Liberation Theology

 Liberation theology  is a political movement which initially developed within Catholic theology which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. It has been described by proponents as "an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor",  and by detractors as Christianized Marxism.

Although liberation theology has grown into an international and inter-denominational movement, it began as a movement within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s–1960s. Liberation theology arose principally as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice in that region. The term was coined in 1971 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote one of the movement's most famous books, A Theology of Liberation.  Other noted exponents are Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, Óscar Romero of El Salvador, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay

History of Liberation Theology

A major player in the formation of liberation theology was  Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference. Created in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), CELAM pushed the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) toward a more socially oriented stance.  However, CELAM never supported liberation theology as such, since liberation theology was frowned upon by the Vatican, with Pope Paul VI trying to slow the movement after the Second Vatican Council.

After the Second Vatican Council, CELAM held two conferences which were important in determining the future of liberation theology: the first was held in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, and the second in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979.  The Medellín conference debated how to apply the teachings of Vatican II to Latin America, and its conclusions were strongly influenced by liberation theology.

Despite the orthodox bishops' predominance in CELAM, a more radical form of liberation theology remained much supported in South America. Thus, the 1979 Puebla Conference was an opportunity for orthodox bishops to reassert control of the radical elements; but they failed. At the Puebla Conference, the orthodox reorientation was met by strong opposition from the liberal part of the clergy, which supported the concept of a "preferential option for the poor". This concept had been approved at the Medellín conference by Bishop Ricard Durand, president of the Commission about Poverty.

Pope John Paul II gave the opening speech at the Puebla Conference. The general tone of his remarks was conciliatory. He criticized radical liberation theology, saying, "this conception of Christ, as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechisms"; however, he did speak of "the ever increasing wealth of the rich at the expense of the ever increasing poverty of the poor", and affirmed that the principle of private property "must lead to a more just and equitable distribution of goods...and, if the common good demands it, there is no need to hesitate at expropriation, itself, done in the right way"; on balance, the Pope offered neither praise nor condemnation.  Within four hours of the Pope's speech, Gutiérrez and the other priests wrote a twenty-page refutation, which was circulated at the conference, and has been claimed to have influenced the final outcome of the conference. According to a socio-political study of liberation theology in Latin America, twenty-five per cent of the final Puebla documents were written by theologians who were not invited to the conference.  Cardinal Trujillo said that this affirmation is "an incredible exaggeration" (Ben Zabel 2002:139).


One of the most radical aspects of liberation theology was the social organization, or re-organization, of church practice through the model of Christian base communities (CBCs). Liberation theology strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with Biblical interpretation and liturgical practice designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the orthodox Church hierarchy. In this context, sacred text interpretation is understood as "praxis".

Journalist and writer Penny Lernoux described this aspect of liberation theology in her numerous and committed writings intended to explain the movement's ideas in North America. Base communities were small gatherings, usually outside of churches, in which the Bible could be discussed, and Mass could be said. They were especially active in rural parts of Latin America where parish priests were not always available, as they placed a high value on lay participation. As of May 2007, it was estimated that 80,000 base communities were operating in Brazil alone.  Contemporaneously Fanmi Lavalas (Fanmi Lavalas is a leftist political party in Haiti. Its leader is former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It has been a powerful force in Haitian politics since 1991) in Haiti, the Landless Workers' Movement

(Landless Workers' Movement is a social movement in Brazil, being generally regarded as one of the greatest or, according to some, the greatest  largest social movement in Latin America with an estimated informal 1.5 million membership  in 23 out of Brazil's 26 states.  According to the MST itself, its aims are:

·         firstly, to fight for access to the land for poor workers in general, something to be carried out,

·         secondly, through land reform in Brazil, and,

·         thirdly, through activism around social issues impinging on the achievment of land possession, such as unequal income distribution, racism, gender issues, media monopolies, etc.in Brazil, and Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa are three organizations that make use of liberation theology.)   

Reaction within the Catholic Church

In March 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), made ten observations of Gutiérrez's theology, accusing Gutiérrez of politically interpreting the Bible in supporting temporal messianism, and stating that the predominance of orthopraxis over orthodoxy in his thought proved a Marxist influence.

Ratzinger objected that the spiritual concept of the Church as "People of God" is transformed into a "Marxist myth." In liberation theology he declared, the "people is the antithesis of the hierarchy, the antithesis of all institutions, which are seen as oppressive powers. Ultimately anyone who participates in the class struggle is a member of the "people"; the "Church of the people" becomes the antagonist of the hierarchical Church."

Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger









Cardinal Ratzinger - Pope Benedict XVI

Cardinal Ratzinger did praise liberation theology in some respects, including its ideal of justice, its rejection of violence, and its stress on "the responsibility which Christians necessarily bear for the poor and oppressed."  He subsequently stated that no one could be neutral in the face of injustice, and referred to the "crimes" of colonialism and the "scandal" of the arms race. Nonetheless, media reports tended to assume that the condemnation of "liberation theology" meant a rejection of such attitudes and an endorsement of conservative politics.

In 1984, it was reported that a meeting occurred between the CDF and the CELAM bishops, during which a rift developed between Ratzinger and some of the bishops  with Ratzinger issuing official condemnations of certain elements of liberation theology.  

·         These "Instructions" refuted the Marxist-based idea that class struggle is fundamental to history,

·         and rejected the interpretation of religious phenomena such as the Exodus and the Eucharist in exclusively political terms.

·          Ratzinger further stated that liberation theology had a major flaw in that it attempted to apply Christ's sermon on the mount teachings about the poor to present social situations.  He asserted that Christ's teaching on the poor meant that we will be judged when we die, with particular attention to how we personally have treated the poor.

·         Ratzinger also argued that liberation theology is not originally a "grass-roots" movement among the poor, but rather, a creation of Western intellectuals: "an attempt to test, in a concrete scenario, ideologies that have been invented in the laboratory by European theologians" and in a certain sense itself a form of "cultural imperialism". Ratzinger saw this as a reaction to the demise or near-demise of the "Marxist myth" in the West.

Throughout the 1990s, Ratzinger, as prefect of the CDF, continued to condemn these elements in liberation theology, and prohibited dissident priests from teaching such doctrines in the Catholic Church's name. Leonardo Boff was suspended and others were censured.

Tissa Balasuriya

Balasuriya, Tissa (1924— )

A Roman Catholic Sri Lankan priest, Father Balasuriya was excommunicated at the end of 1996 because of his heresy. A sociologist in addition to being a priest, he argued in several books that Catholic dogma should adjust itself to the social and cultural realities of Asia.

Mary and Human Liberation (1990), which sold fewer than one thousand copies, complemented Jesus and Human Liberation and The Eucharist and Human Liberation, a trilogy which led to his excommunication.

“I firmly state that I have not committed any form of heresy, deviation from any doctrine of the Catholic faith,”Balasuriya objected. But the formal notification of his heresy was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and carried “the weight and force of a papal act” since its findings were explicitly approved by Pope John Paul II.

His books challenged the traditional Catholic image of the mother of Jesus, saying it was too docile, even “dehydrated.” He criticized the “Hail Mary,” which he said lacks “a socially liberative dynamic” and thus has played a role in “tranquilizing Catholics.” He also questioned the dogma of original sin, saying, “In our countries, the idea of humans being born alienated from the Creator would seem an abominable concept.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ruled that the caveat rendered the profession "defective." Balasuriya appealed directly to the Pope, but was excommunicated on 2 January 1997, with the Pope's approval. Balasuriya then appealed to the Apostolic Signatura, but was told that his case could not go forward. He subsequently agreed to drop the caveat from his profession of faith, and after intense international publicity and six days of negotiations, the excommunication was rescinded in January 1998

Counter criticism

Such criticisms have provoked counter-criticisms that orthodox Catholics are in effect casting the Catholic Church as a friend of authoritarian regimes; and that the Vatican is not so much trying to defend pure doctrine as to maintain an established ecclesiastical and political order. This conflict could be compared to some aspects of the Protestant Reformation. Outside Latin America, some of liberation theology's most ardent advocates are Protestant thinkers (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann and Frederick Herzog.)

