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Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247

Growing out of Catholic Church reforms laid out in the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962–1965, known as Vatican II) and Marxist-influenced independence and reform political movements, a radical idea gained sway—that organized religion had both the responsibility and the resources to work in popular solidarity toward correcting social...

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Growing out of Catholic Church reforms laid out in the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962–1965, known as Vatican II) and Marxist-influenced independence and reform political movements, a radical idea gained sway—that organized religion had both the responsibility and the resources to work in popular solidarity toward correcting social problems. The Peruvian-born priest and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote A Theology of Liberation (first published 1971 in Spanish as Teología de la liberación) with the goal of encouraging the Catholic Church to enact broad institutional changes and specific policies and programs. The book became the foundational text for liberation theology, a global movement that was especially strong in Latin America.

The book has four parts: In part one, Gutiérrez contrasts classic and contemporary interpretations of theology as contemplative or activism, respectively. In part two, he outlines socially relevant tasks for Christianity, especially in Latin America and in other developing world areas, and recommends courses of action for the church and laypersons. The third part is a closer examination of Latin American options, providing political as well as economic explanations of poverty and the related need for more directly applied remedies to alleviate the poor’s practical as well as spiritual problems. The fourth and final part brings the discussion back to theological issues, expanding on the Vatican II recommendations and addressing specific spiritual dimensions of activism as they support the concept of salvation.

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1387

First published: Teológia de la liberación: Perspectivas, 1971 (English translation, 1973)

Edition(s) used: A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, edited by Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1973

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Theology

Core issue(s): Ethics; freedom and free will; justice; Latin Americans


A Theology of Liberation consists of four parts, which include thirteen chapters and cover more than three hundred pages. Part 1 includes one chapter that discusses the purpose of theology. According to Gutiérrez, the classic task of theology was to seek after wisdom and pursue rational knowledge. Throughout history, however, some have seen the task of theology as a meditation on proper human action. Gutiérrez sees his theological method as a reflection on circumstances and actions that should be taken. Chapter 2 considers the liberation as a theological concept. Gutiérrez argues that liberation must be connected to the proper development of individuals and social orders and that liberation is not merely concerned with otherworldly issues or the afterlife.

The second part, called “Posing the Problem,” contains three brief chapters about the social task confronting Christianity. Gutiérrez argues that Christians in Latin American are looking for support from the Catholic Church for the social problems faced by people in developing countries. Gutiérrez argues that the problem of the poor must be considered both on the pastoral level and on the level of theological reflection. On the pastoral level, lay movements must be given particular attention so that laypersons are supported in the struggle for social justice.

The third part, titled “The Option Before the Latin American Church,” examines the development of theological ideas in Latin America regarding social life. Gutiérrez asserts that for a very long time theologians in Latin America had no real awareness of economic problems faced by everyday residents. In the 1950’s, however, theologians began addressing the social plight of Latin Americans. He also includes a brief discussion of the theory of dependence as an explanation for the poverty in the Americas. This economic theory argues that Latin American nations never developed vibrant domestic economies because trading partners purchased raw materials at very low prices from Latin American nations and then sold finished goods to these countries at higher prices. Reformist movements were not enough to counter the economic colonialism practiced by northern nations. In light of the failure of European nations, liberation theology was a born as a challenge to the situation.

Finally, Gutiérrez offers a chapter outlining the tasks before the Latin American Church. Laypersons and priests alike must participate in social reform movements. Priests who engage in social reform efforts must not be seen as subversives but as true supporters of the people. Moreover, bishops must be supportive of these social movements. Gutiérrez applauds the efforts of Latin American bishops, particularly those at Medellín Conference in 1968, which called for the liberation of Latin Americans from economic servitude. Gutiérrez rejects the label that liberationists are merely communists operating under the guise of religious terminology. Instead, he calls his views and those of others promoting liberation as socialism informed by Christianity and maintains that the broad participation of the oppressed is essential for proper social change.

