Christian Democracy and the Liberating Option for the Oppressed in Latin American Catholicism – Otto Maduro [1987]

[Originally published in Concilium: The Church and Christian democracy, edited by Gregory Baum and John Coleman, 1987.]

1. Introduction

In Latin America, with the majority of the population being Catholic, Christian Democracy has often presented itself as the only, or at least the best political choice for Catholics. Does such a claim make any sense in 1987? In only two Latin American countries—El Salvador and Guatemala—have Christian Democrat parties recently gained power through elections (elections in which the political organisations of the Socialist Left played no part). In two others—Chile and Venezuela—the Christian Democrats have held political power in the recent past and can reasonably expect to do so again in the near future. There are, perhaps, only four among the other twelve nations of the continent in which Christian Democracy has any importance in the national, social and political spectrum.

Meanwhile, a great variety of other forms of participating in social and political life—different from and even opposed to Christian Democracy— have come to gain favour with an increasing number of Catholics in Latin America. ‘Christian Left’ groups, ‘Camilista’ (after Camilo Torres) groups, ‘Christians for Socialism’ and several other movements have preceded— sometimes with no later connection—liberation theology and the base Christian communities. Various Social Democratic parties—those in Chile, Venezuela, El Salvador and Nicaragua, amongst others—have gone through internal divisions caused by the rise—within them—of radical currents of Catholic-social thought. Finally, large numbers of Latin American believing Catholics (above all in the lower and middle strata of the population) are becoming steadily more organised in leagues, groups, networks, movements and parties distinct from—and often opposed to—the Christian Democrat parties and unions, in order to pursue their aims.

So what relationship—historical, social, political and cultural—exists in Latin America between Christian Democracy, on the one hand, and, on the other, those other means of social and political Catholic commitment which some would call ‘radical’, ‘Socialist’, ‘leftist’ or, more recently, ‘liberating’? In the following few pages I am going to essay a reply (partial, partisan, conjectural and provisional) to this question. A reply consciously made from a particular viewpoint: that of a Latin American lay Catholic Socialist (ex-Christian Democrat)—from the Caribbean and Venezuela, to give more detail—forty-two years old, a philosopher and religious sociologist, deeply identified with the spirit blowing in theologies of liberation.

2. European Catholicism and Latin American Christian Democracy

Perhaps the first characteristic of Latin American Christian Democracy that needs pointing out is its European and Catholic origins. Like many other facets of Latin American society and politics, Christian Democracy originated largely beyond the frontiers of the New World: mainly in Western European Catholic thought since the second World War. In Europe, as later in Latin America, Christian Democracy is a political (not ecclesiastical) movement, secular (not clerical), but one which arose from ecclesiastical initiatives, organisations and concerns strongly influenced by the clergy. European Christian Democracy took shape in a weakened Church, weakened first by the loss of the rising middle classes and, later, of the growing working classes. A Church which felt threatened both by the liberal anti-clericism of the middle classes and by Socialist rejection of religion. A Church, therefore, on the defensive against both the ruling capitalism and emerging Socialism. A Church that dreamt of the past, barely tolerated the present and feared the uncertain future.

Something similar happened also in the Latin American Church. A new model of the Church, of which Christian Democracy is, in a way, a manifestation came into being in post-War European Catholicism. This is what has been called the ‘New Christendom’ programme, which is opposed to—but at the same time near to and supportive of—both the totalitarian ideal of restoring medieval Christendom and the dominant liberal model of Western Europe. This model of New Christendom—sanctioned by the ‘social teaching of the Church’ through the social encyclicals from Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII (1891) to those of John XXIII—has found enemies both inside and outside the Catholic Church, first in Europe and later in Latin America: inside, in the old Catholic aristocracy which saw ideas such as New Christendom, Integral Humanism, Catholic Action and Christian Democracy as dangerous concessions to liberal-bourgeois atheism; outside, in the anti-clerical middle class, working class and Socialist elites, who saw the same ideas as a clerical conspiracy designed to restore the old power of the Church.

