Clodovis Boff – The Social Teaching of the Church and the Theology of Liberation: Opposing Social Practices? (1981)

[Clodovis Boff is a Brazilian Roman Catholic theologian, philosopher, writer and professor. Clodovis Boff, alongside his brother Leonardo Boff, are both theologians of liberation, though both have differing methods.]

[Originally published in December 1981, Concilium, Christian ethics: uniformity, universality, pluralism]


In general terms, the question is to establish the difference—if there is one—between a morality inspired by the Social Teaching of the Church (STC) and one inspired by the Theology of Liberation (TL). Both form less than completely homogeneous theoretical constructs. Even their usual titles pose some problems, and they should probably always be referred to in quotes. But for present purposes, we can take the usual titles as expressions of broad indications of thought and action in the social field.

First, however, we need to distinguish between morality and ethics. Morality is acting rightly in a given situation, while ethics is right thinking about how to act. So the distinction is between theory and practice. But how are the two related?

Morality (practice) is based on ‘laws’, either unwritten (conscience) or written (ethical codes). This is of the essence of moral activity, which, in effect, means following a series of ideas, values, commandments, etc. But this is only one part of the truth about morality, since both morality (practice) and ethics (theory) depend on social conditions and reflect social interests.

If this is so, it is not enough simply to say that a particular ethical system (such as might be found in the STC or the TL) will inspire particular codes of social behaviour. We also need to see how such codes of behaviour influence the ethical system or are expressed in it. There is a circular process of interaction here. Furthermore, moral teaching reflects practice rather than the other way round. This can be seen from the fact that differences in morality (practices) and ethics (theories) among Christians generally correspond to differences in their social standing and understanding.


What social behaviour is inspired by the ethics contained in the STC, what ethos does it produce?

What is plain to see is that in Latin America (to which I shall confine this study) the Social Teaching (or Doctrine) of the Church is little known and therefore also little followed. It could not possibly be called the ‘soul’ of pastoral practice in the Latin American Churches. But the STC does inspire interest in the following circles:

(a) the Christian Democrat parties. These were in fact set up as a direct and specific expression of this teaching;
(b) certain reformist currents in Catholic Action, such as, to take an example from Brazil, the Association of Catholic Employers;
base movements as well, but in a different sense. In fact the many base movements, particularly the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), take their basic points of reference straight from the gospel, not from the STC. As for the TL, this gives an articulate form to this basic reference and so gives it greater coherence and weight. There is, however, a dialectical relationship between the BECs and the TL. Broadly speaking, the BECs are to the TL what Christian Democracy is to the STC: its best expression in practice.

So what is the relationship between these basic Christian movements and the STC? They do not reject it, and it serves three purposes:

(a) It is used to sensitise the public at large to social questions. It does this through sermons, lectures, classrooms, catechesis, courses, etc. The STC has, as a matter of fact, a particular stamp of authority: it is the voice of the ‘supreme pastor of the Church’ and represents the will of the bishops, the ‘shepherds of the People of God’. The STC has always shown its power to win people and groups over to the cause of social justice and, at least, to gain sympathy for the Church’s stance on the side of the poor and the oppressed. In effect, the STC poses the problem of social justice fairly and squarely, thereby superseding the narrow concepts of charity as almsgiving and faith as an option affecting one’s private life.
(b) The STC is further used to provide a doctrinal justification for certain stances taken by the Church when these are attacked in public. It provides an ecclesial basis for certain lines followed by Christians in pastoral and social practice. Its effect when used in this way is proven, particularly when those—including governments—who attack the social practices of the Church, lack the necessary intellectual equipment to face up to the Church on equal terms.
(c) The STC is just and useful in confirming and strengthening the actions taken by BECs and similar groups. Such groups are frequently encouraged by references to the STC by popes and bishops, and particularly by those of the pope on his recent visit to Latin America.

So the role of the STC in BECs and similar organisations is threefold: sensitising, justifying and confirming. This threefold function brings out certain strands in the teaching more strongly than others, as we shall see later. But further than this it cannot go: it is incapable of standing up to reality to an adequate extent, let alone of transforming it. So here we have to ask: why is the STC incapable of being a doctrine that can take root in the movement of transforming history? Why does it not lift Christian spirits in the fight against injustice? Why does it lack the mystic appeal of, say, Marxism, or sometimes nationalism? Why can Christians see themselves in it but not feel affected by it? Even in the case of Christian Democracy, its most obvious inspiration is in fact liberalism (as seen in its endless defence of the ‘sacred cow’ of private property) rather than the STC. And as for those Christians today most committed to social change, it is significant that they do not look to the STC for the basic motives for their inspiration and struggle.

