The Philosophy of Liberation

I had occasion recently to study an address given to 1 the General Plenary Council of the Friars Minor at Bahia in 1983, by Father Leonardo Boff. It was entitled “Liberation Theology and the Franciscan Spirit,” and it impressed me as being a clear and persuasive piece of work, expressing ideas that have a wide appeal today.

As I went into the matter, however, I found myself having doubts about Father Leonardo’s ideas, and since these ideas have had a very wide circulation, and presumably a wide influence, I thought it worthwhile explaining why.

I. “Encounter with God in the Social Class of the Poor”

Father Leonardo begins with the observation that behind all true theology is always hidden a mysticism, by which he seems to mean a particular kind of basic experience. This seems a very true remark to me, and indeed I believe it is true of philosophy too. To understand a philosopher, it is important to grasp the experience from which his thought grows and takes shape.

Liberation theology, he tells us, “experiences an encounter with God in the social class of the poor.” This is where my difficulties begin. It seems to me that “the poor” is far too vague a term to designate a social class. It is like talking of “the sick,” “the powerless,” “the exploited,” “the aged,” “the workers,” “the proletariat,” and so on, as social classes.

If you are talking about the military as a social class, you are talking about something that can be defined clearly enough, although it would be necessary to distinguish the officer class from the common soldiery, in many armies at least. It would make good sense to talk about the class of land-owners, peasant laborers, businessmen, academics, artists, the managerial class, lawyers, medical people, and so on. All of these can be defined by a variety of criteria, and they are easily recognizable as distinct classes, for the most part. And in all of them you can find people who are very poor.

For example, in the university where I teach, there are several scholarly people who are fully involved in academic work, and yet they receive only a pittance for the valuable work they do. They are wretchedly poor. This is an old tradition, in European universities at least.

It seems to me that “the social class of the poor” is a catch-all phrase which is too indeterminate to be of much help in analyzing society. I think it would be a good idea to ask for a clarification every time one uses the word: e.g., do you mean poor beggars, poor laborers, poor scholars, poor doctors, poor politicians, etc.

The point I have been making about this undifferentiated use of “the poor” to designate a class, has been made against Marx’s use of such terms as “the workers” and “the proletariat.” They are unhelpful because Marx does not say clearly anywhere what he means by a class. He conducts his analysis of society and its ills in terms of greatly oversimplified dichotomies such as capitalists and workers, bourgeoisie and proletariat, and (abstractly) capital and labor. This may have had more validity in the era of unbridled capitalism, but it is of very little value in an analysis of society as it is today, at least in the western world.

I mention Marx here, because I understand that some have tried to smear Father Boff as a Marxist. I believe this charge is quite untrue. Any modern person thinking about social conditions has to take account of Marx, and Marx would not have had the influence he had, if he had not said some very penetrating things. To say that a particular idea or doctrine is Marxist is and should be merely a historical note, signifying that the idea in question comes from the work of Karl Marx, or at least can be found in it. Unfortunately, for many people, to say that an idea is Marxist amounts to condemnation or canonization. This is an example of the thinking in slogans and labels that is so common and so destructive in our time. An idea should not be condemned or praised because it is Marxist. It should be examined critically on its merits.

Going back to the main point, Father Boff’s use of the term “the social class of the poor” is far too simplistic, as I have said. He seems to think of this social class of the poor as containing within itself a dynamic power to liberate the poor, and to transform society. If the poor are conscientized and organized, they can become, as he says, the subject of their liberation. This is, of course, classical revolutionary language.

This may be accurate enough as a description of the situation in the Latin American countries, where it seems a small and corrupt ascendancy concentrates wealth and power in its hands and denies it to the great mass of the people who are ignorant, helpless, and exploited. It would be a fair enough description of the situation of the poor immigrants who went to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, and who improved their lot and liberated themselves by hard work, social organization, education, and political action. It would be a fair description of Ireland in the 19th century, where the same process happened. And it should be added that the Catholic clergy were with the poor in their struggle. Father Boff is quite mistaken in his general statement that “in the history of the church we have looked at the poor with eyes of the rich.” Of course, the church authorities tried to convince the rich to help the poor, but it is surely obvious that it was not the rich who taught in the schools, nursed in the hospitals, and worked among the poor.

