A New Chance for Liberation Theology?
Published on: September 25, 2013
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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    If we have learned anything from such diverse thinkers as Niccolo Machiavelli, Max Weber, and Patrick Moynihan, it is that Christians should have a deterrence option against being poor, not a preferential option for the poor. Surprisingly, retired Jesuit scholar James V. Schall, S.J., has recently asked in the Catholic World Report: “Do Christians Love Poverty?”

    Schall wonders whether Christians want people to be poor so that they can be lovable? He points out that concern for the poor is often used to gain political legitimacy for those in power.

    It is not the purpose of Christianity to Schall to love the condition of poverty. As a Catholic he acknowledges that Evangelicals get further in Latin America because they ask converts for discipline, work, honest business dealings, and ingenuity. In short, they want them to learn how not to be poor rather than to just give them material aid.

    Citing Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Schall says Catholics have been less concerned with creating more material goods or wealth than Protestants. Catholics, like liberals are mainly concerned about how to distribute goods. Schall writes: “The poor man is not really much interested in our love of him or his poverty if we do not know how NOT to be poor.”

    Sounding a lot like Vilfredo Pareto’s “Optimality” concept, Schall says the litmus test of the “Preferential Option for the Poor is: “love for the poor should not make things worse or more totalitarian for everyone else.”

    Schall reminds Christians that it was Judas who said in John 13:29 that “it would be better to use the money for the poor.”

    Schall calls for a shift in Catholic social thought away from associating with the poor looking like the poor, or assuming the poor want to be poor but without ignoring the poor. To Schall: Christians “ought to realize that the first step in this change of emphasis is to rid itself of the idea that redistribution of existing goods is nothing but a revolutionary method that would really make everyone poor.”

    If the Catholic Church wants to put itself out of business it will pursue the “preferential option for the poor” as a purely horizontal end that affirms that there is no transcendent end for the poor, the rich, or those in between. Schall writes: “In lieu of God, does concern for the poor become a substitute for God as the only visible way to prove that we are not just being selfish…or for no other reason than for their self esteem?”

    As Peter Berger affirms: “Liberation Theology is no help in realistic moral thinking about an issue. Catholic moral teaching can be.”

    In this regard, I would hope Pope Francis would be informed by the Catholic moral teaching of those like Jesuit scholar James Schall and Rev. Robert Sirico at the Acton Institute, not Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez.

    • Gary Novak

      Good post– I agree with your claim that endorsing Liberation Theology would be more likely to put the Catholic Church out of business than to help the poor. But I am puzzled by your quote of Schall suggesting that Catholic social thought needs to rid itself of the idea that “redistribution of existing goods is nothing but a revolutionary method that would really make everyone poor.” Isn’t that the empirical finding that Christians need to embrace?

      • Wayne Lusvardi


  • There’s a significant distinction to be made between a “market economy” and capitalism. Capitalism, like socialism, is focused on the concentration of economic power, only in private rather than public institutions. But capitalists rely on the the State to regulate markets in ways favorable to their enterprises, including expelling competitors. Crony capitalism and regulatory capture aren’t bugs in the system; they’re features, observable everywhere that system exists. Capitalists also rely on the State to provide the social safety net that serves to moderate the effects of capitalism’s boom-and-bust nature. This was Keynes’ key insight: that to save capitalism, the State had to become a partner, taking up the social and economic slack when business had run the economy into a ditch.

    A truly free market economy privileges the widest possible distribution of productive economic resources – with primacy given to family-based businesses, small farms, cooperatives, credit unions, etc. – at the expense of concentrations of either private or public wealth. That economic model fits very ideally, and in fact is drawn from, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, including the primacy of the family, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the dignity and rights of workers.

    • Wayne Lusvardi


      I find your definition of Capitalism as “focused on the concentration of economic power” close to a Marxist definition. Capitalism is not concerned with rent seeking or monopoly power.

      I believe Max Weber in his “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” captured up the most accurate definition of capitalism:

      “And the same is true of the most fateful force in our modern life, capitalism. The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given. It should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that the naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, or this irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever RENEWED profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. For it must be so: in a wholly capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction.”

  • Anthony

    “The economic system most likely to generate growth is capitalism.”La opcion preferencial para los pobres – no hay otra salida remains a vital Christian tenet in this instance. Nevertheless, can it be said that all social problems (poverty) stem from the economic system. I think such an assertion is questionable since any economic organization/system superimposes itself on ills of long standing (poverty, crime, discrimination, prostitution, etc.).

    Essentially as capitalism thrust itself up into the world, it did not create that world or its ideas. Capitalism (mixed market/regulation or automatic unregulated) modified that world. Now, can Liberation Theology utilize capitalism in ameliorating ills of marginalized populations going forward as implied in Peter Berger’s essay. I think that depends on the mobilization of its Christian populace – a populace with little idealism in the efficacy of Liberation Theology. We shall see…

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    While Evangelical Christians in South America are reported to convey a work ethic to the poor in the U.S. it is sometimes the reverse. The Evangelical Left organized the Circle of Protection in response to the 2011 Federal Debt Ceiling Crisis to protect social welfare entitlements from cuts. The Circle is a consortium of liberal church and evangelical para church organizations.

