Liberation Theology, the Preferential Option for the Poor

Recent events have brought liberation theology to mind: Jeremiah Wright in the political campaign, Occupy Wall Street, and ongoing questions about the national debt, cutting social programs and taxes. Many have asked the Church's response and many critics attack Church leaders labeling them communists for speaking out. What is the truth about Liberation theology? First off, it offers a starting place to think about what it means to be "good news to the poor.”


Liberation Theology emerged out of Latin America in response to issues surrounding belief in God and abject poverty. Clergy and lay leaders, theologians and social workers and regular church goers asked themselves what it meant to both believe in God and live in abject poverty.

From the cries of the poor throughout Latin America and the halls of Latin American Bishops conferences came the definition of a movement and experience that would dominate Latin American ecclesiology and many of the study halls of North American seminaries

Most Roman Catholic theologians would point to Vatican Council II as providing a context within which Liberation Theology might arise and take hold. It was this Council that encouraged a more outward-looking Church. The Church was encouraged to pay closer attention to the life and the culture outside it: embrace was good, transform what was bad, all the time finding new ways to preach the Gospel of Christ.

Latin America faced millions and millions of its citizens living in absolute poverty (a poverty that is hard to imagine unless you visited and saw it), matched with the reality that these were believing and devout Roman Catholics. It did not take the Latin American Church long after Vatican II to focus its attention on the plight of the people – and to identify a majority of its people with the people of Israel in Egypt.

Once this identification happened, the desire for liberation was one step away. These desires and subsequent actions led to the formation of this new theology, a new way of being Church: Liberation Theology with a special emphasis on the Preferential Option for the Poor. “The option for the poor means putting ourselves on the side of the poor, in solidarity with them in their cause and their struggle, not to make them our allies, but to make ourselves their allies,” wrote Clodovis Boff and George V. Pixley in their book, The Bible, the Church, and the Poor.

So, one could define Liberation Theology as a refusal by the Latin American Episcopal Conferences in Medellin and Puebla to deny the reality and needs of the poor in Latin America any longer. Bishops, clergy and lay people were united in their conviction that it was a scandal for the Church to continue business as usual, in light of all the suffering and poverty.

High rates of infant mortality, inadequate housing, unemployment and underemployment, viewed in light of systemic and systematic greedy structures, led to an awareness that the Church needs to stand with the poor, needed to be the poor, and needed to dedicate its resources to liberate the poor. This shift in awareness was shared by a vast majority of the clergy, who were accused of waging class warfare by the minority.

Liberation Theologians held to their new found convictions that the Church had to pay attention to millions of poor people who were dying before their time. They provided a new reading of Exodus (the Moses and the people of Israel story) and a new look at Matthew Chapter 25.

This new reading of the Scriptures and the times led to a new identification and understanding that choosing to follow Jesus meant to serve the poor and that the poor were the most concrete evidence of Jesus Christ. What Liberation Theology did for the redefining of theology and the altering of ecclesiological thought was to solidify an identification of Jesus with the poor: to love God and to love neighbor was best lived out in working to liberate the poor from their suffering.

Liberation Theology challenged the accepted theologies of the 70’s and 80’s by insisting that theology not be done at the mere service of answering questions about the Trinity and church dogmas, but that it be put to present use by dealing with the concrete reality at hand: “Generally speaking, for the modern mentality, the Western version of Christianity has done precious little to integrate human subjectivity, affectivity, corporality, femininity, and the more open and effective mechanisms of participation in decisions as to the pathways to be taken by the faith in various situations of life. The laity could have a greater voice, women could be more highly regarded for their consultative and decision-making capacities, and dialogue could be broader in all areas of church life” (Leonardo Boff).

For those in Latin America, the founders of Liberation Theology, theology would now be done from the underside of history; the poor would be the main agent. These three aspects of Liberation Theology define the tenets of the movement: 1) The poor stand as the locus theologicus par excellence embodiment of God. 2) The perspective of the poor and of their liberation as the viewpoint from which history starts and is understood. 3) The purpose and service of theology as critical and imperative reflection on human and ecclesial activity in the present.

With these three foundations, all theology is reworked and re-understood in the service of the poor and moving the Church’s mission to embrace the poor as the primary subjects of the Church’s love and service. “In this evangelical process, evangelizer and evangelized are not two factions of the church. They evangelize each other, mutually, thereby building a church that will be a community of sisters and brothers, all of it ministerial, servant, and missionary. What is under way in Latin America [Liberation Theology], under the impulse of the Spirit, is an immense ecclesiogenesis – the genesis of a church, from the confrontation of the gospel with a world of injustice and poverty, in which the gospel demonstrates its liberative power.” (Leonardo Boff).

Out of Liberation Theology came great clarity around what it meant to put oneself at the service of the wounded, the poor, the disenfranchised and the other: to love God is to commit to serve and promote the rights, causes and needs of the dispossessed.