Suppose Father Leonardo’s liberation has come about. Will the poor have disappeared then? Will there not still be the sick, the disabled, the irresponsible, the incompetent, the helpless, the feeble-minded, and so on? Father Leonardo is dismissive about the assistential, reforming, and paternalistic approach. Are these poor supposed to liberate themselves too? The Gospel (Mt. 25:31f) has a very different approach. I find Father Leonardo’s undifferentiated use of “the poor” intolerably naive.

Any analysis that lumps together “the poor” as if they were a social class, and speaks as if the lot of “the poor” can somehow be miraculously transformed by a change in “the system,” is, I believe, unrealistic and utopian, and plays into the hands of the ruthless gangsters of the so-called “people’s revolutions,” which have wreaked such havoc in so many countries. You must distinguish and differentiate, and try to handle social problems in terms of the whole complex interwoven network of classes, strata, centers of power and influence, education, technology, and commerce. Functioning in terms of the poor/rich dichotomy is simplistic and dangerous. And it is a major weakness in Father Boff’s address.

II. The Analysis of Poverty

Father Leonardo claims that there are two experiences at the source of liberation theology. The first he calls the spiritual experience, the encounter with God in the social class of the poor, an encounter which he describes as prophetic (involving ethical indignation at the inhumanity of poverty), spiritual and pastoral. The second experience he speaks of as analytical, arising from the attempt to understand why so many are very poor, and what can be done about it. It is a very strange analysis.

“Liberation theology presumes a certain view of poverty…as the result and consequences of a certain type of development characteristic of modern societies. This development produces wealth on one side and poverty on the other.” The first thing to be said about this is that there is nothing particularly modern about it. Nearly all developed societies, ancient, medieval, and modern, have had this enormous imbalance between a wealthy upper-class and impoverished lower classes. What is new I, think, is that in most modern societies there is an awareness that there is something wrong about it. This is probably one of the consequences of mass literacy, mass education, and more recently, mass communications. And it should be noted that many modern societies, particularly in the “West” (and that includes places like Australia, New Zealand, and Japan) have gone a long way towards bridging the gap between the very rich and the very poor, by spreading wealth and power throughout society. That is my first reservation.

Returning to the analysis of why some countries are poor and others rich, Father Leonardo takes us through three stages in the understanding of underdevelopment. First, he says, it was understood as a technical problem, i.e., the underdeveloped countries lacked the technical resources of the advanced nations in industry and agriculture, and the solution was to import modern technology. But this did not work, he says. The developed ‘ nations kept ahead, no matter how hard the others tried to catch up in technology, “because the problem is not simply one of technique.”

Reflecting on this first stage, one would want to say, Yes, of course the problem is not simply one of technique. It is much more basically a problem of human beings, and how they use techniques. But modern technology is essential for catering to the needs of a mass society in food, clothing, shelter, transportation, communications, etc. One of the main sources of trouble in underdeveloped countries has been the introduction of very advanced technology when a much lower level was what was needed for a start. Another difficulty is that high technology concentrates wealth and power in very few hands, whether they be native or foreign, and people who have control of this are very reluctant to lose control. This is one of the major problems for developed countries too, as automation advances and disemploys millions.

The second stage was reached in the 1970’s, Father Boff says, when underdevelopment “came to be understood as a political problem within the unique system in which we live.” The line taken was for the rich nations (the U.S.A., Europe, and Japan) to develop relations with the poor ones (of Latin America and elsewhere), and to make great investments to help them escape from poverty. The unfortunate result of this, he says, was to create a wealth which was appropriated by the already rich classes and increase the gap between the poor and the rich. This led to the establishment of military governments to protect the wealth of the rich and keep the poor in their place. This made matters much worse. Instead of liberating, it enslaved. The huge investments made had to be repaid, and this bound the economies of these countries to the juggernaut of the rich nations.

