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Liberation Theology at the CrossroadsDemocracy or Revolution?$

Paul E. Sigmund

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780195072747

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195072747.001.0001

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(p.214) Appendix II Theology and the Social Sciences (1984)*

(p.214) Appendix II Theology and the Social Sciences (1984)*

Liberation Theology at the Crossroads
Oxford University Press

Social Analysis and Critical Response

As I have pointed out a number of times in my books, scientific application of the social sciences is undeniably in its early stages and still marked by uncertainties. Nonetheless, these sciences do help us understand better the social realities of our present situation. We need discernment, then, in dealing with the social sciences, not only because of their inchoative character, which I just mentioned, but also because to say that these disciples are scientific does not mean that their findings are apodictic and beyond discussion. In fact, the contrary is true. What is really “scientific” does not seek to evade critical examination but rather submits to it. Science advances by means of hypotheses that give various explanations of one and the same reality. Consequently, to say that something is scientific is to say that it is subject to ongoing discussion and criticism. This statement holds in a special way for the ever-new and changing field of social realities. …

The same critical approach (which expresses an authentic rationality and personal freedom) must be taken to movements of liberation. Like every human process, these are ambivalent. We must therefore be clear in our minds regarding them, not out of any aversion to history but, on the contrary, out of loyalty to the values they embody and solidarity with the individuals committed to them.

(p.215) The longing for liberation is undoubtedly one of the “signs of the times” in our age. “For many persons in various ways this aspiration—in Vietnam or Brazil, New York or Prague—has become a norm for their behavior and a sufficient reason to lead lives of dedication” (A Theology of Liberation, p. 21). In all these places, men and women will have to be faithful to a quest for freedom that no political system guarantees. This, even though the quest may cost them their lives—in capitalist societies, but also in the world of what today is called “real socialism.” It was for this reason that I rejected, thirteen years ago, the attitude of “those who sought refuge in easy solutions or in the excommunication of those who did not accept their pat answers, schematizations, and uncritical attitudes toward the historical expressions of socialism” (A Theology of Liberation, p. 56).

Recent historical events have validated that rejection and have dispelled illusions regarding concrete historical systems that claim to eliminate all evils. As a result, we have launched out upon new and more realistic quests; quests, too, that are more respectful of all dimensions of the human.

Social Sciences and Marxism

Elements of Marxist analysis play a part in the contemporary social sciences that serve as a tool for studying social reality. This is true of the social sciences generally, even where they differ from or are opposed to Marx (as in the case, for example, of Max Weber). But the presence of these elements does not at all justify an identification of the social sciences with Marxist analysis, especially if one takes into account what Father Arrupe, in a well-known letter on the subject, called “the exclusive character” of Marxist analysis (“Letter on Marxist Analysis,” December 1980, no. 6).

The theory of Dependency

The very fact that liberation theology has regarded the theory of dependency as important for an analysis of Latin American social situations is enough to prevent the kind of identification just mentioned. For this theory had its origin in a development of the social sciences proper to Latin America, and is held by prominent theoreticians, who do not regard themselves as Marxists. Nor may we overlook the fact that representatives of Marxism have severely criticized the theory.

(p.216) We are dealing. here with a very important point of theory. Marx said: “The industrially more developed countries only present the less developed with an image of their own future” (Capital, I, p. 17). This outlook, however, the theory of dependency rejects. A Latin American social scientist writes that “to begin with, this theory challenged the supposedly ‘linear’ pattern of the evolution of human society and branded as ‘Eurocentric’ Marx's observations on the subject.” Elsewhere, speaking of the views of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the most important representative of the theory, the same writer says: Cardoso maintains a “theoretical posture that is worlds removed from that of Marx.” (Agustín Cueva, “El Uso del Concepto de Modos de Productión en América Latina,” Modos de Production en America Latina [Lima, 1976], pp. 24, 26.)

The nature of this article does not permit me to dwell on this point or to offer further evidence or go into the matter in greater depth. My intention in harking back to the theory of dependency—which was very much to the fore in early writings on liberation theology1—is simply to make the point that neither the social sciences generally nor the Latin American contribution to them can be reduced to the Marxist version. I am not denying the contributions Marxism has made to our understanding of economic and social matters; I do, however, want the necessary distinctions to be clearly grasped.

Furthermore, the use (a critical use, as we have seen) of the theory of dependency does not mean a permanent commitment to it. In the context of theological work, this theory is simply a means of better understanding social reality.

