Religion and Freedom?
Some expressions are on the face of it contradictory, military intelligence being one. Another possible example would be liberation theology: what can possibly be liberating about belief in a hierarchy of religious leaders and a god that influences events on earth? Nevertheless, so-called liberation theology has had a reasonable amount of influence within the Catholic church, though it has declined in popularity and influence since the 1990s. Its impact has been especially felt in Latin America, home to nearly one third of the world’s Catholics, and where the traditional church was seen by many as part of the social and political establishment. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and other peoples was often justified in terms of missionary endeavour, even if its main aim was plunder.
Liberation theology is of course controversial within Catholicism. It has been described as ‘a social and political movement within the church that attempts to interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ through the lived experiences of oppressed people’ (Kira Dault in uscatholic.org, 14 October 2014). But for another writer, it is a ‘combination of Marxist philosophy with certain biblical motifs’ and involves ‘radical revisions to every traditional Christian doctrine’ (John Frame at thegospelcoalition.org). In the words of Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan priest, ‘For me, the four Gospels are all equally Communist. I’m a Marxist who believes in God, follows Christ and is a revolutionary for the sake of His kingdom.’ Cardenal was at one time the Sandinista Minister of Culture, though he later left the movement, describing it as a dictatorship, and saying that he preferred ‘an authentic capitalism’ to ‘a false Revolution’ (Wikipedia).
Overcoming poverty is a central aspect of liberation theology, with a decent life on Earth seen as at least an alternative to freedom in the afterlife. In one formulation, it ‘advocates orthopraxis (right action) over orthodoxy (right belief)’ (philosopherkings.co.uk). Critics within the church see liberation theology as advocating people gaining salvation through their own efforts, rather than from god, which is for some reason seen as objectionable. Many liberation theology supporters regard Marxism as a set of ideas that can be partially adopted or agreed with, so they do not see Marx’s critique of religion as a problem for them.
Another criticism is as follows: ‘The missing link in liberation theology is the absence of a concrete vision of political economy. It refuses to say how safeguards for human rights, economic development and personal liberties will be instituted after the revolution’ (Michael Novak in nytimes.com, 21 October 1984). But this point can be taken much further, in that liberation theology has little concrete to say about how society should be organised at all. Wanting to do away with poverty is something that few people would disagree with, and the appeal to Marx’s ideas is at best confused and probably better described as being as much of a distortion as Leninism.
And liberation theology is indeed a contradiction in terms. Religion of all stripes teaches reliance on a supreme being of some kind, on prayer, on submission. Catholicism in particular involves the rule of the pope, oppression of women and rigid social policies. Liberation of the ninety-nine-plus percent of the earth’s population must come from their own efforts, to gain control of the planet and its resources, not from the mystification of religion and some confused supposed mix of religion and Marxism.