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Milltown colloquium on liberation theology

Liberation TheologyJim Corkery SJ was one of five main speakers at a colloquium on liberation theology held in Milltown Institute on 3-4 October. The colloquium was designed to mark the 40th anniversary of the CELAM Conference at Medellín in 1968. Jim’s paper assessed the various responses of Joseph Ratzinger to liberation theology, while other papers examined the historical context of the movement, its current status, its role in Africa, and its contribution to feminist theology. For a full report on the colloquium, read the article by Patrick Claffey SVD below.

Liberation Theology: Movement or Moment?
Colloquium at the Milltown Institute, Dublin

Patrick Claffey SVD
Department of Mission Theology and Culture, Milltown Institute

A large gathering of almost two hundred people, including many missionaries and former missionaries, as well as several distinguished international and local academics attended a colloquium at the Milltown Institute, Dublin, on October 3-4 to mark the 40th anniversary of the CELAM Conference at Medellin in 1968. Medellin is seen by many as a pivotal moment in the development of liberation theology throughout Latin America and its later development in different forms in Asia and Africa, as well as its influence on other movements in contextual theology, notably amongst women and minorities. Opening the conference the Rector of the Pontifical Athenaeum at Milltown, Professor Finbarr Clancy, recalled the Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador and others who had given their lives in the cause of liberation, justice and peace.

The conference sought to address two questions: “Was liberation theology a broad-based and significant ecclesial and theological movement or was it simply an historical moment, somewhat like May 1968 in Paris which when viewed forty years on may not have represented quite what it seemed to at that time? The second question was “where is it now?”  

Dr David Tombs of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Belfast, in an historical overview of liberation theology in Latin America suggested that it had three significant moments in 1968: the Jesuit Provincials meeting with Pedro Arrupe in Latin America in May, Guttierez’ Chimbote paper “Toward a Theology of Liberation in July and Medellin II in August.  Dr Tombs also noted three historical movements: a movement of growth and change in the 1970s followed by a movement of deepening and expansion in the 1980s, and in the 1990s by a movement of crisis and adjustment in the face of geo-political and theological developments.  In conclusion he suggested that liberation theology had left us three legacies: the Methodology of the Second Step in the process of theologising, starting from the realty, notably that of the poor, and only then moving on to theologise, the Preferential Option for the Poor, and the search for a New Terminology, a new language, that will allow theology to reflect reality.

Dr James Corkery delivered a paper entitled Joseph Ratzinger on Liberation Theology: What Did He Say?  Why Did He Say It?  What Can Be Said About It?  The paper examined the difficulties Joseph Ratzinger, the theologian, had with liberation theology and, particularly, with the work of Gustavo Gutierrez, an early and still iconic figure in the movement.  He also examined briefly the 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” and the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation issued by Cardinal Ratzinger at the CDF two years later.  In his conclusion the speaker noted that a certain amount of what has come to be perceived as Ratzinger’s almost visceral aversion and unstinting opposition to liberation theology has to do to some extent at least with an intellectual tendency on his part to identify “isms” (in this case, Marxist-influenced materialism) at the centre of a conception that he finds problematic and then to home in on these in a ‘going-for-the-jugular’ type move that shows no tolerance for allowing wheat and weeds to grow together, to be sifted in due time.  Dr Corkery remarked, however, that whatever the vicissitudes of the past few years and the doubts that have been expressed about it, “liberation theology has left its footprints all over theology” and as such must be considered to have been more than a passing moment or an ephemeral movement.

American-Vietnamese theologian Professor Peter Phan of Georgetown University, challenging those who believed that liberation theology had in recent years been “vanquished”, told the colloquium that: “While it is true that liberation theology is no longer enjoying the kind of publicity and even notoriety as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, the announcement of its demise, at least in Asia, is, like Mark Twain’s, vastly premature and greatly exaggerated.”   Referring to the title of the conference Professor Phan strongly suggested that “today in Asia, liberation theology is not only a movement of moment, because of its importance for Asian Christianity, but also a movement of the moment, because it is an appropriate and necessary response to the contemporary challenges facing Asia and the Asian Christianity.” How can Christianity help Asian people enmeshed in this complex society that often seems to crush them to “become subjects of their future and destiny and facilitate their struggle for liberation from the aftermath of colonisation, political oppression economic exploitation, communist regime, patriarchal domination, and racial discrimination?”

Dr Elochukwu Uzukwu reminded the conference that liberation theology had been a part of African Christianity long before Medellin.  He pointed to African Initiated Churches springing up from the early part of the twentieth century and more recent charismatic movements both within and outside the mainstream historical churches as an indication that Africa was making the Christian faith its own and developing a Christianity that was entirely responsive to African reality in its emphasis on healing and social cohesion.  He noted the academic development of this kind of theology notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Cameroon but also elsewhere on the continent in the work of Englebert Mveng, Jean-Marc Ela and Kä Mana.

Professor Mary Grey acknowledged the shortcomings of liberation theology and the fact that it “has not transformed the world” and notes that “feminist liberation theology must be included in this criticism” but this is not to say that it has not had a history of real achievements.  However in the current situation Professor Grey suggested “the category of liberation is itself too limited and has to be placed with other concepts in what [she] calls ‘praxis of reconciliation’.  The demand is liberation – still a great ‘Cry freedom’ rises from all parts of the world.  The emphasis is connectedness – we must keep on making links between the chains of oppression in diverse contexts; the corrective is suffering – are we prepared to commit to whatever it costs to brink about the restoration of relations?  The Power is imaginations – we are discovering that the work of justice and peace depends not only on action, resistance and protest but on beauty, joy, celebration.”

In a paper entitled The End of Woman – Gender, Rights and God Beyond Modernity Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University sought to address two questions: “can the human rights movement provide a vehicle for the continuation of liberation theology in the postmodern context in which we find ourselves today, and what is the relationship between a political liberationist theology rooted in the language of human rights, and a sacramental theology expressed in the performative worship of the liturgy?”  Professor Beattie asked both questions “with a particular focus on the significance of woman as political subject and sacramental presence.”  In concluding her paper she wrote “To conclude, liberation theology was a moment in a movement. The movement continues, but ours is a different moment which requires a different language. I am suggesting that this language can be found in a politics of human rights which embraces secularism as an expression of its own kenotic incarnationality, but which is nurtured through a rich sacramentality which makes believe before God. This means acknowledging the end of woman in two different contexts: the end of woman as an essentialist ideal, in favour of woman as the rights-bearing subject of our political struggles, and the end of woman as the vocation of woman to flourishing and fulfilment in God, as the Christ-bearing person of our sacramental hope.”

The attendance at the conference, as well as the enthusiastic participation of both the speakers and the audience would certainly suggest that liberation theology is something they lived out of and to confirm the belief that it has left its footprints not only on theology but in the spirit of many who lived it out.