The lonely liberation theology of Benedict XVI

 Following the recent post on ‘An African Liberation Theology’, the following article clarifies the difference between the liberation theology of the 60’s and 70’s (with its tendancy toward Marxism) and the ‘Benedictine’ theology of the Holy Father.

By John L. Allen

Anyone just tuning in now to Pope Benedict XVI, who doesn’t know much about him but somehow caught wind of his Nov. 18-20 trip to Benin, could be forgiven a bit of confusion about exactly what the pope came here to say about the political role of Catholicism in Africa.

Understanding that a unique form of ‘liberation theology’ circulates in the pope’s intellectual and spiritual bloodstream can, perhaps, help make sense of things.

(“Liberation theology” usually refers to a progressive theological movement pioneered in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s, which put the church on the side of the poor in their political struggles, and which drew both praise and rebuke from the future pope while he was the Vatican’s doctrinal czar.)

On the one hand, Benedict repeatedly cried out in defense of the poor. During an open-air Mass in a soccer stadium in Benin’s capital, before some 40,000 wildly enthusiastic, dancing and singing locals (with another 40,000 outside) he said “Jesus wanted to identify himself with the poor” and the poor deserve respect because “through them, God shows us the way to Heaven.”

In a highly anticipated speech at Benin’s Presidential Palace, Benedict sounded at times like a populist reformer.

“There are too many scandals and injustices, too much corruption and greed, too many errors and lies, too much violence which leads to misery and death,” he said.

In his major document on the faith in Africa, Africae Munus, or “Africa’s Commitment,” Benedict called the church to act as a “sentinel,” denouncing situations of injustice.

The pontiff also took yet another swipe at neo-con ideologies. In his opening speech of the trip, he warned Africans that an “unconditional surrender to the laws of the market and of finance” is among the pathologies of modernity they would do well to avoid.

Yet Benedict XVI also issued a clear warning to stay out of politics, which could seem at odds with his biting social commentary. While he rejected “withdrawal” and “escape from concrete historical responsibility,” he explicitly instructed clergy to steer clear of “immediate engagement with politics.”

The pope likewise stressed that “the church’s mission is not political in nature.” At another point, he added that, “Christ does not propose a revolution of a social or political kind.”

So, what’s going on? When Benedict talks about defense of the poor, is he engaging in pious rhetoric without any real-world bite? Is this just papal double-talk, tossing a bone to the church’s progressive constituency in one breath and its more traditional following in another?

In fact, the tension can be resolved with this insight: Benedict XVI has a distinctive form of liberation theology, and his various speeches and texts in Africa amount to vintage expressions of it.

This “Benedictine” form of liberation theology is rooted in three basic convictions.

  • The supernatural realm is the deepest and most “real” level of existence. Material forms of reality, including economic and political structures, are fundamentally conditioned by the quality of humanity’s relationship with God.
  • Individual transformation must precede social transformation. Systems and structures cannot be liberated if the individual human heart doesn’t change first.
  • Attempts by the church to dictate political solutions end in disaster, among other things performing a disservice to the poor by reducing the social appetite for God. Preoccupied with secularism as he is, Benedict XVI knows well that rejection of religious faith in the West is , at least in part, a reaction against centuries of theocracy and clerical privilege.

Add it up, and what you get is this: Benedict XVI is genuinely scandalized by poverty and injustice, and he wants the church to be a change agent. In terms of how the church promotes transformation, however, it’s not by lobbying or electoral strategy, but by inviting people into relationship with Christ – the Christ whose “preferential love for the poor” Benedict has repeatedly confirmed.

Nurture love for Christ in the hearts of women and men, the pope believes, and the revolution will come. Trying to start with the revolution first, he believes, is a recipe for heartache, which the tragic history of the 20th century eloquently illustrates.

That’s the liberation theology of Benedict XVI. It is, in some ways, a fairly lonely position, satisfying neither the zeal for concrete political advocacy of the Catholic left nor the laissez-faire instincts of at least part of the Catholic right.

It’s also not clear how Benedict’s version of liberation theology will play in Africa itself, where religious leaders are accustomed to playing a robustly political role because the churches are often the only zones of life where civil society can take shape – the only safe environments in which dissent can be expressed, and where the power of the state doesn’t (at least, doesn’t always) reach.

Ironically, Benin itself is a good example of the point. This is a country where one former Archbishop of Cotonou, Isidore de Sousa, received special permission from the John Paul II to act as the effective leader of the country in the early 1990s, leading it through a transition from Marxism to democracy.

In an interview yesterday with NCR, Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, called the tension between emphasizing a spiritual or a political mission as a “false dilemma.”

“It’s not as if you can’t be politically relevant if you don’t enter politics,” Onaiyekan said.

However Benedict’s liberation theology takes shape in Africa or other parts of the world, bringing it into focus at least has the virtue of rendering his various messages throughout this three-day journey consistent: Defend the poor, yes, but using the spiritual arsenal of the church.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is]

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18 Responses to The lonely liberation theology of Benedict XVI

  1. umblepie says:

    ‘Preoccupied with secularism as he is, Benedict XVI knows well that rejection of religious faith in the West is , at least in part, a reaction against centuries of theocracy and clerical privilege.’