    Currently Jim Wallis, the leader of the Evangelical Left and the organizer of the Circle of Protection, has organized protests against proposed cuts to the Food Stamp program. Typical of the Left, they are more concerned about symbolism than substance. It ends up there is no proposed cutback in Food Stamps. Rather, what is proposed is tougher eligibility requirements requiring those who are employable look for work, do volunteer work, or enter an occupational training program. The new proposed rules would also disqualify lottery winners. But there is political capital to be gained in protesting the so-called cuts. Read “The Food Stamp Gospel” in the Sept. 27 issue of the American Spectator by Mark Tooley.

    The Evangelical Left is an interesting movement comprised of leaders from the Knowledge Class who grew up in Evangelical families and churches. They are nearly indistinguishable from the Democratic Party. They are proponents of the modern day Social Gospel. During the Mortgage Bubble they were advocates for sub prime mortgages and opponents or mortgage red lining. When the Mortgage Bubble burst throwing hundreds of thousands of mostly minority families into foreclosure the Evangelical Left blamed the Big Banks.

    Old School Evangelicals would have told minorities to work hard and not get over their heads in debt.

    Which Evangelicals are the most helpful to minorities?

    • bpuharic

      The poor are, of course, looking for work. It’s an irony of American history that the right thinks the wealthy work hard while the poor don’t.

      And subprime mortgages didn’t hit 10% of all mortgages until 2004 and hit 25% in 2006, right as the economy started to tank

      The GOP controlled congress and the presidency at that point.

  • Gary Novak

    Although he does not discuss realistic moral thinking about the proper balance between (capitalist) economic growth and the welfare state in this post, Berger has no doubt that realism requires a balance. Man was not made for the Sabbath or for capitalism. To the considerable extent to which capitalism produces human well-being, it should be supported. To the extent that it falls short, it needs to be modified, regulated, supplemented.

    By contrast, Mark Gordon sees capitalism as essentially parasitical. The executive committee of the capitalist class– also known as the state– functions only for the welfare of big capital by protecting monopolies, by passing on the cost of “externalities” (e. g., environmental clean-up) to the public after capitalists have run the economy into the ditch, by providing unemployed workers and unemployable non-workers (outside the labor force) with a social wage, and so on. Unsustainable rapacious capitalism would soon collapse without the complicity of the state in covering capitalism’s multitude of sins.

    His solution? A “free economy”! “A truly free market economy privileges the widest possible distribution of economic resources . . ..” The means of production are to be in the hands of small businesses, small farms, cooperatives– small everything is to be “privileged.” Privileged how? Through tax incentives? (Who is the tax collector in the land of flowers and butterflies?) Through a national Luddite police force that smashes businesses with more than ten employees? Utopian anarchism is no more realistic than utopian socialism.

    And why is it so hard for folks on the left to understand that the public purse only contains wealth created by the capitalist economy. The Wall Street Journal never tires of presenting graphs showing that as taxes increase revenues fall– because of disincentives to wealth production.

    Gordon implies that Berger is naive or devious in portraying the bugs of capitalism as remediable. But is Gordon practicing the ethics of responsibility when he offers redemption through downsizing? It’s hard to see the purpose of such an argument as anything but the establishment of one’s ideological purity.

  • Kanga 13

    Why are Americans so afraid of Liberation Theology? Why are they so afraid that Francis might say something positive about it? Time to give up all of those old anti-Marxist propaganda points and the suspicion that went with it. The time to drop the pink-colored glasses is long overdue. Let the Church speak in its own voice minus the filters. Marxism is dead, and the poor are still with us. Why and how to change that will continue to discomfit the many who are invested in the status quo.

  • Arch

    Sorry for the length of this comment.

    In 1981, I lived in San Salvador – a tropical Baghdad without a green zone. Until April, there was a dusk to dawn curfew. Rebels were destroying the economy. Unemployment was at 50%. IEDs were common. The Army patrolled the streets. Anyone not in a military uniform was shot. The morning paper, El Hoy, had a section containing pictures of the dead, many with bullet holes in their foreheads. The military saw what the Sandinistas did to their military – threw the officer in prison – and had no desire to allow that to happen.

    Liberation Theology is dangerous because it links the Church directly to communist revolutionaries. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed before I arrived, suggested that soldiers refuse to obey orders to engage “subversivos.” In El Salvador, politics is a contact sport and opposing the military can be fatal.

    The Church has been a central institution throughout El Salvador since the 16th Century. Every village has a church and a school. Boys who excel are often sent abroad to college. Some went to Notre Dame or Boston College paid for by the Catholic Church. Many of Salvadorian priests attended seminary in the Vatican and then returned to their villages. The exposure to material wealth here and in Europe made the newly ordained susceptible to Marxism. Salvador was materially the poorest nation in Central America. Many of the local bands of revolutionaries where their boyhood friends. It was “unfair.” They carried messages and operated safe houses. The catholic Church appeared to take sides.

    As a Pole, Pope John Paul knew the perils of communism and the dangers it brought to the Church. He forbade clergy from preaching Liberation Theology. He was right.

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