Liberation theology: a challenge to the church

As an influential cardinal, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stifled liberation theology, which called on the Catholic Church to help the poor and oppressed by challenging political power, particularly in Latin America. While liberation theology has faded as a movement, it is still practiced in some areas and studied widely. Some say it has influenced feminist, Latino, black and Asian theologies throughout the world.

Despite the rising number of Latin immigrants in the United States, scholars say liberation theology exists more in academia than in congregations. As nearly half of the Catholic Church’s billion members live in Latin America, the evolution of liberation theology raises an enduring question: What is the role of churches in addressing injustice, inequity and oppression that result from political power?


Why it matters

Liberation theology provides a useful lens for looking at the challenge of how members and leaders of a global church respond to changing political and social environments.

Facts and trends

  • Liberation theology emerged in the late 1960s in Latin America, where Catholics began reading the Gospel as a call to free people from oppression and to challenge political systems in countries where poverty was widespread. Scholars embraced this new theology with fervor.
  • Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) became one of liberation theology’s staunchest critics in the 1980s as head of the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He silenced theologians associated with such scriptural interpretations and appointed traditional bishops. Some scholars believe it’s because he objected to Marxist-inspired political analysis that some theologians embraced. Others say Ratzinger objected to the independence of base communities, small groups formed to study the Bible and relate it to their own experience of oppression.
  • Some scholars say Ratzinger and others successfully stifled a movement that was already headed toward extinction because it addressed specific historical and economic situations that have been altered by global capitalism and other factors. Some also say that it was weakened because it relied on a method of scriptural interpretation that has been overtaken by new developments in biblical criticism.
  • Liberation theology is still practiced in rural and middle-class villages in Latin America, and it is studied widely in seminaries in the United States and elsewhere. Some scholars say it has taken new life in feminist, Latino, black and Asian theologies throughout the world. The emphasis has shifted from the poor to those marginalized by race, ethnicity or gender. The focus is less on supporting socialist revolution than critiquing mainstream civil society.

Questions for reporters

  • Is liberation theology a waning movement that will die a natural death – or a vital and evolving theology that calls on believers to relate the Bible to their experience?
  • What is the “classic definition” of liberation theology?
  • What were Ratzinger’s main objections to liberation theology? What actions did he take to suppress it? Do observers say he was justified? What are the policies of his successor?
  • How do observers and experts define liberation theology today – or would you say liberation theologies? Is the emphasis less on poverty than on race and ethnicity? What are the central concerns today?
  • How has liberation theology changed mainstream theology?


National sources

  • Fernando Segovia

    Fernando Segovia, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., has written about the challenge and promise of Latino spirituality. He co-edited A Dream Unfinished: Theological Reflections on America from the Margins (Orbis Books, 2001).


    Segovia says Ratzinger took measures to disarticulate the liberation theology movement: silencing theologians, closing seminaries and appointing traditional bishops and auxiliary bishops. Segovia believes the Vatican’s response to Marxist critical theory was exaggerated given that the appeal to and use of Marxism was very limited. He says liberation theology has spread to Africa and Asia, and the movement has been influenced by feminist, racial and ethnic struggles as well as ecological concerns. He expects supervision and control from the Vatican to continue.

  • Mark Hulsether

    Mark Hulsether, Religious Studies Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, has written extensively on religion and popular culture. He wrote the 2007 book Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (Edinburgh University Press). He has also written about North American liberation theologies and the transformation of the Protestant left since World War II.

    He says Ratzinger was one of the most important enemies of liberation theologies, especially Marxist-inflected ones in Latin America. But insofar as liberation theologies are independent movements in opposition to church hierarchies and secular elites, the election of Benedict may increase their passion.

  • Dwight N. Hopkins

    Dwight N. Hopkins, University of Chicago theology professor, has written about black theology of liberation and also about gun control. Black liberation theology, he says, is aligning more closely with black churches and developing partnerships with liberation theologians in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

  • Daniel Bell Jr.

    Daniel Bell, professor of theology and ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., has written about Latin American theology in the wake of capitalism’s triumph and on Latin American liberationists’ defense of revolutionary violence. He says that Latin American liberation theology has moved from advocating a socialist revolution in the 1970s to more emphasis on working through civil society and nongovernmental organizations. There’s been a shift to critiquing the “fundamentalism of the free market.” Bell didn’t expect much change with Pope Benedict XVI. With the decline of priestly vocations and the explosive growth of Protestant religious movements, there are more pressing issues on the Vatican’s agenda.

  • Craig Nessan

    Craig Nessan, professor of contextual theology and academic dean at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, has written about the Gospel of Luke and liberation theology and the North American response to liberation theology. He says liberation theology has been incorporated more as a dimension of mainstream theology that advocates justice for the poor, women, oppressed racial groups and other minorities.

  • James H. Cone

    James H. Cone, Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998. He is widely considered to be one of the founders of black liberation theology, which frames Christianity as a means out of oppression.

  • Harvey Cox

    Harvey Cox is the Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School and a renowned author and commentator on religious issues. He has written many books on the future of religion and theology, including The Future of Faith and The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective.

  • Robert Sirico

    The Rev. Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s also a Catholic priest. He has argued that marijuana legalization could lead to some social benefits, like a reduction in illegal drug trafficking.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak, philosopher, theologian and public policy commentator at The American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, is the author of Questions about Liberation Theology (Paulist Press, 1991). He argued that by the late 1980s, liberation theology was in danger “of slipping into a backwater” because it had done very little to help the poor. He is also author of The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls and the Consecration of the American Spirit. Many consider his book on sports and religion the first and best on the topic.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Heidi Hadsell

    Heidi Hadsell, president of Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., has written about eco-justice and liberation theology.