Jürgen Moltmann is a German Reformed theologian. He is a major figure in modern theology and the recipient of the 2000 Grawemeyer Award in Religion

Frederick Herzog was a professor of systematic theology at Duke University. An impassioned champion of civil rights, his academic focus was liberation theology


There is also a Christian humanist response that calls for a complete breakaway from clerical hierarchies and the formulation of an entirely new Christian theology, one based on recent historical analysis by biblical scholars like JD Crossan highlighting the social revolutionary dimension of Jesus.


Christian humanism emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, his social teachings and his propensity to synthesize human spirituality and materialism. It regards humanist principles like universal human dignity and individual freedom and the primacy of human happiness as essential and principal components of, or at least compatible with, the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christian humanism can be perceived as a philosophical union of Judeo-Christian ethics and humanist principles

Two inescapable facts 

 Latin American pastors in the latter half of this 20th century: that most of their parishoners lived in grinding, abject poverty -- and that the Church represented the only viable community organization in their world. Out of this awareness came a new understanding of the very meaning of the Church's work. The movement that came to be called "Liberation Theology" began with the awareness that it is blasphemous to care for people's souls while ignoring their needs for food, shelter and human dignity. As Jesus participated in the suffering of the poor, and proclaimed to them the good news of justice and freedom, so must today's church engage in the struggle for justice in this world.

Across the "Third" or developing world, gross inequities persist, and deepen. More of the world's poor are crowded into ever more hopeless conditions. Yet the earth's plenty is far from running out. In nation after nation, a tiny minority of the wealthy hold vast areas of fertile land. The deadly connection between land-ownership concentration and wretched poverty is absurdly obvious on every continent.

 An effective remedy  to these horrible injustices depends on a precise understanding of their causes. After all, many "cures" have proved to be worse than the sickness. Liberationists have tried many ideological models, seeking clarity. Are the third world poor preyed on by raiders of the global economy, or by home-grown robber barons? Is the financial system to blame, or are we seeing the inevitable trauma of capitalism's march through history?

The search  for understanding has led back, as well, to the Bible -- and there, in the ancient economic laws of the Old Testament, may be found principles that, if applied mindfully of today's economic complexities, can provide the directions out of the Wasteland -- to the Promised Land of economic sanity and justice.

Liberation Theologians
Important People for Liberation Theology


Bishop Dom Hélder Camara.

An independent Christian communist movement did re-emerge, in a rather unexpected place: Latin America. This was a separate development from the European and North American movements. Latin American Christian communism is a strong trend within liberation theology, which is a specifically Christian movement concerned with social justice and equality that incorporates both communists and other socialists.

Born on February 7, 1909, Dom Hélder became auxiliary archbishop of Rio de Janeiro in April 1955. He quickly made a name for himself for denouncing the city's social and racial divisions.  He initiated a housing project for the poor and established a permanent campaign of charity for the needy. He soon acquired an international reputation as the "bishop of the slums".

Led by Dom Hélder, the CNBB published one of the most radical statements in the history of the Brazilian Catholic Church. Astonishingly, the church advocated the expropriation and transfer of land to the poor. Dom Hélder campaigned in support of President Goulart's efforts to implement a redistribution of land and other basic reforms and literacy programs for the poor.

In 1967 Dom Hélder attempted to launch a third political party, the Party of Integral Development, as an alternative to the two official parties allowed to operate by the military regime. The following year he initiated a non-violent movement called "Action, Justice and Peace”. Both these attempts foundered on the rock of harsh military repression.

Half way through 1968, Latin American bishops met in Medellin, Colombia, to discuss applying the results of Vatican II to the region. Dom Hélder argued successfully for a proposal for a radical but peaceful social transformation.

The Medellin statement was a landmark in the history of liberation theology and Latin American politics. The statement denounced the "institutionalised violence" inherent in social inequality and oppressive social structures. It proclaimed the “option for the poor”, whereby the church should stand with the most oppressed in their daily struggles. The conference encouraged the creation of Eclesiais Comunidades de Base (Basic Ecclesial Communities), where small groups of Catholics would gather to join their faith to the social struggles surrounding them.

Under Dom Hélder's wing thousands of Catholic religious (priests, nuns and brothers) and countless numbers of the laity reached profoundly revolutionary conclusions about Latin American reality. Many of the progressive governments now in power in the region can trace their roots to the movement that he championed.

Gustavo Gutiérrez





Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P., (born 8 June 1928 in Lima)

Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P., (born 8 June 1928 in Lima) is a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest regarded as the founder of Liberation Theology . He holds the John Cardinal O'Hara Professorship of Theology at the University of Notre Dame  He has been professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and a visiting professor at many major universities in North America and Europe. 


But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order. 
-- Gustavo Gutierrez 

  The Truth Shall Make You Free: Confrontations The God of Life


Leonardo Boff 

Leonardo Boff was born 14 December 1938 in Concórdia, Santa Catarina state, Brazil. He is a theologian and writer, known for his active support for the rights of the poor and excluded. He currently serves as Professor Emeritus of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology at the Rio de Janeiro State University.

"Solidarity, compassion, caring, communion and loving. Such values and inner powers can lay the foundation of a new paradigm of civilization, the civilization of the humanity reunited in the Common House, on the Planet Earth.... Our mission is to celebrate the greatness of Creation and connect it again to the Core where it came from and to where it will go, with care, lightness, joy, reverence and love." 
-- Leonardo Boff

Jon Sobrino

Jon Sobrino, S.J. (born 27 December 1938, Barcelona, Spain) is a Jesuit Catholic priest and theologian, known mostly for his contributions to liberation theology.  He received worldwide attention in 2007 when the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Notification for what they see as doctrines which are "erroneous or dangerous and may cause harm to the faithful."
 He was shot while elevating the 
chalice at the end of the Eucharistic rite

Servant of God Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (15 August 1917 – 24 March 1980) was a bishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. He became the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador, succeeding Luis Chávez. He was assassinated on 24 March 1980

In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs -- they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled [from the country]. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed. Several parish communities have been raided. If all this has happened to persons who are the most evident representatives of the Church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands. . . . But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people's defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.

 Óscar Romero, Speech at the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium, Feb. 2, 1980

"When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises." (8/6/78). -- The Church: Called to Repentance, Called to Prophecy 

"Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, 'Thou shalt not kill'. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. ...In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression"

Juan Luis Segundo

Juan Luis Segundo, S.J. (born in Montevideo, Uruguay; March 31, 1925 – January 17, 1996) was a Jesuit priest and theologian who was one of the most important figures in the movement known as "Liberation theology." He wrote numerous books on theology, ideology, faith, hermeneutics, and social justice, and was an outspoken critic of what he perceived as church callousness toward oppression and suffering. 

The two strolled through the city, its luxurious villas, its world-renowned beaches and night clubs, its gigantic statue of Christ looming above the city, and other landmarks. Eventually, however, they came to the hillsides encircling the city, which are also world famous for the fetid favelas (slums) that perch precariously on the slopes, whose inhabitants pray daily that rain or mudslide will not destroy their jerry-built hovels. Finally, the astonished bishop turned to his guide and blurted out: "You say that you are a Christian country and that you have inhabited this land for over five hundred years." He then threw open his arms to the hideous obscenities that swarmed over the cliffs and questioned angrily: "Is this what you mean by Christianity?" (Hennelly 1997, 26).


Ignacio Martín-Baró

Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J. (Valladolid, Castilla y Leon, Spain, November 7, 1942 – San Salvador, El Salvador, November 16, 1989) was a scholar, social psychologist, philosopher and Jesuit priest. Martín-Baró was a close friend and colleague of the scholars Ignacio Ellacuría and Segundo Montes, all of whom were murdered by the Salvadoran Army, along with three other colleagues and two employees.

