The Rev. Avery Dulles, a Jesuit theologian, said a recent Vatican statement condemning Marxist aspects of liberation theology "adopted so much of the Marxist-inspired rhetoric" itself that it may be unable to stop the merging of Catholic and communist doctrines by Roman Catholics in Latin America.
But another Jesuit, the Rev. Alfred Hennelly, said Vatican criticism of liberation theologians was "unjustified."
"You don't have to use Marxist terminology to see that there is conflict between the classes in El Salvador or Brazil," Hennelly said. "It's there. And the church has to find out how to solve the conflict."
About 150 persons took part Wednesday in a spirited day-long discussion of the controversial theology, which has been widely used to justify the activism of priests and nuns in Latin America for 15 years. The event, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, was held at Georgetown University.
The sharpest criticism of the doctrine, which holds that Christians must take social and political action on behalf of the poor and often denounces "capitalist oppression," was made by the Rev. John Richard Neuhaus, a Lutheran who heads the Center for Religion and Society.
Neuhaus called liberation theology "a tired and tattered rerun of some very old Christian heresies" that threatens to create a "partisan church" in which "error has no rights."
Instead of the traditional Christian concern with individual salvation through faith, Neuhaus said the theology holds that salvation comes through politics and "elevates the idea of class struggle to being the church."
By promoting Marxist analysis, Neuhaus said the proponents of liberation theology help bring Communist dictatorships to power. "They're naive," he remarked.
On the other hand, the Rev. Harvey Cox, a Baptist who is a professor at Harvard Divinity School, said liberation theology derives from New Testament accounts of Jesus ministering to the poor and has helped create vibrant new communities of Catholics in Latin America.
Cox said Christians should not be fearful of working with communists. "There isn't any revealed economic system in the Bible," he said, adding, "There is a certain kind of danger in allowing Stalin to define what Marxism means. What about the thousands of Italians who are Catholics and communists?"
Dulles, who teaches at Catholic University, said that although some liberation theologians "have been very careful not to compromise their faith," their doctrines often are popularized and their "subtle distinctions" lost.
The "great fear" of the Vatican, he said, "is that the 'soft' Marxists who write liberation theology will be callously used by hard-core Marxists to help achieve a revolution." Then, he said, "the pieties of the theologians will be ruthlessly shunted aside."