Will It Liberate?

Sigmund, Paul E.

BOOKS Epistle from a democratic capitalist WILL IT LIBERATE? QUESTIONS ABOUT LIBERATION THEOLOGY Michael Novak Paulist, $14.95, 311 pp. Paul E. Sigmund This is an important but flawed book. It...

...It should constitute a new stage in close connection with the former ones of theological reflection...
...This is not Michael Novak's first encounter with liberation theology...
...he goes farther and launches a wholesale critique of various forms of socialism and their claim to liberate the poor although this is only done after he has redefined Western European social democracy (because it accepts a market economy) as a form of democratic capitalism...
...Michael Novak challenges them on this point, and one hopes that this book may mark the beginning of a fruitful dialogue between liberals and liberationists on the subject of capitalism, socialism, democracy, and the causes and cure of poverty...
...And it is there that the dynamism of the new movement has been so clear and attractive that it has led the Brazilian bishops to a vigorous defense of liberation theology at the Extraordinary Vatican Synod of Bishops in December 1985 and in a three-day discussion with the pope in March 1986...
...Nor is there the slightest reference to the Basic Ecclesial Communities that have been central to liberation theologians' thinking from the beginning...
...In Freedom with Justice: Catholic Social Thought and Liberal Institutions (Harper & Row, 1984) he attacked the liberation theologians' claim to be speaking for the poor, and in the New York Times Magazine for October 21, 1984 he argued "The Case against Liberation Theology," criticizing the liberation theologians for their "naive utopianism about human nature and their ignorance of the importance of wealth creation...
...In March 1982, he published "Why Latin America is Poor" in the Atlantic Monthly, arguing that the liberation theologians were wrong in attributing Latin American underdevelopment to dependency on the U.S., since the problem was Latin America's Hispanic value-system that did not value entrepreneurial skills...
...However, his book ignores the second and more influential aspect of liberation theology, its focus on the grass-roots participation and religious experience of the poor...
...In response to the criticisms of other Latin American theologians and of the Vatican, the liberation theologians have largely abandoned the crude Marxist rhetoric of the early 1970s...
...It is there that Gutierrez's "critical reflection on praxis in the light of the Word'' is supposed to take place and not in some theological Politburo...
...Gutierrez agrees that liberation is both social and individual in character and quotes with approval the 1986 Vatican Instruction on Christian Freedom 185 and Liberation, "A liberation that does not take into account the personal liberty of those who fight for it is already condemned to failure...
...Ah yes, liberation theology, but which liberation theology...
...They have not abandoned, however, their readiness to blame "sinful structures," i.e., capitalism and multinational corporations, for the poverty and oppression in Latin America...
...In doing so, he says, actual historical experience including that of "historical socialism" must be taken into account in one's evaluation of the possibilities of liberation under different systems...
...In Will It Liberate...
...See especially paragraphs 68-70 on preferential love for the poor, the basic communities, and "theological reflection developed from experience...
...It is important because it is a conscious attempt to carry out a dialogue with the liberation theologians concerning their economic and political vision of the good society...
...Gutierrez's 1986 book, La Verdad los Hara Libres (The Truth Shall Make You Free), as well as his response to Vatican criticisms of his writings, argue that liberation theology must continue to make use of social science (not just Marxism) in its analysis of poverty, but do so in a critical way that subjects it to continual evaluation and revision...
...The dust jacket refers to "churchmen who claim to be both Marxist and Christian" and it completely ignores the central position of the grassroots Basic Ecclesial Communities in the thinking and the practice ("praxis") of the liberationists...
...Will It Liberate...
...Because there really are two an anti-capitalist structuralism that has used Marxism as one of the ways to identify the causes of oppression, and a grassroots populism that wishes to relate the Scripture and the teachings of the church to the lived experience of the poor...
...It argues (1) that their use of Marxist categories and their penchant for socialism leads them to embrace a statist economic system that will be counterproductive in its effort to aid the poor, and (2) that liberation theology is so vague about its political institutions that it can lead its adherents to support societies such as Nicaragua and Cuba that ignore the rule of law, violate human rights, and suppress democracy...
...The latter discussion led John Paul II to write the Brazilian bishops an eleven-page letter in April 1986 which endorsed liberation theology as "not only timely, but useful and necessary...
...This means first an attack on their use of Marxist categories, specifically the class struggle, and the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and the establishment of a socialist system as the solution to the problem of poverty and oppression...
...Now it is true that the early writings of the best-known liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, did describe the class struggle as a fact, and identified the poor in Latin America with the proletariat, but he has since moved away from without ever specifically disavowing his early writings...
...A similar argument appeared in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published in the same year (Simon & Schuster...
...Novak's attack on the Marxist elements in liberation theology comes too late...
...The crucial question is the one that the newly-elected pope raised with a New York Times reporter on the plane to the 1979 Puebla Conference of Latin American bishops...
...This has now been endorsed both by the pope and by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1986Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation...
...In the June 1979 issue of Commentary he published "Liberation Theology and the Pope" which praised Pope John Paul II for attacking "the unthinking fantasies of theologians bent on the creation of totalitarian processes whose consequences they do not allow themselves to foresee and whose dynamics they can not control...
...There is nothing of this in Novak's book, although it was written after extended discussions with Assmann...
...The book is flawed because it makes the liberation theologians more Marxist than they are...
...Michael Novak has written about the first and has been appropriately critical of its indifference to the creation of wealth, and its lack of awareness of the need for constitutional and socio-economic restraints on political power...
...A similar appreciation of the central importance of democracy to liberation appears in a paper by the liberation theologian, Hugo Assmann, delivered at a conference on "Liberation Theology and Liberalism," organized by Novak and published last year in his journal, This World, which argues that "democratic values are revolutionary values" and that the left must "now reestablish their organic relation to the popular majorities which have never understood their abstract revolutionism...
...is an attempt to carry this project further by focusing upon the liberation theologians' economics and politics...
...Suggesting that "the liberation theologians' thought promised a mirror image of Latin American authoritarian societies of the past, but this time of the left rather than the right," he proposed that they look to the "pluralistic, communitarian, public-spirited, dynamic and inventive" liberal society for a model of genuine liberation...

Vol. 114 • March 1987 • No. 6


 
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