Ideological Aspects and Marxist Analysis

In the contemporary intellectual world, including the world of theology, references are often made to Marx and various Marxists, and their contributions in the field of social and economic analysis are often taken into account. But these facts do not, by themselves, mean an acceptance of Marxism, especially insofar as Marxism embodies an all-embracing view of life and thus excludes the Christian faith and its requirements. The matter is a complex one and would require a close study of texts, a presentation of divergent interpretations in this area, and the resultant distinctions and critical observations. Without getting into details I shall state my views on some questions.

Let me begin by clarifying a first point. There is no question at all (p.217) of a possible acceptance of an atheistic ideology. Were we to accept this possibility, we would already be separated from the Christian faith and no longer dealing with a properly theological issue. Nor is there any question of agreement with a totalitarian version of history that denies the freedom of the human person. These two options— an atheistic ideology and a totalitarian vision—are to be discarded and rejected, not only by our faith but by any truly humanistic outlook and even by a sound social analysis.

The question of how closely connected the ideological aspects of Marxism are with Marxist social analysis is a question much discussed in the social sciences. The same is true even within Marxism itself: for some Marxists (in a line represented by Engels and Soviet Marxism, to give two examples) Marxism is an indivisible whole; for others (Gramsci, J. C. Mariátegui, and many more) Marxist analysis or the scientific aspects of Marxism are not inseparably linked to “metaphysical materialism.”

I must make it clear, however, that in the context of my own theological writings, this question is a secondary one. In fact, given the situation in which Latin America was living, it seemed to me more urgently necessary to turn to more clearly theological questions (in this I differed from European writings on similar subjects). That is why I wrote, in a note in A Theology of Liberation: “We hope to present soon a study of certain questions concerning the ambiguities in the use of the term materialism and the various conceptions of Marxism as a total conception of life or a science of history. We hope therefore to situate the vision of human nature and atheistic ideology in Marxism” (p. 201, note 41). In the promised study (the promise has only partially been fulfilled in courses and lectures), my intention was to deal in greater detail with the ideological and philosophical aspects of Marxism, as well as with the connection between these aspects and the more scientific levels of analysis. But my concern was equally to show that the contributions of Marxist analysis needed to be critically situated within the framework of the social sciences. Otherwise, the importance of these contributions is likely to be exaggerated both by their defenders and by their opponents.

Others have made a similar study and drawn similar boundaries. I wish to take part in the effort, and I hope for the opportunity to go into the matter more fully. But I must call attention to the fact that in a Christian perspective, importance does not attach exclusively to the theoretical side of the question. There are also pastoral concerns that (p.218) are urgently important for all and especially for the church's magisterium. The church has therefore issued several recent pronouncements on the subject and taken account therein of the new problematic and the set of theoretical and practical questions it raises. Thus the Encyclical Pacem in Terns of John XXIII made some fruitful distinctions. The Letter Octogesima Adveniens of Paul VI touched on the subject in an open and authoritative way, pointing out the values and dangers of Marxism in this area (see esp. no. 34); it also pointed out the connections between analysis and ideology in Marxism and described the conditions required of a work that would go more deeply into the subject. The Puebla Conference returned to the question (see no. 92 and especially nos. 543–45); it also drew attention to the way in which these problems arise in the Latin American context.

The letter of Father Arrupe to which I referred earlier drew its inspiration from these documents of the magisterium. In that letter we find distinctions, appraisals, warnings, and rejections with which I am in full agreement and which must be taken into account both in pastoral practice and in any theoretical discussion of the subject. …

Theology and Social Analysis

My purpose in my theological writings was stated in the opening words of A Theology of Liberation: “This book is an attempt at reflection, based on the gospel and the experiences of men and women committed to the process of liberation in the exploited and oppressed land of Latin America” (p. xiii)—in the light, therefore, of the gospel, and in a world of poverty and hope.

At no time, either explicitly or implicitly, have I suggested a dialogue with Marxism with a view to a possible “synthesis” or to accepting one aspect while leaving others aside. Such undertakings were indeed frequent during those years in Europe (see the movement created by the Salzburg conversations in the 1960s) and were beginning to be frequent in Latin American circles. Such was not my own intention, for my pastoral practice imposed pressing needs of a quite different kind.

As I have reminded the reader, once the situation of poverty and marginalization comes to play a part in theological reflection, an analysis of that situation from the sociological viewpoint becomes important, and thinkers are forced to look for help from the relevant (p.219) disciplines. This means that if there is a meeting, it is between theology and the social sciences, and not between theology and Marxist analysis, except to the extent that elements of the latter are to be found in the contemporary social sciences, especially as these are practiced in the Latin American world.2

Use of the social disciplines for a better understanding of the social situation implies great respect for the so-called human sciences and their proper spheres, and for the legitimate autonomy of the political order. The description that these sciences give of a situation, their analysis of its causes, the trends and searches for solutions that they propose—all these are important to us in theology to the extent that they involve human problems and challenges to evangelization. It is not possible, however, to deduce political programs or actions from the gospel or from reflection on the gospel. It is not possible, nor should we attempt it; the political sphere is something entirely different.