"It is clear that no one is going to return to the imprisoned dissident his youth; to the young woman who has been raped her innocence; to the person who has been tortured his or her integrity. Nobody is going to return the dead and the disappeared to their families. What can and must be publicly restored [are] the victims’ names and their dignity, through a formal recognition of the injustice of what has occurred, and, wherever possible, material reparation. . . . Those who clamour for social reparation are not asking for vengeance. Nor are they blindly adding difficulties to a historical process that is already by no means easy. On the contrary, they are promoting the personal and social viability of a new society, truly democratic."

Bishop Samuel Ruiz García


Samuel Ruiz García (born 3 November 1924 in Irapuato, Guanajuato) is a Mexican Roman Catholic prelate who served as bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, from 1959 until 1999. This zone in Mexico is characterized by its poverty and its indigenous population. Some 40,000 indigenous Mexicans received some kind of help from this bishop for over 10 years. Samuel Ruiz offered his help in conflicts in Central America and defended indigenous populations in Mexico and in Central and South America. He contributed largely to calm the difficult situation between the Mexican government and the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). He also presided over the funeral of 45 members of the civil society group Las Abejas after the 1997 massacre in Acteal. 

In 1996, Ruiz was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in Terris is Latin for 'Peace on Earth.' 

He won the Simón Bolívar International Prize from UNESCO in 2000 due to his efforts to fight poverty, exclusion, corruption, violence and for his help in the mutual understanding of Latin Americans. 

"The indigenous peoples understand that they have to recover their cultural identity, or to live it if they have already recovered it. They also understand that this is not a favor or a concession, but simply their natural right to be recognized as belonging to a culture that is distinct from the Western culture, a culture in which they have to live their own faith.

Father Camilo Torres Restrepo


Father Camilo Torres Restrepo (born in Bogotá, Colombia on 3 February 1929 – died in Santander on 15 February 1966) was a Colombian socialist, Roman Catholic priest, a predecessor of liberation theology and a member of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla organisation. During his life, he tried to reconcile revolutionary Marxism and Catholicism.

 "If Jesus were alive today, He would be a guerrillero."

"In Catholicism the main principle is love for one’s fellow man “He who loves his fellow man fulfills the law.” For this love to be genuine, it must seek to be effective. If beneficence, alms, the few tuition-free schools, the few housing projects — in general, what is known as “charity” — do not succeed in feeding the hungry majority, clothing the naked, or teaching the unschooled masses, we must seek effective means to achieve the well-being of these majorities.

Therefore,  the revolution is not only permissible but obligatory for those Christians who see it as the only effective and far-reaching way to make love for all people a reality." Camilo Toress





on the works of
Father Jon SOBRINO, SJ:

Jesucristo liberador. Lectura histórico-teológica de Jesús de Nazaret (Madrid, 1991)[1]

and La fe en Jesucristo. Ensayo desde las víctimas (San Slavador, 1999)[2]


1. After a preliminary examination of the books Jesucristo liberador. Lectura histórico-teológica de Jesús de Nazaret (Jesus the Liberator) and La fe en Jesucristo. Ensayo desde las víctimas(Christ the Liberator) by Father Jon Sobrino, SJ, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, because of certain imprecisions and errors found in them, decided to proceed to a more thorough study of these works in October 2001. Given the wide distribution of these writings and their use in seminaries and other centers of study, particularly in Latin America, it was decided to employ the “urgent examination” as regulated by articles 23-27 of Agendi Ratio in Doctrinarum Examine.

As a result of this examination, in July 2004 a list of erroneous or dangerous propositions found in the abovementioned books was sent to the Author through the Reverend Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus.

In March of 2005, Father Jon Sobrino sent a Response to the text of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Congregation. This Response was studied in the Ordinary Session of the Congregation on 23 November 2005. It was determined that, although the author had modified his thought somewhat on several points, the Response did not prove satisfactory since, in substance, the errors already cited in the list of erroneous propositions still remained in this text. Although the preoccupation of the Author for the plight of the poor is admirable, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has the obligation to indicate that the aforementioned works of Father Sobrino contain notable discrepancies with the faith of the Church.

For this reason, it was decided to publish this Notification, in order to offer the faithful a secure criterion, founded upon the doctrine of the Church, by which to judge the affirmations contained in these books or in other publications of the Author. One must note that on some occasions the erroneous propositions are situated within the context of other expressions which would seem to contradict them[3], but this is not sufficient to justify these propositions. The Congregation does not intend to judge the subjective intentions of the Author, but rather has the duty to call to attention to certain propositions which are not in conformity with the doctrine of the Church. These propositions regard: 1) the methodological presuppositions on which the Author bases his theological reflection, 2) the Divinity of Jesus Christ, 3) the Incarnation of the Son of God, 4) the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God, 5) the Self-consciousness of Jesus, and 6) the salvific value of his Death.

I. Methodological Presuppositions

2. In his book Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View, Father Sobrino affirms:“Latin American Christology…identifies its setting, in the sense of a real situation, as the poor of this world, and this situation is what must be present in and permeate any particular setting in which Christology is done” (Jesus the Liberator, 28). Further, “the poor in the community question Christological faith and give it its fundamental direction” (Ibidem, 30), and “the Church of the poor…is the ecclesial setting of Christology because it is a world shaped by the poor” (Ibidem, 31). “The social setting is thus the most crucial for the faith, the most crucial in shaping the thought pattern of Christology, and what requires and encourages the epistemological break” (Ibidem).

While such a preoccupation for the poor and oppressed is admirable, in these quotations the “Church of the poor” assumes the fundamental position which properly belongs to the faith of the Church. It is only in this ecclesial faith that all other theological foundations find their correct epistemological setting.

The ecclesial foundation of Christology may not be identified with “the Church of the poor”, but is found rather in the apostolic faith transmitted through the Church for all generations. The theologian, in his particular vocation in the Church, must continually bear in mind that theology is the science of the faith. Other points of departure for theological work run the risk of arbitrariness and end in a misrepresentation of the same faith.[4]

3. Although the Author affirms that he considers the theological fonts “normative”, the lack of due attention that he pays to them gives rise to concrete problems in his theology which we will discuss below. In particular, the New Testament affirmations concerning the divinity of Christ, his filial consciousness and the salvific value of his death, do not in fact always receive the attention due them. The sections below will treat these specific questions.

The manner in which the author treats the major Councils of the early Church is equally notable, for according to him, these Councils have moved progressively away from the contents of the New Testament. For example, he affirms: “While these texts are useful theologically, besides being normative, they are also limited and even dangerous, as is widely recognized today” (Christ the Liberator, 221). Certainly, it is necessary to recognize the limited character of dogmatic formulations, which do not express nor are able to express everything contained in the mystery of faith, and must be interpreted in the light of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. But there is no foundation for calling these formulas dangerous, since they are authentic interpretations of Revelation.

Father Sobrino considers the dogmatic development of the first centuries of the Church including the great Councils to be ambiguous and even negative. Although he does not deny the normative character of the dogmatic formulations, neither does he recognize in them any value except in the cultural milieu in which these formulations were developed. He does not take into account the fact that the transtemporal subject of the faith is the believing Church, and that the pronouncements of the first Councils have been accepted and lived by the entire ecclesial community. The Church continues to profess the Creed which arose from the Councils of Nicea (AD 325) and Constantinople I (AD 381). The first four Ecumenical Councils are accepted by the great majority of Churches and Ecclesial Communities in both the East and West. If these Councils used the terminology and concepts expressive of the culture of the time, it was not in order to be conformed to it. The Councils do not signify a hellenization of Christianity but rather the contrary. Through the inculturation of the Christian message, Greek culture itself underwent a transformation from within and was able to be used as an instrument for the expression and defense of biblical truth.