This is in fact what happens when one approaches the STC: one finds that it agrees with practically everything. But once its texts have been studied, practically nothing stays in the mind. This is true of public opinion when a social encyclical comes out; opinions are roused, positions taken. But it does not take long for the document to be consigned to oblivion, with the exception of one or two paragraphs, and these continue to be its only links with the mind. So, for example, Pacem in Terris has left that passage opening up the possibility of co-operation between Christians and non-Christians in the social field, and linked with this, the famous distinction between ‘doctrine’, which is unchanging, and ‘historical movement’, which can change. Populorum Progressio still means the statement, which has today become a commonplace, that ‘the poor are becoming ever poorer and the rich becoming ever richer’ (no. 57), the condemnation of naked capitalism (no. 25), and the possible legitimation of ‘revolutionary uprising’ (no. 31). Octogesima Adveniens left above all in Latin America an openness to socialism (no. 31), the excellence of political work as an example of loving service (no. 46) and the appeal to lay people to act creatively on their own initiative in the social field (no. 48). And so one could go on with them all.

The fact is that the encyclicals and social documents gradually became identified with a certain number of inspirational nuclei. The same historical process of doctrinal selection meant that Medellin came to be BECs and the ‘option for the poor’. So instead of appearing as a completely assembled machine (system) the STC rather resembles a box of spare parts, from which just these teachings, these historically significant abbreviations, can be picked out. The rest vanishes from consciousness and from history, though it clings on in books and lectures.


The distinctive features of the social ethic set out and put forward by the TL to groups of committed Christians can be summarised as follows:

(a) in theory: the adoption of principles of social analysis. Reading the Signs of the Times has become an ethical-political requirement for the BECs and similar groups. Society can be changed only on the basis of knowledge of this society. In this sense, Marxist analysis is used as a theoretical instrument, with the greatest freedom and responsibility in theory and practice;
(b) in history: an alternative society to capitalism. It is clear to the TL and the BECs that this social system cannot provide a way to overcome the exploitation and oppression. So social change is understood as a break with the present system in force. In this sense, what is put forward is a revolutionary morality (changing the system), not a reformist one (change within the system). Socialism is the more or less explicit aim;
(c) practice: class organisation of the exploited. They are seen as the protagonists of social change. They should be joined by each and every member of other classes to the extent that these are disposed to take on the cause of the exploited, to serve them and not to make use of them.


In order to tackle this thorny question, one has to decide how the STC should be viewed. It is possible to see it from two totally different viewpoints, which lead to two equally different hermeneutics: one seeing the STC as an open system and the other as a closed system.

(a) The STC as an open system

Understood in this way, the STC is not found completely wanting, but it is inadequate, incomplete from the point of view of social practice. This means that:

(i) in theory: the STC does not, and does not claim to, give a scientific explanation of social reality. It only offers general principles, criteria and orientations of an ethical nature. So, when it affirms that the State is the mediator of the common good, it is expressing an ideal (ought to be) and not a given situation (actually is). So this is not an analytical, but an ethical judgment. Scientific and technical analysis of social problems is properly said to be the task of lay people (see Puebla 85, 793, 826);
(ii) in history: the STC does not claim to propose social models (see Oct. Adv. 24, 25, 42), but just a Christian view of humanity and society (see Puebla 472, 475, 525, 539). By presenting a Utopian goal of a just and fraternal society, it opens the ethical field (and only this) to specific historical embodiments. On the other hand, Christians are encouraged to work with others in devising other, alternative models of society (see Oct. Adv. 48; Puebla 553, 1211);
(iii) in practice: the STC calls all social agents to act, each in its own field. And when it defends the right of classes to organise in support of their rights, particularly the working classes, and when, more recently, it takes up the refrain of the ‘option for the poor’, one can see what direction its thoughts are moving in.

Looked at in this way, there is no contradiction between the STC and the TL. On the contrary, the former stands in relation to the latter as the theological field in which the latter can logically be situated. There would be a dialectic between them of the determinant (STC) and determined (TL). The TL would be a ‘historical determination’ of the more general doctrinal guidelines and practical criteria of the STC. So the TL would in no way suppress the STC but would advance beyond it dialectically. There would be a dialectic of continuity between the two, always determined, nonetheless, by the primary reference of both to the gospel. But even so, the STC would form a first approach or mediation between the gospel and a given social situation—a mediation open to subsequent theological determinations.

Furthermore, the further down the hierarchy of magisterium one goes, the greater the accord found between the STC and the TL. So, for example, there is virtually only a formal distinction between the social documents produced by the Brazilian National Bishops’ Conference and the Brazilian works of the TL. This is the case with the document, ‘The Church and Land Problems’ issued by the Bishops’ Conference in 1980, both the form and content of which ‘beat’ with the basic ideas of the TL and the BECs in general. Often, there is no discernible difference between the pronouncement of a single bishop and an approach of the TL; this is the case in a recent declaration by the ex-president of CELAM, Cardinal Aloisius Lorscheider: ‘The socio-economic system adopted in our countries is a sinful, anti-evangelical system, in need of deep change, which implies a structural change of the system. … A “Yes” on the part of the Church to the socio-politico-economic system at present in force in our lands will never be possible, since the Church cannot, in conscience, regard as evangelical what is structurally contrary to God’s plan’ (Folha de Sao Paulo, 4.12.80, p. 6).