European Christian Democracy grew—slowly and with difficulty—from the end of the nineteenth century to the period after the second World War as the political expression of this ‘New Chistendom’ programme. In Latin America it followed the same path after the 1929 crisis. An influential sector of the Catholic laity used Christian Democracy as the vehicle for pursuing their aim of becoming active protagonists of the Church and of society or, at least, active protagonists of the Church in the political life of society. This happened first in Western Europe and later in Latin America, but in both cases it involved the White, urban, adult, masculine, intellectual and upwardly mobile Catholic middle classes. This sociological profile gave Christian Democracy, at the time of its struggle for power, a tense—and often conflictive— relationship with the clergy on one side (especially with the more conservative popes and bishops) and with the most powerful groups in society on the other (particularly dictators and big landowners, more so if these were not Catholics, and unless a greater ‘common enemy’ impelled Christian Democracy to ally itself to these other enemies).

In this way Christian Democracy was able to put forward—from its tense distance from the conservative clergy, the aristocracy, the army, the bourgeoisie and the anti-clerical intellectuals—the Utopia of a new society: the communitarian society of Integral Humanism, a third way between Capitalism and Socialism. While Christian Democracy remained a minority opposition grouping (i.e. till the late forties in Western Europe and the sixties in Latin America) this Utopia could function as a magnet drawing certain sectors of the proletariat, bourgeoisie and intellectuals among Catholics, the middle classes (including non-Catholics) and the peasants. Its lack of any socio-economic analysis of Capitalism and of definite and specific political programmes, enabled each sector to understand this third way in a manner suited to its own social position and to entertain hopes from it accordingly. So, for some, the Social Democrat programme was that of legal, gentle, peaceful, moderate Socialism, one that would respect the position of religion; for others, on the other hand, it represented a Capitalism of small businesses, social services and harmony between investors and workers; for others, again, it evoked a corporative theocracy, a sort of ‘new middle ages’. These differences, however, were submerged or minimised in the face of Christian Democracy’s general opposition to monarchy, dictatorship, high Capitalism and atheist Socialism in both Europe and Latin America.

3. Latin American Christian Democracy: Roots And Promises

The spread of liberal thought and Capitalist economics in Latin America from the end of the last century led to the development of many ‘problems’ similar to those which the Church had faced in Europe during the same—or earlier—decades. The Catholic clergy of Latin America—European, educated in Europe or by Europeans, and dependent on European ecclesiastical authorities—then tended, when faced with such ‘problems’ to repeat the European solution from the thirties: lining up Catholic lay people (above all White, urban, masculine, educated and upwardly mobile middle class lay people) in Catholic Action organisations, controlled by the Church hierarchy, educating them in the social teaching of the Church and encouraging them to bring about a New Christendom from their intellectual, professional and political positions in civil society. [1]

Of course, as usually happens, the form, content and consequences of this ecclesiastical policy varied enormously between one Latin American country and another. Particularly since the second World War, this policy has led to the formation of Christian Democratic parties in several Latin American countries, but not in all. There are also significant differences between these parties, both in their history and their consequences. Almost all started out as ‘Catholic parties’ and sometimes—as in Venezuela from 1946 to 1964— claiming to be the only Catholic party. Their founders were generally young Catholics from the White, urban, rising middle classes, militants in Catholic Action, who had studied in religious schools and colleges, and then followed careers in the Humanities, generally in Law. Their ideology—drawn from Spanish translations of Jacques Maritain, Luigi Sturzo, Joseph Folliet, the Malines Codices and the social encyclicals—hardly ever introduced any innovation on its European sources.

This Catholic character developed in clear opposition to laicism: a rabid, liberal, anti-clericalism which led, in several Latin American countries, to a persecution of the Church by the new elites in power. This laicism (inherited from the wars of independence against Spain in the nineteenth century) took new shape in liberal, democratic and/or populist programmes in the first half of the twentieth century as a genuine political laicism: an attempt to eliminate all Church influence in administering society, putting the Church in a position of total subordination to the liberal-bourgeois State. So it was also as opposition to this political laicism that Christian Democracy developed—often out of the old conservative parties—as ‘the Catholic party’. This determined many of its later alliances, dilemmas and conflicts.

