Theology and Society: Development of Liberation Theology

By Rowena Robinson

If a ‘this-worldly’ discipline like sociology finds it hard to agree on its role in the public sphere — for Burawoy and his supporters have many dissenters — how much more difficult must it before an ‘other-worldly’ subject like theology to come to terms with its relationship with politics or social life? The Jesuit sociologist, Heredia 1) shows that, with the advent of modernity in particular, the Church had to contend with what its response should be to the ‘social’ question. Modernity obligated the Church to rethink the relationship between theology and the social world (faith and justice).

According to him, the first response of Catholic and Protestant Churches took the form of ‘liberal theology’ which came to be represented respectively by the efforts of the Second Vatican Council and the World Council of Churches (WCC). Liberal theology was not radical political theology and it frnctioned very much within the framework of capitalism and the welfare state. Certain forms of a ‘social gospel’ also permeated the Protestant and Catholic Churches from the early times and this response was considered inadequate by Christians in the developing world, for whom it appeared clear that any tackling of the ‘social’ issue would have to deal with the structural roots of social injustice and inequality. In particular, for those influenced by Marxist ideas, development was perceived to be a problem requiring an analysis of the class structures of society.

This became the basis for ‘liberation theology’ and it is certainly critical for us to understand the form this theologizing took as well as its relationship with what we are dealing with — public theology. Liberation theology developed first in Latin America. If liberal theology essentially focused on individual freedom, liberation theology was rooted in Marxist social analysis.7) For one of the most prominent voices within liberation theology, it is possible to distinguish three levels of liberation,

Christ the Savior liberates man from sin, which is the ultimate root of all disruption of friendship and of all injustice and oppression. Christ makes man truly free, that is to say, he enables man to live in communion with him; and this is the basis for all human brotherhood” 3)

For, it is not possible to direct oneself only to purging one’s own sinfulness or renewing one’s relationship to God without attending to one’s relationship with other human beings.’ In this, the struggle for social justice is crucial. For the Christian, solidarity with the poor is essential; otherwise there can be no liberation for all. At the same time, this is not an anti-rich; stance; for the rich too are considered to be ‘alienated’ from their true humanity due to their hegemonic position as the class of exploiters. For the Christian in liberation theology, therefore, there must not only be an ‘option for the poor’ but ‘action for the poor’ on the basis of the Marxian analytic perspective. As he goes on to say:

The theology of liberation attempts to reflect on the experience and meaning of the faith based on the commitment to abolish injustice and to build a new society; this theology must be verified by the practice of that commitment, by active, effective participation in the struggle which the exploited social classes have undertaken against their oppressors.2)

It is true that after its initiation in Latin America, liberation, theology influenced both Catholic and Protestant Churches, to some extent, particularly in Asia to shift away from a perspective based on ‘charity’ to one which gave centrality to social justice and human rights.

As Heredia 4) points out, in India, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) affirmed the ‘right to development’ and began to call for the empowerment of Dalits and tribals. The Protestant Church of North India (CNI) began to shift from a perspective of social service to one of empowerment through a rights-based approach, while the Church of South India (CSI), which has a predominantly Dalit membership, made from its early constitution onwards a commitment to Dalits, and this began to be expressed from the 1980s onwards in efforts to articulate a Dalit theology.


1) Rudolf, Heredia, “Development as Liberation: An Indian Christian Perspective”, in Gurpreet Mahajan and S Jodhka, (eds.) Rekgion, Community and Development. Changing Contours of Politics and Poly in India, New Delhi:Routledge, 2010.

2) Michael, Burawoy, “Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas and possibilities”, in Social Forces 82, 4, (2004): 1603-1618.

3) Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, New York: Orbis Books, (1973): 37.

4) Cf Rudolf, C. Heredia, op. ait.

Reading Octogesim Advenins through Liberation and Development

Reading Octogesim Advenins through Liberation and Development

Dr. Paul Hwang – Director of ALL Forum

After the General Assembly of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) in Medellin, Columbia, (1968), Pope Paul VI published in 1971 an important document on social issues, Octogesim Advenins, or the “Eightieth Anniversary”, as a response to the Medellin conference which seemed to influence the pope in a significant way. It is the papal letter commemorating the 80th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. The letter refers to his another encyclical Populorum Pregressio (1967) or “On Development of the Peoples” in several places, but with a different perspective. It shows its relationship with Gaudium et Spes (1965), one of most important documents of Vatican II; the subsequent Populorum Pregressio, which focuses on an integral development and the Medellin document which emphasizes on liberation. The paragraphs 5 and 6  of Octogesim Advenins illustrate this well:

“Since the period in which the encyclical Rerum Novarum denounced in a forceful and imperative manner the scandal of the condition of the workers in the nascent industrial society, historical evolution has led to an awareness of other dimensions and other applications of social justice. The encyclicals Quadragesimo Anno and Mater et Magistra already noted this fact. The recent Council for its part took care to point them out, in particular in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. We ourself have already continued these lines of thought in our encyclical Populorum Progressio. ‘Today’, we said, ‘the principal fact that we must all recognize is that the social question has become worldwide’.” (no.5)

“It will moreover be for the forthcoming Synod of Bishops itself to study more closely and to examine in greater detail the Church’s mission in the face of grave issues raised today by the question of justice in the world.”(no.6)

Pope Paul VI asserts “development is a new name for peace” in his Populorum Pregressio. The Pope believes that a beneficial development for all is the way to respond to the demand for justice at the global level, and that if justice at the global level is implemented, peace can be achieved in the world. In 1967, Paul VI established the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace to practice development and peace. He consciously addressed some of the political issues involved in choosing and implementing a fair social order, focusing on political issues that lay in the economic crisis. Therefore, it attempted to balance development and liberation. The Saint pope also institutionalized a synod of bishops to specifically support the Vatican II’s decision and to determine follow-up measures. In 1971, the bishops’ synod published “Justice in the World”, one of the most significant document in the area of Catholic Social Teachings or CSTs of the Church especially the theme of social justice. The text emphasizes that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.” (no. 6).

Many leaders, including bishops, still believed that the way to overcome poverty was through development. The expression ‘liberation through development’ represents an attempt to take into account various situations and prospects. The emphasis on the importance of political activities or involvement expressed in the paragraph 46 of Octogesima Advenins is also seen as an important contribution to CSTs as follows:

“Though it is often a field of confrontation and domination, it can give rise to dialogue and foster cooperation. Yet it runs the risk of taking up too much strength and freedom. This is why the need is felt to pass from economics to politics…. Political power, which is the natural and necessary link for ensuring the cohesion of the social body, must have as its aim the achievement of the common good.”(no. 46)