Saturday, December 6, 2008

Liberation Theologies and the Society of Jesus

Fr. Adolfo Nicolas in a recent interview called Liberation Theology "a courageous and creative response to an unbearable situation of injustice in Latin America. As with any theology, it needs years to mature. It’s a shame that it has not been given a vote of confidence and that soon its wings will be cut before it learns to fly. It needs more time.” Before cries of heresy start flying -- what am I saying, they are already flying -- we should remember what Ratzinger wrote as head of the CDF concerning Liberation Theology, both the good and the bad:
This warning should in no way be interpreted as a disavowal of all those who want to respond generously and with an authentic evangelical spirit to the "preferential option for the poor." It should not at all serve as an excuse for those who maintain the attitude of neutrality and indifference in the face of the tragic and pressing problems of human misery and injustice. It is, on the contrary, dictated by the certitude that the serious ideological deviations which it points out tends inevitably to betray the cause of the poor. More than ever, it is important that numerous Christians, whose faith is clear and who are committed to live the Christian life in its fullness, become involved in the struggle for justice, freedom, and human dignity because of their love for their disinherited, oppressed, and persecuted brothers and sisters. More than ever, the Church intends to condemn abuses, injustices, and attacks against freedom, wherever they occur and whoever commits them. She intends to struggle, by her own means, for the defense and advancement of the rights of mankind, especially of the poor.
He begins with warning along with praise. I think many miss that point, and also miss the fact that the "preferential option for the poor" actually comes from Vatican II. I have heard so many tell me that this is a form of Liberation Theology that is unacceptable, yet another tribute to the ignorance about Liberation Theology that flies around. The Church does have an option for the poor, and it is out of this option that Fr. Nicolas speaks about the power of Liberation Theology.

The CDF also later mentions:

The different theologies of liberation are situated between the preferential option for the poor, forcefully reaffirmed without ambiguity after Medellin at the Conference of Puebla on the one hand, and the temptation to reduce the Gospel to an earthly gospel on the other.

We noted above that an authentic theology of liberation will be one which is rooted in the Word of God, correctly interpreted.

But from a descriptive standpoint, it helps to speak of theologies of liberation, since the expression embraces a number of theological positions, or even sometimes ideological ones, which are not simply different but more often incompatible with one another.
Thus, when Fr. Nicolas speaks of the power that Liberation Theology can still have, he affirms that there are many forms of it, sharing different ideological foundations and different understandings of the world. Not all embrace class warfare. Not all are Marxist. Not all think money is evil, nor do all think the hierarchy of the Church is the devil. Not all share a Hegelian vision of the world, nor do they all reject Original Sin as a reality. Many simply point to the reality of structural sin and the ways in which Christ comes to free the poor from these structural hindrances that dominate so many third world nations. Often by making that point, the local Church is also indicted for its conciliation toward the rich and wealthy. This was precisely the problem that Romero dealt in El Salvador. The rich practically owned the Church, while all the while the Church hierarchy claimed to be focusing on its "spiritual" mission.

Therefore, developing a faithful theology of liberation continues to be an important mission of the Society, and it needs to be done by those with a good theological background and also by those who live lives close to the reality of the poor. Father Thomas took his theology straight from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. His vision of the world revolved around the Meditation on the Two Standards at the beginning of the Second Week, in which we are told that in the spiritual world, Satan sends out his servants everywhere, "not omitting any provinces, places, states, nor any persons in particular." Precisely. Satan sends his demons not just to persons but also to states, places, corporations, the Senate, the House, everywhere. Hence, liberation begins with prayer followed by concrete actions toward particular structures of sin. This was Ignatius' theology of liberation.

The danger I have found with most liberation theologies is the philosophy of history they embrace, usually complete with an imminent eschaton. It is therefore of the essence that a healthy eschatology remain an central part of any espoused theology of liberation. The Book of Revelation is an excellent example of this. While maintaining a view that all will only be fully healed in the end, it is also a scathing critique of the Roman Empire as a political system, a structure of sin that had to be brought down, not just in the end, but in the now. But now I've gone on too long, so go out and help the poor.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

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