Latin-American Liberation Theologies is just an aspiration and desire for utopianism for “The Poor will always be among them” (Matthew 26:11)” Discuss



Liberation theology is a term used to refer to a new perspective of the purpose of God’s world that started in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The leaders of this movement called for radical changes in the way the church approaches pastoral works and theology. It also wanted the role of the Catholic Church in society to change. Liberation theologians were opposed to the church’s tolerance of immoral practices such as slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism. Leaders of this movement condemned the churches. Most of the third world had just been liberated from colonial domination through wars and other struggles for self-rule. The third world wanted a world that was based on sovereignty, equity, and solidarity. In 1962-65, the Catholic Church convened the Second Vatican Council, where the church resolved to be worldlier. Clergy in the Third world made it clear that the worldlier church meant a church that is ready to address the dire problems that face the world, the most serious being poverty. In 1968, the clergy from Latin America assembled in Columbia to flesh out the “spirit of Vatican II. The basic premises of liberation theology emerged from this meeting, which rejected poverty as the fate of intellectually or morally inferior people. Instead, the convention defined poverty as a form of institutionalized violence. They believed that the failure to work together to eradicate poverty was a “social sin”. The movement held that the church should be on the frontline of the struggle to end poverty both at the political and social front. 

However, liberation theology has been dismissed as Utopian by most of its critics. Most critics argue that the objective of liberation theology to bring about a better world is simply “mission impossible”. Liberation theology is full of ideas of a world that is beyond the present. These ideas are born of the fertile imagination of priests, which imagines a world where positive aspects are accentuated. It also goes against biblical wisdom that stresses that there will always be poor people among Christians throughout history. 

Discussion and Analysis

Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his seminal work, theology of liberation set out the pillars of this theology. The Peruvian priest asserted that it was not enough to address social ills and poverty in technocratic and spirituality vacant terms. The priest called for holistic liberation that went beyond liberation from sin. He also called for freedom from repressive political and economic structures. According to Gutierrez (1970), liberation theology is supposed to give birth to a “new humanity”. The priest conceived this new man as one who would respond to the Christian call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the ill, and be welcoming to strangers. Gutiérrez’s liberation theology was a cross-breed of Marxist thought and biblical ideas on by humanity (Novak 1984). Liberation theology evangelical base was strong as the Holy book expresses similar opinions in several books. In Exodus, God is responsive to the cries of his people who are under oppression in Egypt. God liberates his people and leads them to the Promised Land. Old Testament prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah always spoke against the exploitation of the poor. The prophets made several calls to make the Israelites care for orphans, strangers, and widows. Similarly, the Gospels also have teachings that are a sound basis for liberation theology. Jesus always supported the liberation theology’s ideal of “opting for the poor” (Tombs 2002). It comes as no surprise that Jesus incarnated as a humble carpenter instead of a Merchant or a king. He went through suffering inflicted upon him by the corrupt elite. They wanted to get rid of him because he was preaching ideas that opposed the oppression of the poor. The apostles followed their master’s example and shared their property and lived among the poor.

Liberation theology expected the church to change radically and called for new pastoral works. They argued the church should be roused by liberation theology to preach against injustices and raise the conscienceless of the masses (Novak 1984). Liberation theology developed it’s ideology from the Bible as well as from influential writings such as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One of the most controversial aspects of liberation theology was the teaching that poverty was structurally induced and enforced by repressive regimes (Levine1988). They went as far as saying the people’s misery was an offense to God. They pointed out that all people were created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, they have the collective capacity to build a world whose foundation is love and hope. 

