Clodovis Boff – Liberation Theology (1985)

[Originally published in Portuguese as Teologia da Libertação no Debate Atual in 1985 by Editora Vozes Limitada, Petropolis, Brazil. Published and translated by Robert R. Barr. in 1986 in Liberation theology: From dialogue to confrontation.]


With the arrival of the theology of liberation on the contemporary scene, theology is no longer for theologians alone. Now it involves whole people of God, clergy and laity alike. Theology has become genuinely and truly ecclesial.

More than this, liberation theology has overflowed the very borders of the Church and become a public phenomenon. We hear it discussed, and heatedly discussed, in the media, in the halls of academe, in union meetings, in political gatherings—even in cafés and restaurants. One would think the time of the Council of Nicaea had returned (A.D. 325). Then the question of the day was Arianism— whether Christ was truly and fully God—and the excitement of the question overflowed the halls of scholarship and swept into the streets, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa recounts.

All over town you hear all about it, in the market, the forum, and the streets—from the clothing merchant, the money-changer, and the businessman. You ask for the exchange rate and you geta disquisition on “begotten and unbegotten.” The price of bread? The answer comes, “The Father is greater than the Son—and subject to him!” You ask if the baths are open, and in response you hear that the Son was created from nothing.

What is this malaise, this frenzied excitement, this mind-altering affliction?

[Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 46, col. 557]

More than a millenium and a half after Saint Gregory’s time, the phenomenon has returned. Why all the excitement about theology?

Because the theology of liberation is more than just a theology. It represents the Church of a whole continent—a Church caught up in the historical process of a people on the move. There are people behind liberation theology, there is struggle, there is life. The theology of liberation is symptomatic of a process, a process at once ecclesial and social. Behind liberation theology stand not books, but people. What is at stake is that “telltale difference” between theory and practice.

It is its pre-theological background, then, that stirs such broad interest in liberation theology today. The general importance of this new theology—not just its importance for Latin America—has been recognized by some of today’s most representative theologians. Edward Schillebeeckx, for instance, was asked in an interview, “Who are the best theologians today?” And his answer was, “The most competent theologians of the West today, including both Europe and the Americas, are the liberation theologians. We learn a great deal from them. We’re too academic. The liberation theologians make us reflect out of the life of the Christian community” (Il Regno Attualità, no. 18 [October 15, 1984], pp. 446-47). Karl Rahner, on more than one occasion, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the occasion of his recent Paul VI Prize, in June 1984, have pointed to the theology of liberation as the newest and most vital phenomenon on the theological landscape.

This theological vitality is nourished by the vitality of the Church and vice versa. Spanish theologian Juan Alfaro, who teaches at the Gregorian University in Rome, put it this way:

Latin America today . . . is the scene of a most important occur ence for the entire Church—not only for the Latin American church, but for the whole Church. . . . What is new today is the appearance in Latin America of a new Christian awareness of what it is to be genuinely Christian, a new awareness of a world of brotherhood and justice. In my view this represents a most important change of direction, one which will have repercussions—and is already having repercussions—in Europe… . This contribution of liberation theology is far and away theology’s best: to stir Christian faith to the responsibility to make a Christian commitment to justice. This shift in direction is its highest merit. . . . My concern is not so much that liberation theology is under attack, but that this new Christianity, just born is being destroyed. . . . This is [Christian] responsibility, not to trample on this new Christian seed that is sending up its first shoots.

[Il Regno Attualità, no. 14 (July 15, 1984), pp. 323-24]

The renowned German theologian Johannes B. Metz has expressed the same thought:

The Latin American churches are showing us a transformation process of unheard-of proportions—one which, in my view, is endowed with a providential importance for the whole Church, and in which, in one manner or another, we are all involved.

[Al di là della religione borghese (Brescia: Queriniana, 1981), p. 18]

This broader, world-wide relevance of the theology of liberation makes it understandable why the Holy See would wish to take a position on the matter, as it has in its recent Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation.” In doing so, it has reopened the question and awakened new interest on the part of Christians.

On another level—in the extra-ecclesial area—we know that the centers of world power are watching the Latin American church process, and watching its theology, very closely. The reason, of course, is simply the social and political implications of this ecclesial process. We need only consider the Rockefeller and the Rand Corporation reports of the late 1970s. More recently, the famous “Santa Fe Document,” of May 1980, published by the Committee of Santa Fe for the Council for Inter-American Security, declares that “American foreign policy should begin to mount a counterattack on (and not merely react against) liberation theology.” It considers this theology to be a “political weapon” of “Marxist-Leninist forces” for the purpose of “infiltrating the religious community” and spreading ideas “against private ownership and productive capitalism” (part 2, par. 3).

