Article – A Short History of Liberation Theology Leonardo & Clodovis Boff
July 5, 2018
A Concise History of Liberation Theology
By Leonardo and Clodovis Boff. From the book, Introducing Liberation Theology, published by Orbis Books, 1987. Reprinted by permission.
The historical roots of liberation theology are to be found in the prophetic tradition of evangelists and missionaries from the earliest colonial days in Latin America — churchmen who questioned the type of presence adopted by the church and the way indigenous peoples, blacks, mestizos, and the poor rural and urban masses were treated. The names of Bartolomé de Las Casas, Antonio de Montesinos, Antonio Vieira, Brother Caneca and others can stand for a whole host of religious personalities who have graced every century of our short history. They we the source of the type of social and ecclesial understanding that is emerging today.
Social and Political Development
The populist governments of the 1950s and 1960s — especially those of Perón in
Argentina, Vargas in Brazil, and Cárdenas in Mexico — inspired nationalistic
consciousness and significant industrial development in the shape of import
substitution. This benefited the middle classes and urban proletariat but threw
huge sectors of the peasantry into deeper rural marginalization or sprawling urban
shantytowns. Development proceeded along the lines of dependent capitalism,
subsidiary to that of the rich nations and excluding the great majorities of national
populations. This process led to the creation of strong popular movements seeking
profound changes in the socio-economic structure of their countries. These
movements in turn provoked the rise of military dictatorships, which sought to
safeguard or promote the interests of capital, associated with a high level of
“national security” achieved through political repression and police control of all
In this context the socialist revolution in Cuba stood out as an alternative leading
to the dissolution of the chief cause of underdevelopment: dependence. Pockets of
armed uprising appeared in many countries, aimed at overthrowing the ruling
powers and installing socialist-inspired regimes. There was a great stirring for
change among the popular sections of society, a truly prerevolutionary
Starting in the 1960s, a great wind of renewal blew through the churches. They
began to take their social mission seriously: lay persons committed themselves to
work among the poor, charismatic bishops and priests encouraged the calls for
progress and national modernization. Various church organizations promoted
understanding of and improvements in the living conditions of the people:
movements such as Young Christian Students, Young Christian Workers, Young
Christian Agriculturalists, the Movement for Basic Education, groups that set up
educational radio programs, and the first base ecclesial communities.
The work of these — generally middle-class — Christians was sustained
theologically by the European theology of earthly realities, the integral humanism
of Jacques Maritain, the social personalism of Mounier, the progressive
evolutionism of Teilhard de Chardin, Henri de Lubac’s reflections on the social
dimension of dogma, Yves Congar’s theology of the laity, and the work of M.-D.
Chenu. The Second Vatican Council then gave the best possible theoretical
justification to activities developed under the signs of a theology of progress, of
authentic secularization and human advancement.
The end of the 1960s, with the crisis of populism and the developmentalist model,
brought the advent of a vigorous current of sociological thinking, which unmasked
the true causes of underdevelopment. Development and underdevelopment are two
sides of the same coin. All the nations of the Western world were engaged in a
vast process of development; however, it was interdependent and unequal,
organized in such a way that the benefits flowed to the already developed
countries of the “center” and the disadvantages were meted out to the historically
backward and underdeveloped wontries of the “periphery.” The poverty of Third
World countries was the price to be paid for the First World to be able to enjoy the
fruits of overabundance.
In ecclesial circles by now accustomed to following developments in society and
studies of its problems, this interpretation acted as a leaven, yielding a new vitality
and critical spirit in pastoral circles. The relationship of dependence of the
periphery on the center had to be replaced by a process of breaking away and
liberation. So the basis of a theology of development was undermined and the
theoretical foundations for a theology of liberation were laid. Its material
foundations were provided only when popular movements and Christian groups
came together in the struggle for social and political liberation, with the ultimate
aim of complete and integral liberation. This was when the objective conditions
for an authentic liberation theology came about.
