This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” This often-misquoted reflection from Karl Marx on religion’s societal role criticises the masses’ self-generated addiction to religion, as a method of dealing with capitalist society’s brutal inequalities. As Peter Thompson argues, criticism of the church often accompanied criticism of structural injustice for Marxist scholars. With this regular association between religious institutions and entrenched hierarchies prevalent in the “Old World” from which Marx writes, how is it that an alliance of Catholic leaders in the “New World” became authoritarianism’s enemies in their advocacy for civic and political action, railing against neoliberalism’s “sinful” inequalities and its disregard for the poor? This article introduces liberation theology in South America.

The Catholic Church was implanted into South America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries alongside the Spanish colonial project. In the eyes of colonial officials, the Church played a crucial role in exerting control over the continent’s indigenous people. The Pope and Vatican actively endorsed this violent expansion, issuing papal bulls to both Spanish and Portuguese kings, with associated territorial and ecclesiastical rights over newly “discovered” territories. This wider historical context demonstrates that the ultimate goal of “the extension of the kingdom of God” in the continent was often accompanied by violence and the extinguishing of indigenous cultures, beliefs and people.

It was from these roots of Eurocentric political and cultural oppression that Reverend Gustavo Gutierréz, widely credited as founding liberation theology, saw many of South America’s contemporary socio-economic inequalities stemming from. In the book ‘A Theology of Liberation’, he highlighted South America’s unjust social structures as the source of its issues, also positing that his education in European theology simply didn’t reflect the material conditions of a continent where, at the time of publishing in 1973, sixty percent of the population lived in poverty.

The neoliberal reforms of the late twentieth century only exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, as a programme of economic liberalisation and free trade accompanied brutal authoritarianism and a suppression of dissident voices in the political sphere. Notable examples such as Pinochet’s Chile from 1973 to 1990, and Videla’s Argentinian junta from 1976 to 1981, essentially acted as testing sites for the economic policies designed by Milton Friedman’s ‘Chicago Boys’ at the University of Chicago. The infamous ‘Operation Condor’, a United States-backed campaign of state violence against political dissidents, accompanied this neoliberal turn, and consumed South America. As many as 60,000 people were killed from its establishment on the 25th of November 1975- Pinochet’s 60th birthday.

Within this context, liberation theologians carried out numerous grass-roots actions, centred primarily around the creation of ‘base communities’. These local Christian groups intertwined religious education and discussion with the provision of parishioners’ immediate needs, such as water, food, and electricity. The example of the health program introduced within base communities in Nova Iguaçu, Brazil, demonstrates the transformative role of these bottom-up structures which could respond to specific local issues ignored by the ruling dictatorships. This social responsibility extended also to marginalised indigenous groups throughout the continent. Victims to electoral exclusion, military abuses and exclusion from public services, liberation theologians aided tribes such as the Gurupa and Tapeba in Brazil in developing stronger bases for collective activism and ultimately obtaining legally codified identities. The anthropologist Richard Pace uses a specific example of the ‘base community’ being mobilised to resist a move for land expropriation from an extra-regional timber extraction firm. Whilst continually challenged by an asymmetrical balance of power, liberation theology devised and delivered on a framework for community activism which was sorely lacking prior to its creation.

However, the relationship between these liberation theologians and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was one often characterised by tension. The Vatican itself has until recently played a significant role in the movement’s suppression, placing prominent liberationists such as Father Leonardo Boff under “penitential silence” for his human rights advocacy. The Church also objected to the intertwining of Marxist class-struggle analysis and religion, with the later Pope Benedict XVI designating it a “political interpretation of the Bible”. This contempt for the Left saw the Vatican label outcry at “Operation Condor” as “communist propaganda”. From Opus Dei’s associations with the Pinochet regime, The Church’s siding with Nicaraguan dictator Somoza Debayle, or the current Pope Francis’ aiding of an Argentinian Navy project to hide political prisoners from a human rights delegation- in his own holiday home- the institutional Church throughout this period of dictatorship was often deeply complicit. This demonstrates the extent to which liberation theologians acted in contravention of an unjust status quo at great personal risk.

This history of grassroots resistance to authoritarianism and a desire to address issues of inequality and poverty is arguably as important in some South American nations today as it was historically. The Red Eclesial Pan Amazónica forum held in the Vatican last year to discuss the destruction of the Amazon and the indigenous communities who inhabit it was criticised by supporters of the far-right President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, as a gathering of “meddlesome liberation theologists”, and the country’s security service Abin has been mobilised to monitor priests who attended. Such disproportionate responses to an attempt to give agency to the marginalised in a sense exemplify the movement’s relevance, as one piece of the complex puzzle that is Catholicism’s five-hundred year dominance of South America.

By Jack Collicutt

Image found in the Study of Liberation Theology in Latin America, by Edwin J Perez