Nor is there any dearth of studies sponsored by the opposite power center, in the Soviet Union, on the phenomenon of the Latin American Church and its new theology.

But much more significant than any attention paid to the theology of liberation at the pinnacles of power is the involvement of the common people, the “grassroots,” with this theology. Ultimately the reason for this involvement is that liberation theology speaks of the concrete life of the people, especially through its interpretation of today’s mighty longing for liberation among them. It is perhaps the greatest merit of the theology of liberation to have succeeded in doing with theology what Socrates did with philosophy. As Cicero tells us, Socrates “brought philosophy down from the clouds to earth.” In other words, he made it walk on its own feet.


Before the emergence of a theology of liberation at the close of the 1960s, a full-fledged liberation praxis was already under way in Latin America. Before liberation theology there were the prophetic bishop, the committed lay person, and liberation communities. A life practice was well under way even in the early 1960s. The theology of liberation, then, came in a “second moment.” It came as the expression of this liberation praxis on the part of the Church. Liberation theology is the theology of a liberation Church—a Church with a preferential option for solidarity with the poor.

Of course, the theology of liberation is not the mere reflex of a liberation faith. It is also a reflection on that faith— an in-depth explanation, a purification, a systematization of that faith. In other words: liberation theology enlightens and stimulates the life and practice of the actual, concrete Church.

To be sure, a reciprocal relation obtains between action and reflection—faith action and theological reflection in the Church maintain a two-way relationship. Still, theology is more an effect than a cause of the practice of faith, and it is a cause only because it is an effect.

Removed from its Sitz im Leben, withdrawn from the vital context of its origin and development, the theology of liberation becomes altogether incomprehensible. Liberation theology cannot be understood merely by reading books and articles. The books and articles absolutely must be connected with the soil of the Church and of society, from which these writings have sprung, inasmuch as they seek to interpret and illuminate that Church and that society.

It is only within a process, then, a fabric whose warp and woof are suffering and hope, that liberation theology is born, and therefore understood. From above, or from without, there is no understanding it at all. We might even go so far as to say that the theology of liberation can be understood only by two groupings of persons: the poor, and those who struggle for justice at their side—only by those who hunger for bread, and by those who hunger for justice -in solidarity with those hungering for bread. Conversely, liberation theology is not understood, nor can it be understood, by the satiated and satisfied—by those comfortable with the status quo.

The implication here is that, down at the “base,” antecedent to all theologizing, is an option for life, a particular, determinate faith experience, the taking of a position vis-à-vis the concrete world in which we live. It is from a pre-theological element as one’s starting point, then, that one is totally “for,” or totally “against,” the theology of liberation.

In other words, it is crucial to grasp liberation theology in its locus. Theologians of liberation must be read not in the ivory towers of certain departments of theology (to borrow an image from Pope John Paul II), but in the slums, in the miserable neighborhoods of the destitute, in the factories, on the plantations—wherever an oppressed people live, suffer, struggle, and die.

To pretend to “discuss liberation theology” without seeing the poor is to miss the whole point, for one fails to see the central problem of the theology being discussed. For the kernel and core of liberation theology is not theology but liberation. It is not the theologian but the poor who count in this theology. Were the theology of liberation somehow to pass into oblivion, would the problem it has raised thereby be solved? To fail to see this is to fit the Brazilian proverb to a tee: “You heard the rooster crow, but you don’t know where.”

We must face the fact. For many persons, a living, direct experience of poverty and of the people’s struggle with poverty will be required of them before they will be able to understand this theology. Cardinal Daneels, Archbishop of Brussels, on his return from a visit to Brazil, grasped this very clearly:

There is something tragic in what is going on in and around the theology of liberation today. Liberation theology begins with a very acute, very profound sensitivity to poverty. We see this poverty every day on television. It is another matter, however, to see it on the spot—to allow it to penetrate all five senses, to let ourselves be touched by the suffering of the poor, to feel their anguish, to experience the filth of the slums sticking to our skin. . . . This is problem number one: the plight of the poor. . . . We cannot let these people down! We must support their theologians.

[Entraide et fraternité newswire, September 20, 1984]

The Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then, does not impugn the theology of liberation at its root. It shows extreme severity with regard to its current performance. (Cardinal Daneels, a member of the Congregation, describes the target of the document’s criticism as “a caricature, a bad liberation theology,” which “does not exist in this form” [ibid.]). Far from pulling the theoretical rug from under the theology of liberation, the Instruction only provides that theology with a new and vigorous endorsement. The document actually bestows its seal of approval on the actual basis of liberation theology. So long as the spring remains unclogged, the river may meander, or even be dammed up, but it will never run dry. This must be said to the Instruction’s credit, whatever dust it may have raised to cloud the issue. After all, this is the question, the interest, the issue of the Instruction and liberation theology alike: the actual liberation of the poor, and not the theology of this liberation.

