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New CDF head on 'My experiences with liberation theology'

Since the appointment of Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Regensburg, Germany, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there has been renewed interest in a speech Bishop Müller gave in Spanish about his experiences with liberation theology in 2008, upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. A translation of his 'Mis experiencias con la Teología de la Liberación' follows in English.

For me, liberation theology is linked to the face of Gustavo Gutierrez. In 1988, I participated with other German and Austrian theologians in a course on this subject at the invitation of the current director of MISEREOR, José Sayer, which took place at the then already famous Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas. At that time, I had been teaching dogmatics for two years at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.

As a theology professor, I was naturally familiar with the texts and known representatives of this theological movement, which emerged in Latin America but was talked about worldwide, especially because of the somewhat critical observations of the International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the 1984 and 1986 statements of the Congregation itself, presided by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, our current Pope Benedict.

Lima: Seminar on Liberation Theology

The seminar led by Gustavo Gutierrez turned me from academic reflection on a new theological concept to experience with the men and women for whom this theology had been developed. This reversal in focus from the priority of theory before practice to the three step "see, judge, act" process, has been decisive in my own theological development.

We participants in the seminar had arrived crammed with countless bits of knowledge about the origin and development of liberation theology and therefore we argued primarily about the analysis of the situation which had been reproached for a naive closeness to Marxism. We were familiar with the statements of the Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin and Puebla (1). Hence the debate about whether those statements intended to make Christianity a kind of political program of liberation where, under certain circumstances, even revolutionary violence against persons and things might be tolerated. Some suspected that liberation theology served to legitimize terrorist violence in the service of legitimate revolution, while others used it as an argument to that end.

The first thing Gustavo taught us was to understand that this is about theology, not politics. In line with the great papal social encyclicals, he also clearly outlined the difference between liberation theology and Catholic social ethics. While social ethics is based on natural law and seeks to ensure the foundations of a just social state relying on the principles of self, subsidiarity and solidarity, in the case of liberation theology it's about a practical and theoretical program that aims to understand the world, history and society and transform them in light of the God's own supernatural revelation as savior and liberator of man.

How one can speak of God in the face of human suffering, of the poor who don't have sustenance for their children, or the right to medical assistance, or access to education, who are excluded from social and cultural life, marginalized and considered a burden and a threat to the lifestyle of the wealthy few.

These poor are not an anonymous mass. Each one of them has a face. How can I as a Christian, priest or layman, whether through evangelization or scientific theological work, talk about God and His Son who became man and died for us on the cross and bear witness to Him, if I don't want to build a different theological system with the existing one, except by saying to the specific poor person face to face: God loves you and your amazing dignity is rooted in God. How Biblical consideration is made real in individual and collective life if human rights originate in the creation of man in the image and likeness of God.

My stay in Peru in 1988 is not only linked to the seminar with Gustavo Gutierrez, where I saw clearly the theological point of departure of liberation theology, but also the living encounter with the poor we had talked about. For a while we lived with the inhabitants of the slums of Lima and then also with the campesinos in the parish of Diego Irrarazaval on Lake Titicaca. Since then I have been another fifteen times to Peru and other Latin American countries, sometimes for whole months during semester holidays in Germany. My participation in theological courses especially in the seminaries of Cuzco, Lima and Callao, among others, was always accompanied by long weeks of pastoral work in the Andean region, especially in Lares in the Archdiocese of Cuzco. There the faces acquired names and became personal friends, this experience of universal communion in the love of God and neighbor, what should be the essence of the Catholic Church. Finally it was a deep joy for me when in 2003, in Lares, in the Archdiocese of Cuzco, being already a bishop, I could administer the sacrament of Confirmation to young people whose parents I had already known for a long time and who I myself had baptized.

Hence I have not been speaking of liberation theology in an abstract and theoretical way, much less ideologically to flatter the progressive church group. Similarly I have no fear that this may be interpreted as a lack of orthodoxy. Gustavo Gutiérrez's theology, regardless of which angle you look at it from, is orthodox because it's orthopraxis and teaches us proper Christian action because it comes from true faith.

A brief reading of the book "We Drink From Our Own Wells" (2) shows that liberation theology is based on deep spirituality. Its substratum is the following of Christ, the encounter with God through prayer, participation in the life of the poor and oppressed, the willingness to listen to their cry for freedom and the splendor of the children of God. It's joining in their struggle to put an end to exploitation and oppression, in their yearning for respect of human rights and their demand for fair
participation in the cultural and political life in democracy. This experience is not strange at home, but it's that the Church and the State want to be a shelter and guarantors of spiritual and civic freedom. The goal is the initiation and accompaniment of a dynamic process that seeks to free people from their cultural and political dependence.

