The Failure of Liberation Theology: A Short Retrospective

Religion often serves as an apologia for the status quo. This is neither a novel nor a particularly profound insight, but it does hint toward the role that most Christian religions have held and continue to hold in the public sphere.  This is perhaps even more evident in the failure of Liberation Theology—a social justice program that was based upon a reinterpretation of Jesus’ teachings as liberation from suffering and injustice in all forms—be it social, economic, political, etc. Growing up in Colombia, I found out that even members of my family were involved or sympathized with this theological movement, notably my grandmother.


Camilo Torres Restrepo (1929-1966). A predecessor of Lib Theology, he tried to reconcile revolutionary Marxism and Catholicism.

The movement really sprang up in the 1950s-1960s Latin America as a way for the large catholic populations and their pastors to interpret and counteract the rising tide of inequality and unjust conditions brought on by neoliberal reform or the classical exploitative model of latifundia in Latin America. Some of the figures associated with the movement included Gustavo Gutiérrez in Peru, Leonardo Boff in Brazil, Óscar Romero in El Salvador, Jon Sobrino of Spain, Camilo Torres in Colombia, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay. In fact, this movement was a massive continental push to stop the rising oligarchic class which was increasingly developing their respective countries through a neoliberal model imposed by the IMF/World Bank at the expense of the anywhere from 40% to 60% of their own population who would sink to or below the poverty line.

It should be noted that aside from some small successes in conscientization and minor political victories, the oppressive institutions of the state, which in Latin America swung mostly to the right, quickly crushed this theo-political movement. With that in mind, it should be noted that the aforementioned thought-leaders were often assassinated and whole congregations often massacred. All of this was done or sanctioned by the most conservative and Catholic factions in Latin American society. What we have here, therefore, is clear proof of the disconnect between the true message of Religion (specifically Catholic) and its embodiment in public life. In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger who would go on to become Pope Benedict XXVI was critical of the movement and accused it of politicizing the message of God for a specific goal, ignoring Religion’s politicization by other political factions with whom he may have agreed more. To analyze this further would require more space than I am allotted but a cursory look is enough to begin to see how corrupt religion so often is, how it blinds the common people and continues to be used as a tool of oppression by the ruling elite who have historically belonged to parties of center to extreme-right.

There is a sliver of hope that this needless violence and myopic political kabuki theater could soon be eliminated or its continuation halted. However, a sixty-year civil war rages on in Colombia and the IMF/World Bank still forces the hands of nations.  Exploitative economic policies still squeeze the people of the continent toward an ever-expanding underclass of citizens, and as the privatization of land, minerals, water, and other valuable natural resources continues—it becomes clear how the failure of Liberation Theology has done nothing but exacerbate the problems of the region.

Pope Francis with Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Pope Francis with Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Today the only thing that has lasted from the time after the failure of the movement was the legitimization of the corrupt marriage of religion and the right-wing totalitarian factions of Latin American politics. Pope Francis may be a good pope who is bringing new clarity and purpose to the church and who may sympathize with the Liberation movement of a bygone era, but let us not forget that as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he too was complicit in many of abuses/disappearances of many Argentinian citizens (mostly Leftists) during the rule of the military junta.  His silence and his complicity should be remembered especially now that he reigns as a “pious” Pope trying to combat the ills of the Church, who through its history, both on an individual and institutional level is irredeemable.

The failure of Liberation Theology was also the failure of the bulk of Jesus’ teachings. It should therefore serve as a repudiation of this institutionalized oppression and elucidate that religion, when done right, can be a beautiful thing. But, if it continues as it has, it must be destroyed and it must have no space in the public sphere. As opium corrupts the mind, so too does religion often corrupt social and political progress.

Harold Alexander Mesa (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Harold Alexander MesaHarold Mesa is a Rutgers University alumnus who received his B.A. in 2013 in History. He was born in Medellín, Colombia and lived the second half of his childhood in New Jersey. His interests include post-colonialism, linguistics, Marxian political thought, feminism, and Buddhism—amongst other things.  He enjoys playing and discussing soccer.

4 responses to “The Failure of Liberation Theology: A Short Retrospective

  1. This is nearly unbelievable post. The author cannot possibly mean that religion is an “apologia for the status quo.” Even a moment’s reflection shows that this is an utterly absurd claim. Never mind that Jesus himself was a subversive who was killed as a political insurrectionist–as were most of his first followers–just do a brief look at history. Whether it was Bartolomé de las Casas challenging status quo about Native Americans and coming up with the basis for international human rights, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. challenging status quo in pushing for racial justice, Pope John Paul II challenging status quo by pushing for equal protection of the law for prenatal children and the mentally injured/disabled, or the Evangelical Christian William Wilberforce banning the slave trade in England…religious leaders have been doing precisely what this author says they do not do for centuries. That something like this can appear in in print reflects poorly on those who run this website.


    • I respect your input. However, I must respectfully disagree with your dismissive and fallacious examples. It does not appear that you read past the first sentence since I am not generalizing about religion in its entirety and am addressing Liberation Theology as it existed as a political movement in Latin America. It was never meant to be an all-encompassing look at the Christian religion from Jesus’ time to now. And to address your counter-examples—for every Bartolomé De Las Casas there was also a pope and a whole Catholic institution that thought the evangelizing and killing all Native-Americans who did not convert was correct. For every Martin Luther King, Jr. there were hundreds, if not thousands, of religious leaders who sat silently on the sidelines as discrimination and racism ran rampant. In fact, every single person you mentioned has battled against an enormous institution and thousands of individuals who supported the status quo. Highlighting the great efforts of valiant individuals does nothing to address how the great mass of religious leaders and the Catholic institution itself has supported racism, inequality, and genocides through its history. In fact, this article is meant to show how great religious leaders in Latin America (who were clearly mentioned) tried to combat the ills of society and where often ignored and murdered by those who classically affiliated politically with Catholicism.


    • Concerning the editorial nature of this blog, Applied Sentience aims first and foremost to print the diverse, and often contradictory, opinions of its writers and contributors in an unfiltered online venue. Though we discuss and work on the content of the pieces beforehand, the direction is mostly left up to the writers.


    • “Never mind that Jesus himself was a subversive who was killed as a political insurrectionist–as were most of his first followers–just do a brief look at history”‘

      Look at history? You mean a bible? I did take a look at it 🙂 :

      Jesus explains why he speaks in parables to confuse people so they will go to hell. Mark 4:11-12

      Jesus kills a fig tree for not bearing figs, even though it was out of season. Mark11:13

      “Jesus condemns entire cities to dreadful deaths and to the eternal torment of hell because they didn’t care for his preaching. Matthew 11:20


      Or should I have looked at the other quotes where Jesus walks in sandals along a beach and pets sheep and little furry creatures?


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