Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Thoughts on "Liberation Theology" (2019-09-23)
Truth be told, I have always been uneasy about "liberation theology," and for a long time had considered whether it might not be mostly due to the fact that it is so associated with aggressive missionaries and churches whose dogmas I am highly skeptical of. (As I understand it, "liberatory theology" is something else.) After all, on the surface it seems like there really should be lots to like about liberation theology. "Liberation," right? That's good, being all about freeing people from oppression. But then again, the "theology" part is painfully contradictory to the "liberation" part, with rationalizations under the rubric of theology making up critical pillars supporting almost any oppression we can name. Okay then, so maybe the point is to be theologically radical by challenging oppression instead. Well, that seems positive. I have certainly read articles and books that refer to the role and actions of people who were inspired by or official practitioners of liberation theology who did good things and found great meaning and drive from its tenets. The generally agreed on definition of "liberation theology" is that it is a combination of marxism and roman catholicism specifically developed in latin america.
Illustration from fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers, intriguingly of a princess carrying away the prince. Image original by Robert Anning Bell, from the early twentieth century, courtesy of old book illustrations.
Learning these specifics did not tamp down my unease at all. The roman catholic church remains one of the richest organizations on the planet, and among its achievements in what non-Indigenous people call latin america are projects like the jesuit reductions where Indigenous peoples were imprisoned, enslaved and worked to death all to "save" them, of course. Currently the roman catholic church remains busy with its attempts to hide and enable the pedophiles among the clergy before they are caught and charged, then fend off the charges, then claim it is reforming to stop such predators from embarrassing the church. The same church that still argues that women have no right to control over their own bodies, and that abortion is a sin, while remaining careless of the conditions of life even of the children given up to the orphanages and other institutions they run. Still, I understand that latin american clergy engaged in liberation theology inspired work may be challenging their clerical superiors by getting involved in such political activities and openly criticizing capitalism. A rotten institution does not guarantee rotten members, to be sure, and we could argue that latin american clergy working on alternative economies, redistribution, and the like are actually attempting to rectify the harms done by their institution.
Still, there is some more important perspective on liberation theology and its underlying rationale worth having, succinctly stated by economist and historian Michael Hudson in a recent episode of the guns and butter podcast, transcribed at naked capitalism.
America is a mixed economy. Our government has always subsidized capital formation in agriculture and industry, but it insists that other countries are socialist or communist if they do what the United States is doing and use their government to support the economy. So it's a double standard. Nobody calls America a socialist country for supporting its farmers, but other countries are called socialist and are overthrown if they attempt land reform or attempt to feed themselves.
This is what the Catholic Church's Liberation Theology was all about. They backed land reform and agricultural self-sufficiency in food, realizing that if you're going to support population growth, you have to support the means to feed it. That's why the United States focused its assassination teams on priests and nuns in Guatemala and Central America for trying to promote domestic self-sufficiency.
The key tie here is of course to "population growth." Oh, and so much for my thought that perhaps the clergy in latin america might even be challenging their superiors by opposing capitalism as we know it. No, it all goes back to the fact that no matter what the facts of the real world show, the catholic church is obsessed with enforcing what it defines as "population growth." This means as many babies as possible borne by women debarred from any form of contraception or freedom from coerced heterosexuality, babies who will of course have to be baptized catholic. We may rest assured that the only reason that Indigenous ways are treated with less disdain than before is because the second favoured catholic strategy after trying to destroy everybody who has a different religion is to attempt to co-opt their religion instead. Having grown up in the settler state of canada, I have read a fair number of historical accounts about colonial france explaining the drive to increase the french catholic population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the theory that this would inevitably increase the coercive power of the nation overall. For france at that time, I suspect this had more to do with fielding a big army, and later more to do with industrialization. For the catholic church, this always goes back to the practical goal of swamping all other religions by sheer mass.
Alas, it seems to me that these connections unavoidably taint "liberation theology." It still brooks a hell of a lot of oppression, and ironically the trouble with any oppression is that it undermines improvements in other areas until challenged and overcome. This is easy to miss in the immediate drive towards what can feel like absolutely good work in all its aspects, work that may seem further validated by the murder of priests and nuns who have been murdered in the course of doing it.