I said as much, and with all desirable clarity, on the very first page of A Theology of Liberation:

My purpose is not to elaborate an ideology to justify postures already taken, or to undertake a feverish search for security in the face of the radical challenges that confront the faith, or to fashion a theology from which political action is “deduced.” It is rather to let ourselves be judged by the word of the Lord, to think through our faith, to strengthen our love, and to give reason for our hope from within a commitment that seeks to become more radical, total, and efficacious. It is to reconsider the great themes of Christian life within this radically changed perspective and with regard to the new questions posed by this commitment. This is the goal of the so-called theology of liberation, [p. xiii]

In this area an insistent demand is made, motivated by the desire to do something concrete and active, but it can also distort the perspective and limits of theological reflection. In the dialogues sponsored by CELAM over ten years ago, this point was discussed; the result was clarifications that are worth recalling here. One of the participants asked what strategic lines were to be followed that would bring the theology of liberation to bear on the great social problems of Latin America. This gave me an opportunity to reply that there are three things that may be asked of theology: “Liberation theology must be required to supply a concrete language. But we must not ask of theology what it cannot and ought not give.”

It is not the function of liberation theology “to offer strategic solutions (p.220) or specifically political alternatives. … In my opinion, the ‘theology of revolution’ set out on that path, but it seems to me that it was not a theologically sound course to follow; in addition, it ended up ‘baptizing’ revolution—that is, it did not acknowledge the autonomy proper to the political sphere.” It is, however, right “to ask theology to play a part in the proclamation of the word,” for this is in keeping with the nature of reflection that “positions itself in the light of faith and not in the light of sociology (I understand the temptations of sociologists; theologians, however, operate in the light of the faith as lived in the Christian community).”

Theology may also be asked to help us avoid losing a comprehensive vision of a given historical process and reducing it instead to its political dimension:

Theology must be aware that the problem is not solved solely by economic, social, and political structures. Theologians must, on the contrary, be aware of deeper changes that can take place in the human person, of the search for a different kind of human being, of liberation in the many dimensions of the human and not just in the economic and political dimension, although, of course, all these aspects are closely connected.

Most importantly:

theology must be asked to show the presence of the human relationship to God and the rupturing of that relationship at the very core of the historical, political, and economic situation; this is something that no social analysis can ever bring to light. A sociologist will never come to see that sin—the breaking of the relationship with God and therefore with others as well—is at the very heart of any unjust situation. If a theology does not tell us this when it takes a social situation into account, then, in my opinion, theology is not reading the situation in the light of faith. Faith will not provide strategies, but it will indeed tell us, as Medellín says, that sin is at the heart of every breaking of brotherhood and sisterhood among human beings; it will therefore call for a particular behavior and an option, [all these passages are from Diálogos en el CELAM, pp. 229–30]

In my view, the requirements and tasks I have outlined here are fundamental for theology. They are part of its proper sphere; what is unacceptable is to turn theological reflection into a premise in the service of a specific political choice. This statement does not suggest a lack of interest in the serious questions raised by the struggle for (p.221) social justice; it signifies only that we must be clear regarding the scope and limits of every contribution to so vast and complex a subject.

The presence of the social sciences in theology at the point when it is important to have a deeper understanding of the concrete world of human beings does not imply an undue submission of theological reflection to something outside it. Theology must take into account the contribution of the social sciences, but in its work it must always appeal to its own sources. This point is fundamental, for whatever the context in which theological reflection takes place, “theology must now take a new route, and in order to do so it will have to appeal to its own fonts” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 60).

Furthermore, the absolutely indispensable use of some form of rational discourse in theological work does not mean an uncritical acceptance of that form or an identification with it: “Theology is not to be identified with a method of analyzing society or with a form of philosophical reflection on the person. … It never makes use of a rational tool without in some way modifying it. This is in the very nature of theology, and the entire history of theology is there to prove it” (Diálogos, pp. 88–89). …

Conflict in History

A Question of Fact

To speak of conflict as a social fact is not to assert it apodictically as something beyond discussion, but only to locate it at the level of social analysis. I cannot, for pastoral or theological reasons, simply deny social facts; that would be to mock those Christians who must confront these facts every day. For this reason I made the following statement over ten years ago, during a discussion of the subject and at a bishop's request:

The problem facing theology is not to determine whether or not social classes are in opposition. That is in principle a matter for the sciences, and theology must pay careful attention to them if it wishes to be au courant with the effort being made to understand the social dimensions of the human person. The question, therefore, that theology must answer is this: If there is a struggle (as one, but not the only form of historical conflict), how are we to respond to it as Christians? A theological (p.222) question is always one that is prompted by the content of faith—that is, by love. The specifically Christian question is both theological and pastoral: How are Christians to live their faith, their hope, and their love amid a conflict that takes the form of class struggle? Suppose that analysis were to tell us one day: “The class struggle is not as important as you used to think.” We as theologians would continue to say that love is the important thing, even amid conflict as described for us by social analysis. If I want to be faithful to the gospel, I cannot disregard reality, however harsh and conflictual it may be. And the reality of Latin America is indeed harsh and conflictual. [Diálogos, pp. 89–90]

The conditional sentence (“Suppose that analysis …”) in that paragraph is important for situating the problem, for it leaves the door open, in an undogmatic way, to other possibilities.3

I spoke earlier in these pages of the critical stance to be maintained toward social analysis, but also of a proper acknowledgment of its contribution.

When I speak of conflict in history I always mention different aspects of it. That is why I continually refer to races discriminated against, despised cultures, exploited classes, and the condition of women, especially in those sectors of society where women are “doubly oppressed and marginalized” (Puebla, no. 1134, note). In this way, I take into account the noneconomic factors present in situations of conflict between social groups. The point of these constant references is to prevent any reduction of historical conflict to the fact of class struggle. I said earlier that in A Theology of Liberation (pp. 272–97 of the first edition), I was discussing the class struggle aspect of the general problem because it is the one that poses the most acute problems for the universality of Christian love. If it is possible to clear that obstacle, then we have an answer to the questions raised by other, perhaps less thorny, kinds of conflict. For it is evident that history is marked by other forms of conflict and, unfortunately, of confrontation between persons.

There are those who seem without further discussion to identify the idea of class struggle with Marxism. As we know, this is incorrect and indeed was rejected by Marx himself. In his well-known letter to J. Weydemeyer (cited in A Theology of Liberation, p. 284, note 51 of the first edition), he says: “As for me, mine is not the merit to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Much before me bourgeois historians had described (p.223) the historical development of this class struggle and the bourgeois economists had studied its economic anatomy.”

Marx thought that his own contribution was to have established the connection between class struggle and economic factors (as well as the dictatorship of the proletariat). He often presents these economic factors as operating historically in a deterministic manner. I am not concerned here with the important debate on this point or with the varying interpretations that the debate has produced within Marxism itself. The point I want to make is simply that an economically based determinist view of class struggle is completely alien to liberation theology.4

In this connection, experts on Marx have always pointed out the very limited space (a few paragraphs amid thousands of pages) given to class struggle in Marx's principal work, Capital. These various considerations have led to such statements as the following:

In Marx's view, the class struggle is not an essential part of his teaching, as others sometimes think. In the Communist Manifesto he regards it indeed as necessary, given the fact of alienation, but it is a passing stage and by no means permanent. The truly essential focus of his humanism is the search for harmony among all through work, for an equality in that which is the distinctive element in human existence. But interpretations of Marxist thought as egalitarian are likewise shallow and without foundation. Marx recognizes the variations in gifts, qualifications, and so on. What he seeks is equality among classes in that which is specifically human: work deliberately and responsibly undertaken. [Alfonso López Trujillo, La Concepción del Hombre en Marx (Bogota, 1972), p. 178]

Despite all this, Marxist thought does contain expressions that turn class struggle from a simple fact into “the driving force of history” and, in philosophical versions, a “law of history.” An analysis would have to be made to determine the meaning and importance of this transformation of fact into historical principle. My only concern here is to insist that this approach does not reflect my own thinking and that therefore I have never used such expressions. …

The Requirements of Christian Love

There is obviously no question of identifying a preferential option for the poor with an ideology or a specific political program that would (p.224) serve as framework for reinterpreting the gospel or the task of the church. Nor is there any question of limiting oneself to one sector of the human race. I regard these reductive positions as utterly alien. But I have dealt with this matter on various occasions and need not insist on the point once again.

I do, however, wish to discuss a question I regard as important. I said earlier that the universality of Christian love is incompatible with any exclusion of persons but not with a preference for some. I think it worth citing here a passage from Karl Lehmann, a theologian and presently archibishop of Mainz: “There can undoubtedly be situations in which the Christian message allows of only one course of action. In these cases the church is under the obligation of decisively taking sides (see, for example, the experience of Nazi dictatorship in Germany). In these circumstances, an attitude of unconditional neutrality in political questions contradicts the command of the gospel and can have deadly consequences.” (International Theological Commission, Téologica de la Liberatión [Madrid: BAC, 1978], p. 38, note 2).