As long as they remained outside State power, fighting against those who held it at the time, the Christian Democrat parties in several countries of Latin America played a strongly critical and, at times, even radical role. As in some countries of Western Europe, this often attracted large sectors of the working and peasant classes, which strengthened the tendencies opposing national, multi-national and United States Capitalism, tendencies widely represented in Latin American Christian Democracy. The struggles against military dictatorships, landowning oligarchies and extreme right-wing groups—which also characterised anti-Fascist resistance in Europe—deepened the Utopic dimension of Latin American Christian Democracy. This—it has to be said— often led to conflicts between Latin American Christian Democracy and its European forerunners. [2]

At the same time, fear of Communism (based on religious reasons as strong as, or stronger than, class motives) developed, just as in Western Europe after the War, as the central leitmotiv of nearly all the Latin American Christian Democrat parties, more so in countries where, and at times when. Socialist ideas and organisations were receiving strong support from workers, students and/or—eventually—peasants. This anti-Communism often made Christian Democracy attractive to sectors of the middle classes and the better off among the Latin American population, sectors (often anti-clerical) whose motivations and hopes were not only different from, but opposed to, those who supported Christian Democracy, because they saw it as a revolutionary and liberating force.

Various factors contributed to the emergence of Christian Democracy as a popular alternative in several countries of Latin America: the failure of ‘traditional’ Capitalism, the fears and hopes generated by the Cuban revolution; the response of the first Catholic president of the USA, John F. Kennedy, with his promises of the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps; and, undoubtedly, the call of the new Pope, John XXIII, for the Church to play an active role in the struggle for peace and social justice.

The developmentist theory counted on very wide support at this time (except among those on the extreme right and left wings). Latin American Christian Democracy embraced this theory enthusiastically and devoted itself completely to the idea of outright development. Backwardness and the past then looked like the main enemies. Modernisation and the future were seen optimistically as a promise soon to be achieved. In this climate the objective seemed obvious, and criticism of injustice became easy and almost natural.

So, in Chile in 1964 in Venezuela in 1968, two Latin American Christian Democrat parties had—for the first time—the experience of their Western European precursors two decades before: they won democratic elections (against both left and right). They then found that they had to demonstrate that their ‘third alternative’ that of a ‘revolution in freedom’ was viable. But they also and this proved more difficult still—found themselves urged to satisfy the contradictory hopes that their vague, ambiguous and optimistic message had aroused in the heterogeneous electoral base which had led them both to power.

4. Latin American Christian Democracy: the Failure of Power

Once in political power, Christian Democracy had to face up to the hard realities, contradictory pressures and difficult moral dilemmas of capitalism in Latin America, which was characterised by dependency and ‘under¬ development’. Faced with the ambiguity of real power—as had previously happened in Europe—the characteristic features of Christian Democracy proved of little use. These features might be described as: (a) its refusal to recognise the social reality as conflictive and its conviction that harmony between the social classes—and between the third world and the great powers or, at least, the capitalist great powers—is perfectly possible and, indeed, normal; (b) the virtual complete separation between the principles it preached and the policies it practised, added to the frequent lack of specific alternative programmes for coping with the wide-spread poverty and dependency typical of Latin American societies; (c) the predominance of middle-class professional people and intellectuals more attuned to and identified with the bourgeoisie than the popular classes in the ranks of its party officials and government ministers; (d) its refusal, finally, to recognise the corrupting influence of power, money and the individualistic and consumerist values of Capitalism, together with its ingenuous conviction that the political-religious faith ofChristian Democracy is enough in itself to overcome such difficulties.

With these features Christian Democracy began to tackle the opposing demands of the labour and management sectors with regard to taxes, public spending, official policies on employment, wages and prices, health, education, housing, communications and other public services. Often the solution that suited the managers was harmful to the workers and the unemployed, and vice versa and—contrary to the theoretical dreams of Christian Democracy—finding a solution satisfactory to both sides was often impossible. The business sector—closer to the leadership of the Christian Democrats, armed with more powerful resources for putting pressure on them and with greater experience in dealing with political and government bureaucracy—generally gained the upper hand. Much the same happened with the conflicting requirements of the leadership (political, military, financial, business, commercial and cultural) of the United States, on the one hand, and the nationalist sectors of the Latin American countries, on the other.

