation theology, theology of revolution, political theology, etc. No overall description can be given, therefore. Yet there are certain basic concepts that recur in various modifications and express fundamental intentions held in common.

Before examining the content of these basic concepts we must make an observation concerning the cardinal structural elements of liberation theology, taking up what we have already said about the changed theological situation in the wake of the Council.

As I explained, the exegesis of Bultmann and his school now came to be read as the verdict of "science" on Jesus, a verdict that simply had to be accepted as valid. But Bultmann's "historical Jesus" is separated from the Christ of faith by a great gulf (Bultmann himself speaks of a 'chasm'). In Bultmann, while Jesus is part of the presuppositions of the New Testament, he himself is enclosed in the world of Judaism.

Now the crucial result of this exegesis was to shatter the historical credibility of the Gospels: the Christ of the Church's tradition and the Jesus of history put forward by science evidently belong to two different worlds. Science, regarded as the final arbiter, had torn the figure of Jesus from its anchorage in tradition; on the one hand, consequently, tradition hangs in a vacuum, deprived of reality, while on the other hand, a new interpretation and significance must be sought for the figure of Jesus.

Bultmann's importance, therefore, was less because of his positive discoveries than because of the negative result of his criticism: the core of faith, christology, was open to new interpretations because its previous affirmations had perished as being historically no longer tenable. It also meant that the Church's teaching Office was discredited, since she had evidently clung to a scientifically untenable theory, and thus ceased to be regarded as an authority where knowledge of Jesus was concerned. In the future her statements could only be seen as futile attempts to defend a position which was scientifically obsolete.

Another key word made Bultmann important for future developments. He had reinstated the old concept "hermeneutics" and given it a new thust. The word hermeneutics expresses the insight that a real understanding of historical texts does not come about by mere historical interpretation and, indeed, that every historical interpretation already includes certain prior decisions. Once the historical material has been established, it is the task of hermeneutics to "actualize" Scripture. In classical terminology, it is to "dissolve the horizon" between then and now. It asks the question: what significance have these past events for today? Bultmann himself had answered this question with the help of Heidegger's philosophy and had interpreted the Bible in a correspondingly existentialist manner. This answer attracted no interest then, nor does it now; to that extent Bultmann has been superseded in the exegesis currently acceptable. Yet what has remained is the abstraction of the figure of Jesus from the classical tradition as well as the idea that, using a new hermeneutics, we can and must bring this figure into the present in a new way.

At this point we come to the second element of our situation to which we have already referred: the new philosophical climate of the late sixties. In the meantime the marxist analysis of history and society was largely accepted as the only "scientific" one. This means that the world must be interpreted in terms of the class struggle and that the only choice is between capitalism and marxism. It also means that all reality is political and has to justify itself politically. The biblical concept of the 'poor" provides a starting point for fusing the Bible's view of history with marxist dialectic; it is interpreted by the idea of the proletariat in the marxist sense and thus justifies marxism as the legitimate hermeneutics for understanding the Bible.

Since, according to this view, there are, and can only be, two options, any objection to this interpretation of the Bible is an expression of the ruling class's determination to hold on to its power. A well-known liberation theologian asserts: "The class struggle is a fact; neutrality on this point is simply impossible."

This approach also takes the around from under the feet of the Church's teaching office: if she were to intervene and proceed against such an interpretation of Christianity, she would only prove that she is on the side of the rich and the rulers and against the poor and suffering, i.e., against Jesus himself: she would show that she had taken the negative side in the dialectic of history.

This decision, apparently unavoidable in "scientific" and "historical" terms, automatically determines how Christianity shall be interpreted in the future, as regards both the activities of this interpretation and its content.

As far as the arbiters are concerned, the crucial concepts are people, community, experience and history. Previously it was the Church, namely, the Catholic Church in her totality a totality which spanned time and space and embraced laity (sensus fidei) and hierarchy (Magisterium) that constituted the hermeneutical criterion; now it is the "community". The experience of the "community" determines the understanding and the interpretation of Scripture.

