Liberation theology and the great revolutionary fantasy, by Phillip Berryman

Liberation theology and the great revolutionary fantasy, by Phillip Berryman

Paul Gray

Phillip Berryman's Liberation Theology serves two important purposes. It maps out the dimensions of the phenomenon in the Latin American churches known as "liberation theology", and provides penetrating insight into the social and philosophical thinking of the liberation theologians themselves.

Both objectives are well-served by the fact that the author clearly supports the major thrust of the liberation theology movement, so that what he reveals about the phenomenon cannot be dismissed as misrepresentation. Berryman served as a priest in a poor Central American barrio for several years, and has a personal acquaintance with leading figures in the movement.

His book puts to rest a number of myths about the subject. Firstly, non-Latin Americans may have the misconception that liberation theology is primarily a movement of the poor, springing initially from the grass roots and today claiming the allegiance of the Christian masses. Berryman makes it clear that the reverse is the case.

Liberation theology began as a movement of the university-educated elite. Berryman cites the comments of leading liberation theologian, Juan Luis Segundo, who points out that "the initial formulations were the work of theologians involved not so much with the poor as with university groups and intellectuals who were becoming aware of the structural crisis of Latin America".

"Liberation theologians are intellectuals", he says. "They produce a steady output of books and articles and take part in conferences ... Their aim is to be 'organic intellectuals' (Antonio Gramsci) - that is, intellectuals whose work is directly connected with popular struggle." "For the most part, they do not write directly for the poor"; a major part of their audience is "other clergy, and bishops in particular".

Little real support

As to the degree of popular support enjoyed by the movement, Berryman is similarly frank. The membership of the base Christian communities (small local Christian groups organised around the principles of liberation theology) is tiny. "In any given country only a minority of parishes - perhaps 10 per cent - have adopted this model of pastoral work ... Despite the considerable attention given to base communities in Nicaragua, far less than one per cent of the population participates in them. Even in Brazil, where these communities are most developed, under two per cent of the country participates actively in base communities".

Liberation theology is thus revealed as a minority concern, numerically speaking. But it remains a most important movement as far as Latin American society is concerned, because of the ideological training which it gives to those individuals who become involved with it. "Base communities have undeniable spin-off effects in the political process", Berryman writes. "They function in effect as cadre schools, primarily for leadership within the church". He cites a Nicaraguan source as saying, "the Sandinistas regarded the base communities as 'quarries' for their own organising."

The base communities, small though they are, represent an important teaching ground for the liberation theologians, a place where the highly complex ideas of these university intellectuals can be propounded to a willing audience. It is in explaining these ideas that Berryman's book is most useful.

Dismissing the argument that liberation theology is merely Marxism dressed up as Christian theology, the author nevertheless shows the huge debt that the movement owes to Marxian social science. Marxism is unavoidable for Latin American intellectuals, he says. "It is as much a part of the intellectual milieu as are psychological and therapeutic concepts in the US middle class."

Revolutionary movement

Berryman does make it clear that liberation theology is "revolutionary", rather than "reformist", in what it advocates for Latin America (the subtitle of the book describes liberation theology as "the revolutionary movement"). "Reformism is insufficient; the kind of changes needed [in Latin America] can come about only through revolution". Latin American theologians opt for "a radical social science", he says. "Their primary concern is to understand the social structures they live under in order to change those structures. They are not interested in fine-tuning the working of existing society".

Some liberation theologians are more specific than others in what they see as the main objective. Juan Luis Segundo says the goal is a Latin American socialism, by which he means "a political regime in which the ownership of the means of production is taken away from individuals and handed over to higher institutions whose main concern is the common good".

Berryman says the theologians mistrust older, orthodox communist parties, but "see more reason for hope in newer organisations. I would assume that they had in mind the Sandinistas and other organisations developing in Central America". Berryman says the liberation theologians "do not write lengthy critiques of 'actually existing socialism' (the USSR and Eastern Europe), although they often refer to it with shorthand expressions like 'bureaucratic socialism'."

Certain inconsistencies in the ideology of the liberation theologians emerge from what Berryman reports. For example, he cites with approval the arguments of one of liberation theology's great heroes, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, who argued "that although faith and politics are connected they are not the same thing and that the distinction should be maintained". Romero insisted that particular political programs should not replace the content of the faith, that the Church and its symbols should not be used on behalf of any political organisation and that no one should be compelled to join any particular organisation.

On the other hand, it is made quite clear throughout Berryman's book that the preferred mode of political action for Christians is revolutionary rather than reformist, that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua are a widely admired model, that the alleged gains made by communism in Cuba make that society more just than others in Latin America, and that socialism (albeit not a "bureaucratised" one) is the goal for which committed Christians are striving. If this does not amount to endorsing "a particular political program", it nevertheless reduces the field of political options considerably.