The post-War period of growth was drawing to its end, which meant that the huge expectations aroused by Christian Democrats among the poor—and among Catholic Activists committed to them—were almost immediately frustrated. Many people began to look for alternatives to Christian Democracy. Furthermore, the gradual disappearance of anti-clericalism from other political areas did away with the pretensions of Christian Democrats to be the only Catholic presence in politics.

But—unlike the classic ‘right’ and, above all, unlike right-wing dictatorships—Christian Democrats sought (as in Europe) to go on winning democratic elections, elections which they preached as the only legitimate title for exercising political power. Because of this—and also because of other internal and external requirements of legitimacy—Christian Democracy had to try to satisfy, at least minimally, the demands of the majority, that is of the workers and the unemployed.

So what the ‘third way’ of Christian Democracy produced once in power— in Chile, Venezuela and now in El Salvador—was a moderated dependent Capitalism, similar to that produced earlier in Italy, West Germany and Belgium. A system of neo-liberal government which, faced with the demands made upon it by proprietors on one side and the proletariat on the other, tried to follow a policy of partial and unequal satisfaction of these demands: the more powerful were the more satisfied, the weakest the least satisfied. But, in the end, nobody—outside the leaders of the party and the government and a few small sectors of the middle classes—was really happy. A system of government within the orbit of the United States: not always sufficiently submissive to gain the confidence of the United States leadership, but sufficiently dependent to become a key piece in United States policy towards Latin America and, therefore, incapable of inspiring confidence in the more nationalist sectors of Latin American politics.

Christian Democracy suffered from the self-deception (common on the left as well) of believing that on ‘taking power’ radical change would immediately be possible. When this was not achieved, instead of keeping its sights set on the horizon of a definite utopia (which would have served to criticise, correct and guide specific policies in the direction of long-term change) Christian Democracy progressively lowered its sights to mere pragmatic exercise of power, keeping its utopia on the level of a purely formal (empty) declaration of abstract principles.

Moderate doctrinal opposition to national and multi-national Capitalism then gave way with Christian Democrats in political power—to a deep adaptation to Capitalism. So Christian Democracy began to show its inability to be a ‘third way’ between Capitalism and Socialism. The experiences in Chile, Venezuela and El Salvador—like those of Italy, West Germany and Belgium did show Christian Democracy to be a mediating and moderating force in the conflicts between labour and capital, but a force operating from within the limits and on the side of capital. Its anti-Socialist dimension, furthermore, has gradually grown out of all proportion to the point where large sectors of Latin American Christian Democrats now prefer dictatorships of the right—like that of Pinochet and others—to democratic social experiments like that of Popular Unity and the Sandinista Front. [3]

5. The Church in Latin America: Beyond Christian Democracy

The ‘developmentist’ policy backed by the Kennedy administration for Latin America in the sixties—and very closely followed by the Catholic Church and by Social Democrat, Christian Democrat and liberal governments of the continent—resulted in complete failure. Economic dependency, inflation, unemployment, malnutrition, illiteracy, concentration of capital in the hands of a few, the growing poverty of the majority, internal conflicts and massive emigration increased instead of decreasing, and frustration led to increasing protest by the oppressed against the ‘solutions’ put forward by various forms of Capitalism in Latin America (including the ‘third Way’ of Christian Democracy).

Faced with this deteriorating situation Christian Democracy proved incapable of providing solutions while in government, and equally incapable of putting forward credible solutions while in opposition. Caught between concern for the poverty of the workers and fear of the growing wave of protest (strikes, demonstrations, seizures of factories, land, houses and foodstuff’s, the growth of trade unions and left-wing parties, etc.) by the workers against their poverty, Christian Democracy has tended to be led more by fear than by solidarity with the working classes. So repression against popular protest (while in government) and tolerance of the growing number of anti-Communist dictatorships (while in opposition) have been the reactions of Christian Democracy in Latin America when the oppressed have risen up as active social agents, making Christian Democracy progressively a force inimical to the emergent popular movements.