II. The Divinity of Jesus Christ

4. A number of Father Sobrino’s affirmations tend to diminish the breadth of the New Testament passages which affirm that Jesus is God: “[The New Testament] makes clear that he was intimately bound up with God, which meant that his reality had to be expressed in some way as a reality that is of God (cf. Jn 20:28)” (Christ the Liberator, 115). In reference to John 1:1, he affirms: “Strictly speaking, this logos is not yet said to be God (consubstantial with the Father), but something is claimed for him that will have great importance for reaching this conclusion: his preexistence. This does not signify something purely temporal but relates him to the creation and links the logos with action specific to the divinity” (Christ the Liberator, 257). According to the Author, the New Testament does not clearly affirm the divinity of Jesus, but merely establishes the presuppositions for it: “The New Testament…contains expressions that contain the seed of what will produce confession of the divinity of Christ in the strict sense”(Ibidem). “All this means that at the outset Jesus was not spoken of as God, nor was divinity a term applied to him; this happened only after a considerable interval of believing explication, almost certainly after the fall of Jerusalem” (Ibidem, 114).

To maintain that John 20:28 affirms that Jesus is “of God” is clearly erroneous, in as much as the passage itself refers to Jesus as “Lord” and “God.” Similarly, John 1:1 says that the Word is God. Many other texts speak of Jesus as Son and as Lord.[5] The divinity of Jesus has been the object of the Church’s faith from the beginning, long before his consubstantiality with the Father was proclaimed by the Council of Nicea. The fact that this term was not used does not mean that the divinity of Jesus was not affirmed in the strict sense, contrary to what the Author seems to imply.

Father Sobrino does not deny the divinity of Jesus when he proposes that it is found in the New Testament only “in seed” and was formulated dogmatically only after many years of believing reflection. Nevertheless he fails to affirm Jesus’ divinity with sufficient clarity. This reticence gives credence to the suspicion that the historical development of dogma, which Sobrino describes as ambiguous, has arrived at the formulation of Jesus’ divinity without a clear continuity with the New Testament.

But the divinity of Jesus is clearly attested to in the passages of the New Testament to which we have referred. The numerous Conciliar declarations in this regard[6] are in continuity with that which the New Testament affirms explicitly and not only “in seed”. The confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ has been an absolutely essential part of the faith of the Church since her origins. It is explicitly witnessed to since the New Testament.


III. The Incarnation of the Son of God

5. Father Sobrino writes: “From a dogmatic point of view, we have to say, without any reservation, that the Son (the second person of the Trinity) took on the whole reality of Jesus and, although the dogmatic formula never explains the manner of this being affected by the human dimension, the thesis is radical. The Son experienced Jesus’ humanity, existence in history, life, destiny, and death” (Jesus the Liberator, 242).

In this passage, the Author introduces a distinction between the Son and Jesus which suggests to the reader the presence of two subjects in Christ: the Son assumes the reality of Jesus; the Son experiences the humanity, the life, the destiny, and the death of Jesus. It is not clear that the Son is Jesus and that Jesus is the Son. In a literal reading of these passages, Father Sobrino reflects the so-called theology of the homo assumptus, which is incompatible with the Catholic faith which affirms the unity of the person of Jesus Christ in two natures, divine and human, according to the formulations of the Council of Ephesus,[7] and above all of the Council of Chalcedon which said: “…we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man composed of rational soul and body, the same one in being with the Father as to the divinity and one in being with us as to the humanity, like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15). The same was begotten from the Father before the ages as to the divinity and in the latter days for us and our salvation was born as to His humanity from Mary the Virgin Mother of God; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation”.[8] Similarly, Pope Pius XII declared in his encyclical Sempiternus Rex: “… the council of Chalcedon in full accord with that of Ephesus, clearly asserts that both natures are united in 'One Person and subsistence', and rules out the placing of two individuals in Christ, as if some one man, completely autonomous in himself, had been taken up and placed by the side of the Word”.[9]

6. Another difficulty with the Christological view of Father Sobrino arises from an insufficient comprehension of the communicatio idiomatum, which he describes in the following way: “the limited human is predicated of God, but the unlimited divine is not predicated of Jesus”(Christ the Liberator, 223, cf. 332-333).

In reality, the phrase communicatio idiomatum, that is, the possibility of referring the properties of divinity to humanity and vice versa, is the immediate consequence of the unity of the person of Christ “in two natures” affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon. By virtue of this possibility, the Council of Ephesus has already defined that Mary was Theotokos: “If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is truly God and, therefore, that the holy Virgin is the Mother of God (theotokos) since she begot according to the flesh the Word of God made flesh, let him be anathema”.[10] “If anyone ascribes separately to two persons or hypostases the words which in the evangelical and apostolic writings are either spoken of Christ by the saints or are used by Christ about Himself, and applies some to a man considered by himself, apart from the Word, and others, because they befit God, solely to the Word who is from God the Father, let him be anathema”.[11] As can easily be deduced from these texts, thecommunicatio idiomatum is applied in both senses: the human is predicated of God and the divine of man. Already the New Testament affirms that Jesus is Lord,[12] and that all things are created through him.[13] In Christian terminology, it is possible to say that Jesus is God, who is creator and omnipotent. The Council of Ephesus sanctioned the use of calling Mary Mother of God. It is therefore incorrect to maintain that “the unlimited divine” is not predicated of Jesus. Sobrino’s affirmation to the contrary is understandable only within the context of a homo assumptusChristology in which the unity of the person of Jesus is not clear, and therefore it would be impossible to predicate divine attributes of a human person. However, this Christology is in no way compatible with the teaching of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon on the unity of the person in two natures. Thus, the understanding of the communicatio idiomatum which the Author presents reveals an erroneous conception of the mystery of the Incarnation and of the unity of the person of Jesus Christ.

IV. Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God

7. Father Sobrino advances a peculiar view of the relationship between Jesus and the Kingdom of God. This is a point of special interest in his works. According to the Author, the person of Jesus as mediator cannot be absolutized, but must be contemplated in his relatedness to the Kingdom of God, which is apparently considered to be something distinct from Jesus himself:

“I shall analyze this historical relatedness in detail later, but I want to say here that this reminder is important because of the consequences […] when Christ the mediator is made absolute and there is no sense of his constitutive relatedness to what is mediated, the Kingdom of God” (Jesus the Liberator, 16).

“We must first distinguish between the mediator and the mediation of God. The Kingdom of God, formally speaking, is nothing other than the accomplishment of God’s will for this world, which we call mediation. This mediation […] is associated with a person (or group) who proclaims it and initiates it: this we call the mediator. In this sense we can and must say, according to faith, that the definitive, ultimate, and eschatological mediator of the Kingdom of God has already appeared: Jesus. […] From this standpoint, we can also appreciate Origen’s fine definition of Christ as the autobasileia of God, the Kingdom of God in person: important words that well describe the finality of the personal mediator of the Kingdom, but dangerous if they equate Christ with the reality of the Kingdom” (Jesus the Liberator, 108).

“Mediation and mediator are, then, essentially related, but they are not the same thing. There is always a Moses and a promised land, and Archbishop Romero and a dream of justice. Both things, together, express the whole of the will of God, while remaining two distinct things” ( Ibidem).

On the other hand, Jesus’ condition as mediator comes solely from the fact of his humanity: “Christ does not, then, derive his possibility of being mediator from anything added to his humanity; it belongs to him by his practice of being human” (Christ the Liberator, 135).

The Author certainly affirms a special relationship between Jesus (mediator) and the Kingdom of God (that which is mediated), in as far as Jesus is the definitive, ultimate, and eschatological mediator of the Kingdom. But, in these cited passages, Jesus and the Kingdom are distinguished in a way that the link between them is deprived of its unique and particular content. It does not correctly explain the essential nexus that exists between mediator and mediation, to use his words. In addition, by affirming that the possibility of being mediator belongs to Christ from the exercise of his humanity, he excludes the fact that his condition as Son of God has relevance for Jesus’ mediatory mission.

