The Vatican has issued a major document sharply criticizing the "grave ideological diversions" of the most radical currents of liberation theology, saying their embrace of Marxism "constitutes a practical negation" of "faith in the church."
The 10,000-word text, scheduled to be released Monday, represents the first official statement by the Catholic hierarchy on the theology of liberation, which stresses active involvement in the struggle of the poor for social and economic justice. Its release is expected to have a major impact on the church in Latin America, where liberation theology has steadily grown in influence over the past 15 years.
Since the mid-1960s, many Latin American clergy and lay people have become involved in working with the poor and encouraging moves to change the traditional structure of society. From priests who formed grass-roots peasant communities in Brazil, the movement has spread to include some clergy who participate in political parties or, in a few cases, in armed rebellion.
While not directly involving liberation theology as a doctrine, disputes over this activism now include debate over the role of priests in politics, most notably four priests who have been ordered to resign their posts in Nicaragua's leftist government.
Issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Office, the document is presented as a "warning" to "call attention" to "the diversions . . . prejudicial to faith and the Christian life inherent in certain forms of the theology of liberation." It says these teachings use Marxist thinking "in an insufficiently critical way."
The statement stresses that there is an authentic basis for liberation theology and that criticisms of its excesses "should not in any way be interpreted as a disapproval of those who wish to respond generously and with an authentic evangelical spirit to the 'preferential option for the poor.' " The document is careful to direct its criticism to "some theologians" rather than the movement of liberation theology as a whole.
However, the statement strongly attacks "a system" of Marxist interpretation of the scriptures that "is a perversion of the Christian message" in its endorsement of violence and class struggle. It adds that "it is extremely difficult, if not impossible," for church leaders "to achieve a true dialogue with some 'theologians of liberation.' "
Entitled "Instruction Over Some Aspects of the Theology of Liberation," the document is signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. It was distributed in advance of its formal release to all bishops and some journalists. The Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Globo broke the official release date and published the text Thursday. Vatican officials in Rome confirmed the text's authenticity yesterday.
Liberation theology began in Latin America in the late 1960s among priests committed to profound economic and social reforms in the region. It has since spread to Africa and has influenced minority and women Catholics in the United States.
Many Catholics have used the doctrine as a justification for social activism and work with the poor. A minority of these have used it to justify involvement in political movements and even armed revolution.
The issue has become particularly important in Brazil, where the document's formal release came four days before a leading Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff, was due to appear in Rome for a formal Vatican interrogation on charges that he committed serious doctrinal errors in his writings on liberation theology.
Before leaving Brazil yesterday, Boff, a Franciscan friar, told reporters that the document "does not affect any of us, the more than 100 theologians in Latin America who produce and write the doctrine" of liberation. He added that in his view there was nothing in the document that "could honestly be interpreted as a censure of liberation theologians."
The text of the document, published in Portuguese by O Globo, is sympathetic in many passages to the motives of Latin American liberation theologians.
"In some regions of Latin America," it says, "a monopolization of a great part of the riches by an oligarchy lacking in social conscience, the virtual absence or lack of the rule of law, the military dictatorships that violate human rights . . . and the savage operations of certain foreign capital companies are factors that feed a violent sentiment of revolt."
However, it says, "the most radical of slaveries is the slavery of sin" and "God, not man, has the power to change conditions of misery." The mistake of radical theologians, it says, is to "locate evil principally or exclusively in economic, social or political 'structures,' as if all other evils derived from these structures."
Even more seriously, the document charges, many liberation theologians have adopted Marxism as a "scientific" method of analyzing social ills.
"This all-inclusive conception imposes its own logic and leads the 'theologies of liberation' to accept a number of positions incompatible with the Christian vision of man," it argues.
Chief among these distortions, according to the Vatican analysis, is the Marxist notion of class struggle.
"Class struggle is presented as an objective and necessary law" in some liberation theology, the document says. "As a result, the conception of good is equated with the affirmation of necessary violence and thus, with political amoralism."
In addition, the statement says liberation theology has erred in seeking to incorporate Marxist notions of history, that it divides the church by identifying "the poor of the scriptures with the proletariat of Marx" and that it has violated tradition and the meaning of church rituals by equating them with political action.
"The error here is not in stressing a political dimension to biblical narrations but in portraying this dimension principally and exclusively," the text says. This inevitably leads, to "a reductive reading of the scripture" and is the same as "to deny the person of Jesus Christ."
"The class struggle as a road to a classless society is a myth that impedes reform and aggravates misery and injustice," the document concludes.
"Millions of our contemporaries legitimately aspire to regain fundamental liberties they are deprived of by totalitarian and atheistic regimes that took power by revoltionary and violent paths, precisely in the name of liberation of the people. This shame of our time cannot be ignored."
The document expresses concern that teachings of liberation theology are being widely disseminated in grass-roots Catholic groups "and accepted without a critical judgment." It urges clergy to be vigilant "over the quality and content" of such teachings.