    What exactly does John Allen, NCR correspondent, mean by the above statement? To suggest that ‘centuries of theocracy and clerical privilege’ is partly responsible for the decline in faith and moral values, is just not true. A combination of secularism, excessive materialism, humanism and liberalism, combined with corrupt political and media influences world-wide, plus innumerable diverse factors, are valid causes for the loss of religious faith. The Catholic Church, in spite of its human failings, has generally speaking, been as a lighthouse in a stormy sea. The history of the Church throughout the ages, is one of persecution and suffering; but paradoxically in human terms, one of continuing growth, bringing Christ’s message of hope, peace ,and love to all. ‘Centuries of theocracy and clerical privilege’ – think again Mr Allen!


  2. JabbaPapa says:

    I’ve posted my own appraisal of this nonsensical article in the thread where it was originally linked to :


  3. pablo says:

    “… received special permission from the John Paul II to act as the effective leader of the country in the early 1990s, leading it through a transition from Marxism to democracy…”

    Going from Marxism to Democracy is going from worse to worser.

    Has the Pope never heard of a Monarchy?

    Marxism kills people now.

    Democracy kills generations through capitalism greed, contraception, abortion, secular anti-Catholic schools and so on.

    Another smooth move from the Vatican.



  4. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    The Pope is NOT alone – all right thinking, decent Catholics are with him.

    Interesting to see how this article brings out the sinister, reactionary faction.


  5. Jerry says:

    Going from Marxism to Democracy is going from worse to worser.
    Has the Pope never heard of a Monarchy?
    Marxism kills people now
    Democracy kills generations through capitalism greed, contraception, abortion, secular anti-Catholic schools and so on.

    Amazing. That is possibly the most inane comment ever posted on this blog. It is so absurd, so pristinely daft, and so awful, that it achieves a certain macabre beauty.


  6. teresa says:

    I can’t say how much “liberation theology” is in Pope Benedict’s thinking, as I don’t know much about Liberation Theology besides what I read in the Handbook on Dogmatic, where the Liberation Theology is mentioned and its main thesis described without being explicitly condemned. What I would like to know, from a theological point of view is, what is exactly condemned respecting Liberation Theology in the official document released by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. Whether the Liberation Theology as such is condemned, or the radical interpretation by some of its most prominent proponents, as it makes a very great difference. Joachim of Fiore for example was not condemned though he got a bad press because of his followers.

    But returning to the starting point, I can state with 100% certainty that Pope Benedict is a democrat, a convinced and an ardent one. He knows the very evil of a totalitarian regime. No, I am not talking out of the blue. I do, though myself quite an unimportant person, converse with people who know the Pope very well, yes, those who have known him for decades and belong to his very close friends’ circle so I can really state it with great certainty. Pope Benedict and those friends of him influenced and are influencing me very much and I am grateful to these great men of our era.

    (internet problem sorted out)


  7. JabbaPapa says:

    teresa, as far as I know, some doctrines of liberation theology were condemned, but no followers nor proponents of it were condemned.

    The theologians were accepted as having acted erroneously but on the basis of Catholic teachings, which is simply the ordinary state of every Catholic anyway ; whereas certain actions undertaken were praised as being clear examples of Christian Charity ; and the pastoral influence of the theology was understood as having some positive qualities, despite the frank negative of the false teachings that it also provided.

    Ultimately, the issues against liberation theology are the same issues that concerned early Christianity in the face of good Graeco-Roman religiosity, as well as any contemporary good works inspired by the other religions.

    Liberation theology is condemned in toto by the Holy See ; but it is not condemned in every detail.


  8. teresa says:

    Jabba, thanks for the information. I just found the Vatican Document of 1984, where we can read:
    “The present Instruction has a much more limited and precise purpose: to draw the attention of pastors, theologians, and all the faithful to the deviations, and risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought. […] 4. The aspiration for ‘liberation’, as the term itself suggests, repeats a theme which is fundamental to the Old and New Testaments. In itself, the expression ‘theology of liberation’ is a thoroughly valid term: it designates a theological reflection centered on the biblical theme of liberation and freedom, and on the urgency of its practical realization. The meeting, then of the aspiration for liberation and the theologies of liberation is not one of mere chance. The significance of the encounter between the two can be understood only in light of the specific message of Revelation, authentically interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church. Thus, a theology of liberation correctly understood constitutes an invitation to theologians to deepen certain essential biblical themes with a concern for the grave and urgent questions which the contemporary yearning for liberation, and those movements which more or less faithfully echo it, pose for the Church”.
    (Btw. again a great writing of our Holy Father!)

    As you said it is condemned in toto, “in toto” must be a theological terminology and denotes a certain kind of attitude towards what is condemned so I would be grateful if any precise definition of this concept can be provided. Furthermore, what I quoted above doesn’t seem to say that the Liberation Theology is condemned as a whole, so if “in toto” means “as such”, this passage doesn’t seem to support what you just said. Perhaps there are further official documents concerning the controversy about Liberation Theology?