It is insufficient to speak of an intimate connection, or of a constitutive relatedness between Jesus and the Kingdom, or of the finality of the mediator [ultimidad del mediador], if this suggests something that is distinct from Jesus himself. In a certain sense, Jesus Christ and the Kingdom are identified: in the person of Jesus the Kingdom has already been made present. This identity has been placed in relief since the patristic period.[14] In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II affirms: “The preaching of the early Church was centered on the proclamation of Jesus Christ, with whom the kingdom was identified”.[15] “Christ not only proclaimed the kingdom, but in him the kingdom itself became present and was fulfilled”.[16] “The kingdom of God is not a concept, a doctrine, or a program […], but it is before all else a person with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God. If the kingdom is separated from Jesus, it is no longer the kingdom of God which he revealed”.[17]

On the other hand, the singularity and the unicity of the mediation of Christ has always been affirmed by the Church. On account of his condition as the “only begotten Son of God”, Jesus is the “definitive self-revelation of God”.[18] For that reason, his mediation is unique, singular, universal, and insuperable: “…one can and must say that Jesus Christ has a significance and a value for the human race and its history, which are unique and singular, proper to him alone, exclusive, universal, and absolute. Jesus is, in fact, the Word of God made man for the salvation of all”.[19]



V. The Self-consciousness of Jesus

8. Citing Leonardo Boff, Father Sobrino affirms that “Jesus was an extraordinary believer and had faith. Faith was Jesus’ mode of being” (Jesus the Liberator, 154). And for his own part he adds: “This faith describes the totality of the life of Jesus” (Ibidem, 157). The Author justifies his position citing the text of Hebrews 12:2: “Tersely and with a clarity unparalleled in the New Testament, the letter says that Jesus was related to the mystery of God in faith. Jesus is the one who has first and most fully lived faith (12:2)” (Christ the Liberator, 136-137). He further adds: “With regard to faith, Jesus in his life is presented as a believer like ourselves, our brother in relation to God, since he was not spared having to pass through faith. But he is also presented as an elder brother because he lived faith as its ‘pioneer and perfecter’ (12:2). He is the model, the one on whom we have to keep our eyes fixed in order to live out our own faith” (Ibidem, 138).

These citations do not clearly show the unique singularity of the filial relationship of Jesus with the Father; indeed they tend to exclude it. Considering the whole of the New Testament it is not possible to sustain that Jesus was “a believer like ourselves”. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ “vision” of the Father: “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father”.[20] This unique and singular intimacy between Jesus and the Father is equally evident in the Synoptic Gospels.[21]

The filial and messianic consciousness of Jesus is the direct consequence of his ontology as Son of God made man. If Jesus were a believer like ourselves, albeit in an exemplary manner, he would not be able to be the true Revealer showing us the face of the Father. This point has an evident connection both with what is said above in number IV concerning the relationship between Jesus and the Kingdom, and what will be said in VI below concerning the salvific value that Jesus attributed to his death. For Father Sobrino, in fact, the unique character of the mediation and revelation of Jesus disappears: he is thus reduced to the condition of “revealer” that we can attribute to the prophets and mystics.

Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, enjoys an intimate and immediate knowledge of his Father, a “vision” that certainly goes beyond the vision of faith. The hypostatic union and Jesus’ mission of revelation and redemption require the vision of the Father and the knowledge of his plan of salvation. This is what is indicated in the Gospel texts cited above.

Various recent magisterial texts have expressed this doctrine: “But the knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of His Incarnation, exceed all that the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision”.[22]

Though in somewhat different terminology, Pope John Paul II insists on this vision of the Father:“His [Jesus’] eyes remain fixed on the Father. Precisely because of the knowledge and experience of the Father which he alone has, even at this moment of darkness he sees clearly the gravity of sin and suffers because of it. He alone, who sees the Father and rejoices fully in him, can understand completely what it means to resist the Father's love by sin”.[23]

Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the immediate knowledge which Jesus has of the Father: “Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father”.[24] “By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal”.[25]

The relationship between Jesus and God is not correctly expressed by saying Jesus was a believer like us. On the contrary, it is precisely the intimacy and the direct and immediate knowledge which he has of the Father that allows Jesus to reveal to men the mystery of divine love. Only in this way can Jesus bring us into divine love.

VI. The Salvific Value of the Death of Jesus

9. In some texts some assertions of Father Sobrino make one think that, for him, Jesus did not attribute a salvific value to his own death: “Let it be said from the start that the historical Jesus did not interpret his death in terms of salvation, in terms of soteriological models later developed by the New Testament, such as expiatory sacrifice or vicarious satisfaction […]. In other words, there are no grounds for thinking that Jesus attributed an absolute transcendent meaning to his own death, as the New Testament did later” (Jesus the Liberator, 201). “In the Gospel texts it is impossible to find an unequivocal statement of the meaning Jesus attached to his own death” (Ibidem, 202). “…Jesus went to his death with confidence and saw it as a final act of service, more in the manner of an effective example that would motivate others than as a mechanism of salvation for others. To be faithful to the end is what it means to be human” (Ibidem, 204).

This affirmation of Father Sobrino seems, at first glance, limited to the idea that Jesus did not attribute a salvific value to his death using the categories that the New Testament later employed. But later he affirms that there is in fact no data to suggest that Jesus granted an absolute transcendent sense to his own death. The Author maintains only that Jesus went to his death confidently, and attributed to it an exemplary value for others. In this way, the numerous passages in the New Testament which speak of the salvific value of the death of Christ are deprived of any reference to the consciousness of Christ during his earthly life.[26] Gospel passages in which Jesus attributes to his death a significance for salvation are not adequately taken into account; in particular, Mark 10:45,[27] “the Son of Man did not comes to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”; and the words of the institution of the Eucharist: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many”.[28] Here again, the difficulty about Father Sobrino’s use of the New Testament appears. In his writing, the New Testament data gives way to a hypothetical historical reconstruction that is erroneous.

10. The problem, however, is not simply confined to Jesus’ consciousness about his death or the significance he gave to it. Father Sobrino also advances his point of view about the soteriological significance that should be attributed to the death of Christ: “[I]ts importance for salvation consists in the fact that what God wants human beings to be has appeared on earth […]. The Jesus who is faithful even to the cross is salvation, then, at least in this sense: he is the revelation of the homo verus, the true and complete human being, not only of the vere homo, that is of a human being in whom, as a matter of fact, all the characteristics of a true human nature are present […]. The very fact that true humanity has been revealed, contrary to all expectations, is in itself good news and therefore is already in itself salvation […]. On this principle, Jesus’ cross as the culmination of his whole life can be understood as bringing salvation. This saving efficacy is shown more in the form of an exemplary cause than of an efficient cause. But this does not mean that it is not effective […]. It is not efficient causality, but symbolic causality” [causalidad ejemplar] (Jesus the Liberator, 229-230).

Of course there is great value in the efficacious example of Christ, as is mentioned explicitly in the New Testament.[29] This is a dimension of soteriology which should not be forgotten. At the same time, however, it is not possible to reduce the efficacy of the death of Jesus to that of an example or, in the words of the Author, to the appearance of the homo verus, faithful to God even unto the cross. In the cited text, Father Sobrino uses phrases such as “at least in this sense” and “is shown more in the form,” which seem to leave the door open to other considerations. However, in the end this door is closed with an explicit negation: “it is not efficient causality but symbolic causality” [causalidad ejemplar]. Redemption thus seems reduced to the appearance of the homo verus, manifested in fidelity unto death. The death of Christ is exemplum and not sacramentum (gift).This reduces redemption to moralism. The Christological difficulties already noted in the discussion of the mystery of the Incarnation and the relationship with the Kingdom appear here anew. Only Jesus’ humanity comes into play, not the Son of God made man for us and for our salvation. The affirmations of the New Testament, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church concerning the efficacy of the redemption and salvation brought about by Christ cannot be reduced to the good example that Jesus gives us. The mystery of the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God become man, is the unique and inexhaustible font of the redemption of humanity, made efficacious in the Church through the sacraments.