The first theological reflections that were to lead to liberation theology had their
origins in a context of dialogue between a church and a society in ferment,
between Christian faith and the longings for transformation and liberation arising
from the people. The Second Vatican Council produced a theological atmosphere
characterized by great freedom and creativity. This gave Latin American
theologians the courage to think for themselves about pastoral problems affecting
their countries. This process could be seen at work among both Catholic and
Protestant thinkers with the group Church and Society in Latin America (ISAL)
taking a prominent put. There were frequent meetings between Catholic
theologians (Gustavo Gutiérrez, Segundo Galilea, Juan Luis Segundo, Lucio Gera,
and others) and Protestant Emilio Castro, Julio de Santa Ana, Rubem Alves, José
Míguez Bonino), leading to intensified reflection on the relationship between faith
and poverty, the gospel and social justice, and the like. In Brazil, between 1959
and 1964, the Catholic left produced a series of basic texts on the need for a
Christian ideal of history, linked to popular action, with a methodology that
foreshadowed that of liberation theology; they urged personal engagement in the
world, backed up by studies of social and liberal sciences, and illustrated by the
universal principles of Christianity.
At a meeting of Latin American theologians held in Petrópolis (Rio de Janeiro) in
Much 1964, Gustavo Gutiérrez described theology as critical reflection on praxis.
This line of thought was further developed at meetings in Havana, Bogotá, and
Cuernavaca in June and July 1965. Many other meetings were held as pat of the
preparatory work for the Medellin conference of 1968; these acted as laboratories
for a theology worked out on the basis of pastoral concerns and committed
Christian action. Lectures given by Gustavo Gutiérrez in Montreal in 1967 and at
Chimbote in Peru on the poverty of the Third World and the challenge it posed to
the development of a pastoral strategy of liberation were a further powerful
impetus toward a theology of liberation. Its outlines were first put forward at the
theological congress at Cartigny, Switzerland, in 1969: “Toward a Theology of
The first Catholic congresses devoted to liberation theology were held in Bogota
in March 1970 and July 1971. On the Protestant side, ISAL organized something
similar in Buenos Aires the same years.
Finally, in December 1971, Gustavo Gutiérrez published his seminal work,
Teología de la liberación. In May Hugo Assmarm had conducted a symposium,
“Oppression-Liberation: The Challenge to Christians,” in Montevideo, and
Leonardo Boff had published a series of articles under the title Jesus Cristo
Libertador. The door was opened for the development of a theology from the
periphery dealing with the concerns of this periphery, concerns that presented and
still present an immense challenge to the evangelizing mission of the church.
For the sake of clarity and a better understanding of the advances made, the
formulation of liberation theology can be divided into four stages.
The Foundational Stage
The foundations were laid by those who sketched the general outlines of this way
of doing theology. Besides the all-important writings of Gustavo Gutiérrez,
outstanding works were produced by Juan Luis Segundo: De la sociedad a la
teología (1970), Liberación de la teología (1975); by Hugo Assmann: Teología
desde la praxis de liberación; Lucio Gera: Apuntes para una interpretactón de le
Iglesia argentina (1970), Teologio de la liberación (1973). Others who should be
mentioned we Bishop (later Cardinal) Eduardo Pironio, secretary of CELAM,
Segundo Galilea, and Raimondo Caramuru, principal theological consultant to the
Brazilian Bishops’ Conference. There was also a great ferment of activity in the
shape of courses and retreats during this period.
On the Protestant side, besides Emilio Castro and Julio de Santa Ana, the
outstanding contributions were made by Rubem Alves: Religion: Opium of the
People or Instrument of Liberation (1969), and José Míguez Bonino: La fe en
busca de eficacia (1967) and Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (1975).
Lay persons such as Héctor Borrat, Methol Ferré, and Luiz Alberto Gómez de
Souza did valuable work in linking theology with the social sciences, as did the
Belgian priest François Houtart and the Chilean G. Arroyo.
The Building Stage
The first stage was characterized by the presentation of liberation theology as a
sort of “fundamental theology” — that is, as an opening up of new horizons and
perspectives that gave a new outlook on the whole of theology. The second stage
moved on to the first efforts at giving the liberation approach doctrinal content.