In the Catholic Church, meanwhile, an official critique of Capitalism has been developing, going far beyond the Christian Democrat position both in theory and in practice. From Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963), on through the documents of the second Vatican Council (1965) to Populorum Progressio (1967) there is a steady line of innovation which contributed to free the creative spirit of the Church in Latin America with regard to Catholic social teaching. [4]

This creativity has become the official voice of Latin American Catholicism, particularly since the second General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate held at Medellin in Colombia in 1968 and the third held at Puebla in Mexico in 1979. The main impulses for this creativity have been the base Christian communities and the theology of liberation

This creativity has evoked positive responses from the Holy See (apart from the negative ones which have also undeniably been produced) from the encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi (1965) by Paul VI up to the recent Letter of John Paul II to the Bishops’ Conference of Brazil, not to mention the same pope’s encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981) and the Vatican Instructions (1984 and 1986) dealing with the theology of liberation.

As has happened with many other movements in history, Christian Democracy, which was originally in the vanguard of the Church from which it sprang, has moved—and not only in Latin America—to the rearguard of Catholicism. It has—putting it metaphorically—remained at the gates of the Vatican and of Medellin. In a sense 1968 marks the break between Christian Democracy and the Catholic Church in Latin America. The Church has increasingly seen and welcomed the emergence, within it and in society, of popular classes as agents of their own history, allowing itself to be challenged and transformed by this incursion of the poor. The ‘preferential option for the poor’, commitment to the liberation of the oppressed, increasingly marks contemporary Latin American Catholicism. Christian Democracy, on the other hand, has held out against doing the same, victim—amongst other things—of the inertia and fears of its ageing leadership.

Because of this, and for other reasons, Christian Democracy has lost the prophetic, innovative, critical and utopic strength which it had at various times during the first half of the twentieth century. Its repeated failure in government with the resulting ‘ideological emptying’ which has characterised Latin American Christian Democracy over the past two decades, has made it lose any credibility it might have had among the people and progressive Catholics. So the Christian Democrat leadership seems to be left with no other motive for action than worldly temptations to power itself, and with no other means of capturing the popular vote than the creation of a ‘saleable’ image through publicity campaigns

6. New Actors, New Conflicts, New Responses

Both inside and outside Christian Democracy many lay Catholic activists—and several priests and religious also—have, since the early sixties, begun to live and work among the oppressed (often in order to ‘stem the Communist advance’)- Their actual experience of real human lives and of the efforts, sufferings, hopes, failures and disasters of the oppressed led many of these activitists [sic] to a different vision of poverty from that previously prevailing in the Church and in Christian Democracy: a more structural and historic vision, more critical and radical, more conflictive and complex, in solidarity with and committed to poverty. This vision was then nourished with translations into Spanish of new Catholic thought coming from France (Mounier, Lepp, Lebret, Teilhard, Cardonnel, Blanquart, etc.) and from the Vatican.

This led to a multiplication of initiatives aimed at producing active Christian solidarity with the oppressed (within Christian Democracy these were carried out by organisations of the Lay Apostolate, by religious institutions and in the homes and work places of Catholic activists). There were Reviews such as Christianity and Revolution edited in Buenos Aires by the Lay Catholic Juan Garcia Elorrio. There were groups of priests committed to the poor, such as ONIS in Peru; there were political-religious revolutionary organisations such as the ‘Peoples’ United Front’ led by Fr Camilo Torres in Colombia. There were educational initiatives aimed at liberating the oppressed, such as ‘Popular Action’ where Paulo Freire began his experiments in ‘conscientisation’. Bishops such as Leonidas Proaño in Riobamba (Ecuador) and Sergio Mendez Arceo in Cuernavaca (Mexico) began to preach a new type of homily and books such as Development Without Capitalism by the Chileans Julio Silva Solar and Jacques Chonchol—still then Christian Democrats—had a profound effect.

