On Liberation Theology

One of the classes I’m taking here at Boston University is called Global Ethics, which is actually more of a semester-long introduction to liberation theology. And not just the Latin American variety, but almost every kind you can think of: womanist (both African American and African), feminist, Palestinian, Korean, Native American, etc. Before starting the class, I had assumed as a result of my sojourn in the Catholic church that liberation theology was more or less dead. But no, the rumors of liberation theology’s demise are quite premature, and it’s arguably doing better than ever.

A common refrain I used to hear when I was “orthodox” is that the reason why so many Latin Americans were turning to Protestantism is because liberal clerics and nuns gave them politics when the masses really wanted Jesus and nothing else. However, the fact that so many liberation theologians are Protestant, whether Hispanic or not, seems to belie that claim. If South Americans were really that uninterested in liberation theology, then Leonardo Boff would not have gotten so much support by the Brazilian masses when Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put him on trial. Becoming Protestant and joining a church where liberation theology can be taught with fear of molestation may be an act of resistance, given that the bishops in Latin America still tend to be from the wealthy white minority. Indeed, when conservative Latin American bishops destroyed liberation theology influenced base communities, many of them simply reformed as Protestant churches. As the SSPX knows well, it’s a lot easier to do your own thing when you don’t have to worry about being micromanaged from Rome.

I also think that it’s a weak argument to say that the supposed lack of spiritual depth of the mass in vernacular or of liberation theology caused Latin Americans to go to Protestantism to find what had been taken away from Catholicism. Aside from high church Anglicans and Lutherans, most Protestants don’t believe in fancy vestments, incense, birettas, and the other trappings of Tridentine Catholic worship. The rubrics for what counts as a proper church service isn’t going to be the same if you are a Methodist, a Pentecostal, or a fundamentalist Baptist. From the low church perspective, broadly defined, vestments are “unbiblical,” a waste of money, and perhaps suspiciously effeminate. If this is your perspective, no amount of clerical bling is going to impress you, because vestments represent one of the many things that’s wrong with the Catholicism. For those Latin Americans — or anyone, really — who have rejected Catholicism in favor of Protestantism, reimposing the Latin Mass isn’t going to interest them, because they’ve embraced an entirely new way of doing church. See the obtuse comments at the always nutty Catholic Herald (UK) for an example of white conservotrads not getting it:

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/2013/07/26/how-the-charismatic-movement-conquered-brazil/

It’s worth remembering that until recently, the Catholic church essentially had a monopoly on religious expression in Latin America, and tends to take the sides of those who have an interest in maintaining the oppressive status quo, from military juntas to rich landlords. While some of the lower clergy seem to have an interest in the plight of the masses, the bishops are still largely enthralled with the idea of being “princes of the church.” If you’re some combination of poor, black, indigenous, or female, you probably aren’t going to see your interests being represented by the bishops — or anywhere else in society, for that matter. Consequently, if you’re a poor indigenous Guatemalan woman and a Pentecostal church allows you to preach or exercise some other role of authority, that’s a powerful instance of self-affirmation, and there’s not much the Catholic church can offer such a marginalized person, other than the insistence that the Catholic church is the “true church” (please don’t interpret this to mean that I think that Pentecostalism or Protestantism is “better” than Catholicism; as an atheist, I think all manifestations of Christianity are wrong, but I recognize how religious communities can be places of catharsis). The very reason why the Vatican was as tough on liberation theology as conservotrads would have wanted is because doing so would have created a schism in the Latin American church.

The problem many conservotrads and traditionalists are having with Pope Francis stems from a clash between the developed and the developing world, and perhaps between whites and people of color. As an Argentinean, Francis understands the challenge Protestantism poses to the Catholic church, the crushing poverty of the masses, and the inconvenient fact that the laissez-faire economics beloved by so many conservotrads is extremely unpopular outside of the United States, especially in the developing world. Most Christians in the world are people of color, and some flavor of liberation theology is going to appeal to them because of their circumstances. Even the most otherworldly, pie in the sky theology for a Christian of color or one from the developing world has to be liberationist, at least in the sense of accounting for the daunting challenges of being non-white in a white world or being poor in a world of theoretical abundance. Given this, one could say that liberation theology is normal, while conservotradism, like laissez-faire economics, is strange.

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