Liberation theology called it’s clergy to be “poor in spirit”. This call was not interpreted in the ordinary way of leaving behind worldly concerns and committing to God. The clergy had to go further and live in solidarity with the poor and become their voice (Levine1988). The church was required to change its structure to be a church of the poor. Liberation theologians even suggested decentralization of the church, selling off of its property, and even ordination of women priests. Some members of the liberation theology movement started what they called the foundation of a popular church. The theology led to the blossoming of Christian base communities in Brazil, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. These communities organized in the grassroots and led by laypeople. The aim was to bring marginalized neighborhoods and families together to come up with solutions to their problems as envisioned by the liberation theology. Lay people in the movement were no longer victims or meet parishioners. Instead, they were to transform to lay ministers who could partake in prayer, deliberation, study, and in the liberation to work to empower the powerless. Boff (1985) would call these base communities a church with and for the poor. 

The legacy of liberation theology is a strong case against the dismissal of its ideals as utopian. The Latin American version gave birth to several liberation movements that brought real emancipation for oppressed people. These include the include: the Palestinian liberation theology, black liberation theology, and mujerista and feminist theology. The impact of liberation theology extended as far as atheist Cuba, where Fidel Castro was the leader. An interview with Castro on liberation theology would go on to become a best seller (Novak 1984). Castro asserted that true Christianity, just like communism, should be founded on the ideals of humility, service to others, compassion, humility, and sacrifice. Liberation led to profound changes in Cuba that which was eventually declared a secular state, abandoning its atheist past. The Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution was heavily influenced by Latin liberation theology (Tombs 2002). The writings of liberation theologians were the inspiration for many humanitarian movements. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health founded in 1987 was inspired by the writings and exemplary life of Gustavo Gutiérrez. The organization champions social justice and works to resolve social ills in most of the global south.

In Brazil, the Worker’s party policies took cues from Latin liberation theology. The party was advised by Frei Betto and Cardinal Arns (progressive Catholics), who served as its protagonists and moral consultants. The Worker’s party impressively raised millions of Brazilians from abject poverty, relying on ideas borrowed from Latin liberation theology. The work of priests and liberation theologians such as Frei Betto, Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, and Gustavo Gutiérrez cannot be merely dismissed as Utopian thinking. These theologians and clergy have continued to write against oppression and social injustice (Levine1988). In particular, Boff has been vocal in calling for the adoption of the theology of liberation. The call of Leonardo Boff was partially heard by Pope Francis, who is also from South America. Pope Francis has followed some of Latin liberation theology ideas. In 2015, the Pope condemned the capitalist world system that perpetuates poverty, referring to it as structurally perverse (Novak 1984). He pointed out that capitalism had failed to embrace God’s creation (both the environment and animals); thus, the people needed to free themselves from a society that is founded on greed. 

Many defenders of liberation theology assert that it has identified the right cause of South America’s underdevelopment. Liberation theologians believe that South America can achieve authentic development by liberating their economy from the domination on capitalist powers and in particular, the US. Gutierrez (1988) asserts that Christian theology is a definition of how Christian faith should apply to underdevelopment by committing to actions to end poverty. It is not much different from using social action in the Christian faith. Like other Catholic doctrines, it is committed to change the plight of the working class or the poor. Latin liberation theology cannot be reduced to Marxism, although it shares a lot with the latter ideology. Both Latin liberation theology and Marxism are hostile to the West.

Many observers believe that the convergence of Catholicism with Marxism would lead to the creation of a formidable force. The Catholic commands a congregation of over 800 million people on third world countries spread across Africa, Latin America, and in some East Asian countries (Webb 2008). However, some leaders in the Catholic dispensation have warned against such a union. They argue such a union would be impotent at addressing deeply rooted traditions of structural poverty and oppression. However, opponents cite the examples of revolutionaries who ride on the Latin liberation wave to power but turned into oppressors once they assumed control. Pope Paul warned the Catholic faith not to mortgage their responsibility to fight poverty and stand in solidarity with the poor to a foreign ideology. However, he maintained that the church must be at the forefront of the battle against subhuman poverty. 