We must also cite another great merit of the Roman document. It has consecrated and guaranteed the possibility and the legitimacy of an actual theology of liberation. This used to be hotly contested by certain strident elements in the Church. Of course, the question of how this legitimate theological project is to be implemented is another matter, and herein lies the Instruction’s great shortcoming. But at all events, it must be granted that, whatever may have to be said of the basis of the Vatican animadversions, liberation theology is on the right track. It may have its limits ‘as we.have it today—its limits, its ambiguities, yes, and even its errors. It recognizes this. But its course is true, and this is what is crucial. It is the same with any organized reflection.


The theology of liberation is the thinking of the faith under the formality of a leaven of historical transformation—as the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” as the theological virtue of charity exercised in the area of the social.

More simply, the theology of liberation is reflection on the life of the Christian community from a standpoint of its contribution to liberation. “Life” here is a richer and more flexible concept than that of “praxis,” which is an external activity of historical transformation. We might be tempted to represent the theology of liberation as a kind of “chemical reaction”:

Faith + Oppression → Liberation Theology

The social or political dimension of faith is the new aspect (not the only aspect) of the faith that is emphasized by the theology of liberation. We explore a specific “integral” or “constitutive part” of the “evangelization or mission” of the Church: “action on behalf of justice, and participation in the transformation of the world” (1971 Synod document, “Justice in the World,” no. 6, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 63:924).

The theology of liberation seeks to demonstrate that the kingdom of God is to be established not only in the soul–this is the individual personal dimension of the kingdom—and not only in heaven—this is its transhistorical dimension—but in relationships among human beings, as well. In other words, the kingdom of God is to be established in social projects, and this is its historical dimension. In sum, liberation theology is a theology that seeks to take history, and Christians’ historical responsibility, seriously.

Christians today are faced with an enormous, unprecedented challenge. Today, as we read in the documents of Vatican II, the Church faces a “new age in human history” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 54). Medellín translates this novelty as follows, where Latin America is concerned:

We stand on the threshold of a new age in the history of our continent—an age bursting with a desire for total emancipation, for liberation from all manner of servitude. . . .

[Medellín Final Document, Introduction to the Conclusion, no. 4]

For perhaps the first time in history, the faith of the Christian community faces this challenge: to make a determined contribution—and may it be decisive!—to the building of a new society, in which the great “social dominations” will be no more.

In the first Christian centuries, the faith discharged a function, generally speaking, of protest against the social order. Then, during the long Constantinian era, the faith developed a function, predominantly, of the conservation of the status quo. Today the moment in history has arrived for the faith to perform a function of social construction. The end and aim of the theology of liberation is to serve as an echo of and a response to this immense challenge facing the Church, especially since the time of Rerum Novarum.


The novelty of liberation theology does not lie only in the historical challenge of which we have just spoken. The modern social teaching of the Church, European “political theology,” and, still more directly, the theology of the “signs of the times” as practiced in Gaudium et Spes have all anticipated it here. All have been an attempt to meet this same challenge.

The novelty of the theology of liberation also, and especially, resides in its manner of developing this modern thematic. The key to the new approach is the praxis of liberation. In the theology of liberation we have a bond— intimate but not rigid—between theory and practice, between theology and the life of faith.

The method practiced by the theology of liberation, we observe, is neither exclusively inductive nor exclusively deductive. It is both of these at once: it is dialectical. It is simply a matter of the “mutual challenge” of Gospel and life (Evangelli Nuntiandi, no. 29). Only thus, as it happens, may we hope to overcome one of the “more serious errors of our age”—that of a “split” between faith and life, as Vatican II expressed it (Gaudium et Spes, no. 43).

This relationship between theory and practice obtains even in the case of the theologian personally. The theologian’s link with the community’s faith praxis must be concrete and not merely theoretical. Thus inserted into the community of faith, hope, and charity, theologians can practice a theology from within, not one “by extraction.”

Affinities between Liberation Theology and Patristic Theology and Biblical Revelation

It is important to note that this dialectic of theory-and-praxis is in no wise originally and exclusively Marxian, even though Marx gave it a specific formulation. This same dialectic lies at the basis both of patristic theology and of biblical revelation itself.

