“The Latin American ecclesial and theological movement known as “Liberation Theology”, which spread to other parts of the world after the Second Vatican Council, should in my opinion be included among the most important currents in 20th century Catholic theology.” This authoritative and glorifying historical evaluation of Liberation Theology did not just come from some ancient South American theologian who is out of touch wit the times. The above statement was made by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which Ratzinger headed in the 1980’s, after John Paul I appointed him to the post. The Prefect gave two instructions, warning against pastoral and doctrinal deviations from Latin American theological currents of thought.
This decisive comment about the Liberation Theology movement is not just some witty remark that happened to escape the mouth of the current custodian of Catholic orthodoxy. The same balanced opinion pervades the densely written pages of “On the Side of the Poor. The Theology of Liberation”, a collection of essays co-written with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez and published in Germany in 2004. Gutiérrez invented the formula for defining the Liberation Theology movement, whose actions were – for a long time – closely scrutinised by the Ratzinger-led Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The movement was not criticised once during this time.
Today the book seems to wave goodbye in a way to the theological wars of the past and the hostility that flash up now and again, to cause alarm on purpose.
The book put an official seal on a common path the two had followed for many years. Müller never hid his closeness to Gustavo Gutiérrez, whom he met in Lima in 1988, during a study seminar. During the ceremony for the honorary degree which the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru granted to Müller in 2008, the then bishop of Regensburg defined the theological thought of his master and Peruvian friend as fully orthodox. In the months before Müller’s nomination as head of the dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, some claimed his closeness to Gutiérrez proved he was not suited to the role previously held by Cardinal Ratzinger (24 long years).
In the book’s essays, the two authors/friends back each other up. Müller says the merits of Liberation Theology go beyond the Latin American Catholic. The Prefect stressed that in recent decades, Latin America’s Liberation Theology movement has been oriented towards the image of Jesus Christ the Redeemer and liberator, an image all genuinely Christian theological currents are oriented towards. This stems from an evangelical inclination towards the poor. Müller affirmed that “poverty in Latin America oppresses children, the elderly and the sick,” to such an extent that many are driven to “contemplate death as the only way out.” Right from the outset, the Liberation Theology movement “forced” theological movements founded elsewhere, not to consider the real living conditions of people and individuals as something abstract. He saw “the body of Christ” in the poor, as Pope Francis does.
The arrival of the Catholic Church’s first Latin American Pope made it possible to look at those years and experience without being conditioned by the controversies that raged at the time. Without the ritualism of the false mea culpas and superficial changes, it is easier today to see that the hostility shown by certain sections of the Church towards the Liberation Theology movement was politically motivated and did not really stem from a desire to preserve and spread the faith of the apostles. Those who paid the price were the theologians and pastors who were completely immersed in the evangelical faith of their people. They either ended up in the mince or faded into the shadows. For a long time, the hostility shown towards the Liberation Theology movement was invaluable factor in helping some climb the ecclesiastical career ladder.
In one of his speeches, Müller (who in an interview on 27 December 2012 suggested it was likely a Latin American would substitute Ratzinger as Pope) did not hesitate to describe the political and geopolitical factors that had influenced certain “crusades” against the Liberation Theology movement: “the satisfaction of depriving the Liberation Theology movement of all meaning was intensified by capitalism’s sense of triumph, which was probably considered to have gained absolute victory. It was seen as an easy target that could be fitted into the same category as revolutionary violence and Marxist terrorism,” Müller said. He referred to a secret document prepared for President Reagan by the Committee of Santa Fé in 1980 (so 4 years before the Vatican’s first Instruction on the Liberation Theology movement), requesting that the U.S. government take aggressive action against the movement, which was accused of transforming the Catholic Church into “a political weapon against private property and productive capitalism by infiltrating the religious community with ideas that are less Christian than communist.'' Müller said: “The impertinence shown by the document’s authors, who are themselves guilty of brutal military dictatorships and powerful oligarchies, is disturbing. Their interest in private property and the capitalist production system has replaced Christianity as a criterion.”
After decades of fierce conflicts and opposition, the friendship between the two theologians – the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the man who was once investigated by the Congregation – has helped create a clear distinction between the ephemeral ideological frameworks of the past and the genuine evangelical spirit that inspired so many of the paths taken by Latin American Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council. In Müller’s eyes, 85 year old Gutiérrez - who is due to visit Italy, including Rome, this coming September - did not wear out his theological reflections in conferences or university meetings but found inspiration in the liturgies priests celebrated for the poor, in Lima’s run down suburbs. Essentially he was inspired by the basic experience which derived from the idea that “being Christian means following Jesus,” as Gutiérrez himself said in simple and biblical terms. It is the Lord himself who tells us we should “commit to working directly with the poor. The truth brings us closer to the poor,” Müller said, quoting his Peruvian friend.