There's hardly a question that liberation theology has been one of the most controversial theologies to have arisen in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Vilified by some, and yet vindicated equally by others, I think both sides can agree that the controversy generated by this world view stems from the fact that it is a theology greatly unhappy and discontented with the way things are-- so much so, that it is willing to provoke the change itself, regardless of means, and sometimes even of its consequences.
Influential theologians (you have to admit it) like Jesuit Fathers Jon Sobrino and Ernesto Cardenal, among others, speak of the so-called 'preferential option for the poor' almost as if it were prayer. On the converse side, its opponents speak of it like the plague. What is the average Catholic to think then of liberation theology? Should he shun it and avoid all contact with it, or should he embrace it, in order to be on 'the right side'? And for that matter, who is on the right side?
I don't subscribe to liberation theology, but let me offer a few points in the semester that I was acquainted with it. First: yes, it is true, the primary lens with which these theologians see liberation is Marxist-- that is, liberation from primarily sociological and economic malcontents. Second: liberation theology and its theologians seem to envision a world that is the 'Kingdom of God'; however, what is ironic is that this kingdom is one without a King, in the sense that they see a classless, absolutely-equal utopia as the icon of the heavenly kingdom. Apocalyptic would be a suitable word here. Corollary here would be the obligation binding on all the faithful to work for this utopia, even if it means a revolution (insert what context you may, here).
At least, that is their party line, political ideology. In retrospect, I guess I can see why liberation theology is becoming increasingly popular in the Third World. Latin America is home to a cornucopia of Catholic nations, but paradoxically, not all of these nations necessarily have Catholic societies. A socialist nation could literally be next door to a totalitarian state-- both are just not feasible options for me. Here in the Philippines, the gap between rich and poor is rapidly becoming more and more unbridgeable. I have been to streets where literally one end could lead to an upper crust suburban environment, while the other end is home to families poor as dirt, living in squalor and squatting by the streets as the SUVs of their suburban co-streeters gaily ride down the road. I have seen entire families, sometimes with up to ten members, eking out a living and barely surviving in makeshift shanty towns under bridges and garbage dumps. These are sights to wrench the soul of even the most hardened among us-- I've lived here all my life, yet I still cannot fathom the extent of the poverty of these people.
For all my bourgeoisie, I sometimes have to remind myself that I am but a part of a minority in this country which is increasingly suffering from the stratifications of language, wealth, and education. The only reason I can write, speak, and think in English like this is because my parents were hardworking enough to send me to the right places; the only reason I am not part of them is because I was lucky enough to escape. But in a population of at least 90 million, where only a handful can afford a semblance of 'life' (as used in the Western context), one simply cannot remain locked in his environment.
We can blame the government, our politicians, and even ourselves all we want, but that does not change the fact that we have too often neglected our charity to our fellow man. There seems to be a disturbing trend among many Catholics today to make an idol out of poverty-- we admire the poor for their simple faith, but the great irony is that there is absolutely nothing simple about this faith. This is a faith born out of many sleepless nights of hunger, of rummaging through waste bins and trying to find even the smallest scraps of junk food to last a family of ten for the next week; this is a very visceral faith. And let us not kid ourselves: we who grew up living in comfort would probably lose the faith sooner than touch a discarded piece of fruit covered in germs and all that 'good' stuff.
This is why I can never fully give my support to these liberation theologians, because the poor at least know one thing: poverty is a curse. Poverty is hell on earth. Imposed poverty can in no way ever be a blessing, because to do so would be practically the same as acknowledging a god that does not know how to love. But we have learned men in their polo shirts and Gucci loafers strutting around town proclaiming the good news of being penniless. It is indeed a great irony that even poverty is fast becoming a luxury of the rich, and that this egalitarianism is the sole oligarchy of a few.
However, this is not to say that sociological and economic liberation are entirely wrong. This would be swinging form one extremism to another, and as we know, this is precisely the rhythm in which heresy is born. There are Catholics out there who live as if one only needed the sacraments to enter heaven-- of course, from a theological perspective, this is true. But there is a marked difference between a true, proper sacramental life and a legalistic, juridical understanding of it (i.e., reducing the sacraments to transactions). There is a reason why there are clergy and laymen in the Church-- have we forgotten that our place is in the world, and not the altar? Many traditionalists today sadly believe that locking themselves in church would be the answer to all of life's problems; yet, from the lives of the saints, we know that demons are present even at Mass. I think it was Padre Pio who said that the church building is crowded with all the powers of Hell during Mass, only being vanquished at the Consecration.
Perhaps one of the greatest deficiencies in religious praxis today is the divorce between the mind and heart. To be properly called religious, one must shun all the things of this world and live as if time and life had not changed since five or so decades ago; let us make no mistake here-- this is nostalgia, plain and simple. At best, it could be a genuine desire to return to the simplicity of bygone days, but this will never completely solve all of our problems, mainly since the one pervading quality of life-- that is, its ability to lapse into sinfulness-- has not changed since the days of our distant ancestors. Similarly, while there is great virtue in living a life of service, it must always be grounded in Truth, and that is Jesus Christ. What makes joining the Red Cross so different from Christianity, then?
I think it's a great shame that things that were formerly expected of every good Christian now have to be lumped together under specific, but ultimately chaotic, theologies. How did it come about that love for fellow man got filed under liberal modernism? And how did it come about that sticking to the rules got filed under blind obedience? One has to wonder if we honestly believe in religion at all, given this mindset; for what it's worth, we are becoming more and more like dilettantes. Here, the paradox: the Christian must achieve absolute selflessness through maximum self-consciousness. The problem with liberation theology is that it imposes selflessness, not so much through honest assessment, but through imposition as well. And, as anyone can see, there has to be something to do the imposition. In that sense, it is really a luxury.
Christ said, ‘The poor you will have with you always’. What are you going to do about it?