This dialectic of theory and praxis defined the first great Christian theology—that of the Fathers of the early Church. Theologians in the early Christian centuries were simultaneously teachers and pastors. The theology of the Fathers was intimately bound up with the concrete problematic of their lives—theirs and that of their churches. Liberation theology is not as novel as might appear at first blush.

Again, a dialectical relationship between theory and praxis is even at the basis of biblical revelation. The conciliar Constitution on Divine Revelation declares that God revealed himself “in deeds and words intimately interconnected, in such wise that works [our ‘praxis’ ] manifest and corroborate doctrine [theory], and the latter proclaims and elucidates the former” (Dei Verbum, no. 2).

The Inalienable Dimensions of Liberation Theology

Would the theology of liberation then be an integral theology in its own right, or only a particular development, however capital, of theology in general? This question is not as yet very well defined. It is basic, however, and calls for further reflection.

At all events, one thing remains clear. While its theoretical basis may indeed need further development, liberation theology’s conviction is firm: faith at once includes and transcends the demand for social liberation (or the social dimension of liberation).

There can be no doubt about it: liberation theology today primarily develops the social dimension of faith. Hence its name. This is due to the fact that this dimension presents itself, first, as being of the greatest urgency, and second, as the aspect of faith most neglected by past theologians.

Thus it is that the theology of liberation joins its own voice to a symphonic, pluralistic theology—not, however, without issuing a strong challenge to other theological currents, especially where attention to a historical praxis in each concrete situation seems to be neglected.

Two Key Characteristics of the Theology of Liberation

From what we have observed, the following points are clear. First, the theology of liberation is a profoundly ecclesial theology, worked out in intimate, concrete communion with the Christian community, its pastors and its faithful alike. Liberation theology emerges as a service of expression and explanation of the faith, hope, and charity of the community of Christians. Second, the theology of liberation is an altogether concrete theology. Its intent is to “think the life problems of the people of God” in order to resolve these problems with the leaven of the Gospel. We have a historical, contextual theology here.


Having in the foregoing sketch identified what the theology of liberation really is, we are now in a position to criticize the myth or caricature that circulates in its regard.

Myth No. 1: Liberation Theology Has “Fathers,” or “Founders”

When you see a child you have never seen before, especially if he or she seems to you to be a bit of a “hell-raiser,” you wonder who the parents are. You would like to unload on them at least some of the responsibility for their offspring’s antics. In the case of liberation theology, there are some who want to know whom to “blame” for this new theology’s questions. And so we hear of the “fathers of liberation theology.”

We likewise hear of its “founders”—as if the theology of liberation were a “doctrine” created by the decision of certain strange minds. And names and dates are listed. Some critics lift their eyes to the horizons of history and hark back to a “family tree.” The “ancestors” of the theology of liberation would be, we hear, Marx and Bultmann.

In point of fact, as we have seen, this theology is simply the language of a particular, concrete Church involved with the poor and committed to their liberation. Their faith experience—this new kind of Christianity—can have its developers, its interpreters, surely. These are the representatives, in the realm of theory, of this type of Church, somewhat as the Evangelists are looked on today as the “redactors” of the memory and living faith of the primitive Christian community. But by no means will these persons be the inventors of a new doctrine, which is thereupon “applied” by pastoral ministers and behold, the base Church communities, a popular ministry, prophetic bishops, involved religion, and so on, spring into being!

Further: the theology of liberation is not a “cultural fact.” It is, however, the cultural expression of a living process.

In a nutshell, then: the real fathers and mothers of the theology of liberation are the hierarchical Church, in the context of an oppressed, Christian, Latin American people.

Myth No. 2: Liberation Theology Is “Reductionistic”

It is likewise bruited about that the theology of liberation is an entirely “secularized” theology—that it reduces faith to a strictly earthly ideology, hope to a purely temporal eschatology, and love to nothing but a political practice.

Here we are dealing with a precipitant, simplistic—and terrified—interpretation. Surely no interpretative code but an ignorant, ill-willed, or terror-stricken one could read “political too” as “political only,” “earth too” as “earth only,” or “also, and especially, the poor” as “only the poor,” and so on.

It would be an interesting experiment to respond to the allegation of reductionism with the classic riposte: What about the reductionisms of classical theology, especially in a later, essentialistic scholasticism, that great, vaunted “total theology”? What about its reduction of major biblical themes, such as physical poverty, physical liberation in history, social transformation, justice for the laborer, and the like, to “spiritual” poverty, liberation, righteousness, and so on?

We must say it again: The theology of liberation is, and seeks only to be, a discourse permeated with the light of faith, even though this faith may not always be found in thematized form (and still less “cut and dried” in virtue of being thematized).