Of course these sorts of initiatives always brought reactions. On the one hand were simple Catholics from among the people who found the words and solidarity necessary to confirm and articulate their intuitions and hopes, and were thereby encouraged in their struggle for justice. On the other hand were the fears and threats of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, of the Christian Democrat leadership, of government and security authorities, and worse still (especially since Medellin): torture, assassinations, exile and other forms of repression.

Little by little, above all from 1966 to the present day, a growing number of Catholics—from the popular classes or committed to them—began to employ new modes of thought, expression, communication, organisation, struggle, celebration and prayer. An extraordinary variety of forms of participation by Latin American Catholics in the conflictive reality of our societies has developed completely outside Christian Democracy or even in conflict with it: Neighbourhood movements, mothers’ groups, family committees for prisoners and ‘disappeared’, collective market gardens and markets, bible study groups, music groups, sporting teams, trade unions, peasants’ leagues, literacy centres, popular feminine circles, etc.

In these forms of participation the people are expressing themselves and developing as the conscious, autonomous and transforming agents of their own history. They are agents, at the same time, of their society and of their church. Without being strictly political, these types of popular organisation undoubtedly have political implications: amongst other things, they threaten the political initiative and monopoly ofthe most powerful groups and parties.

At the same time, there have been ‘left-wing’ splits in several Christian Democrat parties of Latin America: the Christian Left and MAPU in Chile, the Christian Left in Venezuela, the revolutionary social-Christian movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua, etc. In Chile there was the Christians for Socialism movement which spread throughout virtually the whole Catholic world with the assassination of Salvador Allende and which today survives only outside Latin America. There were also ‘camilistas’, groups which formed after the death of Fr Camilo Torres as a guerrilla (15 February 1966 in Colombia), which lasted till the early seventies. Less well known, but no less real, are various other groups of‘progressive’ lay Catholics and pastoral workers which have multiplied throughout Latin America over the past twenty years. Many of these movements have disappeared, but their legacy—including many of their original members—is still present in the present liberating option for the oppressed which is a dominant sign of the life of the churches in Latin America in the eighties.

Facing up to oppression and repression, many Latin American Christians have found Marxists sharing similar sufferings, fears, hopes and joys. This meeting—at bottom more practical than theoretical—has helped Marxists to a fresher, deeper and more respectful view of religious faith. At the same time, it has awakened a great interest in Marxism and a deep respect for Marxists in many Christians. Reciprocal tensions and criticisms have not vanished but, increasingly, they seem to be tensions and criticisms within a deep mutual respect and in the context of a partially common struggle.

All these developments in the churches of Latin America have broken the hold ofthe great powers on the continent. The Rockefeller and Rand Reports (1968 and 1969) indicated fears felt in the United States at this evolution of Latin American Catholicism. Then the Banzer Plan (1972) and the Santa Fe Document (1980) set out an explicit and coherent policy opposed to the option of the Latin American Church for the oppressed. While a ‘base ecumenism’ identified with this liberating option for the oppressed was spreading, the power groups were implementing policies of weakening, division and repression of those churches that refused to give in to power while, at the same time, applying policies of reinforcement, financial aid and multiplication of those that did. Since Puebla and the Sandinista revolution the fears of those in power have been confirmed and their activities against the liberating commitment of the churches multiplied. Christian Democracy, meanwhile, has been seen more and more as just one alternative party within Latin American dependent capitalism and, therefore, just another instrument of Us policy in Latin America.

7. Brief Provisional Conclusions

The last twenty-five years have been marked by deep and growing changes in the relationship between Catholicism and politics in Latin America. These changes, whose roots are many and complex, can be summed up (without reducing them to this) as the emergence of the oppressed sectors of the population as historical protagonists, as creative agents, effective actors in the life of society and of the Church. Put in another way (and taking into account the influence of production growth, the spread of the communications media, experiences of political democracy, the Catholic aggiornamento opened up by John XXIII, etc.), the oppressed peoples of Latin America are losing the passive patience, submissive hope and fatalist inertia to which they have, so many times, been reduced during the past five centuries.

This transformation—in which the base Christian communities and liberation theology constitute an important dimension—has brought about a crisis in the ‘traditional’ forms of relationship between Church and State on the continent.