Three areas received most attention as corresponding to the most urgent needs in
the life of the church: spirituality, christology, and ecclesiology. There was a wide
range of publications from many Latin American countries. The main writers: in
Argentina, Enrique Dussel, Juan Carlos Scarmone, Severino Croatto, and Aldo
Büntig; in Brazil, João Batista Libânio, Frei Betio, Carlos Maintains, José
Comblin, Eduardo Hoornaert, José Oscar Beozzo, Gilberto Gorgulho, Carlos
Palácio, Leonardo Boff; in Chile, Ronaldo Muñoz, Sergio Torres, and Pablo
Richard; in Mexico, Raúl Vidales, Luis del Valle, Arnaldo Zenteno, Camilo
Maccise, and Jesús Garcia; in Central America, Ignacio Ellacuría, Jon Sobrino,
Juan H. Pico, Uriel Molina; in Venezuela, Pedro Trigo and Otto Maduro
(sociologist); in Colombia, Luis Patiño and Cecilio de Llora.
The Settling-in Stage
With the process of theological reflection well advanced, the need was seen for a
dual process of “settling in” if the theology of liberation was to become firmly
established. On the one hand was the understanding that the theological current
needed to be given a firm epistemological basis: how to avoid duplications and
confusions of language and levels while giving coherent expression to the themes
arising from original spiritual experience, taking in the analytical seeing stage,
moving on to the theological judging stage, and so to the pastoral action stage?
Good liberation theology presupposes the art of linking its theories with the
explicit inclusion of practice; in this arm liberation theology found fruitful
collaborators, not only for its own purposes, but for those of the overall
theological process. On the other hand, the “settling in” process was effectively
achieved through the deliberate mingling of theologians and other intellectuals in
popular circles and processes of liberation.
More and more theologians became pastors too, militant agents of inspiration for
the life of the church at its grass roots and those of society. It became usual to see
theologians taking part in involved epistemological discussions in learned
congresses, then leaving to go back to their bases among the people to become
involved in matters of catechesis, trade union politics, and community
Names again are many; a selection should include António A. da Silva, Rogério de
Almeida Cunha, Clodovis Boff, Hugo d’Ans, Francisco Taborda, Marcelo de
Barros, and Eliseu Lopes, all from Brazil; Elsa Tamez and Victorio Araya from
Costa Rica; D. Irarrazaval, Carmen Lima, Riolando Ames, R. Antoncich, and the
late Hugo Echegaray from Peru; Victor Codina from Bolivia; Virgilio Elizondo
from Texas; J. L. Caravia from Ecuador; P. Läennec, from Haiti.
The Formalization Stage
Any original theological vision tends, with the passage of time and through its
own internal logic, to seek more formal expression. Liberation theology always set
out to reexamine the whole basic content of revelation and tradition so as to bring
out the social and liberating dimensions implicit in both sources. Again, this is not
a matter of reducing the totality of mystery to this one dimension, but of
underlining aspects of a greater truth particularly relevant to our context of
oppression and liberation.
Such a formalization also corresponds to pastoral requirements. The last few years
have seen a great extension of situations in which the church has become involved
with the oppressed, with a very large number of pastoral workers involved. Many
movements have come into being under the tutelage, to a large extent, of liberation
theology; these in turn have posed new challenges to liberation theology. In Brazil
alone, there are movements or centers for black unity and conscientization, human
rights, defense of slum-dwellers, marginalized women, mission to Amerindians,
rural pastoral strategy, and so forth — all concerned in one way or another with the
poorest of the poor seeking liberation.
To cope with this broad pastoral need and give theological underpinning to the
training of pastoral workers, a group of more than one hundred Catholic
theologians (with ecumenical contacts and Protestant collaborators) have been
planning a series of fifty-five volumes under the heading Theology and Liberation,
with Portuguese and Spanish publication starting in late 1985 and translations into
other languages planned. Its aim will be to cover all the basic themes of theology
and pastoral work from a liberation viewpoint. There are too many persons
involved at this stage to list them here: all those from the earlier stages would be
included, together with a number of new collaborators.
Support and Opposition
Liberation theology spread by virtue of the inner dynamism with which it codified
Christian faith as it applies to the pastoral needs of the poor. Meetings, congresses,
theological cal reviews, and the support of prophetic bishops — Hélder Câmara,
Luis Proaño, Samuel Ruiz, Sergio Méndez Arceo, and Cardinals Paulo Evaristo
Arns and D. A. Lorscheider, among many others — have helped to give it weight
A series of events has been instrumental in spreading this theology and ensuring
its “reception” among theologians the world over:
• The congress at El Escorial, Spain, in July 1972 on the subject of “Christian
faith and the transformation of society in Latin America.”