Admittedly, the basic relationship that the theology of liberation seeks to express, the relationship between salvation and liberation, is not always worded in a perfectly satisfactory manner. But it is essential to grasp the intentionality of its discourse—that is, what it is trying to say, rather than merely what it actually says.

Furthermore and finally: When this imputation of “reductionism” is subjected to verification in the living practice of the theology of liberation in the communities—of which, after all, this theology seeks to be the reflex and reflection—there can no longer be any doubt. One need only watch the people reading the Bible and praying their faith to realize that this allegation is pure myth. Never in the history of Latin America has there been as much praying as in today’s basic church communities.

Admittedly, this also means that we in Latin America are better at practice than at theory. But after all, does life not “say” more than discourse does? On our continent transcendence is practice, not rhetoric.

Myth No. 3: Liberation Theology Is “of Marxist Inspiration”

Liberation theology, so the story goes, is “based” on or “inspired” by Marxism. Certain publications like to dress up their articles on liberation theology with drawings of Karl Marx, guerrillas, rallies, and so on. The theology of liberation likewise “promotes class struggles,” we hear, and proclaims that violence is a legitimate means to the all-justifying end of liberation.

This myth is not easy to dispel. Like all myths, it is more emotional than rational. But we must make the attempt. Let us state, once and for all, frankly and unambiguously: by no means is Marxism the moving force, basis, or inspiration of the theology of liberation. Christian faith is. It is the Gospel that is the determining qualifier of the theology of liberation, as it must be of any theology. The Gospel is the heart. All else is adventitious.

Marxism is a secondary, peripheral issue. When Marxism is used at all, it is used only partially and instrumentally. The popes themselves, the bishops, and many non-Marxist social scientists do the same thing. It is the faith that assimilates or subsumes elements of Marxism, then, and not the other way about. And the assimilation is effected from a point of departure in the community of the poor, so that the elements assimilated are profoundly transformed in the very assimilation, in such a way that the result is no longer Marxism but simply a critical understanding of reality.

We confess: The difficult subsumption of Marxist elements has not always been effected with adequate lucidity, perspicacity, and maturity. But we are improving along the way—serenely, with evangelical caution, but without any fear of the “heresy hunters.”

Myth No. 4: Liberation Theology Is an “Unscientific Theology”

We sometimes hear it said that liberation theology is merely pastoral and pragmatic, and thus devoid of the scientific “substance” of North Atlantic theology. Here one really has to wonder whether scientific may be confused with academic, to the exclusion of the critical. The theology of liberation, of course, comes on the scene as a critical theology. As a new theology, it still has a “long way to go.” How could it be otherwise? Our new theology must still flesh out anew synthesis of the faith, from its starting point in a new experience of that faith. This is one of its concrete tasks, and it is well aware of this. The systematicity of the theology of liberation is yet wanting. But the method has been discovered and is being developed.

Let us note, however, that the most important thing for liberation theology is not its scientificity but precisely its service. Really, one must ask to what extent so-called “scientific theology” effectively communicates the Gospel, how much ecclesial life it generates. After all, it is not enough to be brilliant; one must also be true. It is not enough to generate books and not generate life.


The grand inspiration of liberation theology’s specific endeavor is the correct “partial” identification of social liberation with salvation, and the correct subordination of the former to the latter—the correct interrelationship between praxis and faith. The theology of liberation tries to bridge the gap between the Mystery of God and the history of human beings. After all, it is not enough to know the truth of faith: One must also develop the human, historical significance and import of this faith.

The basic question for the theology of liberation is this: What is God for a continent of the poor such as Latin America? How does God reveal himself to the oppressed? What does’ it mean to be a Christian in a world of the starving?

Once again: It is a ludicrous over-simplification, a facile, indeed calumnious, distortion, to label liberation theology as “horizontalism,” or a “politicization of the faith.” The theology of liberation seeks only to break away from both extremes—a spiritualism oblivious to the world, and a materialism oblivious to the Mystery. The theology of liberation has the single-minded aim of joining the spiritual and the material in one—as they are found in human beings, and in the Christian God in Jesus Christ. It seeks to maintain the unity of the history of God with, and within, its vehicle, the history of men and women, in the spirit of Chalcedon: “without confusion, yet without separation.”

To put it baldly: Liberation theology is a theology that refuses to resign itself to the use of the Gospel as an alienating or alienated (omitted) ideology. And it is a theology seeking to be the “salt of faith in the soup of life.” Of course, the salt comes from a bottomless shaker, so there will always be some salt “in reserve”—salvation includes liberation, yes, but always transcends it.

