Why Latin America's power-to-the-poor religion faded

What ever happened to liberation theology?

The social doctrine preached by left-leaning Roman Catholic priests reached its zenith in Latin America in the 1980s with the idea that Jesus taught a radical theology, one that allowed even the use of force and revolution to give the poor justice.

But, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the consolidation of anticommunist Pope John Paul II's power, experts say, liberation theology has lost much of its influence and support.

"Liberation theology is absolutely not forgotten, but what has survived might be called decaffeinated," says Pedro Luis Alonzo, who has just written a book on religion in Guatemala. "With the retrenchment of ideologies after the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberation theology has lost whatever revolutionary leanings it once had."

According to Mr. Alonzo, liberation theology sprang out of a growing emphasis on social development and answers to poverty in the Catholic Church in the 1960s. When that thinking didn't solve the human suffering, a more radical theology based on Jesus' teachings to and about the poor was born.

The controversial theology reached its widest recognition during Central America's civil wars, and particularly in Nicaragua under the Sandinista government.

The idea of "power to the poor and disenfranchised" also had an echo in Mexico's Chiapas, where the Catholic Church under Bishop Samuel Ruiz has played a central supportive role for Mayan Indians in the unsettled Zapatista uprising.

Many people equate liberation theology with a kind of "Marxist Christianity," but Alonzo says this is a "simplistic and reduced" understanding of what it involves. Still, the waning of radical leftist thinking and consolidation of Catholic Church power under Pope John Paul II - whose pronouncements on the topic have been ambiguous - presaged liberation theology's decline.

But some observers of Catholic affairs believe the doctrine's advocates are simply lying low.

"As with the very contested issues of [priests'] celibacy, women's role in the church, and cultural diversity, the followers of liberation theology have only decided to put their demands off to the following papacy," says Miguel Canto, a Mexico City sociologist and Catholicism expert. "The church under John Paul II has placed obedience [among religious orders] over social commitment, but that orientation won't last forever."

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