Theologians and scholars poring over the Vatican's official statement on "liberation theology" issued on Labor Day offer differing interpretations of its meaning and possible impact.
Some read it as a pullback by the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy in Rome from a strong commitment to social justice -- particularly in regard to the poor and oppressed in the third world. Others see not a retrenchment from compassion for society's have nots but a clarification from the Vatican that Marxist aspects of "liberation theology" are inconsistent with Christian teachings.
The paper is sparking speculation about future papal encyclicals and statements and about the emerging position of the Catholic Church toward political activities of its clergy in general. A few years ago Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, declined -- at the behest of the Vatican -- to seek reelection to the US House of Representatives. The Vatican said clerics should not serve as elected officials.
But the church has taken no official position on a much-publicized pastoral letter from US Catholic bishops decrying nuclear armament.
The crux of the church's compalint about liberation theology is that it borrows Marxist ideas, including class struggle, gives false hopes to the oppressed that a proletarian revolution will be a just one, rationalizes violence with scriptural authority, undercuts traditional morality, and creates divisiveness within the church.
Even so, the Vatican paper is not a categorical condemnation of the concept, US Catholic scholars say. Fr. Alfred Hennelly of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University stresses that the early part of the document "is the most far-reaching endorsement [of liberation theology] that has come from Rome so far."
Fr. Hennelly says that it talks about the "aspirations of liberation" and denounces the arms race, the gap between rich and poor, and social injustice in general. But the latter part is a clear warning of the dire effects "Marxist theology can have on the church," he explains.
Ralph McInerny, professor of medieval studies at Notre Dame University, says that Roman Catholic radicals, especially those deeply involved in social revolution in Latin America, will see the Vatican letter as a rebuff to their cause. However, the "rebuke," he explains, is of Marxism. "It takes great care to state that 'liberation' is a good word . . . liberation from sin but not political or social revolution."
"The question isn't one of activism or nonactivism or whether one should be concerned with the poor," Professor McInerny points out. "The objection is that the poor in liberation theology are seen as an oppressed class and revolution is called for," he adds.
Dr. George H. Williams of Harvard Divinity School sees the imprint of the Pope on the new liberation document. He says it has more practical impact that any of the Pontiff's three encyclicals. "It deals with the present danger but is oriented to the future," Dr. Williams points out. He adds it doesn't assail anybody in particular, "but points out the hazards implicit in appropriating Marxist categories on the assumption that they are allegedly scientific."
Those assessing the Vatican paper are divided on its broader implications outside the third world. But there is general agreement that the concept of "liberation" in relation to religion is global in nature. "It has implications for all those interested in justice, Protestants and Catholics alike," says Fr. Hennelly. "The principal theme is that Christian love should be shown in the struggle for justice."
Fr. George Hunt, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit publication, points out that those parts of the papal document that stress liberation as a "Christian theme" are almost lost in the controversy over the Vatican's criticisms of liberation theology. "It condemns oppressive regimes. . . . [It] says] mankind will no longer be subject to proverty. . . . [It talks] about the shocking inequality between rich and poor," Fr. Hunt says.
"It's really a rather bold document and should make some military tyrannical figures throughout Latin America uneasy."
Non-Catholic religious spokesmen are somewhat reluctant to assess the new Vatican stance on liberation theology. But the Rev. James Wall, editor of the liberal Protestant journal Christian Century -- which has discussed the concept in depth -- throws down the "Marxist argument." He says liberation theology is not part of wordwide Marxism. "It grows out of a peculiar situation in Latin America of poverty and oppression. The accusation that it is Marxist is a smokescreen."
And A. James Rudin, national director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, points out that the concept of liberation "goes back to Exodus and the Moses story."
Liberation theology took root in Latin America some 15 years ago. Perhaps the best known and most influential of its proponents is the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a professor of theology at the University of Peru. Fr. Gutierrez's writings and the advocacy of other Catholic clergy in Latin America have been a source of consternation to the church in Rome.
Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian priest who is a leading advocate of the revolutionary doctrine, was called to Rome last week for closed-door discussions with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Earlier, four Nicaraguan priests had been ordered by the Vatican to resign their positions in the Sandinista government. So far, they have not done so. The Nicaraguan government officials plan to send a delegation to the Vatican to discuss the situation.
Meanwhile, halfway through a 10-day tour of Canada Pope John Paul II urged priests to speak out on social issues but to leave political action to the politicians.