The Council of Trent, in its Decree on Justification, states: “When the blessed ‘fullness of time’ had come (Eph 1:10; Gal 4:4), the heavenly Father, ‘the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1:3), sent his own Son Jesus Christ to mankind ... to redeem the Jews, who are under the Law, and the Gentiles ‘who were not pursuing righteousness’ (Rom 9:30), that all ‘might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5). God has ‘put Him forward as an expiation by His Blood, to be received by faith’ (Rom 3:25), for our sins and ‘not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn 2:2)”.[30]

This same decree affirms that the meritorious cause of justification is Jesus, the only Son of God,“who, ‘while we were still sinners’ (Rom 5:10), ‘out of the great love with which He loved us’ (Eph 2:4) merited for us justification by His most holy passion and the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us to God the Father”.[31]

The Second Vatican Council teaches: “In the human nature united to Himself the Son of God, by overcoming death through His own death and resurrection, redeemed man and re-molded him into a new creation (cf. Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17). By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body. In that Body the life of Christ is poured into the believers who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ who suffered and was glorified”.[32]

On this point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of ‘the righteous one, my Servant’ as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin. Citing a confession of faith that he himself had ‘received’, St. Paul professes that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:3). In particular Jesus' redemptive death fulfils Isaiah's prophecy of the suffering Servant. Indeed Jesus himself explained the meaning of his life and death in the light of God's suffering Servant”.[33]


11. Theology arises from obedience to the impulse of truth which seeks to be communicated, and from the love that desires to know ever better the One who loves – God himself - whose goodness we have recognized in the act of faith.[34] For this reason, theological reflection cannot have a foundation other than the faith of the Church. Only starting from ecclesial faith, in communion with the Magisterium, can the theologian acquire a deeper understanding of the Word of God contained in Scripture and transmitted by the living Tradition of the Church.[35]

Thus the truth revealed by God himself in Jesus Christ, and transmitted by the Church, constitutes the ultimate normative principle of theology.[36] Nothing else may surpass it. In its constant reference to this perennial spring, theology is a font of authentic newness and light for people of good will.

Theological investigation will bear ever more abundant fruit for the good of the whole People of God and all humanity, the more it draws from the living stream which – thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit – proceeds from the Apostles and has been enriched by the faithful reflection of past generations. It is the Holy Spirit who leads the Church into the fullness of truth,[37] and it is only through docility to this “gift from above” that theology is truly ecclesial and in service to the truth.

The purpose of this Notification is precisely to make known to all the faithful the fruitfulness of theological reflection that does not fear being developed from within the living stream of ecclesial Tradition.

The Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect on October 13, 2006, approved this Notification, adopted in the Ordinary Session of this Congregation, and ordered it to be published.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, November 26, 2006, the Feast of Christ, King of the Universe.

William Cardinal Levada


Angelo Amato, S.D.B.

Titular Archbishop of Sila



[1] The English translation of Jesucristo liberador is: Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View, (Orbis Books, New York, 1993, 2003). All citations will be taken from the English version.

[2] The English translation of La fe en Jesucristo is: Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims, (Orbis Books, New York, 2001). All citations will be taken from the English version.

[3] Cf., for example, infra n. 6.

[4] Cf. Second Vatican Council Decree Optatam Totius, 16; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, 65: AAS 91 (1999), 5-88.

[5] Cf. 1 Thes 1:10; Phil 2:5-11; 1 Cor 12:3; Rom 1:3-4, 10:9; Col 2:9, etc.

[6] Cf. Councils of Nicea, DH 125; Constantinople, DH 150; Ephesus, DH 250-263; Chalcedon, DH 301-302.

[7] Cf. DH 252-263.

[8] Chalcedon, Symbolum Chalcedonense, DH 301.

[9] Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Sempiternus Rex: AAS 43 (1951), 638; DH 3905.

[10] Council of Ephesus, Anathematismi Cyrilli Alex.,DH 252.

[11] Ibidem, DH 255.

[12] Cf. 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11.

[13] Cf. 1 Cor 8:6.

[14] Cf. Origen, In Mt. Hom., 14:7; Tertulian, Adv. Marcionem, IV 8; Hilary of Poitiers, Com. in Mt. 12:17.

[15] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio, 16: AAS 83 (1991), 249-340.

[16] Ibidem, 18.

[17] Ibidem.

[18] Ibidem, 5.

[19] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Dominus Iesus, 15: AAS 92 (2000), 742-765.

[20] Jn 6:46; Cf. also Jn 1:18.

[21] Cf. Mt 11:25-27; Lk 10:21-22.

[22] Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Mystici Corporis, 75: AAS (1943) 230; DH 3812.

[23] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, 26: AAS 93 (2001), 266-309.

[24] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 473.

[25] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 474.

[26] Cf., for example, Rom 3:25; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Jn 2:2, etc.

[27] Cf. also Mt 20:28.

[28] Mk 14:24; cf. Mt 26:28; Lk 22:20.

[29] Cf. Jn 13:15; 1 Pt 2:21.

[30] Council of Trent, Decree De justificatione, DH 1522.

[31] Ibidem, DH1529; cf. DH 1560.

[32] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 7.

[33] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 601.

[34] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum Veritatis, 7: AAS 82 (1990), 1550-1570.

[35] Ibidem, 6.

[36] Ibidem, 10.

[37] Cf. Jn 16:13.


Liberation theology could be interpreted as a western attempt to return to the gospel of the early church where Christianity is politically and culturally decentralized.

Liberation theology proposes to fight poverty by addressing its supposed source: sin. In so doing, it explores the relationship between Christian theology — especially Roman Catholic theology — and political activism, especially in terms of social justice, poverty, and human rights. The principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed. For example Jon Sobrino, S.J., argues that the poor are a privileged channel of God's grace.

Some liberation theologians base their social action upon the Bible scriptures describing the mission of Jesus Christ, as bringing a sword (social unrest), e.g. Isaiah 61:1, Matthew 10:34, Luke 22:35–38 — and not as bringing peace (social order) This Biblical interpretation is a call to action against poverty, and the sin engendering it, to effect Jesus Christ's mission of justice in this world.

Gustavo Gutierrez gave the movement its paradigmatic expression with his book A Theology of Liberation (1971). In this book, Gutierrez combined populist ideas with the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He was influenced by an existing socialist current in the Church which included organizations such as the Catholic Worker Movement and the French Christian youth worker organization, "Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne". He was also influenced by Paul Gauthier's "The Poor, Jesus and the Church" (1965). Gutierrez's book is based on an understanding of history in which the human being is seen as assuming conscious responsibility for human destiny, and yet Christ the Savior liberates the human race from sin, which is the root of all disruption of friendship and of all injustice and oppression.

Liberation Theology
                             Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

The following is to a "private" document which preceded the Instruction of Fall 1984.

Preliminary Notes

1. Liberation theology is a phenomenon with an extraordinary number of layers. There is a whole spectrum from radically marxist positions, on the one hand, to the efforts which are being made within the framework of a correct and ecclesial theology, on the other hand, a theology which stresses the responsibility which Christians necessarily hear for the poor and oppressed, such as we see in the documents of the Latin American Bishops' Conference (CELAM) from Medellin to Puebla. In what follows, the concept of liberation theology will be understood in a narrower sense: it will refer only to those theologies which, in one way or another, have embraced the marxist fundamental option. Here too there are many individual differences, which cannot be dealt with in a general discussion of this kind. All I can do is attempt to illuminate certain trends which, notwithstanding the different nuances they exhibit, are widespread and exert a certain influence even where liberation theology in this more restricted sense does not exist.

2. An analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church. At the same time it must be borne in mind that no error could persist unless it contained a grain of truth. Indeed, an error is all the more dangerous, the greater that grain of truth is, for then the temptation it exerts is all the greater.

Furthermore, the error concerned would not have been able to wrench that piece of the truth to its own use if that truth had been adequately lived and witnessed to in its proper place (in the faith of the Church). So, in denouncing error and pointing to dangers in liberation theology, we must always be ready to ask what truth is latent in the error and how it can be given its rightful place, how it can be released from error's monopoly.

