One of the criticisms we're hearing about Pope Benedict XVI is that he squashed the liberation theology movement of the 70's and 80's, a movement that was supposed to identify the Church with the poor and help out with crushing poverty in South America. I'd like to look at that from a personal perspective.
In 1999, not long after I was named editor of the Times Review in the Diocese of La Crosse, I went to a conference in Mexico City on the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement particularly on the Mexican economy. It was sponsored by the Catholic Press Association and UCIP, the international Catholic press guild.
Many of my colleagues on this trip were fans of liberation theology and the speakers there, including Gustavo Gutierrez, were of this mind as well. This was unfortunate, because then-Bishop Raymond Burke had wanted me to find out what was really going on with the Mexican economy as a result of NAFTA, particularly on the agricultural front.
I did get some sense of what was happening, which was not good, but the overwhelming sense I had was one of resentment against Church teaching on social justice. Nowhere was this more evident than in a day trip we took to Cuernavaca in the south of the country, the site of Cortez's castle. It's a beautiful place where it never gets below 55 degrees (F). But like the rest of Mexico, it is emblazoned with devastating and constant poverty. A quick drive around the city and you see half-finished houses with rebars sticking up out of them as cement is the building material of choice there. This is obviously subsistance living, but it's being carried out in a city which, while having loads of natural beauty around it, is still a city and not a place that makes it easy to grow one's own food.
A group of about three or four of us met with a family in their home in a new neighborhood in Cuernavaca. They had built it on land that the couple were able to take over because they found documents showing that the land belonged to them. It had been an act of derring-do, one done in conjunction with other people in the area, and one which could have resulted in violence. Fortunately, it did not.
However, these people did not rule out the possibility of using violence later on. There was another piece of property across a ravine from this particular neighborhood that was owned by someone else. The man told me that they wanted to get hold of that land as well. Well, I asked him, do you have any claim to that land? No, he replied. Well then, how are you going to get it? I queried. His reply, though not verbatim, was essentially, If we have to take it by force, we will.
As we sat in their house, which was still unfinished on the outside after six years of building, but was fairly nice on the interior, we asked them questions. One of the members of our group noticed two different pictures on their walls: one was Che Guevara; the other was of Jesus with a cross in his hand, but he looked like he was ready to mow down the next person who crossed him (pun intended). She asked the couple, "Can you tell me about the two icons you have up on your wall?" I honestly don't remember their reply, though I do recall how much they liked that particular image of Jesus because it showed he was going to do something and not just be mamby-pamby.
Indeed, this was evident in the cathedral in Cuernavaca. It is a beautiful exterior structure, but in the late 60's it underwent a serious "wreckovation," the likes of which I do not think have been seen in the U.S. It is now dark, sparse and what little furniture is there is made with ugly and sharp angles. There is no longer a womanly beauty to it, "like a bride adorned to meet her husband." Instead, the sharp angles characterize that of a man on a mean mission, like the picture of Jesus ready to mow someone down. That the bishop of the diocese at that time decided that the interior beauty the cathedral possessed at the time was somehow something only for the rich, and the poor needed to have ecclesiastical solidarity shown by stripping it of its adornment, is evidence of a systemized approach.
All of this went to contribute to this insight, which I am sure I am late at coming to: liberation theology is about systems, not people. Systems have people in them and place people below the system. What is important to systems is the process and the end result. The system liberation theology is concerned with is economics. While the poverty is dire and it is wrong for the people of Mexico or anywhere else to be left in it, liberating people from economic poverty is not the ultimate goal of the Christian faith. Rather, liberating people from sin is the ultimate goal.
And that is where liberation theology fails. There is no love present in it, the only thing that liberates us from sin. Rather, just as the picture of Jesus ready to mow down the next person who crosses him, it wants to mow down those horrible landowners who do not care for the plight of the poor. But that's not what Jesus would do. His solution is to bring conversion to them so that they have a change of heart and freely give of what they have been given, like those in the Acts of the Apostles who sold their land and gave the money to the apostles for distribution to all, or make restitution for what they took, like Zacheus the tax collector.
If this does not happen, the liberation movement will only enslave its adherents in anger, hatred and resentment and keep the fires of conflict between rich and poor stoked.