Moderate alternatives

The fact that the revolutionary option is considered by liberation theologians to be the only valid one emerges from Berryman's fleeting discussion of the more moderate alternatives. The work of Belgian Jesuit Roger Vekemans, who was instrumental in getting the Christian Democrats off the ground in Chile and elsewhere, is dismissed with a pointed reference to the fact that he helped channel $5 million from the CIA to them in 1964 (allegations of CIA links are, of course, the ultimate slander).

Vekemans and his colleagues in the Frei government in Chile in the 1960s showed that Christians can use the parliamentary system to initiate wholesale reform. It was under the Marxist administration of Salvador Allende that Chilean democracy broke down.

Perhaps the most serious weakness in the case put by the liberation theologians is the absence of discussion about actual violence, i.e. killing). Many words are spent on the concept of "structural violence" (i.e., suffering brought about by injustice), but none of the theologians appears to address the question of the violent consequences of pursuing certain radical political programs in the volatile climate of many Latin American countries.

The history of "guerrilla warfare" in Latin America since the 1960s shows that the negative effects of a failed revolutionary enterprise are frequently catastrophic for entire populations. Even the successful ones cost dear, such as the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua in the late 1970s, which led to the deaths of some 50,000 people as the Somoza dictatorship fought for its life (very few of the dead were members of the Sandinista front).

While theologians may say that "willingness to lay down one's life" is a fine Christian virtue, the concept of laying down other peoples' lives has a slightly different moral complexion. Berryman simply says, "No theologian has written a book on the issue [of revolutionary violence] ... To the extent death is theologised, it is in reflections on martyrdom, the willingness to give one's life for others, not to take others' lives".

For those who, like this reviewer, harbour the belief that liberation theologians are at heart a group of intellectual revolutionaries who are not interested in the mundane slow work of reforming society (à la Vekemans et al), or who perhaps lack the creativity of mind to think up alternatives less drastic than revolution when confronted with social problems, Berryman's account will come as confirmation.

Some of the more demagogic statements of the supporters of the liberation theology movement are exposed to full view, such as that of the Mexican ex-Jesuit Jose Porfirio Miranda, who insists that Marx's thought has "gospel roots", and that it is a "conscious continuation of early Christianity". We also read that some liberation theologians (Hinkelammert and Assmann) are so impressed by some of Marx's more fanciful (or poetic?) ideas, such as "fetishism" (the notion that commodities become independently acting "subjects" while humans become inert "objects"), that they place it at the centre of their "Christian" analysis of Latin American society.

Berryman's account also reveals the utopianism implicit in the ideas and attitudes of the liberation theologians, a utopianism which goes hand-in-hand with a kind of metaphysical obsession with the evils of capitalism. He quotes a statement published by a group of Brazilian bishops: Capitalism is "the greatest evil, sin accumulated, the rotten root, the tree that produces fruits we have come to know: poverty' hunger, sickness, death". The bishops then stated what they wanted instead of capitalism (though they did not say how to bring it about):

"We want a world where the fruits of work will belong to everyone.

"We want a world where people will work not to get rich but so that all will have what they need to live on: food, healthcare, housing, schooling, clothes, shoes, water, electricity.

"We want a world where money will be at the service of human beings and not human beings at the service of money ...

"We want a world in which the people will be one, and the division between rich and poor will be abolished".

The most eminent former Marxist intellectual of all, Professor Leszek Kolakowski, put this kind of thinking in context when he wrote in the epilogue to Main Currents of Marxism (1978):

"At the present time it is obvious to all except a handful of New Left adolescents that socialism cannot literally 'satisfy all needs' but can only aim at a just distribution of insufficient resources - which leaves us with the problem of defining 'just' and of deciding by what social mechanisms the aim is to be effected in each particular case. The idea of perfect equality, i.e., an equal share of all goods for everybody, is not only unfeasible economically but is contradictory in itself: for perfect equality can only be imagined under a system of extreme despotism, but despotism itself presupposes inequality at least in such basic advantages as participation in power and access to information."


Seen in the light of this common-sense observation, liberation theology's obsession with revolutionary political solutions is evidence of a fundamental intellectual weakness, one that can only play into the hands of the most politically extreme elements, both left and right, in Latin American society.

As a final point, it is worth noting that the author rejects Cardinal Ratzinger's attempt to draw a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable versions of liberation theology. "The theologians themselves", Berryman says, "may differ in style and approach and may disagree on some issues, but they refer to liberation theology in the singular, since they see their own efforts as supporting what is essentially a single historical process". This suggests that the Vatican's analysis of the question of liberation theology is itself flawed. Since the ideology of the liberation theologians is, on their own admission, fundamentally revolutionary rather than reformist, it would seem to be a waste of time trying to graft it on to Catholic social teaching.

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