3. Liberation theology is a universal phenomenon in three ways:

a. It does not intend to add a new theological treatise to those already existing, i.e., it does not wish to develop new aspects of the Church's social ethics. Rather it sees itself as a new hermeneutics of the Christian faith, a new way of understanding Christianity as a whole and implementing it. Thus it affects theology in its basic constitution, not merely in aspects of its content. So too it alters all forms of Church life: the Church's constitution, liturgy, catechesis, moral options.

b. While liberation theology today has its center of gravity in Latin America, it is by no means an exclusively Latin American phenomenon. It is unthinkable apart from the governing influence of European and North American theologians. But it is also found in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Taiwan and in Africa, though in the latter case the search for an "African theology" is in the foreground. The Union of Third World Theologians is strongly characterized by an emphasis on the themes of liberation theology.

c. Liberation theology goes beyond denominational borders:
from its own starting point it frequently tries to create a new universality for which the classical church divisions are supposed to have become irrelevant.

I . The concept of liberation theology and its origins and preconditions

These preliminary remarks have brought us right to the heart of the subject, without, however, dealing with the central question: what is liberation theology?

Initially we said that liberation theology intends to supply a new total interpretation of the Christian reality; it explains Christianity as a praxis of liberation and sees itself as the guide to this praxis. However, since in its view all reality is political, liberation is also a political concept and the guide to liberation must he a guide to political action:

"Nothing lies outside ... political commitment. Everything has a political color." A theology that is not "practical"; i.e., not essentially political, is regarded as "idealistic" and thus as lacking in reality, or else it is condemned as a vehicle for the oppressors' maintenance of power.

A theologian who has learned his theology in the classical tradition and has accepted its spiritual challenge will find it hard to realize that an attempt is being made, in all seriousness, to recast the whole Christian reality in the categories of politico-social liberation praxis. This is all the more difficult because many liberation theologians continue to use a great deal of the Church's classical ascetical and dogmatic language while changing its signification. As a result, the reader or listener who is operating from a different background can gain the impression that everything is the same as before, apart from the addition of a few somewhat unpalatable statements, which, given so much spirituality, can scarcely be all that dangerous.

The very radicality of liberation theology means that its seriousness is often underestimated, since it does not fit into any of the accepted categories of heresy; its fundamental concern cannot be detected by the existing range of standard questions.

I would like to try, therefore, to approach the basic orientation of liberation theology in two steps: first by saying something about its presuppositions, which make it possible, and then by referring to some of its basic concepts, which reveal something of its structure.

What could have led to that complete new orientation of theological thought that is expressed in liberation theology? In the main I see three factors which made it possible.

1. After the Council a new theological situation had arisen, again characterized by three assertions:

a. The view arose that the existing theological tradition was largely no longer adequate, and that, as a result, an entirely new theological and spiritual orientation needed to be sought directly from Scripture and from the signs of the times.

b. The idea of a turning to the world, of responsibility for the world, frequently deteriorated into a naive belief in science which accepted the human sciences as a new gospel without wanting to see their limitations and endemic problems. Psychology, sociology and the marxist interpretation of history seemed to be scientifically established and hence to become unquestionable arbiters of Christian thought.

c. The criticism of tradition applied by modern Evangelical exegesis, in particular by Rudolf Bultmann and his school, similarly became a firm theological authority, cutting off the path to theology in its prior form and so encouraging people all the more to produce new constructions.

2. This changed theological situation coincided with a changed intellectual situation. At the end of the phase of reconstruction after the Second World War, which corresponded roughly to the end of the Council, a tangible vacuum of meaning had arisen in the Western world to which the still dominant existentialist philosophy could give no answer. In this situation the various brands of neo-marxism became a moral impulse, also holding out a promise of meaning that was practically irresistible to the academic youth. Bloch's marxism with its religious veneer and the strictly scientific appearance of the philosophies of Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas and Marcuse offered models of action by which people believed they could respond to the moral challenge of misery in the world as well as realize the proper meaning of the biblical message.

3. The moral challenge of poverty and oppression presented itself in an ineluctable form at the very moment when Europe and North America had attained a hitherto unknown affluence. This challenge evidently called for new answers which were not to be found in the existing tradition. The changed theological and philosophical situation was a formal invitation to seek the answer in a Christianity which allowed itself to be guided by the models of hope — apparently scientifically grounded — put forward by marxist philosophies.

II. The basic structure of liberation theology

This answer takes very different shapes, depending on the par­ticular form of liberation theology, theology of revolution, political theology, etc. No overall description can be given, therefore. Yet there are certain basic concepts that recur in various modifications and express fundamental intentions held in common.

Before examining the content of these basic concepts we must make an observation concerning the cardinal structural elements of liberation theology, taking up what we have already said about the changed theological situation in the wake of the Council.

As I explained, the exegesis of Bultmann and his school now came to be read as the verdict of "science" on Jesus, a verdict that simply had to be accepted as valid. But Bultmann's "historical Jesus" is separated from the Christ of faith by a great gulf (Bultmann himself speaks of a 'chasm'). In Bultmann, while Jesus is part of the presuppositions of the New Testament, he himself is enclosed in the world of Judaism.

Now the crucial result of this exegesis was to shatter the historical credibility of the Gospels: the Christ of the Church's tradition and the Jesus of history put forward by science evidently belong to two different worlds. Science, regarded as the final arbiter, had torn the figure of Jesus from its anchorage in tradition; on the one hand, consequently, tradition hangs in a vacuum, deprived of reality, while on the other hand, a new interpretation and significance must be sought for the figure of Jesus.

Bultmann's importance, therefore, was less because of his positive discoveries than because of the negative result of his criticism: the core of faith, christology, was open to new interpretations because its previous affirmations had perished as being historically no longer tenable. It also meant that the Church's teaching Office was discredited, since she had evidently clung to a scientifically untenable theory, and thus ceased to be regarded as an authority where knowledge of Jesus was concerned. In the future her statements could only be seen as futile attempts to defend a position which was scientifically obsolete.

Another key word made Bultmann important for future developments. He had reinstated the old concept "hermeneutics" and given it a new thust. The word hermeneutics expresses the insight that a real understanding of historical texts does not come about by mere historical interpretation and, indeed, that every historical interpretation already includes certain prior decisions. Once the historical material has been established, it is the task of hermeneutics to "actualize" Scripture. In classical terminology, it is to "dissolve the horizon" between then and now. It asks the question: what significance have these past events for today? Bultmann himself had answered this question with the help of Heidegger's philosophy and had interpreted the Bible in a correspondingly existentialist manner. This answer attracted no interest then, nor does it now; to that extent Bultmann has been superseded in the exegesis currently acceptable. Yet what has remained is the abstraction of the figure of Jesus from the classical tradition as well as the idea that, using a new hermeneutics, we can and must bring this figure into the present in a new way.

At this point we come to the second element of our situation to which we have already referred: the new philosophical climate of the late sixties. In the meantime the marxist analysis of history and society was largely accepted as the only "scientific" one. This means that the world must be interpreted in terms of the class struggle and that the only choice is between capitalism and marxism. It also means that all reality is political and has to justify itself politically. The biblical concept of the 'poor" provides a starting point for fusing the Bible's view of history with marxist dialectic; it is interpreted by the idea of the proletariat in the marxist sense and thus justifies marxism as the legitimate hermeneutics for understanding the Bible.

Since, according to this view, there are, and can only be, two options, any objection to this interpretation of the Bible is an expression of the ruling class's determination to hold on to its power. A well-known liberation theologian asserts: "The class struggle is a fact; neutrality on this point is simply impossible."

This approach also takes the around from under the feet of the Church's teaching office: if she were to intervene and proceed against such an interpretation of Christianity, she would only prove that she is on the side of the rich and the rulers and against the poor and suffering, i.e., against Jesus himself: she would show that she had taken the negative side in the dialectic of history.