When the pastoral actions of the Church—including those carried out by the ecclesiastical hierarchy—are increasingly marked by the needs of the oppressed, then the Church distances itself from power: those in power (economic, political or military) trust the Church as an ally less and less; the Church, correspondingly, sees those in power less and less as protectors or privileged exercisers of Christian faith. This distancing undoubtedly increases the strength and credibility of the Church among the oppressed and lends greater power to the hopes and struggles of the oppressed for their own liberation. But, at the same time, this process stimulates repression against the liberating actions of the Church by those in power.

In this context, Christian Democracy finds itself on the defensive and in retreat. For Christians, as Christians, Christian Democracy means nothing more than one of the alternatives available within the Capitalist system— whether they see it as a desirable alternative or criticise it as undesirable. This means that Christian Democracy has ceased to have any Christian meaning. Those Christians who vote for Christian Democrat parties do so, increasingly, out of pragmatic political considerations (including those cases, as in Chile, where ‘left-wing’ Christians have attached themselves to the Christian Democrats) and not for properly ‘Christian’ reasons. Christian Democracy, for its part, has correspondingly abandoned the theological and political Church-State dialogue which it hoped to open up in the first half of this century; its words and actions relate increasingly less to the Christian inspiration from which it originated.

Christian Democracy is still an electoral option in, perhaps, a fifth of the countries of Latin America. Even in these, however, the political actions of the Christian Democrats seem to have nothing to do with any specifically Christian reference.

Since the middle sixties, a new participant and a new debate have appeared on the Latin American scene. This participant consists in the emergent popular classes as historical protagonist; and the new debate is that of the active participation of these classes in their own process of liberation. The base Christian communities and liberation theology are an active and creative part of both the debate and the participant. The rise of the protagonist-people and the debate over their liberation have given rise to, amongst other things, a questioning of the traditional activities of the political parties (including those of the Marxist left) and of the churches (including the Catholic Church). Here too, the base Christian communities and liberation theology have played an active and creative part.

In the whole of this process—which Christian Democracy has not even recognised—one of the dimensions that has become apparent is a new way of understanding relations between faith and politics. The predominant tendency in the whole of the Latin American liberation theology movement is not to reduce itself to a purely political movement nor to sacralise a specific political action. Liberation theology is not a political party, new or old, nor does it set out to be one. Liberation theology is not seeking to reproduce the experience of Christian Democracy, that of being the political appendage of the Church, even though one has to recognise that some left-wing Christian groups in Latin America have taken this line, but it has had less effect and lasted less time than Christian Democracy.

Liberation theology then is not a ‘political theology’, but a theological reflection from which politics too are critically analysed. Nor is it a ‘theology of the world’, but a theology from which the structures of the real world are also criticised. Liberation theology seeks to be a reflection in faith from the experience of liberation of the oppressed and, from there, to encourage— among many other things that are not directly or strictly ‘political’—a flexible plurality of critically chosen political commitments. In other words, liberation theology seeks to be an instrument enabling Christians in the midst of the experience of liberating the oppressed, and in the service of this liberation, to make decisions, find nourishment and critically examine the whole of their personal lives, including their decision-making and their own political commitment.

Translated by Paul Burns


[1] P. Trigo ‘¿Doctrina Social de la Iglesia? Si, Pero,¿que es eso?’ in Nueva Sociedad 36 (1978) 35-44.
[2] A. Sosa and P. E. Gomez ‘La Democracia Cristiana en el mundo. Analisis de la VI Conferencia Mundial’ in SIC 383 (1976) 100-103, 137-144.
[3] F. Hinkelammert ‘Socialdemocracia y Democracia Cristiana: las reformas y sus limitaciones’ in El juego de los reformismos frente a la Revolucion en Centroamerica ed. H. Assman (San Jose de Costa Rica, 1981) pp. 13-56.
[4] L. Ugalde ‘El pensamiento de inspiracion cristiana. Su evolucion y sus diversas tendencias’ (Caracas, documents of the Congress to mark the Bicentenary of the Liberator, on Latin American political thought, 1983) 73pp in TS.