[Originally published in Profiles in liberation: 36 portraits of third world theologians by Deane William Ferm, Twenty-Third Publications, 1988]
Since 1965, I have been troubled by the existence of certain Latin American societies in which the majority of human beings are subjected to a harsh regimen organized to fatten the bank accounts of local and foreign minorities. This troubles me to the point of incapacitating me for any understanding or living of my gospel faith except by involvement in the struggle against this social regimen, which I perceive as unjust and transformable. And it troubles me to the point where I cannot submissively cross my arms in the face of certain allegedly ”Christian” attitudes and traditions that appear to me to be an antievangelical instrumentalization of the church in the service of social injustice.Religion and Social Conflicts, p. 146.
Otto Maduro’s principal contribution to liberation theology has been as a sociologist of religion who is critical of many of his colleagues in the field of sociology, who claim to be impartial in their scholarly critiques. He maintains that sociologists should be aware of their “inescapable partiality” while at the same time showing a willingness to criticize their own partial perspectives.
Otto Maduro was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1945. Both his parents were lawyers working with the government in family law. Both were politically involved in seeking social democratic change on behalf of the poor. Although his mother was nominally Catholic, Maduro’s father was a professed atheist who would have nothing to do with the church. However, in 1960, influenced largely by a young Galician woman servant to his parents—”the first adult person I trusted and who trusted me”—Otto Maduro was baptized a Catholic. He joined a number of Catholic youth movements and in high school joined the Christian Democratic Party. Subsequently he joined anti-communist, armed clandestine Catholic brigades until 1963, when he entered a Roman Catholic seminary, albeit for only a few months.
Maduro entered the University of Venezuela in Caracas in 1964, and received a licentiate in philosophy in 1968. Up to 1966 he continued to participate in the Catholic anti-communist struggle taking place in Venezuela, although he himself had reached the point where he renounced the use of arms. During this period of his life, he contracted hepatitis and, while he was bed-ridden for several months, he took the opportunity to read the writings of such left wing Catholic radicals as Julio Silva Solar, Jacques Chonchol, and Camilo Torres; and for the first time he was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx. Much to his surprise, he found himself agreeing with Marx’s social critique, and he concluded that in many respects Christianity in its basic social teachings was in fact closer to Marx than the Catholic church would officially acknowledge.
During his years as a student at the University of Venezuela, Maduro studied philosophy under liberal atheist professors; he worked among the urban poor and participated in the creation and subsequent activities of the Christian Left. From 1969 on, he became increasingly alienated from the Catholic church. Subsequently he studied at Louvain, receiving an M.A. in philosophy, a Ph.D. in 1977, and an M.A. in sociology of religion in 1978. He served as professor at the University of the Andes in Merida, He served as professor at the University of the Andes in Merida, Venezuela, from 1968 to 1985, and has taught at the University of Venezuela in Caracas and at Notre Dame University. In 1987 he began a three-year teaching appointment at Maryknoll School of Theology in New York.
During his years at Louvain, Maduro intensified his study of Karl Marx. Although he never became an avowed Marxist, he resonated with much of what Marx had to say about religion. He claims that Marx helped him see the “liberating potential” of the social teachings of Jesus Christ. While in Brussels, Maduro came under the influence of Gustavo Gutierrez. He credits Gutierrez with playing a pivotal role in his spiritual pilgrimage back to the Catholic church in 1976. Also influential in this regard were his contacts with the Christians for Socialism movement and the editorial staff of the magazine La Lettre. After a period of six years in Europe, Maduro returned to Latin America where he gradually identified himself with liberation theology as it emerged among the Christian base communities.
Otto Maduro has become one of the leading intellectuals in Latin American liberation theology. Three features of his version of liberation theology deserve special attention. The first involves his role as a sociologist who seeks to develop a sociology of knowledge in a Latin American context. His book. Religion and Social Conflicts, has this particular goal in mind. Maduro, as has been suggested, strongly criticizes his sociologist colleagues who claim to be impartial. Neutrality in social analysis, he insists, is not an option. Social analysis cannot escape philosophical and even theological implications. One cannot do sociology in a social vacuum. Further, as a sociologist Maduro believes that liberation theology must expand its vision beyond economic and political dimensions and give attention to four other issues that have strong social implications: the oppression of women; the struggle for world peace and the avoidance of nuclear war; the preservation of the natural environment; and the willingness to create the conditions for a pleasurable and sensuous life that radiates joy. This fourth item might come as a surprise. But why should theology be a grim enterprise? Without the sensuous ingredient, liberation is simply not complete—at least not “as we dream of it in the Caribbean.”
A second feature is Maduro’s critique of Marxism as an ideology. Maduro’s views on Marxism have evolved through the years. In his early years, Marx was for him an arch enemy. Later he became sympathetic to Marxism as a means of understanding class struggle and capitalist exploitation, and how traditional religion has often functioned as the opiate of the masses. But in later years Maduro has become much more critical of both Marxist theory and practice.
He is willing to accept some of the implications of Marxist social analysis without the ideological framework. He now talks of the need for the “desacralization of Marxism.” By the use of this phrase he suggests: “Marxism is experienced by its new ‘users’ not as demanding a total allegiance, not as necessarily tied to certain parties and policies, not as requiring renouncement to religious conceptions and organizations, not as ‘one, only and exclusive’, but, rather, it is experienced as a disintegrated chaotic mass of ‘tools’ or ‘instruments’—part of which might be appropriated, part of which may be rejected without any regret whatsoever” (“The Desacralization of Marxism within Latin American Liberation Theology,” p. 8).
A third significant feature is Maduro’s conviction that the Christian base communities in Latin America are both the harbinger of the future Catholic presence in that region and the repositories of the very best in Catholic tradition. These communities represent “the liberating sense of the unity, sanctity, catholicity, apostolicity and visibility of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America.” These small groups of Christians should not be seen entirely as innovations, but, rather, as extensions of the early Christian communities—in this way: These communities of poor and oppressed Christians seek to deepen their sense of oneness with all Christians. They acknowledge the sacred character of their wholistic liberating mission. They are catholic in their desire to develop the universal presence of the church as an open community struggling for the full realization of our best human potential as children of God. They are apostolic in their missionary expression of the good news of the Gospel. And they incarnate the visible church as they celebrate their calling as equal children of the same God. In displaying these marks of the church, which have come down from the first Christian era, these communities are a model in showing all Christians a new—yet old!—way of doing mission, one that is liberating and humble, open and caring, personal and communal, and includes the dimension of joy. Maduro maintains that “missioners as well as the oppressed themselves must nourish the capacity to enjoy, celebrate, increase and share life. This is a vital part of mission conceived as good news for the oppressed” (“Notes for a South-North Dialogue in Mission from a Latin American Perspective,” p. 71).