Again it can be said, in a way that seems strictly scientific, that the Gospels' picture of Jesus is itself a synthesis of event and interpretation, based on the experience of the individual communities, whereby interpretation was far more important than the no longer ascertainable event.

This original synthesis of event and interpretation can be dissolved and reformed continually: the community "interprets" the events on the basis of its "experience" and thus discovers what its "praxis" should be. The same idea appears in a somewhat modified form in connection with the concept of the people" where the conciliar emphasis on the "People of God" is transformed into a marxist myth. The experiences of the 'people" elucidate Scripture. Here "people" is the antithesis of the hierarchy, the antithesis of all institutions, which are seen as oppressive power. Ultimately anyone who participates in the class struggle is a member of the "people" the "Church of the people" becomes the antagonist of the hierarchical Church.

Finally the concept "history" becomes a crucial interpretative category. The view, accepted as scientifically certain and incontrovertible, that the Bible speaks exclusively in terms of salvation history (and thus, antimetaphysically), facilitates the fusing of the biblical horizon with the marxist idea of history, which progresses in a dialectical manner and is the real bringer of salvation. History is accordingly a process of progressive liberation; history is the real revelation and hence the real interpreter of the Bible. Sometimes this dialectic of progress is supported by pneumatology. In any case the latter also makes a teaching office which insists on abiding truths into an authority inimical to progress, thinking "metaphysically" and hence contradicting "history". We can say that the concept of history swallows up the concepts of God and of Revelation. The "historicality" of the Bible must justify its absolute dominance and thus legitimize the' transition to materialist-marxist philosophy, in which history has taken over the role of God.

III. Central concepts of liberation theology

So we have arrived at the basic concepts of the new interpretation of the Christian reality. Since the individual concepts occur in different contexts, I will simply discuss them one after another, without any systematization. Let us begin with the new meaning of faith, hope and love. Concerning faith, one South American theologian says, for instance, that Jesus' experience of God is radically historical. "His faith is transformed into fidelity." Thus faith is fundamentally replaced by "fidelity to history". Here we see that fusion between God and history which makes it possible to keep the Chalcedonian formula for Jesus, albeit with a totally changed meaning: it is clear that the classical tests for orthodoxy are of no avail in analyzing this theology. It is asserted "that Jesus is God, but it is immediately added that the true and only God is he who reveals himself historically and as a stumbling block in Jesus, and in the poor who prolong his presence. Only the person who holds together these two affirmations is orthodox."

Hope is interpreted as "confidence in the.future" and as working for the future and thus is subordinated once more to the history of class conflict.

Love consists in the "option for the poor"; i.e., it coincides with opting for the class struggle. In opposition to "false universalism"'; the liberation theologians emphasize very strongly the partiality and partisan nature of the Christian option; in their view, taking sides is the fundamental presupposition for a correct hermeneutics of the biblical testimony. Here, I think, one can see very clearly that amalgam of a basic truth of Christianity and an un-Christian fundamental option which makes the whole thing so seductive: The Sermon on the Mount is indeed God taking sides with the poor. But to interpret the "poor" in the sense of the marxist dialectic of history, and "taking sides with them" in the sense of the class struggle, is a wanton attempt to portray as identical things that are contrary.

The fundamental concept of the preaching of Jesus is the "Kingdom of God". This concept is also at the center of the liberation theologies, but read against the background of marxist hermeneutics. According to one of these theologians, the Kingdom must not be understood in a spiritualist or universalist manner, not in the sense of an abstract eschatological eventuality. It must be understood in partisan terms and with a view to praxis. The meaning of the Kingdom can only be defined by reference to the praxis of Jesus, not theoretically: it means working at the historical reality that surrounds us in order to transform it into the Kingdom.