This decision, apparently unavoidable in "scientific" and "historical" terms, automatically determines how Christianity shall be interpreted in the future, as regards both the activities of this interpretation and its content.

As far as the arbiters are concerned, the crucial concepts are people, community, experience and history. Previously it was the Church, namely, the Catholic Church in her totality — a totality which spanned time and space and embraced laity (sensus fidei) and hierarchy (Magisterium) — that constituted the hermeneutical criterion; now it is the "community". The experience of the "community" determines the understanding and the interpretation of Scripture.

Again it can be said, in a way that seems strictly scientific, that the Gospels' picture of Jesus is itself a synthesis of event and interpretation, based on the experience of the individual communities, whereby interpretation was far more important than the no longer ascertainable event.

This original synthesis of event and interpretation can be dissolved and reformed continually: the community "interprets" the events on the basis of its "experience" and thus discovers what its "praxis" should be. The same idea appears in a somewhat modified form in connection with the concept of the people" where the conciliar emphasis on the "People of God" is transformed into a marxist myth. The experiences of the 'people" elucidate Scripture. Here "people" is the antithesis of the hierarchy, the antithesis of all institutions, which are seen as oppressive power. Ultimately anyone who participates in the class struggle is a member of the "people" the "Church of the people" becomes the antagonist of the hierarchical Church.

Finally the concept "history" becomes a crucial interpretative category. The view, accepted as scientifically certain and incontrovertible, that the Bible speaks exclusively in terms of salvation history (and thus, antimetaphysically), facilitates the fusing of the biblical horizon with the marxist idea of history, which progresses in a dialectical manner and is the real bringer of salvation. History is accordingly a process of progressive liberation; history is the real revelation and hence the real interpreter of the Bible. Sometimes this dialectic of progress is supported by pneumatology. In any case the latter also makes a teaching office which insists on abiding truths into an authority inimical to progress, thinking "metaphysically" and hence contradicting "history". We can say that the concept of history swallows up the concepts of God and of Revelation. The "historicality" of the Bible must justify its absolute dominance and thus legitimize the' transition to materialist-marxist philosophy, in which history has taken over the role of God.

III. Central concepts of liberation theology

So we have arrived at the basic concepts of the new interpretation of the Christian reality. Since the individual concepts occur in different contexts, I will simply discuss them one after another, without any systematization.

Let us begin with the new meaning of faith, hope and love.

Concerning faith, one South American theologian says, for instance, that Jesus' experience of God is radically historical. "His faith is transformed into fidelity." Thus faith is fundamentally replaced by "fidelity to history". Here we see that fusion between God and history which makes it possible to keep the Chalcedonian formula for Jesus, albeit with a totally changed meaning: it is clear that the classical tests for orthodoxy are of no avail in analyzing this theology. It is asserted "that Jesus is God, but it is immediately added that the true and only God is he who reveals himself historically and as a stumbling block in Jesus, and in the poor who prolong his presence. Only the person who holds together these two affirmations is orthodox."

Hope is interpreted as "confidence in the.future" and as working for the future and thus is subordinated once more to the history of class conflict.

Love consists in the "option for the poor"; i.e., it coincides with opting for the class struggle. In opposition to "false universalism"'; the liberation theologians emphasize very strongly the partiality and partisan nature of the Christian option; in their view, taking sides is the fundamental presupposition for a correct hermeneutics of the biblical testimony.

Here, I think, one can see very clearly that amalgam of a basic truth of Christianity and an un-Christian fundamental option which makes the whole thing so seductive: The Sermon on the Mount is indeed God taking sides with the poor. But to interpret the "poor" in the sense of the marxist dialectic of history, and "taking sides with them" in the sense of the class struggle, is a wanton attempt to portray as identical things that are contrary.

The fundamental concept of the preaching of Jesus is the "Kingdom of God". This concept is also at the center of the liberation theologies, but read against the background of marxist hermeneutics. According to one of these theologians, the Kingdom must not be understood in a spiritualist or universalist manner, not in the sense of an abstract eschatological eventuality. It must be understood in partisan terms and with a view to praxis. The meaning of the Kingdom can only be defined by reference to the praxis of Jesus, not theoretically: it means working at the historical reality that surrounds us in order to transform it into the Kingdom.

Here we must mention another basic idea of a particular post­conciliar theology which has led in this direction. People said that after the Council every dualism must be overcome: the dualism of body and soul, of natural and supernatural, of this world and the world beyond, of then and now. Once these supposed dualisms had been eliminated, it only remained to work for a kingdom to be realized in present history and in politico­economic reality. This meant, however, that one had ceased to work for the benefit of people in this present time and had begun to destroy the present in the interests of a supposed future: thus the real dualism had broken loose.

In this connection I would like to mention the interpretation of death and resurrection given by one of the leading liberation theologians. First of all he once again opposes "universalist" conceptions by asserting that resurrection is in the first place a hope for those who are crucified, who make up the majority of men: all the millions who are subjected to a slow crucifixion by structural injustice. But faith also participates in Jesus' lordship over history by setting up the Kingdom, that is, by fighting for justice and integral liberation, by transforming unjust structures into more human ones. This lordship over history is exercised by repeating in history the gesture by which God raised Jesus, i.e., by giving life to those who are crucified in history. Man has taken over God's gesture — this manifests the whole transformation of the biblical message in an almost tragic way, when one thinks how this attempted imitation of God has worked out in practice and continues to do so.

As to other reinterpretations of biblical concepts:

The Exodus becomes the central image of salvation history;
the paschal mystery is understood as a revolutionary symbol, and consequently the Eucharist is interpreted as a celebration of liberation in the sense of politico-messianic hope and praxis.

The word redemption is largely replaced by liberation, which is seen, against the background of history and the class struggle, as a process of progressive liberation.

Absolutely fundamental, finally, is the stress on praxis: truth must not be understood metaphysically, for that would be "idealism". Truth is realized in history and its praxis. Action is truth. Hence even the ideas which are employed in such action are ultimately inter­changeable. Praxis is the sole deciding factor. The only true orthodoxy is therefore orthopraxy. It follows that the biblical texts can be treated more loosely, for historical criticism has loosed Scripture from the traditional interpretation, which now appears to be unscientific. Tradition itself is treated with the greatest possible scientific strictness along the lines of Bultmann. But as for the historically transmitted content of the Bible, it cannot be exclusively binding. Ultimately, what is normative for interpretation is not historical research but the hermeneutic of history experienced in the community or the political group.

In trying to arrive at an overall evaluation it must be said that, if one accepts the fundamental assumptions which underlie liberation theology, it cannot be denied that the whole edifice has an almost irresistible logic. By adopting the position of biblical criticism and of a hermeneutics that grows through experience, on the one hand, and of the marxist analysis of history, on the other, liberation theologians have succeeded in creating a total picture of the Christian reality, and this total view seems to respond fully both to the claims of science and to the moral challenges of our time, urging people to make Christianity an instrument of concrete world transformation; it seems to have united Christianity, in this way, with all the "progressive forces" of our era. One can understand, therefore, that this new interpretation of Christianity should have exercised an increasing fascination over theologians, priests and religious, particularly against the background of Third World problems. To say "no" to it must seem to them to be a flight from reality as well as a denial of reason and morality. On the other hand, if one considers how radical this reinterpretation of Christianity is, it is all the more pressing to find the right answer to the challenge which it presents. We shall only survive this crisis if we succeed in making the logic of faith visible in an equally compelling manner and in presenting it as a logic of reality, i.e., manifesting the concrete force of a better answer attested in lived experience. Since it is so, since thought and experience, interpretation and realization, are equally called for, it is a task for the whole Church. Theology alone is insufficient, Church authority alone is insufficient. Since the phenomenon of liberation theology indicates a lack of conversion in the Church, a lack of radical faith, only an increase in conversion and faith can arouse and elicit those theological insights and those decisions on the part of the shepherds which will give an answer to the magnitude of the question.

The Ratzinger Report — an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger and Vittorio Messori. This book was published by Ignatius Press.