An example to follow: Bartolomé de las Casas

Just as Gustavo with his persona, his spiritual testimony, his commitment to the poor and his magnificent reflections has given a face to liberation theology in our time, another who showed us impressively was Bartolomé de las Casas in the sixteenth century who, unlike his contemporary Columbus, did not discover a country and take possession of it for the Spanish crown, but discovered the injustice of the oppression and humiliation of the indigenous population and set out to lead people to the kingdom of God, in which there will be no more masters or slaves but only brothers and sisters with the same rights.

Las Casas supposedly came to the West Indies, the continent discovered by Columbus that we now call America, as an adventurer and a fortune seeker. From the perspective of the discoverer of America, they were lands that could be taken in possession for the Spanish Crown and whose riches and inhabitants were deprived of any rights and as such, exposed to the aggression of the desire for inordinate enrichment. At the beginning, Las Casas was also immersed in this system of deprivation of liberty and exploitation. But he finally recognized the face of Jesus in the face of the abused and thus became the eloquent intercessor and defender of the oppressed people in their homeland, America. With that, he was returning to the original meaning of Christian mission: Jesus sent his disciples to preach the Gospel of salvation and liberation to all men. In that sense, mission as a person to person encounter in the name of Jesus, is strictly the opposite of a form of colonialism and imperialism that is only religious in appearance. You can't conquer lands for Christ and subject their inhabitants to the domination of a self-proclaimed Christian state. Instead, the preaching of those sent in the name of Christ implies being able to freely adopt the faith. That way a universal network of disciples of Christ is created who, according to his will, form a community of brothers and sisters and therefore the visible Church of God in the world. To this process that is driven by the spirit of Pentecost, men bring their roots and cultural identity and let themselves be transformed by the spirit of God into a higher common identity. Thus grows the knowledge that we are children of God, called to an exemplary life, destined for perfection in the divine future. And so the Church can be in Christ a sacrament of salvation in the world and sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind. (see Lumen Gentium 1)

In his A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Las Casas names the real cause of the tremendous injustice committed by the Spanish conquistadors against the people they found on their journey of discovery.

About those who were Christian in name but not behavior, Las Casas says: "The one real reason for the murder and destruction of that terrible number of innocent people at the hands of Christians was just to grab their gold." (3)

Gustavo Gutiérrez has expressed this liberating path of Las Casas in the following phrase: "God or gold." (4)

This is the path to liberation as Jesus teaches in the Gospel: "No one can serve two masters, God and mammon", and elsewhere it is specified, "the love of money is the root of all evil." (see 1 Timothy 6:10).

Whatever we place our trust in, that is really our God.

We Christians in the 21st century, and humanists of any orientation as well, pride ourselves in having left Eurocentric colonialism and imperialism behind. However, in the justifiable indignation at the atrocities perpetrated in the conquest of America, Africa, and India, and the humiliation of China, we often run the risk of believing, feeling morally sure of ourselves, that in the 16th century we would have been on the side of Las Casas and against the exploiters. Of course, the historical circumstances of the time were not comparable in the least to today's globalized world. However the fundamental choice between the option for money and power on the one hand, and God and love on the other, presents itself today too to every individual person, and both to all communities and societies and to nations and alliances. Also, entire continents such as Africa and South America, are now being marginalized. A fraction of the world's population divides the resources among themselves, thereby contributing to the premature death of millions of children and to most of the world's population living in disastrous circumstances.

The shame of our time: neoliberal capitalism

After the fall of the Soviet empire, many also hoped for the end of liberation theology, which they considered close to the Marxist liberation movements. But in fact liberation theology, when it is well understood in its original conception, is the best answer to the Marxist critique of religion, both in theory and in practice. A broader view of God as creator, liberator, and perfecter of man allows us to perceive the dualistic trap into which they intended Christianity to fall. There isn't a choice between well-being in this world and salvation in the next, between divine grace and human action, between church commitment and critiquing and shaping the world. Turning towards God and shaping the world, love of God and love of neighbour, are two sides of the same coin. Christians don't let themselves be outdone by anyone when it comes to human rights and dignity, or criticizing both the structural sin of an unjust political system and the lack of responsibility of the individual. During the presentation of the first volume of the complete works of the Pope on the subject "Theology of Liturgy" published by me at Herder, one of the speakers quoted the following beautiful sentence: "When the monks neglect their praises to God, the soup of the poor is also watered down."