  9. JabbaPapa says:

    Thank you teresa, that document does indeed express what I was moving towards myself.

    I also hesitated with the in toto phrase ; but ultimately, liberation theology was indeed rejected as a whole, rather than being condemned for some particular heresy or heresies that it taught.

    The following is guesswork on my part, but I think the theology it was condemned for a false combination of permissible opinions.

    That is to say, as a false set of theoretical doctrines based on truthful ones rather than as a set of false doctrines based on a falsehoods.

    In some ways, it could be described as the first ever postmodern heresy. Not that postmodernism is itself heretical 🙂


  10. teresa says:

    Jabba, but the document released by the Holy Father (then Cardinal Ratzinger, Head of the CDF), says otherwise, it says the Liberation Theology is only false when combined with Marxism and when interpreting the liberation in an immanent sense, thus, only certain forms of Liberation Theology are warned against (not even condemned)…. And I must add that the Liberation Theology doesn’t sound postmodern at all to me! Liberation Theology has a clear position concerning its own opinion of right and wrong, whilst Postmodernism doesn’t!


  11. JabbaPapa says:

    teresa my dear, the document is very beautifully well written, and it expresses the precise sort of ambiguity towards liberation theology that I was trying (far less elegantly !!!) to express.

    I do not reject any of my earlier statements, but I do urge you to read them in the light of this doctrinal statement.


  12. JabbaPapa says:

    If you can work it out, everything is in the following very powerful statement by Ratzinger concerning liberation theology :

    n the case of Marxism, in the particular sense given to it in this context, a preliminary critique is all the more necessary since the thought of Marx is such a global vision of reality that all data received form observation and analysis are brought together in a philosophical and ideological structure, which predetermines the significance and importance to be attached to them. The ideological principles come prior to the study of the social reality and are presupposed in it. Thus no separation of the parts of this epistemologically unique complex is possible. If one tries to take only one part, say, the analysis, one ends up having to accept the entire ideology. That is why it is not uncommon for the ideological aspects to be predominant among the things which the “theologians of liberation” borrow from Marxist authors.


  13. JabbaPapa says:

    … except for the initial “I”. … :p


  14. teresa says:

    thanks Jabba, the passage you quoted is rejecting Marxism and the liberation theologians’ excessive use of it, but not rejecting the “Liberation Theology” as such. According to my understanding of the CDF document, it is possible to give the “Liberation Theology”, when cleared of Marxism, an orthodox and genuinely Christian interpretation, and it is what the Holy Father was and is trying to do, as far as my present understanding can judge.


  15. JabbaPapa says:

    My dear teresa, I’m about halfway through reading the full document, and I think that you’re mistaking some philosophical and doctrinal concessions that are made therein towards the liberation theologians, and towards the fact that they did produce some good works of genuine Christian Charity, for positive remarks concerning liberation theology as such.

    The condemnation by the Holy See of liberation theology was not without its ambiguities nor even regrets ; but it WAS a condemnation.

    The very length and complexity of the condemnation of the doctrine is a testimony of the difficulty of the decision to do so.

    The theological doctrine was not condemned for any of its works, but it was condemned only for a certain number of its teachings — either because they claimed that certain fallible notions were infallible, or because they positively taught some uncatholic ideas as being catholic ones, or because they taught some doctrines which were incompatible with some infallible doctrines.

    But all of this is very abstract, and in the practical sense of the sorts of good works that the liberation theologians encouraged, there was no condemnation whatsoever.

    Liberation theology was condemned not for the nature and reasoning behind its view of and positive actions of charity, but for the reason that the intellectual basis of the doctrine was uncatholic.

    Ratzinger’s document of condemnation testifies to the pragmatic difficulties of denouncing the theological doctrines of a group of people who were simultaneously doing some excellent charity work — but then again, it is also a testimony to the fact that this group of people decided to cling to some false doctrines to the extent that it occasioned a formal denunciation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    Ratzinger’s document constitutes a philosophical and theological line in the sand, to say that catholic liberalism can go so far ; but no further.

    A similar line in the sand needs to be drawn concerning catholic traditionalism — and that line is even more difficult to define than the one that was drawn in front of liberation theology, given the good work that is being done by traditional Catholics towards the Tradition itself….


  16. Toadspittle says:

    “1: Going from Marxism to Democracy is going from worse to worser
    2: Has the Pope never heard of a Monarchy?
    3: Marxism kills people now.
    Democracy kills generations through capitalism greed, contraception, abortion,
    secular anti-Catholic schools and so on.
    Another smooth move from the Vatican.”
    Opines Pancho.
    1: Democracy is worse than Marxism. Oh, really?
    2: Yes the Pope has heard of a Monarchy, and was in one this last August. Enjoyed it, it seems.
    3: Marxism naver killed any one. Peoples’ ideas of Marxism kill people . Like with Christianity.
    Or Islam.
    (Can’t be bothered with the rest.)


  17. afmm says:

    Keep up the good comments, JabbaP


  18. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    afmm, any teasing chance of reading what you think? That would be lovely,

    Annie get your gun!



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