Latin liberation theology is also significant as it led to a new humanist movement among sisters and priests. Many Catholic faithfuls were also inspired by liberation theology to become active on the struggle against oppression and poverty (Webb 2008). Many theologians adopted the ideas of Guttirez as theology proper instead of the political vision that it is often reduced to. For some Christians, liberation theology helps them overcome self-centered pietism. Besides, liberation theology conceived a Christianity that is closer to the reality that is depicted by newspapers and other news channels (Levin, 1988). It is no surprise that liberation theology seems like a mirror image of Marxism, as the latter borrowed heavily from Christian ethos. 

The South American priest who started the liberation theology movement felt they could solve the problems of South America. Theological education in Europe and North America taught that faith has practical applications in the world, and it can be used to bring about social justice (Novak, 1984). South Americans at the time were living in abject poverty. In many cities, the majority lived in shacks and did not have enough for clothing and decent food. The priests were influenced by social democratic ideals that were popular in Europe at the time. However, the social democratic parties in South America were too weak to be allies in the struggle for change. The priests and sisters felt that change was urgent on the continent.

However, the priests and sisters had to overcome two cultural barriers. The first was the cultural barriers of folk Catholicism in Latin America. South American Christianity had deep-rooted ideas that considered familial and personal piety more critical than public responsibility or social action (Novak 1984). Secondly, the church and its Bishops were closely interconnected with the political elite of the time. The church leadership and politicians worked together on some charitable projects to save face. Thus, the church seemed to be part of the systems that were perpetuating poverty in the region. Liberation theology offered the region a way of liberating them from the structural poverty perpetuated by both the church and the state (Tombs 2002). It also provided a way of getting the people involved in solving the problems that affected them.

However, some of the ideas of Latin American theology can be said to be utopian as they are not well thought. For example, the Latin American priests gave excuses for their clerics and government that were responsible for economic problems affecting the region (Webb 2008). Instead, all the problems were heaped on international capitalism. The United States the chief culprit of the poverty that gripped South America, according to Latin liberation theologians. The idea that the US and other capitalist economies were responsible for the economic problems in South America was also supported by the dependency theory that came into prominence at the time (Novak, 1984). The theory assumed that countries that export raw materials to more industrialized countries are exploited in trade with more prosperous countries. 

The unwarranted discrediting of capitalism is often offered as one of the main weaknesses of Latin liberation theology. Latin liberation theologians failed to account for the deficiency of their economies that were heavily capitalist (Novak, 1984). Most of the wealth and power in Latin America was concentrated among Landowners, government officials, and the military. These were the three classes of people who they could blame for the economic problems that were affecting the countries. Secondly, Latin America was not poor because it was selling off all its natural resources and raw products at exploitive rates to foreign capitalists. The capitalist economies they sought to blame were exporters of raw materials and products they were accused of stealing from South America. Both the US and Canada export more coal, grains, and lumber than the whole of Latin America combined. 

Thirdly, many countries in other regions of the world were able to overcome poverty using the free-market model. Nations like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea that had been poorer than many Latin American countries in 1945 had overtaken Latin America in economic development (Levin, 1988). Latin America had more financial resources than other countries like Hong Kong and Singapore that were performing wonderfully at ending poverty. This implies that something was wrong with the economic fundamentals of South America (Tombs 2002). However, liberation theologians were doing a poor job of discovering could be the problem with Latin America economic policies. 

Liberation theology is based on a naive view of the state. According to Moylan (1991), there are few states in history whose concern is the poor masses. Instead, most governments protect the interest of the elite over other subservient classes. Liberation theology proposes to give up state control to charismatic authoritarians. However, state control of the economy failed to move the masses out of poverty where it has been tried. Throughout Latin America, strong states have been unable to protect the poorest. In many Latin countries, the government-controlled between 40 and 50 percent of the economy (Tombs 2002). Moreover, populist leaders are likely to ride on the coattails of liberation theologians but later change to enemies of the people after they have taken power. 

Many religious leaders accused Latin American liberation theologians of associating with Marxism without taking into account its negative consequences. Novak (1984) argues that millions were slaughtered in Russia because they opposed the imposition of Marxism in the country. The Pope warned the liberation theologians that a time of reckoning would come, and the people would have to deal with the ruthlessness of Marxism. The Pope argues that Marxists were capable of doing anything to see their ideologies see the light of day. 

