What's wrong with Liberation Theology?

Liberal Catholics have scored a major coup at the Vatican, the Guardian reports as a defender of “liberation theologists” and former student of Gustavo Gutiérrez has been appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.

This extraordinary news can be found in an article entitled “Pope appoints doctrinal watchdog with links to 'Marxist' Catholics”. For a religion reporter this is a great headline and it is followed by a great lede sentence. Think what fun the tabloids would have -- Reds in the Vatican. Pinko Papal Prelate Promoted.

There is a problem, however -- the remainder of the article contradicts this grand opening. After reading through the story a few times, I am unsure whether the Guardian thinks the appointment of Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller to the top job at the CDF a good or a bad thing. The former Bishop of Regensburg is said to have links to the liberation theology movement, but he is also identified as a conservative and protégé of Pope Benedict XVI.

Also, I’m unsure what being a defender of liberation “theologists” entails as I don’t know what they might mean by this phrase. A theologist is a theologian my dictionary tells me, but I have never heard this term used before in conjunction with the Liberation Theology movement (nor have I come across the word in my reading.)

There is much that is unclear in this story as one gets the sense the author does not understand the terms he uses or the issues under consideration. What is clear, however is that Liberation Theology is a bad thing in the mind of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But the explanation why it is a bad thing is very thin – almost a caricature – as is the explanation as to how someone linked to Marxist thought is now the number three man at the Vatican. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, nor do they like Liberation Theology.

Let’s begin with the lede:

Pope Benedict on Monday appointed as the Roman Catholic church's doctrinal watchdog a fellow German with links to liberation theology, the interpretation of Christianity that conservatives have deplored as Marxism with a cross in place of a hammer and sickle.

Gerhard Ludwig Müller, 64, the bishop of Regensburg in Bavaria, is to take over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the direct successor of the department created in the 16th century to manage the Inquisition.

So is Archbishop Müller a crypto-Communist? Has the Vatican’s doctrinal office taken a sharp turn to the political left? What exactly is the Guardian implying when it says he has “links” to liberation theology? Has he now, or has he ever been a member of the Communist Party?

The comment about Marxism with a cross is a strong line. But it does need to be sourced to someone. However a scan of the article shows no quotes from cranky conservatives seeing reds under the bed to justify this assertion.

The story continues with a description of the CDF’s responsibilities:

The congregation's primary role is to keep a beady eye on the writings and teachings of Catholic theologians. But in recent years it has acquired responsibility for dealing with two of the most sensitive issues facing the Vatican – the scandal of clerical sex abuse, and efforts to heal the breach with breakaway ultra-conservative Roman Catholics.

“Beady eye”? Is that the correct phrase? Eagle eye implies keeping a sharp watch. Jaundiced eye implies prejudice . Beady eye implies malice --- is that editorial comment appropriate here?

Etymology is not my chief concern, however. I am troubled by the article’s arrangement of the facts and by the way it framed the story. It states Pope Benedict served as head of the CDF under Pope John Paul II. During his tenure Benedict:

… spent much of his time bringing to heel Latin-American liberation theologists. The late John Paul II repeatedly accused priests inspired by liberation theology of having lost sight of their spiritual mission in their concern for poverty and human rights.

This sentence is problematic. JPII “repeatedly accused” liberation theologists of concentrating too much on poverty and human rights at the expense of spiritual matters? What exactly does that mean – did they abandon their sacramental ministries to engage in political struggles? Was their pastoral work devoid of spiritual content?

At the next jump the Guardian unseats the unwary reader. After opening with assertions about Müller being a man of the left, it then states he “is unquestionably a conservative” and offers comments from liberal Catholics who say he was more interested in “the enforcement of church discipline more important than changing obvious wrongs" while bishop of Regensburg.

Immediately after describing him as a man of the right, it notes he was trained in the schools of the left.

He was a student of Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, the author of the seminal 1971 work, A Theology of Liberation. And only eight years ago, Müller and Gutiérrez co-authored a book entitled On the Side of the Poor.

The Vatican's new guardian of orthodoxy has on more than one occasion defended liberation theologists, arguing that their outlook is consistent with Catholic teaching.

The article begins with a colorful crack about Liberation Theology being a form of Christian Marxism, but offers no voices or sources to defend this view. Müller is portrayed as having been a man of the left – a defender of liberation theologists and a student of its most influential advocate within the church. Yet he is also described as a conservative. Are we to interpret this to mean that Müller is an ex-liberation theologian? Has he seen the light, or has he traded in his principles for preferment?

Which also begs the question why would the pope appoint a man with ties to a school of theology that has been rejected by the last two popes to oversee the church’s doctrine office? What exactly were these links? Who really is Archbishop Müller and what is so bad about Liberation Theolology that it would require stamping out?

This article reads as if it were written on the back of an envelope in a taxi ride to the airport. It is unstructured, unfocused, un-sourced and unintelligible.

However, I bring to this article a degree of knowledge about Liberation Theology and its acolytes that the general reader would not have. Am I seeing this article through my biases and finding fault where there is no fault? What say you GetReligion readers, does this story do the job? Or should it define its terms -- especially the precepts of Liberation Theology?

Please respect our Commenting Policy