Now, what is liberation theology in terms of a unitary dialectic? What are its central themes?

None other than theology’s classic themes. Only, now they are articulated upon history by way of projection. Hence the distinct accents of this theology, against a backdrop of revelation in its entirety. With each great theological theme, the theology of liberation inquires: What does this mean for our reality today? What is the meaning and significance of this theme, or this truth, for the oppressed of our continent?

Here is how the theology of liberation articulates certain basic theological themes..


a. Liberation theology recovers the image of God as creator of life, a God whose glory is the “human being alive.” Among a people for whom death is not a simple figure of speech but a daily reality thrust upon their attention in infant mortality, violent conflict, kidnappings, and torture, a theology of God as creator and sustainer of life acquires a piercing relevancy.

b. To an oppressed people, God also appears as Yahweh the Liberator, who wills that his people go free from all slavery. Here the Exodus is no longer a “typological luxury, serving as counterpoint for a moral-and spiritual-salvation” (José M. Gonzalez Ruiz), but is the model, in the full sense of the term, of any and every liberation process that has ever been or ever will be—without ceasing to be a “type” of the Paschal mystery, from the viewpoint of salvation-in-its-transcendency.


In the figure of Jesus, whom it acknowledges as Lord and Son of God, liberation theology accentuates the following traits.

a. His Incarnation is taken “to the hilt.” The Word of God assumed not just “human nature” in general, nor even just any random concrete human nature, but the human nature of a particular human being in an altogether determinate social condition: that of a poor person, a laborer, who preferred the poor, surrounded himself with them, and identified with them. All of this is seen to be of the utmost significance for a people sunk in the direst imaginable poverty. It is the boast of the poor, not the rich, that Jesus belonged to their social and economic class.

b. Jesus preached the kingdom of God as absolute, integral liberation—spiritual, yes, but material as well (liberation from hunger, grief, contempt, and so on), within history and beyond history.

c. Jesus is the historical victim of a plot laid by the mighty of his time. This acknowledgment in no way militates against the salvific meaning of his death. On the contrary, it lends this meaning concrete support: it was by this route, death on a cross, that the Son of God revealed and realized the salvation of human beings.


Dogmatic mariology (Mary as mother of God, virgin, immaculate, and assumed) is unfailingly maintained by liberation theology, in the “larger picture.” But against the background of this larger picture it prefers to stress a historical mariology, one more germane to the concrete reality of Latin America.

a. Mary, then, steps forward as Mary of Nazareth, a woman who was poor, who toiled with her hands, who was harrassed and persecuted, who was exiled, but who never lost her awareness and her courage (see Marialis Cultus, no. 37).

b. Mary is likewise seen as the woman of the Magnificat—the prophetic woman of liberation, who had the clear vision and dogged determination to denounce the contrast between the rich and the starving, the mighty and the lowly, and who proclaimed “God’s revolution” —God as “avenger of the oppressed” (ibid.).

c. Finally, Mary is the Mary of popular religion, the Mary of the Latin American people, this “Marian people.” Thus she is seen and experienced as a “protagonist of history,” as for example in the struggle for Mexican national liberation, when Father Hidalgo and the liberator Zapata led their people into the struggle under the banner of the Morenita, the “Brown Madonna.” As we see, then, Mary is the woman of the Incarnation of the Word of God in history.

These are but a sampling of the Marian accents of the theology of liberation, but they afford us a glimpse of the exceedingly rich vein of theological thinking which, to be sure, calls for much more “mining” and reflection.

The Church

One of the most critical points in the theology of liberation is its reflection on Church. We are dealing here with the internal, intra-ecclesial vector of this theology, which seeks to express what the actual process of the base Church communities posits concretely: a “new way of being Church,” that is, a new historical process-and-project of Christian community.

This “new (way of being) Church” is identifiable by two constitutive traits:

  1. It is a participatory Church, in line with the emphasis on the people of God in Lumen Gentium. This means that, in the make-up of the Church, priority falls to baptism and the baptized. It means that each member of the Church is considered to be a living, active “ecclesial subject” (active agent of being-Church), actively sharing and participating in what it means to be Church. Pastors and clergy, here, come second. They are in a subordinate position; they are the servants of the people of God and the inspirers of their faith, hope, and love.
  2. The Latin American Church is a church of liberation, in keeping with the emphasis on a “Church in the world” seen in Gaudium et Spes. In our case it will be a “Church in the sub-world” of the poor, espousing their cause, taking flesh in their popular milieux, being the leaven of prophecy and justice and the seed of a new social order.

