LIBERATION THEOLOGY Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Religious Movement in Latin America And Beyond By Phillip Berryman Temple University Press. 231 pp. $24.95 Pantheon paperback, $6.95 WILL IT LIBERATE? Questions About Liberation Theology By Michael Novak Paulist Press. 311 pp. $14.95

WHEN JOHN XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council in 1962 he said he fondly hoped it would help make the Catholic church again a "church of the poor." That good pope could hardly have foreseen that within a decade of his death in 1965 demography would accomplish what the Council only hinted at. By the late 1960s the majority of Catholics in the world already lived in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and most of them were poor. In 1968 the Catholic bishops of Latin America, meeting in Medellin, Colombia, declared that that region's church could no longer ally itself with the powerful and the privileged, but must make a "preferential option for the poor." This declaration caused hundreds of sisters and priests to move their schools and hospitals out of the chic suburbs into the slums and shantytowns. There they often worked with the burgeoning "Christian base communities," local groups led by lay people that the church had originally encouraged in part to make up for the shortage of priests. Living among the outcasts, church leaders read the Gospels with new eyes. Then in 1969 a Peruvian priest of Indian background named Gustavo Gutierriz wrote a book called The Theology of Liberation and the "poor church" of Latin America found its voice.

This theology, Gutierriz said, could only come from a land where the people are both deeply Christian and badly oppressed. It draws on the Gospels, traditional Catholic social teaching and on the experience of the fetid favelas of Rio and Caracas. It holds that God's love for the world encompasses deliverance not only from sin and death but also from worldly bondage and degrading peonage. After all did not this Biblical God once liberate a nation of captive serfs from Egypt? And is that same spirit not still alive in the world today?

To the astonishment of those who believed that religion must always be an opiate of the masses, Latin American Christianity began to foment social change, in some places even revolution. In Nicaragua, for example, thousands of Christians joined the movement to overthrow Anastasio Somoza. Bishop Dom Helder Camara of Recife in Brazil's parched and neglected northeast became the embodiment of non-violent resistance to the military dicatatorship. El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot through the heart while saying Mass, instantly became the favorite saint of thousands of families in the newly emerging "church of the poor."

During the 15 years since Gutierrez's pioneering work, a flood of books and articles by dozens of theologians has swept across the continent, with a few translations making their way into North American colleges and seminaries. Now, in Phillip Berryman's Liberation Theology, we have for the first time a concise, readable introduction to this whole movement, an introduction that competently places liberation theology in its cultural and religious context, elucidates its roots in the Bible and in Catholic theology and summarizes its main contentions.

Berryman knows Latin America well. He worked for a decade in Panama, then served as the Friends Service Committee's representative for Central America. A few years ago he wrote The Religious Roots of Rebellion, an exhaustive documentation of the spiritual sources of the recent political upheavals in South America. Now, in this shorter and more crisply written work, he skillfully describes the ingredients that fire this exciting theological current -- its practice of beginning with experience; its emphasis on the role of the poor in God's design; its rootage in thousands of base communities in which Catholics from society's lower tiers meet to study the Bible, pray and share experience and come to grips with the misery that plagues their neighborhoods.

Berryman does not sidestep any of the sensitive issues. He deals forthrightly with the accusation that liberation theology makes uncritical use of Marxist analysis, and points out that although no liberation theologians are in fact Marxists, it is not surprising that they should deal with a mode of inquiry that is so pervasive in their intellectual milieu. Paradoxically, the truth is that liberation theology is now the most viable and attractive alternative to the discredited orthodox Marxist theories of social change in the Third World. He includes a chapter on the spread of liberation theology to Africa and Asia (where church leaders influenced by Latin American impulses played a key role in the overthrow of the Marcos regime).

By the early 1970s liberation theology began to evoke widespread opposition from more conservative voices in the Catholic church. Recently the most forceful spokesman of this counterattack has been John Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger has issued two public "Instructions" on liberation theology, the first quite negative but the second (reportedly after the pope's personal intervention), considerably more nuanced. Indeed John Paul II's own role in the altercation is not easy to fathom. For example, when Ratzinger summarily silenced the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff two years ago, mainly for drawing on liberation theology to expose repressive features within the church itself, it is reliably reported that the pope himself -- after hearing a series of complaints from several Brazilian bishops -- had the silence lifted. Still, the pope's attitude seems to remain highly ambivalent, and most liberation theologians concede that it will be a long time before Rome comes to terms with their contribution.