 The naivety of Latin liberation theology is also evident in the lack of a model of wealth creation within the theory. Like Marxism, Latin liberation theologians assumed that wealth and poverty come about because of exploitation (Tombs 2002). Therefore, the two ideologies assume people can become wealthy if exploitation ends. However, both fail to account for how wealth will be created after they have toppled capitalism. Moreover, liberation theology believed in the simplistic argument that private property could be abolished. For theologians like Cardinal Arms it was essential to oppose capitalism as it was based on greed. He asserted that workers should own all the profits made by industries and the land currently held by wealthy landowners. In essence, the theologians were suggesting a massive redistribution of wealth and resources to achieve an equal society. Such an undertaking is almost impossible, and most nations that have attempted it have failed. 


There are many reasons discussed in this analysis that illustrate that Latin Liberation theology was not utopian. Many changes that bettered the lives of Latin Americans happened because of Latin liberation theology. As set out by its most Gustavo Gutierrez, the goal of Latin liberation theology was to address the poverty and social ills that affected the Latin America region. The prominent priest called for liberation from repressive political and economic structures. In particular, Guttierrez saw Latin liberation theology as a response to the call to take care of the less fortunate made by Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself. One of the early drawbacks of Latin Liberation theology was the radical changes it expected from the church among them, eve hoping the church would sell off its property. Although most of their ideas were seen as utopian, Latin liberation theology inspired changes that transformed millions of lives. First, the theology led to a shift in the way priests conducted their pastoral work, clergy inspired by liberation theology lived in solidarity with the poor, and they were the voice of the oppressed. The theology also led to the blossoming of Christian base communities in Brazil, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, organized in the grassroots and led by laypeople. They aimed to bring marginalized neighborhoods and families together to come up with solutions to their problems as envisioned by the liberation theology. Secondly, Latin America liberation theology gave birth to several liberation movements that brought real emancipation for oppressed people. Liberation also led to profound changes in Cuba that which was declared a secular state, abandoning its atheist past. Thirdly, the call to adopt the theology of liberation was heard by Pope Francis, who condemned the capitalist world system that perpetuates poverty, referring to it as structurally perverse in a 2015 publication. 

However, there were many drawbacks with Latin liberation ideas that led to the notion that the theology was Utopian. First, Latin American priests gave excuses for their clerics and government that were responsible for economic problems affecting the region. Instead, all the problems were heaped on international capitalism. Latin liberation theologians failed to account for the weakness of their economies that were heavily capitalist as well. Moreover, some countries in other regions of the world were able to overcome poverty using the free-market model. Nations like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea that had been poorer than many Latin American countries in 1945 had overtaken Latin America in economic development. Liberation theology was based on a naive view of the state, assuming that the state could be honestly concerned with the plight of the poor masses. Besides, Latin liberation theologians failed to account for the negative consequences of its greatest ally Marxism. The naivety of Latin liberation theology is also evident in the lack of a model of wealth creation within the theory.


Boff, L., 1985. Church: Charism and Power, Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church, trans. JW Diercksmeier, Great Britain: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Gutierrez, G., 1970. Notes for a Theology of Liberation. Theological Studies31(2), pp.243-261.

Gutierrez, G., 1988. Liberation theology. New York.

Levine, D.H., 1988. Assessing the impacts of liberation theology in Latin America. The Review of Politics50(2), pp.241-263

Moylan, T., 1991. Mission impossible? Liberation theology and utopian praxis. Utopian Studies, (3), pp.20-30.

Novak, M (1984). The Case Against Liberation Theology, Accessed 31st November 2019, The New York Times Magazine,

Tombs, D., 2002. Latin American liberation theology. Brill

Webb, D., 2008. Christian hope and the politics of utopia. Utopian Studies19(1), pp.113-145.

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