There is no passage in my own writings that so incisively stresses specificity and points to one course of action as the only possible course. But, faced with so strong a statement, I cannot but ask: Does not what held for the experience of Nazism in Europe hold also for the Latin American experience of wretchedness and oppression? In both cases, we are faced with boundary situations, but that is precisely what I said at the beginning of this section, and it is to this kind of situation that Archbishop Lehmann is referring.

The important point is that according to the German theologian there are cases in which “the Christian message allows only one course of action.” Would anyone dare brand this claim unchristian and reductivist? In this case, proximity to the horror of Nazism showed that the claim is theologically acceptable in an extreme situation. In such situations, the judgment one makes depends not simply on social analysis but on the ethical reaction (see John Paul IPs notion), which we experience in face of a situation that we analyze and, above all, live through. Perhaps it is this very last point—living in the situation—that makes the difference in outlooks. For there is no doubt that behind Archbishop Lehmann's words lies the complex and painful experience of the German people and German Christians.5

(p.225) The Universality of Christian Love

All that has preceded brings me to a final, but fundamental, point. When we speak of taking social conflict (including the fact of class struggle) into account and of the necessity of overcoming the situation by getting at the causes that give rise to it, we are asserting a permanent demand of Christian love. We are thus recalling a basic injunction of the gospel: love of our enemies. In other words, a painful situation that may cause us to regard others as our adversaries does not dispense us from loving them; quite the contrary. When, therefore, I speak of social conflict, I am referring to social groups, classes, races, or cultures, and not to individuals …

‖To be a Christian is to be a witness to the resurrection and to proclaim the reign of life. We celebrate this life in the eucharist, which is the primary task of the ecclesial community. In the breaking of the bread we remember the love and fidelity that brought Jesus to his death; we remember, too, his resurrection, which was the confirmation of his mission, a mission to all and especially to the poor. At the same time, the breaking of bread is both point of departure and point of arrival for the Christian conmmunity. In it the assembled faithful express their deep communion in human suffering (often caused by the lack of food) and joyfully acknowledge the risen Lord who gives life and raises the hope of the people he has brought together by his actions and his word.

The theology of liberation seeks to provide a language for talking about God. It is an attempt to make the word of life present in a world of oppression, injustice, and death. (p.226)


* From Gustavo Gutierrez, The Truth Shall Make You Free: Confrontations, trans. Matthew McConnell, © 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545, by permission. First published in Pdginas 63–64 (September 1984).

(1.) The 1968 Latin American Bishops Conference of Medellín also appealed to that interpretation of Latin American reality. “We refer here in particular to the consequences for our countries of their dependence on a center of economic power around which they gravitate. The result of this is that our nations frequently are not in control of their own goods or economic decisions. As is obvious this has had its effects on their politics, given the interdependence that exists between both areas” (Document on Peace, section 8).

(2.) “This is the area of the encounter of the social sciences and Marxist analysis with theology, a critical encounter which occurs in the dynamics of an historical movement that goes beyond individual elements, dogmaticisms, and passing enthusiasms. For this reason intellectual terrorism in this area is a serious error” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 192).

(3.) In the same text we said “If another type of analysis would be better than the one we are now using, it seems to me that it would enrich my comprehension of a reality of misery, injustice, and oppression” (Dialogos, p. 88).

(4.) “In this process of liberation there is also present, explicitly or implicitly, a transformation which one should not forget. To achieve the liberation of the subcontinent means going beyond the overcoming of economic, social, and political dependence” (A Theology of Liberation, p. 56).

(5.) Some have expressed surprise that they have not found in my work a lengthy treatment of the subject of violence, and some curious explanations have been offered for this. The reasons are simple. Theological reflection on the subject of violence, or more exactly in this case on counter-violence, has not made substantial advances since St. Thomas Aquinas. His teaching was recalled in our times by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, no. 31. That text inspired what was said by the Medellín Bishops Conference in the Document on Peace (p.244) concerning the situation in Latin America. Later there was the document of the Nicaraguan bishops in June 1979. Also, unlike other theological approaches—that of the theology of revolution for example—my concern was to situate what takes place in Latin America within the broad focus of total liberation, and to see that process in the light of the Word of the Lord. This provides the context for discussion of matters like counterviolence that otherwise end up either bulking abnormally large or being treated solely at the level of principles. Such a fate is tragic in the case of violence.