MICHAEL NOVAK, who works for the American Enterprise Institute could write a telling critique of liberation theology. But Will It Liberate? is not it. A collection of previously published articles, transcribed notes and arguments for the merits of capitalism that we have heard before from the same writer, it will not advance the debate about liberation theology very much. Indeed only one chapter and part of another really deal with theology at all.

This is disappointing. Novak has demonstrated his capacity for astute theological analysis in the past, but here he seems to be in a hurry to dismiss the liberationists mainly because they do not have sufficient confidence in free market economics. For Novak, the Latin Americans have only themselves to blame for the hunger and disease that throttles their lands. After all, they "could have chosen the same path as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and the others. They did not . . . They have reaped what they have sown." This economic exhortation is the author's message throughout, so even the chapter titled "A Short Catechism" turns out to be a list of reasons why Latin Americans are wrong in their sometimes negative evaluations of capitalism.

But why did Latin Americans make this disastrous choice? The author attributes their bad judgment to certain cultural traits which he admits have, in themselves, a real attractiveness. Latins are, he says, "courteous, genteel, often dashing, flirtatious, playful and even festive," a list of qualities that might appear a bit sweeping to apply to the landless peasants of Bolivia, the copper miners of Chile, the youthful chicle salesmen of Mexico City and the financiers of Sao Paulo. Still, Novak tells us these characteristics are "beautiful" and even "marks of superiority." The problem with them unfortunately is that they have strangled the possibility of invention, discovery, entrepreneurship and investment. A Catholic himself, Novak attributes these attractive but retarding character flaws to the continents's Roman Catholic cultural heritage. He suggests that things might have turned out quite differently if Mexicans and Brazilians had been blessed, instead, with some equivalent of the good old Protestant ethic which has served us so well up here.

It is not too late, Novak believes, to make amends, though some of his suggestions for how to shape things up in their countries may come as a surprise to our friends to the south. For Chile he prescribes a "steady flow" of "labor leaders, jurists, journalists, scholars, and other Americans," each "trying to shed light on how, in practice, democracy may be rebuilt and a wounded economy brought back to growth and opportunity." He does not mention that Chile's last democratically elected government was overthrown by a CIA-aided military coup that put General Augusto Pinochet in power and that a stream of helpful scholars, namely the "Chicago boys," disciples of Professor Milton Friedman have already made their mark on the economy of Chile. Were I a Chilean, I think I would suspect that my country might be helped by less, not more, benevolent intervention from Uncle Sam.

For all its faults this book should be required reading for those critics of liberation theology who continue to maintain that it is merely pop Marxism with a religious veneer. Novak is both acute enough to recognize this is not so and honest enough to say so. But one cannot help wondering what Novak, who has studied in Rome and at Harvard, thinks of the Biblical scholarship, the Christology, the spiritual and liturgical dimensions of this vital movement. One suspects at times that these crucial pillars of liberation theology do not really interest him much. There is no indication that he has ever visited even one base community. There are no references anywhere in the book to Spanish or Portuguese sources, even though the vast majority of the literature has never been translated. Would a writer who criticizes contemporary French or German theology be taken seriously if he or she had not consulted original sources? Is there an element of condescension in applying less rigorous standards to Latin America?

Toward the end of a short visit Novak made to Brazil the U.S. ambassador drove him to the Franciscan monastery where Boff was maintaining his Rome-imposed penitential silence. Boff was not available but Novak left him a copy of an earlier book. Then, he writes that he was driven out into the country to attend a baptism. My heart lifted. Perhaps after all the lectures and press interviews now Novak might at last meet the church of the poor in person, maybe even visit a base community. Instead, he writes that he was taken to "a magnificent country home," its dining room replete with fireplaces and bookcases. The meat was roasting on spits over the open fire. There were 40 people present, one of whom, a journalist, assured Novak that the liberation theologians were little more than premodern men who think in an old-fashioned way. I felt sorry that Novak had missed his chance. One can hardly savor the spiritual energy of the church of the poor while chatting with reporters at country manors.

Obviously we need informed and serious criticism of liberation theology, a movement of momentous intellectual and religious significance not only in Latin America but all over the world. We need thinkers who will look and listen for themselves, study the books and articles, test the premises and raise serious questions. After Michael Novak's book, however, we are still in such need. :: Harvey Cox, who teaches at Harvard, is the author of "Religion in the Secular City."