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Love for the poor must be preferential, but not exclusive.
Liberation theology was a radical movement that grew up in South America as a response to the poverty and the ill-treatment of ordinary people. The movement was caricatured in the phrase If Jesus Christ were on Earth today, he would be a Marxist revolutionary. but it's more accurately encapsulated in this paragraph from Leonardo and Clodovis Boff:
Q: How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?
A: There can be only one answer: we can be followers of Jesus and true Christians only by making common cause with the poor and working out the gospel of liberation.
Liberation theology said the church should derive its legitimacy and theology by growing out of the poor. The Bible should be read and experienced from the perspective of the poor.
The church should be a movement for those who were denied their rights and plunged into such poverty that they were deprived of their full status as human beings. The poor should take the example of Jesus and use it to bring about a just society.
Some liberation theologians saw in the collegiate nature of the Trinity a model for co-operative and non-hierarchical development among humans.
Most controversially, the Liberationists said the church should act to bring about social change, and should ally itself with the working class to do so. Some radical priests became involved in politics and trade unions; others even aligned themselves with violent revolutionary movements.
A common way in which priests and nuns showed their solidarity with the poor was to move from religious houses into poverty stricken areas to share the living conditions of their flock.
The late Pope John Paul II was frequently criticised for the severity with which he dealt with the liberation movement.
His main object was to stop the highly politicised form of liberation theology prevalent in the 1980s, which could be seen as a fusion of Christianity and Marxism. He was particularly criticised for the firmness with which he closed institutions that taught Liberation Theology and with which he removed or rebuked the movement's activists, such as Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez.
He believed that to turn the church into a secular political institution and to see salvation solely as the achievement of social justice was to rob faith in Jesus of its power to transform every life. The image of Jesus as a political revolutionary was inconsistent with the Bible and the Church's teachings.
He didn't mean that the Church was not going to be the voice of the oppressed, was not going to champion the poor. But it should not do it by partisan politics, or by revolutionary violence. The Church's business was bringing about the Kingdom of God, not about creating a Marxist utopia .
No more exploitation of the weak, racial discrimination or ghettoes of poverty! Never again! These are intolerable evils which cry out to heaven and call Christians to a different way of living, to a social commitment more in keeping with their faith.
Pope John Paul II at Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico, 1999
Nicaragua was a particular hot-spot. Priests had been active in the overthrow of a dictator, and had taken jobs in the revolutionary government that followed, despite being forbidden to by the Pope.
In 1984 and 1986 the Church issued major documents on the theme of Liberation. They echoed John Paul's view that the Church should work for the liberation of the poor, but do so in an appropriate way for a church, inspired not by a political vision of a perfect world, but by helping each human being to find their freedom by redemption from sin - the church's job was to bring people into personal contact with God.
The Pope stated this clearly in a sermon in Mexico in 1990:
When the world begins to notice the clear failures of certain ideologies and systems, it seems all the more incomprehensible that certain sons of the Church in these lands - prompted at times by the desire to find quick solutions - persist in presenting as viable certain models whose failure is patent in other places in the world.
You, as priests, cannot be involved in activities which belong to the lay faithful, while through your service to the Church community you are called to cooperate with them by helping them study Church teachings.
Be careful, then, not to accept nor allow a Vision of human life as conflict nor ideologies which propose class hatred and violence to be instilled in you; this includes those which try to hide under theological writings.
Pope John Paul II, 'Option for the Poor' sermon in Mexico, 1990
This didn't exclude social action - far from it, but the social action should be in the image of the gospel and the gospel was open to everyone.
Some say that there was a clear political motivation behind the late Pope's actions. He was fervently opposed to the communist hold on Eastern Europe, and so he could not possibly show any sympathy with the priests in South and Central America who were working with communist revolutionaries - such inconsistent behaviour would have destroyed his credibility.
This is too cynical a view. John Paul II was, as always, ruled by his faith and belief. He genuinely thought that the Liberationists were distorting Christianity, and he was determined to get the Church in South America back on the rails of redemption. For John Paul II, God's essential act was entering into our time and our humanity and transforming ""our history into the history of salvation". It was through salvation that the poor and oppressed were to be raised up.
One of the most high profile clerics associated with liberation theology was the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero.
Initally considered a social conservative, he became increasingly an outspoken advocate for the poor and oppressed as the security situation in El Salvador deteriorated in the late 1970s.
He was assassinated while saying mass in a cancer hospice in San Salvador on 24th March 1980.
Julian Miglierini travelled to El Salvador to reflect on the legacy of a man many Salvadeorans consider a saint.
On the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI 's first official visit to the Americas, Trevor Barnes went to meet modern Brazilian supporters of liberation theology.