So, we can see that the TL has no difficulty in linking itself with an open concept of the STC. Rather, it can be enriched by it, just as in turn it can enrich it.

(b) The STC regarded as a closed system

Understood as a system that is complete in itself, the STC appears to be a sort of ‘Catholic summa of economic and social questions’, as Mater et Magistra described Rerum Novarum (no. 16). It would thus be a theoretically self-sufficient system. So:

(i) in theory, whether consciously or not, the STC includes a social theory. Its forte, however, is ethical, based primarily on natural law. Here its ethics implies a more elaborate social analysis, which tends towards theoretical totalitarianism. This is the conclusion one must draw from this sort of statement: The Church ‘does not need to have recourse to ideological systems in order to love, defend and collaborate in the liberation of the human being’ (John Paul II, in his inaugural address to Puebla, quoted in Puebla 552); ‘Catholic workers do not need to seek social guidelines from other ideological sources. The Word of Jesus Christ, recorded in the gospels and interpreted by the social teaching of the popes and the Council, in matters concerning employers as well as the workers themselves, contains all that is necessary to man for his happiness on earth and to guarantee him his dignity’ (Paul VI, to German workers, 30.4.71). This tendency can be called ‘theologism’: it rejects any outside mediation on principle. Nevertheless, when it is submitted to practical application, the STC is obliged to incorporate vehicles of social understanding. If their implications are critical and radical, the STC rejects them as alien; if they are bureaucratic and conservative, the STC in applying them produces effects contrary to its own principles: in theory it is anti-capitalist, but in practice it collaborates with this system. And if the ethical principles of the STC are applied without any outside framework, then the disaster is complete: ‘Application of the STC leads firms to bankruptcy’, as the Catholic Employers’ Federation told Mgr Ivo Lorscheiter, the present president of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference.

So the STC is incapable of moulding history in accordance with its own principles. As a self-sufficient totality it is contradictory: its (objective) effect is on a collision course with its (objective) intention. It wants to remain purist—‘a spotless virgin, but barren’, to quote Bacon. In his famous The Social Teaching of the Church and Christian Groups, E. Troeltsch showed that pure evangelism led to historical irrelevance and social insignificance. Dato non concesso that there can be purity in these matters, except possibly in intention. . . .

(ii) in history: the STC, as an overall viewpoint, sets out the ideal of a ‘juster and more Christian society’, a ‘fraternal society’, a ‘civilisation based on love’. Here Utopia is taking over from any specific proposal for a historical plan. This is why the STC tends to regard other forms ofsocial plan, such as socialism, as competitors. And to reach this ‘juster society’, the STC does not think in terms of a break with existing patterns, but of gradual reforms, which are nevertheless qualified as ‘deep’ and ‘urgent’, in correcting abuses and changing mentalities;

(iii) in practice: the STC, still seen as an exhaustive view of society, appeals to all classes without distinction, including the poor. . . . Its philosophical (ethical-analytical) view of the State as guardian of the common good, naturally assumes that the protagonists of change will be those who hold power—at any given moment, naturally. Seen functionally in this light, its social ethic is reduced to de-ontologising, that is, to a professional ethic. Try to be a good capitalist, or a good worker, not to wipe out the corresponding class differences. . . .

So, understood in this way, the STC can find itself in opposition to the TL, and vice-versa, just as the social (political-moral) practices of the proponents of each—‘liberal Christians’ and ‘committed Christians’—can oppose each other.


While only a short time ago the dominant view of the STC was that of a closed, complete system, there are now increasing signs of a growing change towards an open view of the same system. I have already referred to these. To sum up:

(a) the existing pronouncements of the STC are now being used on the level of commitment to change, particularly its historically relevant doctrinal points. These are taken to define the minimum level of consciousness required of Christians today. The STC is adopting a more historical viewpoint and therefore a more critical one—as can be seen from its changeable and perfectible character (Oct. Adv. 42; Puebla 472);
(b) the STC is coming to be understood as a continuing process and one that is more and more being expressed in the social pronouncements of bishops’ conferences, or of individual bishops. This shows its broad and dynamic character (Puebla 473);
(c) finally, the STC is coming to be understood as a first specific mediation, though still a very general (and therefore incomplete) one, between the gospel and our times. In this, it shows its openness to later determinations, including the TL.

Only such an understanding, with its corresponding hermeneutic, can allow the STC to be related correctly to the TL. This is precisely the line being taken by the theological endeavours in Latin America today. These theoretical endeavours are simply the reflection of the practical tendency of a Church which, as a whole—hierarchy and laity, magisterium and theologians—is putting itself increasingly in partibus pauperum.

Translated by Paul Burns