Growing tensions between the Vatican and leftist clerics in Latin America, particularly in Nicaragua, have led the Holy See, under Pope John Paul II's guidance, to pronouce a sharp and unprecedented denunciation of Marxist aspects of liberation theology as a threat to the Roman Catholic Church and to Christianity.
The 36-page report, presented at a Vatican press conference today by a panel of high-ranking Roman Catholic prelates, declared that aspects of Marxism and Roman Catholicism are incompatible. It warned that the use "in an insufficiently critical manner" of "concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought" can lead to "deviations . . . damaging to the faith and to Christian living."
In recent months the Vatican has begun cracking down on theologians who seek to aid the poor and repressed of the less-developed world through a doctrine of liberation that has openly adopted aspects of Marxism. It has asked the Peruvian bishops to examine the works of the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian liberation theologian. The Rev. Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian, has been called to Rome for questioning later this week.
But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which monitors Roman Catholic orthodoxy and prepared the document released today, said it was "pure chance" that the month-old report was publicly released by the Vatican only days before his scheduled meeting this weekend with Boff.
Ratzinger denied that publication of the anti-Marxist document signified a political choice between two camps by the Vatican, saying rather that the church was deeply concerned about what appeared to be "a confusion between political choices and faith" and a growing tendency toward "the ideologizing of faith."
The document "is not intended to be used as a weapon in the hands of those who with an evil mind close their eyes to the enormous problems of poverty and injustice," said Argentine Archbishop Antonio Quarricino, president of the Latin American Bishops' Conference.
He said that although the document is "strongly critical," it "is not a condemnation" of liberation theologians and is designed to stimulate discussion.
Vatican observers said it was significant that the report, entitled "Instruction on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation,' " comes at the height of a conflict between the Vatican and four priests who have defied a papal order to give up their posts in Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
Although it does not name Nicaragua, it criticizes the "people's church," an alternative church that has developed in Nicaragua in recent years as tensions with the official Roman Catholic Church have grown. The report says the concept of a people's church represents a "challenge to the sacramental and hierarchical structure" of the Roman Catholic Church.
Vatican sources have said that the preparation of the document, the first major Vatican statement on liberation theology, directly reflects the sharpening conflict with the leftist Nicaraguan priests.
But the major thrust behind the new statement against the use of Marxist principles in liberation theology, a body of doctrine developed over the last 15 years in Latin America that has spread to other parts of the Third World, is the strong anti-Marxist outlook and resolve of the present pontiff, Polish-born John Paul.
During his first papal trip to Mexico in 1979, where he attended the bishops' assembly at Puebla, John Paul made it clear both that he was opposed to the involvement of clerics in partisan politics and that "the basis of true liberation" could come only from the church's teachings. Since then he has repeatedly criticized priests whose social commitment spilled over into political activity, frequently leftist.
Two weeks ago, writing to the African Bishops' Conference, the pope warned priests against confusing their concern for the victims of injustice with the concept of class struggle, a reference to Marxism.
"The solidarity of the church with the poor, with the victms of unjust laws or unjust social and economic structures goes without saying," he said, but added, "The forms in which this solidarity is realized cannot be dictated by an analysis based on class distinctions and a class struggle."
The document released today continued that theme, noting that "in certain parts of Latin America the seizure of the vast majority of the wealth by an oligarchy of owners bereft of social consciousness, . . . military dictators making a mockery of elementary human rights and the savage practices of some foreign capital interests constitute factors that nourish a passion for revolt among those who thus consider themselves the powerless victims of a new colonialism in the technological, financial, monetary or economic order."
It said, "In itself, the expression 'theology of liberation' is a thoroughly valid term: It designates a theological reflection centered on the biblical theme of liberation and freedom, and on the urgency of its practical realization." But it added that "impatience and a desire for results has led certain Christians, despairing of every other method, to turn to what they call 'Marxist analysis.' "
Liberation theology first appeared at the end of the 1960s when theologians in Latin America who saw the Gospel as a message of liberation for the socially and economically repressed found themselves increasingly tempted to use Marxist precepts as a tool of analysis.
By the late 1970s this trend had set in motion a conservative reaction within the Vatican. But it was only after John Paul's election in 1978 that it became clear the head of the church would be throwing his weight behind a reversal of those leftist tendencies. Today's document is a major result of John Paul's anti-Marxist commitment, Vatican sources said.