How accurate is this diagnosis? The description of what happened is accurate enough, I take it. It is common for countries that are underdeveloped to invite foreign investment of wealth, technology, and expertise in order to develop local resources and raw materials. This happened on a massive scale with the countries which had oil, for instance, but it has happened in underdeveloped parts of Europe also, e.g., Ireland, and even parts of Britain, and so on. And, of course, it has happened in countries which can supply raw materials needed by the rich economies: e.g., copper, zinc, lead, and such materials; tea, coffee, bananas, and other foods; and, of course, oil.

One might say that investment in poorer countries takes three main forms. The first is the introduction of a foreign company to set up an industry manned mainly by locals. The multi-nationals are the usual examples of this, and they are probably the most beneficial kind of investment, by and large. They usually demand a good deal of local investment and encouragement, but in return they usually provide useful training and employment. They do, however, cream off profits for themselves, and they put their own interests first. They are by no means an unmixed blessing, but by and large they have very positive points. They are, incidentally, a striking manifestation of courage, confidence, and enterprise, and the Americans are easily the leaders in the field.

The second main form is had when a foreign company goes into a country with its own personnel and equipment, and works on what is available there and takes it out, paying royalties to the host country. This is usually much less beneficial.

The third main form of foreign investment is lending money to a country to use for its own development. This is the most dangerous form, in a way, because when people get their hands on large sums of money, especially in unstable political regimes, it can all too easily be misused in foolish enterprises, or in amassing private fortunes. Father Leonardo tells us that this wealth was not invested in the development of their countries for the benefit of their people, but was instead appropriated by the rich for themselves, and he claims that this led to military governments in these countries, to guarantee the security of the rich.

Father Leonardo seems to be weak in history here. Everybody knows that military coups have been the bane of Latin American countries for well over a century. It is certainly not something that has developed since the 1960s. It is endemic there. One of the basic requirements of a peaceful society is to depoliticize the military, and have them under civilian control.

But then if the civil authorities are themselves very corrupt, civil control won’t help much. Foreign investors lend money in the hope of making money. People who borrow money undertake to pay it back. It is a moral obligation in justice. If they think the rate is exorbitant, they should not borrow. There is no sense in blaming the foreign investor after one has enjoyed his investment, and now has to repay it. There is no substitute for prudent, honest, and upright management of one’s economic affairs. I find it strange that Father Leonardo neglects this obvious point. Is it perhaps a matter of mere bourgeois morality?

The third stage, Father Leonardo tells us, is the perception that “underdevelopment is the flip side of development, that underdevelopment is the price to pay in order to have the capitalistic development that we have in the western world.” This sounds like economic lunacy to me. Let me explain.

It is reasonable to point out that there are centers of economic power, and that other places are peripheral. Indeed, it is obvious, and it is true in every country, e.g., the U.S., the U.K., the U.S.S.R., Ireland, and Italy. The only reality whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere is God. In human affairs, there are centers of political power, cultural power, economic power, religious power; centers of fashion, recreation, agriculture, etc., and they depend on a great many factors, ranging from natural features such as beautiful scenery, mineral wealth, good harbors, fertile soil, right up to the imponderable factors of human genius and courage, determination, and enterprise.

Suppose, for example, that in the country of Corkitania, there is a very beautiful place called Xena, with wonderful natural features, and suppose that it is neglected for another place, Yala, which is very well developed and frequented by tourists, but not so beautiful. Father Leonardo seems to be saying that the underdevelopment of Xena is the flip side of the development of Yala, and is the price that has to be paid for the development of Yala. This is, I believe, determinist nonsense. What is needed is people with energy and initiative to develop Xena, and make it attractive so that it will draw people.

I have given an example from tourism. The history of mankind will provide many other examples where there have been shifts of political centers, religious centers, cultural centers, and so on. For an example of an astonishing development of economic-industrial power in today’s world, just look at Japan, which was transformed from a feudal society to a major industrial power in a hundred years. And it is worth reminding oneself that the dominant economic power today, the U.S.A., was quite peripheral a mere century and a half ago.

