Theology of Liberation: Two Roman Documents

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has published two documents on liberation theology, one in 1984, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology” and another in 1986, “Christian Liberty and Liberation.” The first concentrates on those aspects which appear insufficiently developed, in particular the Marxist conception of class struggle. The second is much broader in scope and sketches the chief theoretical and practical points that any liberation theology that wishes to be considered Catholic must take into account.

There are those who are annoyed by interventions of the Magisterium, seeing them as repressive and contrary to the freedom of spirit proper to our epoch. First reactions are often confused and it is not always easy to discover what precisely they reject: the Magisterium as such or a particular use of the Magisterium. It is this theme I wish to clarify in the present reflections.

The Magisterium is an instrument and a function of the Church which has the competence to say whether a theory or practice is compatible with Christian faith. When things are placed at this level of generality, the Magisterium is not something peculiar to the Catholic Church. In fact, in religions in which the experience of God is shared by a community and is more than a personal relation to God, sooner or later the need for authentification is felt. Someone, a council or reunion of Rabbis or a group of disciples, must declare in what the body of shared religious experience consists and who does and who does not belong.

In Judaism a distinction is made between what is and what is not the word of God. Thus arose the canon of the Old Testament. Then, in the year 150 A.D. came the canonical Mishna when the Rabbis decided what texts authentically interpreted Scripture. The Mishna is somewhat analogous to the texts of the councils. From that developed the rabbinical commentaries which are brought together in two great collections, the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestine Talmud. In Buddhism, too, there is something similar to the Magisterium. Buddha died in the sixth century B.C. In the first century B.C., his disciples came together in Ceylon to determine orthodox Buddhist doctrines and compose the Pali Canon. Those who accepted this Canon made up Mahayana Buddhism; those who did not make up the Hinayana tradition. From this branch the different forms of Zen derive. In other religions where there is in principle no Magisterium because it is thought that the Spirit illumines all equally, there is often a de facto Magisterium. There will be a group of persons who decide if it is opportune or not to take such and such a position in the name of the faith on current issues such as birth control, nuclear armament, policies toward the Third World, etc.

From the time of the Council there has been talk in the Church of a pastoral Magisterium as well as a dogmatic Magisterium, but this does not mean that the pastoral Magisterium treats only practical matters without taking doctrinal positions or that the dogmatic Magisterium does not take into account practical consequences. To say otherwise would imply a strange dissociation of the practical from the theoretical. A pastoral Magisterium gives preference to orientations to action and the dogmatic Magisterium has for its chief objective to clarify questions of doctrine. The Council of Nicea did that when it defined that Jesus was true God. But this definition had incalculable historical consequences. It suffices to recall that at the time nine-tenths of the Empire was Arian.

It is not rare that a council is important for two or three things it said or did, but it is not easy to determine what they will be when the council is contemporary with us. Sometimes it requires a distance of fifty years, sometimes less, to say. Who can doubt the significance of the translation of Latin into the vernacular? Yet this was the result of a single article of the Constitution on the Liturgy.

Roma locuta est, causa finita est: Rome has spoken, the matter is settled. This adage expresses well how the Magisterium functioned. Rome took time, much time, to weigh a given teaching, so much so that when she spoke she pronounced a final word. In the last fifteen years, the Magisterium has produced documents of another nature. The bishops of Latin America, and of Chile in particular, have issued various texts called “working documents.” In stead of giving a final word, they preferred to speak an initial word. The bishops in this case comment on emerging currents of thought and give directions which aid them to achieve their goal. It would be a misinterpretation of such documents to say, “Since it is only a working document, I can go on thinking as before; it does not oblige me.” The healthy attitude is to take them as an invitation to revise one’s previous positions.

No more would it be adequate to immerse oneself in a microscopic critique of such documents, pointing out their deficiencies. The Magisterium itself would say that there are such deficiencies and that they are the price paid for being in the vanguard of historical searchings.

Connected with this is what I will call the “intellectualist interpretation” of these documents. One could get bogged down in a purely theoretical discussion and not see the effects that a document calls for in the life of a society and culture.

It is probable that in a middle-distance vision these two documents will be seen as a signal service that the Vatican has done for liberation theology. The first document will prompt theologians to make a more fine-grained analysis of Marxism, assimilating what is valid, and putting to one side what is historically outdated. The second document will permit Latin American thinkers to make explicit with greater rigor philosophical and theological presuppositions. Moreover, they can better develop the theme of the ultimate purpose of life. They can explain, for example, why Eastern European Marxism is theoretically atheistic whereas Marxism in Latin America is rather practically atheistic. Nor will this be true of all Marxists. This will bring into better focus the analysis of culture, the sphere in which Marxism is often weak.

This article originally appeared in Mensaje, a Jesuit monthly published in Chile, under the title “Teologia de la Liberacion: Dos Documentos Romanos.” Translation by Ralph McInerny.


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