These emphases or significations are posited, as always, from a starting point in the unquestioned basis of a global view of the Church as the expression of the Divine Mystery. Indeed, it is in the light of this mystery of Church that these historical dimensions of faith come to expression in our theology.

Other Theological Themes

We could go on to show how the theology of liberation sets in relief, explores the concrete dimensions of, still other theological themes. In moral theology, for example, the notions of “social sin” and “social love” enjoy a special importance. Liberation morality is a morality of the Beatitudes in a political context, as the spirit of nonviolence, love of neighbor, and so on.

Each theme of theology has a special, concrete resonance in Latin American society.


Before concluding this part of our discussion we should like to broach one more instance of a Latin American approach to a traditional theme of Christian faith. It may well be in spirituality that liberation theology has produced its most valid and useful reflection. Nor should this be any cause for astonishment, since the ultimate root of the theology of liberation is of a mystical order: the encounter with God in the poor. After all, the spirit of liberation theology is expressed in key notions such as the following, which impregnate and propel the liberating commitment of the oppressed, and of those who struggle at their side.

  • Conversion to the poor and to evangelical poverty.
  • A communion of sisters and brothers in a committed community.
  • Hope in a kingdom of God in history in the form of a new society.
  • Service to and with the oppressed.
  • Incarnation among and solidarity with the outcast.
  • “Parrhesia”—the prophetic courage and freedom of proclamation and denunciation.
  • Patience along the historical byways of a people in the wilderness of the world.
  • The cross of persecution and martyrdom, in the footsteps and discipleship of Jesus Christ.


Let us now attempt a kind of summing-up of the merits, or more modestly, the contributions to the Church and the larger society, of the theology of liberation. It will be a precarious undertaking, inasmuch as these merits and contributions are matters of a very recent past, and especially of an ongoing present. Some are specific to the theology of liberation, while others are simultaneously the contribution of the actual communities with which liberation theology is linked.

To have called attention to the existence of the poor and to their quest for liberation

Liberation theology has sought only to interpret and articulate the cry, so often stifled, of the oppressed, and to bestow on their faith praxis its title of theological legitimacy. The theology of liberation has succeeded in reminding the Church of the suffering of the poor, and of their call to this Church for conversion and solidarity.

Liberation theology has made no attempt to usurp the function of the poor themselves, in a spirit of paternalism, in making this contribution, but only seeks in all modesty to strengthen and add to their voices and their faith, as it acknowledges them to be the primary agents of their own liberation.

To have made an essential contribution to the liberative meaning of Christian faith

The theology of liberation has been the theoretical reflex and reflection of our communities’ refutation in actual practice of the allegation that religion is the opium of the people—demonstrating that, in the Churches of Latin America, religion can be and is a leaven of justice. In this wise it has set forth the conception of a prophetic or messianic religion, as religion appears in its original biblical form. The notion of an ideological religion, then—a “mystifying religion,” one which consecrates the status quo—has been deprived of its specious normativity once and for all.

To have expressed and legitimated the demand for a popular fabric of Church

Liberation theology has led the Church to take the poor seriously, procuring their recognition as among the primary ecclesial agents and the repositories of a particular “evangelizing potential,” in the words of Puebla (Puebla Final Document, no. 1147).

To have conceived of theology as “second act” vis-à-vis the first act of the concrete life and practice of faith

Liberation theology’s conception of theology as consequent upon faith practice has forced theologians to listen to the poor, has led them to enter into the faith community of their sisters and brothers, has induced them to relativize their function, thereby demystifying their image.

To have shifted the principal locus of the theological endeavor from academe (the department, the institute, the seminary) to the church community itself

The theologian’s first place is at the heart of the faith community, in order to be of service to that community as it endeavors to face its challenges. Liberation theology has learned, and therefore teaches, that theology is always done in contact with the living community.

Not the least of the merits of the theology of liberation is to have conferred upon theology a particularly profound and concrete ecclesial reality, by doing theology in communion with the pastors of the living Christian communities.

To have assigned the theologian the special task of “thinking concrete praxis,” of thinking the real problems of the community of faith, instead of abstract issues bereft of a connection with the life of God’s people

The theology of liberation has always sought to manifest deep roots in reality, especially in the reality that constitutes the life of the poor—who are the vast majority of human beings living in Latin America—and never disappearing behind the clouds of a disincarnate spiritualism.

To have moved theology closer to the people, and made it “everybody’s business”—not just the “business” of theologians, but that of simple people as well

This effort to “popularize theology” has encountered and lent reinforcement to a correlative phenomenon: the emergence of a “popular theology,” developed by the Christian community itself in its capacity as primary theological agent. After all, the people of God, who profess their faith, also have the right to think their faith, and the professional theologian can encourage and support them in this undertaking. This is how the theology of liberation seeks to be of service to them.

