Spheres of Influence of Liberation Theology in Brazil and its Tension with the Catholic Church


Liberation theology arose out of the Brazilian Catholic Church during the 1960s under founders such as Leonardo Boff, before it spread to other regions in Latin America. This theology developed to address the poverty that was widespread in many of these communities. Liberation theologians encouraged the poor to reflect about the poverty they were living in, to put it in the context of their Christian faith, and to then act in order to liberate themselves from poverty. The organization and resistance carried forth by this theology in Brazil serves as an example of how religious institutions were able to have an impact on the democratization of political, social, economic, and environmental aspects of Latin American societies during the second half of the 20th century. Furthermore, the way in which liberation theology challenged the Catholic Church, reflects the challenge the Church is confronted with of protecting its doctrines in a changing society.


Several factors, fostered the ideal environment for the rise of liberation theology in Brazil, including widespread poverty in the country, and the presence of socially active religious authorities during Brazil’s military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. An example of such an authority was Bishop Hélder Câmara, who advocated for social rights and agrarian reform in order to reduce economic poverty. In addition, an essential component to grassroots mobilization of liberation theology in Brazil were base ecclesial communities. These communities served the purpose of raising the poor’s awareness of why they were in an impoverished state, organizing them to contextualize their situation with the Bible, and to then act towards attaining social justice. Liberation theologians strived to organize the poor to ultimately liberate themselves, so they were free of any dependency, and free to follow their God given vocations. These different efforts reflect how liberation theology tried to put the poor at the center of their focus, encouraging the improvement of economic, political, and social aspects of the society towards a democratic system that included the poor. In addition, liberation theology later expanded to consider other aspects of society such as the environment, as done by Leonardo Boff in his book Ecology and Liberation.

Link to pages 67-77 in Section II of this book :   http://home.sandiego.edu/~kaufmann/hnrs379/Boff_1995.pdf

The Catholic Church, however, did not agree with some forms of liberation theology that arose in Brazil and throughout Latin America. This opposition mostly arose due to the increasing associations of liberation theology with Marxist ideologies, as well as the criticism from liberation theologians which called the Church to reform. For example, even though Boff explained that liberation theology did not arise directly from Marxism, he agrees that Marxism fundamentally helped liberation theologians by showing them how poverty arises from the ways in which society is organized to “exploit and oppress the weakest among us”. As Cardinal Ratzinger explained in his document Instruction On Certain Aspects of The “Theology Of Liberation” one reason why the Catholic Church was against any associations with Marxism was because they fear that core Marxist ideas such as “atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and rights” would lead to totalitarian societies, contradictions between faith and atheism, and the undermining of human dignity. In brief, although the Catholic Church did not condemn the entire liberation theology movement, it warned against how versions of this theology associated with Marxism could lead to deviations from the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which would actually hinder the liberation of the poor.

Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square in 2013

Although the various factors which led to the rise of liberation theology in Brazil makes this country a good example to analyze this theology, liberation theologians throughout Latin America also sought for the Church to reform. This criticism of the Catholic Church was mostly rooted in the desire to liberate the poor from their suppression and to increase the democratization of opportunities for the poor. These ideas show how the Church back then and today need to balance the challenge of staying true to their doctrine while adapting as necessary to a changing society. Examples of forces calling the Church to change today include the rise of pro-choice and gay rights movements. While the church has decided that these two causes are fundamentally against the church, Pope Francis’ progressive outlook while adhering to the doctrine of the church, reminds us that the church is not static. Efforts pushing for the church to change, as well as liberation theologians call to reassess aspects such as consumerism in our society that oppress the poor, will continue to be relevant for generations to come.

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