The economic issues involved here are, of course, extremely complex, and it is distinctly unhelpful to recommend Third World countries to imitate the “Japanese miracle.” So far as I know, no one knows quite how the Japanese miracle happened, even though many have tried to find out. And it is quite true that the economic odds are heavily stacked against the Third World countries, and that the ruthless competitiveness of the U.S. and other countries give little space or opportunity to the countries they prey on. It is important for countries in the First World to become aware of what they are doing, and to remedy the situation for the sake of all nations.

It is well to remember, too, that Third-World countries are not entirely helpless. The oil producing countries of the world gave a sharp lesson to the well-off countries of the world a few years ago. Perhaps the lesson could be repeated in other areas.

But so long as the people in charge of the poorer countries lack confidence in their own countries, so long as they fail to rule with justice and integrity and in the interests of all their people, there can be no radical improvement. It is futile, I believe, to expect that a change in the economic system will provide economic salvation, and this is as true of the Soviet system as it is of the Western system. Giving priority to economic systems over human virtue and integrity is a fundamental source of human alienation, and it is one of the crippling weaknesses of Marxist thought.

III. The Cure for Underdevelopment

Father Leonardo is quite right in saying that the underdeveloped countries are on the periphery of the international system. And one could well point out that the countryside is usually peripheral to the cities. And the poor are peripheral to the rich. That is the way we find things, the way things have been in every developed society we know of. Less developed societies often seem to get a much better sense of participation and belonging than developed societies. But then, they have other problems, often worse.

From the periphery, the predominance of the center of power is seen as oppression, naturally. But what is one to make of a nation rich in natural resources, in population, in intelligence and courage, which yet allows itself to be marginalized and peripheralized? It obviously needs to take its destiny in its own hands. It can reasonably seek help from outside, and should be given it. But its destiny depends on whether it can find within itself men and women who can build up a powerful, dynamic, and creative society, relying first of all on themselves — under God. It needs people of integrity and honesty, without whom no system can work, people who will devote themselves to economic development, to social development, to education, to banking and insurance, to thinking, creating, and above all, I think, to the worship of God and the search for the kingdom of God. De Tocqueville is not alone in attributing the greatness of the U.S.A. to its possession of such people.

Father Leonardo, however, seems to have a very different solution. He seems to think that changing the system is what is needed. He says, “Poverty must become the center,” and “for God, poverty is the center, and wealth the great periphery,” as opposed to the actual economic situation. And this leads, he believes, to the realization that the Church has a social-liberating mission, with economic and political implications.

Now, I believe profoundly in the liberating mission of the Church. There are many examples of it in history: e.g., in the disappearance of slavery in the ancient world. I have seen it at work in the history of my own country, Ireland. I have no doubts about a theology which emphasizes liberation — from neglect, from sickness, from ignorance, from servitude, and above all from sin. But I would be very worried indeed if theology were to be turned into an instrument and a weapon for revolution, i.e., if salvation were to be subordinated to a political program. And I see some reasons to be apprehensive in Father Leonardo’s address.

The classical approach to revolution is to identify a particular class (whether it be called the workers, the proletariat, the’ poor, or simply the people) as oppressed, and as yet having within itself the power, the energy, and the right to take control of society. The first step will be to make this class aware of its predicament, its identity, and its right — i.e., to make it conscious of itself. It is not enough to make people aware of their oppression, however. They must be organized into a well disciplined and powerful body, so that they can overthrow the system, seize control, and set up a new society in which justice and humanity will reign. In the interests of this, it is usual to oppose mere reform or alleviation of oppression and injustice. Nothing less than a root and branch destruction of the system will do, whether the system be feudalism, monarchism, or bourgeois liberal capitalism.

Father Boff seems to have, absorbed a good deal of revolutionary rhetoric into his thinking. There is the usual dismissal of reform and the alleviation of oppression and injustice. Apparently he is seeking a total transformation of society, to liberate the poor. He does not say it will have to be’ done by a violent upheaval, but I cannot help feeling Uneasy about it.

I find an ominous ring in what he says about the basic rights of human beings as opposed to what he calls “the more bourgeois, rights of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom to travel.” That sounds perfect for a police state acting in the name of “the people.”