Thus theology has initiated a process of “declericalization,” so that it ceases to constitute the monopoly of specialists—although, paradoxically, the latter now become even more necessary than they were before, precisely by reason of their new task.

To have given theology a public character and weight

This was inevitable as soon as theology resolved to pay serious attention to the great problems of social groups. Hence the involvement and interest of these groups in the theology of liberation.

To have undertaken a forthright assimilation of the positive contributions of the social sciences

The theology of liberation has the merit of having shifted the focus until recently enjoyed by philosophy as cultural mediation for theology, to the area of the social sciences, seeing that the latter present more adequate credentials as suppliers of information about the questions this theology has to face. After all, the questions are social questions.

To have confronted the question of Marxism from anew locus—no longer a cultural one (as in the Christian-Marxist dialogue), but from a starting point in the real situation of the poor (a situation of oppression-and-liberation)

Marxism can be used by liberation theologians only as a simple means of service to a higher cause—the poor and their integral liberation. From these poor as a starting point—that is, from a point of departure in actual reality and praxis—the theoretical project of Marxism is judged, re-created, and transformed by theology.

We could go on to speak of spirituality, ecumenism, preparation for the priesthood, and so on. But surely the indications we have given will be more than sufficient to exemplify the merits, or contributions, of this new theology.


Liberation theology is a theology in its infancy. It has a great deal of growing to do. It needs to have its personality more clearly shaped, better defined. It has other challenges ahead of it, too—not its own exclusively, to be sure, but the ones it will have to face along with the whole Latin American Church, with whose becoming it is organically linked.

Following are three of the most important challenges looming for tomorrow.

A clearer explication of the centrality and sovereignty of faith in a reflection on the people’s concrete praxis

It is not that the theology of liberation is particularly exposed to the danger of losing its evangelical identity for want of ascribing a clearly central position to faith. Rather, this theology is challenged to demonstrate this evangelical identity in depth, in the focus of a historical task and within that historical task. Liberation theology is in a particularly favorable position for this demonstration, living as it does in such immediate contact with the community that professes and celebrates this faith. And this is all the more the case for the fact that this community is composed so very preponderantly of the poor, among whom the faith dimension is more keenly felt and more tellingly expressed.

Still, on the theoretical level, the theology of liberation must improve its “epistemological profile,” its theoretical status, as well as articulate its discourse in more consistent fashion, in such a way as to correspond more adequately to the praxis of the total Church community.

A strengthening of ecclesial communion at the level of the universal Church, in particular with the Holy See

To this purpose it will be crucial to keep channels of communication open, so that frank dialogue may dissolve ignorance and clarify misunderstandings.

Given the nature of liberation theology—its consubstantiality with a determinate ecclesial process—a sharing of experience, through visits between authorities of the universal Church and those of the local and regional churches, will be of the highest urgency.

A resumption of the dialogue with the theologians of other churches, on the basis of a fundamental equality

Born and bred in Latin America, the theology of liberation nevertheless is, and seeks only to be, “catholic,” in the theological sense of the word. It cannot, therefore, close itself off from an encounter with the theologies of other churches, in an attitude of defensiveness, polemics, or reversed colonialism.

It will be of the utmost moment for the theology of liberation always to maintain a spirit of self-criticism, eschewing all false security and triumphalism.

There is no need for this theology to seek an escape, either from the discharge of its own task or from an examination of the task undertaken by others, with a view to mutual correction and enrichment.

What are the “theological gifts” of liberation theology to this communion, in von Balthasar’s sense? The esteemed European theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar put it this way: “Here in South America something absolutely central to Christianity is emerging: the option for the poor. This is now part and parcel of Christianity” (30 Giorni, June 1984, p. 78).

This, then, is our first “gift.” It is on the level of content: the option for the poor, that central element of the faith that the Church and the theology of Latin America have plucked from oblivion, to the advancement of the Gospel of the poor and the poor of the Gospel.

As the Instruction itself declared to all theologians without exception: “We must not become oblivious, be it for a single instant, of the situation of excruciating misery that lies at the root of this challenge to theologians” (chap. 4, no. 1).

“South American theologians,” von Balthasar continued, “tell us that we do theology too theoretically, with our heads a bit in the clouds.” And this brings us to the second “theological gift” from Latin America. This time it is in the area of method: the doing of theology from a starting point in practice.

This, then, is the “new word” spoken by the theology of liberation—a theology of the people and a theology in its infancy—to the venerable theology of the West: “For the poor, from within practice.”

Clodovis Boff