Part 4, “Perspectives,” includes five chapters. The first considers the relation between liberation and salvation. Here Gutiérrez agrees with the central concern for salvation in the Christian tradition but asserts that we must think anew about the meaning of salvation: “Salvation is not something otherworldly,” but rather “salvation is something that embraces human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ.” He calls this a qualitative approach to salvation. He says that the political liberation called for will be a “self-creation of man.” According to Gutiérrez, this was the case with ancient Israel, and it is the case with the developed world at the time of his book. He rejects the customary focus on otherworldly liberation and asserts that the promises of God are directed toward earthly realities. In support of his position, he cites passages from documents approved at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which refer to the temporal progress of God’s kingdom. Christ is presented as a liberator who calls for a radical reordering of human life.

The next chapter argues from biblical texts that God works in history through the acts of those called by him. God’s followers, then, are to work for justice. Gutiérrez lists passages from both the Old and New Testaments in support of his call to work for justice. Finally, Christ is presented not as a teacher of otherworldly realities but as one who called his followers to love their neighbors in a radical way.

Another chapter in this section considers the meaning of the end times, or the eschaton, and the hope one has for the new reality. Gutiérrez argues that Revelation informs that we can have hope for a transformed world and that this hope is founded upon God’s promises to those who follow him.

There follows a chapter titled “The Church: Sacrament of History” in which Gutiérrez says that the Church itself, as a sign of God’s presence in the world, must be an instrument of social transformation. This involves a new understanding of the Church. The Eucharist must be seen as a means of nourishing Christians for social action. Finally, all Christians must engage in class struggle as an expression of Christian brotherhood.

The final chapter of the work argues that the Catholic Church must in all of its actions and in its theological teachings side with the poor and attempt to alleviate their condition. Gutiérrez calls material poverty a sin that must be confronted.

Christian Themes

The first theme expressed in this work is the new mode that theology must undertake to address the social conditions of the poor. Theology is no longer about knowing; rather, it is about action, or praxis as Gutiérrez calls it. Scriptural passages from both the Old and New Testaments and other theological documents of the Catholic Church are interpreted in light of this viewpoint. Thus, passages on the poor in Scripture are given new attention. Christ is presented as a radical social reformer and liberator of the poor. Passages suggesting otherworldly realties are interpreted in the light of worldly conditions.

Another theme is the new meanings of “liberation” and “salvation.” These terms become interchangeable, because the work of bringing liberation to the poor will also bring salvation to the poor, salvation from the material poverty forced upon those in less developed countries. Liberation and salvation will occur in this world. Gutiérrez further argues that it is appropriate to have eschatological hope for this to occur.

Another theme developed by Gutiérrez is the theological justification for Christians, including laypersons and priests, to become social revolutionaries who seek to overturn existing social and economic arrangements. Gutiérrez recognizes the Marxist tone of this language but rejects the notion that his social vision must accept the Marxist atheism and materialism. He calls for all to overturn the unjust social structures in place in the world. Gutiérrez is certainly pleased that many have accepted this role in the years immediately preceding the publication of his work.

In the same vein, a significant theme of the work is the critique of capitalism and the argument that socialism is most compatible with Christianity. Gutiérrez asserts that dependency and capitalistic exploitation explain poverty. He embraces socialism as compatible with a Christian vision for society.

Sources for Further Study

  • Bokenkotter, Thomas. Church and Revolution: Catholics in the Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice. New York: Image Books, 1998. Examines Catholics who have promoted social reform. Includes two chapters that consider the humanist vision of the Jacques Maritain.
  • Novak, Michael. Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology. Mahway, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1986. Provides a largely critical perspective of liberation theology, questioning Gutiérrez’s use of Marxist ideology and his understanding of economic development as being ill-conceived and ill-considered. Gutiérrez is discussed throughout the work.
  • Rowland, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Eleven significant essays, including one by Gutiérrez, survey the basics of liberation theology and explain the development of its core ideas.
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