• The first congress of Latin American theologians, held in Mexico City in
• The first formal contacts between liberation theologians and advocates of
U.S. black liberation and other liberation movements-feminist, Amerindian,
and the like.
• The creation of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians
(EATWOT) in 1976 and the congresses it has held: Dar es Salaam in 1976,
Accra in 1977, Wennappuwa, Sri Lanka, in 1979, Situ Paulo in 1980,
Geneva in 1983, Oaxtepec, Mexico, in 1986. All these produced Final
Conclusions with their particular characteristics, but all within the
framework of liberation theology.
• Finally, the international theological review Concilium (published in seven
languages) devoted a complete issue (vol. 6, no. 10, June 1974) to the
subject of liberation theology, with all the articles coming from Latin
American liberation theologians.
While all these developments were taking place, reservations and opposition
began to be expressed by some who feared the faith was becoming overpoliticized,
and by others who mistrusted any use of Marxist categories in analyzing social
structures. Also many were unable to accept the deep changes in the structure of
capitalist society postulated by this theology. This negative reaction crystalized
around three figures in particular: Alfonso López Trujillo, formerly secretary and
later president of CELAM, Roger Vekemans of CEDIAL (Centro de Estudios
para el Desarrollo e Integración de América Latina, Bogota) and the review
Tierra Nueva, and Bonaventura Kloppenburg, formerly director of the Medellin
Pastoral Institute, later auxiliary bishop of Salvador, Brazil, and author of
Christian Salvation and Human Temporal Progress (1979).
The Magisterium of the Church
As a general rule, the magisterium watches the development of new theologies
with close attention but rarely intervenes and then only with great caution and
discreet support or opposition.
As far back as 1971, the final document “Justice in the World,” the topic of the
second ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops, already showed traces of
liberation theology. Its echoes had become much stronger by 1974, at the third
assembly of the Synod, on “Evangelization of the Modern World.” The following year, Paul VI devoted fifteen paragraphs of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi to the relationship between evangelization and liberation (nos. 25-39).
This discussion forms the central core of the document, and without attempting to
summarize the Pope’s position, we can just say that it is one of the most profound,
balanced, and theological expositions yet made of the longing of the oppressed for
The magisterium has also produced the “Instruction on Some Aspects of
Liberation Theology, ” under the auspices of the Prefect and Secretariat of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated August 6, 1984, and published
September 3. The main points about this document are its legitimation of the
expression and purpose of liberation theology, and its warning to Christians of the
risk inherent in an uncritical acceptance of Marxism as a dominant principle in
theological endeavor. The subject had been studied in Rome since 1974, and had
been the concern of innumerable sessions of the International Theological
Commission, though it did not publish my results until 1977, when it produced a
“Declaration on Human Development and Christian Salvation” (included as an
appendix in Kloppenburg’s book mentioned above), which shows a grasp of the
questions such as was to be expected from such an august theological body.
The magisterium of the church in Latin America has expressed itself primarily
through the documents of two conferences. The second general conference of the
episcopate of Latin America, held at Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, spoke of the
church “listening to the cry of the poor and becoming the interpreter of their
anguish”; this was the first flowering of the theme of liberation, which began to be
worked out systematically only after Medellin. The third general conference, held
at Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, shows the theme of liberation running right through its
final document. The liberation dimension is seen a an “integral put” (§§355, 1254,
1283) of the mission of the church, “indispensable” (§§562, 1270), “essential”
A large part of the document (§§470-506) is devoted to evangelization,
liberation, and human promotion, and a whole chapter (§§1134-56) to the
“preferential option for the poor,” a central axis of liberation theology.
The general tenor of the pronouncements of the magisterium, whether papal or
coming from the Synod of Bishops, has been to recognize the positive aspects of
liberation theology, especially with reference to the poor and the need for their
liberation, as forming put of the universal heritage of Christian commitment to
history. Criticisms of certain tendencies within liberation theology, which have to
be taken into account, do not negate the vigorous and healthy nucleus of this form
of Christian thinking, which has done so much to bring the message of the
historical Jesus to the world of today.