Here we must mention another basic idea of a particular post­conciliar theology which has led in this direction. People said that after the Council every dualism must be overcome: the dualism of body and soul, of natural and supernatural, of this world and the world beyond, of then and now. Once these supposed dualisms had been eliminated, it only remained to work for a kingdom to be realized in present history and in politico­economic reality. This meant, however, that one had ceased to work for the benefit of people in this present time and had begun to destroy the present in the interests of a supposed future: thus the real dualism had broken loose.

In this connection I would like to mention the interpretation of death and resurrection given by one of the leading liberation theologians. First of all he once again opposes "universalist" conceptions by asserting that resurrection is in the first place a hope for those who are crucified, who make up the majority of men: all the millions who are subjected to a slow crucifixion by structural injustice. But faith also participates in Jesus' lordship over history by setting up the Kingdom, that is, by fighting for justice and integral liberation, by transforming unjust structures into more human ones. This lordship over history is exercised by repeating in history the gesture by which God raised Jesus, i.e., by giving life to those who are crucified in history. Man has taken over God's gesture this manifests the whole transformation of the biblical message in an almost tragic way, when one thinks how this attempted imitation of God has worked out in practice and continues to do so.

As to other reinterpretations of biblical concepts: The Exodus becomes the central image of salvation history; the paschal mystery is understood as a revolutionary symbol, and consequently the Eucharist is interpreted as a celebration of liberation in the sense of politico-messianic hope and praxis. The word redemption is largely replaced by liberation, which is seen, against the background of history and the class struggle, as a process of progressive liberation. Absolutely fundamental, finally, is the stress on praxis: truth must not be understood metaphysically, for that would be "idealism". Truth is realized in history and its praxis. Action is truth. Hence even the ideas which are employed in such action are ultimately inter­changeable. Praxis is the sole deciding factor. The only true orthodoxy is therefore orthopraxy. It follows that the biblical texts can be treated more loosely, for historical criticism has loosed Scripture from the traditional interpretation, which now appears to be unscientific. Tradition itself is treated with the greatest possible scientific strictness along the lines of Bultmann. But as for the historically transmitted content of the Bible, it cannot be exclusively binding. Ultimately, what is normative for interpretation is not historical research but the hermeneutic of history experienced in the community or the political group.

In trying to arrive at an overall evaluation it must be said that, if one accepts the fundamental assumptions which underlie liberation theology, it cannot be denied that the whole edifice has an almost irresistible logic. By adopting the position of biblical criticism and of a hermeneutics that grows through experience, on the one hand, and of the marxist analysis of history, on the other, liberation theologians have succeeded in creating a total picture of the Christian reality, and this total view seems to respond fully both to the claims of science and to the moral challenges of our time, urging people to make Christianity an instrument of concrete world transformation; it seems to have united Christianity, in this way, with all the "progressive forces" of our era. One can understand, therefore, that this new interpretation of Christianity should have exercised an increasing fascination over theologians, priests and religious, particularly against the background of Third World problems. To say "no" to it must seem to them to be a flight from reality as well as a denial of reason and morality. On the other hand, if one considers how radical this reinterpretation of Christianity is, it is all the more pressing to find the right answer to the challenge which it presents. We shall only survive this crisis if we succeed in making the logic of faith visible in an equally compelling manner and in presenting it as a logic of reality, i.e., manifesting the concrete force of a better answer attested in lived experience. Since it is so, since thought and experience, interpretation and realization, are equally called for, it is a task for the whole Church. Theology alone is insufficient, Church authority alone is insufficient. Since the phenomenon of liberation theology indicates a lack of conversion in the Church, a lack of radical faith, only an increase in conversion and faith can arouse and elicit those theological insights and those decisions on the part of the shepherds which will give an answer to the magnitude of the question.

The was reproduced with permission from The Ratzinger Report an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger and Vittorio Messori. This book was published by Ignatius Press.

Version: 9th December 2004



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