  • Richard Horsley

    Richard Horsley, professor of liberal arts and the study of religion at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, has written about the Bible and liberation and how Jesus and Paul ignited a revolution and transformed the ancient world.

  • Margaret Guider

    Sister Margaret Guider, associate professor of missiology at Boston College, is the author of Daughters of Rahab: Prostitution and the Church of Liberation in Brazil (Augsburg Fortress, 1995).

  • Otto Maduro

    Otto Maduro, professor of Christianity at Drew University in Madison, N.J., has written from a sociological perspective about the liberating option for the oppressed in Latin American Catholicism and on the relations between Marxism and religion.

  • John Burdick

    John Burdick, Syracuse University professor and anthropology chair, is the author of Legacies of Liberation: The Progressive Catholic Church in Brazil (Ashgate Publishing, 2004). He says the emphasis in liberation theology has shifted from the poor to those marginalized by race, ethnicity or gender – though not yet sexuality. Contact , .

  • Arthur Pressley

    Arthur Pressley, associate professor of psychology and religion at Drew University in Madison, N.J., has written about liberation theology, pastoral care and the spirituality of violence.


  • Daisy Machado

    The Rev. Daisy Machado is Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, New York. She has written about Latina feminist theology, the border, immigrant issues and globalization.

In the South

  • Iain Maclean

    The Rev. Iain Maclean, associate professor of Western religious thought, philosophy and religion at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., has written about liberation theologians and the struggle for democracy in Brazil.

  • Lorine Getz

    Lorine Getz is a scholar based in Hilton Head, S.C., and a retired professor of religion, culture, ethics and spirituality and the arts at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She co-edited Struggles for Solidarity: Liberation Theologies in Tension (Fortress Press, 1991).

  • James Dawsey

    James Dawsey, professor of religious studies at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va., has written about liberation theology and economic development.

  • Kenneth Surin

    Kenneth Surin, professor of religion, literature and critical theory at Duke University, has written about liberation as a critical term of religious study and the relevance of Marxism.

  • Dennis McCann

    Dennis McCann, Professor Emeritus of Bible and Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., has written about liberation theology and business ethics.

  • Douglas Meeks

    Douglas Meeks, Cal Turner Chancellor professor of theology and Wesleyan studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., has written about the economy and the future of liberation theology in North America.

  • Paul R. Dekar

    Paul R. Dekar is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism and Mission at the Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn. He wrote the article “The Inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr. for Nonviolent Justice Seekers in Latin America and the Caribbean” for the Memphis Theological Seminary Journal (1997).

  • Marc Ellis

    Marc Ellis is retired Professor of Jewish Studies, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He has written about a Jewish theology of liberation and about the future of liberation theology. He wrote Practicing Exile: The Religious Odyssey of an American Jew.

  • Theodore Walker Jr.

    Theodore Walker Jr. is associate professor of ethics and society at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He wrote the book Empower the People: Social Ethics for the African-American Church, about African-American resources for a more inclusive liberation theology.


  • Debra Sabia

    Debra Sabia, a former associate professor of political science with a specialty in Latin America at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, has published three books, Contradiction and Conflict: The Popular Church in Nicaragua (1997), The American Myth of Democracy: A Crisis of Consciousness (2010), and Imagining Democracy (2012). She is also the author of a variety of scholarly articles on community development, immigration, and democratization in Latin America.

    Debra has written about liberation theology as a force for democratic change in Nicaragua, on the popular church in Nicaragua and on feminist theology and base communities in Nicaragua and El Salvador. She says liberation theology is still practiced in rural villages and middle-class communities in Latin America. Political compromise is now embraced, and a third way, between capitalism and socialism, is being sought.

In the Midwest

  • Gerald Schlabach

    Gerald Schlabach, Professor of Theology and Chair of the Department of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., has written about North American nonviolence and the Latin American liberation struggle, and on nonviolent action in Latin America.

  • Daniel Schipani

    Daniel Schipani, professor of pastoral care and counseling at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., has written about liberation theology and Biblical education and an Anabaptist perspective on liberation theology.

  • Luis Rivera-Rodriguez

    Luis Rivera-Rodriguez, associate professor of theology and director of the Center for the Study of Latino/a Theology and Ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, wrote the article on “Liberation Theology” in the Encyclopedia of Religion and War (Routledge, 2004).

In the West

  • Edward Phillip Antonio

    Edward Phillip Antonio is associate professor of Christian theology and social theory, associate dean of diversities and director of the Justice & Peace Program at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He wrote the article “Black Theology” in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology.

  • Kathleen Nadeau

    Kathleen Nadeau is an anthropology professor at  California State University in San Bernardino. She has written about liberation theology in the Philippines and Asian liberation theologies and Marxism. Nadeau says liberation theology has been integrated into the progressive wing of all the churches. Even if the movement is forced to move underground, it will carry on.

  • Carlos R. Piar

    Carlos R. Piar, professor of religious studies at California State University, Long Beach, is the author of Jesus and Liberation: A Critical Analysis of the Christology of Latin American Liberation Theology (Peter Lang Publishing, 1995) and edited a primary-source reader, Readings in American Religious Diversity (2007). He has also written articles on virtue ethics. He specializes in Latin American religions, modern Christian thought, and religious ethics.

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