The outlook of liberation theology as Father Leonardo expresses it, seems to me to be deeply materialistic. I do not mean materialism in the classical or dialectical sense, which sees matter as the ultimate reality, but in the sense that the material needs of man are put in the first place. Perhaps I am reading too much into his remark about bourgeois rights, but it seems to me that in his social philosophy, his first and main concern is that people have enough to eat, to wear and be sheltered with — i.e., the basic necessities of life.

One might well feel that this position is quite reasonable, and that any measure that will ensure its achievement will have to be accepted. If you are presented with alternatives: “Either you have bread for the poor and do without the bourgeois liberties, or you have your bourgeois liberties and let your brothers and sisters starve,” you must, of course, choose to feed the poor. But the point is that the dichotomy is false. We can choose to feed the poor and also to have freedom of conscience and speech. Many countries have been able to combine the two.

And we should also take a warning from the fact that several regimes which chose bread against freedom brought famine to their people, whether it be the Soviet famines on the Volga in the 1930s, or the famine which destroyed half of Cambodia in our own times.

Father Leonardo claims that the praxis of Jesus is profoundly materialist, in that he begins by preaching, liberty for the blind, the crippled, the sick. I believe that this is a grotesque travesty of the teaching and praxis of Jesus. Healing the sick for Jesus was not primarily an end in itself, but a sign of who he was. He emphatically did not put bread in the first place. This is surely the meaning of the first temptation, when he dismisses the tempter with the words: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes, from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). Or take again the great declaration of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all, these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt. 7:31-33). Could anything be clearer? If this is materialism, I am a cabbage.

A great deal more might be said about Father Leonardo’s address, but I have said enough, I think, to explain why I find it disturbing. It contains some very shaky economics, poor history, bad philosophy, and bad exegesis. If this is a fair example of “liberation theology,” you can keep it.

I believe profoundly in the liberating mission of the faith, and the Church. As I see it, the condition of most of mankind is one of oppression, privation, sickness, and sorrow. We are people condemned to death, and the faith allows us to look forward in joyful hope to our deliverance, assuring us that we are blessed when we suffer persecution, when we are poor, when we mourn, and so on, because the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.

Of course we are bound to help one another along the way, to carry the burdens of others, bind up their wounds, open their eyes and ears if we can, and give them hope and heart until the end of the road for them and us. Of course, we must work for better conditions in our world, but we must also face the possibility that in spite of our best efforts, and perhaps even because of them, the condition of most men will still be one of oppression and bondage. And the faith will still be good news, and still be valid in the midst of that oppression and misery, because Christ has risen and has overcome the worst that man can inflict.

It is in this sense that the poor and oppressed are the center, I believe. They are the ones most in need, who are most discouraged and dejected. They above all need help and hope, and that is where the Church has a clear and unequivocal role. But organizing the poor as a social class to seize power is emphatically not our task. By all means let us help and encourage poor people to make their way in society, and find a place in accordance with their talents, never forgetting that they, like the rich, are also called to repentance and in need of redemption. But we are not in the business of class war. Neither was Jesus. Neither was Francis.

Father Leonardo might very well say at this stage, “And neither am I. I did in fact emphasize the legatio pacis in talking about Saint Francis, and nowhere did I advocate a violent overthrow of the regime.” And that is true. What makes me uneasy is his analysis in terms of “the social class of the poor,” the revolutionary rhetoric he uses, and the absence of the other-worldly or transcendent aspect of Christianity.

Father Boff’s address to the Plenary Council has been very widely circulated. Does this mean that liberation theology has the official approval of the leaders of the Order? Liberation, renewal, and the transformation of society are at the very heart of the Gospel, of course. But this version of liberation has some very dubious aspects. Are we really, as an Order, committed to this kind of liberation?


  • Colin Garvey, O.F.M.

    When this article was published, Father Colin Garvey, O.F.M., M.A., Ph.D. (Louvain), was a member of the Irish Franciscan Province. A statutory lecturer of the National University of Ireland, he taught in the Department of Philosophy at University College, Galway. Father Garvey's article was reprinted in its entirely from The CORD: A Franciscan Spiritual Review, Vol. 34, No. 11 (December 1984), pp. 333-343. Published by The Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 14778.

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