Praising God leads to taking responsibility for the world. And commitment to social justice, peace and freedom, the protection of nature as the foundation of social and bodily life is based on creative and liberating divine action.

After the fall of the Communist establishment some thought paradise on earth could now be achieved through unbridled capitalism. The self-regulating forces of the global market themselves would bring well-being for all or at least, for most. The reality is very different. It hasn't been the seemingly all-powerful market forces but the mere greed of individual men which has caused the current global financial crisis, whose consequences are having to be paid yet again by the poor and the poorest of the poor, with their lives, their health, with their premature death and all prospects provided by God for them, lost.

The representatives of liberalism in the past have defended their image of man arguing that you can't rule the world with the Beatitudes, without considering that Jesus didn't intend to rule the world but that man would govern himself, free himself from his greed and be able to become a human being for others. They argued that the Church didn't understand anything about economics and capitalism and that if it wanted necessarily to be altruistic, it could do so by taking care of the victims of capitalism. The Church was relegated to hospitals, homes for the dying, but not ethics for Wall Street. One expression of unscrupulous neoliberal capitalism is "vulture funds", for example. Unscrupulous speculators have specialized in dealings with debts of entire countries. When a country incurs payment difficulties, these "vultures" buy debts with high reductions on the original amount and then demand a markedly higher sum with more and more accrued interest.

In a very simple way, the country is taken into definite misery. In the late 1990s, Peru was the victim of an 'investment strategy' that with an investment of $11 million, made a profit of 58 million. The consequences for people - children, the elderly, the sick, for the whole social structure of a country are accepted as logical consequences. Pure profit is the only goal.

Here the tragedy of a world, of an economic market without binding moral norms, is highlighted in a terrible way. Today, the greed for gold and money remains the cause of the destruction of moral values, whose force for the good of man emanates from the only source that leads man to his human self and to become the neighbor of his fellow men.

Racism and paternalism, a society disintegrated into higher and lower classes, that functions according to the principle of the law of the strongest and disintegrates through it, are incompatible with our spirituality and our Christian faith.

After so many decades of terrorism and counterterrorism on the backs of many thousands of innocent people, especially among the poor indigenous population, the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (5) led by Professor Salomón Lerner was created. You all know the results of the investigations. The dimension of barbarism that was made manifest is shocking.

A radical new beginning will only be possible with development that leads to a more just society and human rights guaranteed by the State. But a spirituality of human rights is also necessary. The greatest aspiration of each person, in the deepest part of his or her conscience, should be becoming aware of man's responsibility before God and the spirit of fraternity. Only thus can the greed for money and power as the root of all evil be limited. And if we don't conceive of exculpation and reconciliation as our own work but as a divine gift and the order of life, that gratitude that existence as a human being for others as the supreme measure of humanity, of the possibilities of development of each person in the splendor of God's love, offers can grow in our hearts. Deus caritas est -- that is the goal and instrument of the liberation and perfection of man towards the Triune God.

In Peru I have found two Christians who symbolize the people's longing to experience the amazing dignity of man. Saint Rose of Lima and Saint Martin de Porres have become cherished friends in whom the objectives of liberation and redemption shine the utmost.

Allow me to conclude these reflections with the prayer to Saint Rosa and Saint Martin that they might protect the Church and the Peruvian people by interceding with the celestial Father and Creator, that He might reveal His Son as the mediator of hope for the transformation of the world towards the goal that the Spirit of Pentecost has shown us: "Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." (Acts 2:43–47)


(1) Deutsche Bischofskonferenz (Hg.), Die Kirche Lateinamerikas. Dokumente der II. und III. Generalversammlung des Lateinamerikanischen Episkopats in Medellín und Puebla, Bonn 1979 (The Latin American Church: Documents of the 2nd and 3rd General Assemblies of the Latin America bishops in Medellín and Puebla).

(2) Gustavo Gutiérrez, Beber en su propio pozo. La espiritualidad de la liberación (We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, Orbis, 2003).

(3) Las Casas, brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias occidentales (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de las Casas available from the Gutenburg Project website).

(4) Gustavo Gutiérrez, Dios o el oro en las Indias, siglo XVI, Lima 1989 ("God or Gold in the Indies")

(5) See Salomón Lerner Febres / Josef Sayer (ed.), Contra el olvido Yuyanapaq. Informe de la Comisión para la Verdad y la Reconciliación Perú .


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