The positive outcome of a difficult and harassed beginning

After 50 long years, we can joyfully come to the conclusion that Liberation Theology, distrusted and feared when not rejected in its first approaches to Europe, covered a widespread ground and achieved very good results.

We were inaugurating the radiant springtime of Vatican II, and the ideas of many theologians, fermented over long periods, took shape and vigour in the ecumenical atmosphere of the II Vatican Council.

Many Church movements, groups and communities, were fully aware of the Church's situation of being behind the times and out of touch with present day reality due to its antimodern entrenchment in recent centuries.

The technoscientific, social and political advances of the years following the end of the Second World War, aired many errors of the past, disenchantment with imperialist and racist absolutisms and accelerated questioning, and challenges for a new way of thinking and expressing Theology.

However, this renovating conciliating vigour of Vatican II, was soon going to experience the stronger non improvised, paralysing involution of John Paul II, continued afterwards by Benedicto XVI with all his fears and final resignation.

It is a period of nearly forty years since the restoration (or return to the situation before the Council), imposed by Karol Josef Wojtyla, who at the age of 58, was elected on 16th October 1978, as the first Polish Pope in History and the first non-Italian Pope since 1523. His government lasted 27 years. And he was followed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, elected Pope, on 2nd April 2005, with a term lasting till 28th February 2013, when he resigned.

In the nineteen sixties, and even before, three factors appeared on the scene, that strongly influenced the social political Church period up to our present day: European Progessive Theology, the event of II Vatican Council and Liberation Theology.

Within these three factors, we can find a profound inter-relationship that, after a brief analysis in detail, allows us to understand the theological outlook that has developed between Europe and Latin America or, in broader terms, between the First and Third Worlds.

The Liberation Theology within the Progressive Theology of Europe


If we go back to the years after World War II, Progressive Theology began to be very important in Europe, because of its relevance. In practical terms, it buried Conservative Theology and became the forge and motor for the preparation of the Second Vatican Council.

It was the European theologians who accompanied their corresponding Bishops Conferences as experts and who obtained a greater influence in the deliberations of the Council.

¿Does the domination – liberation dialectic exist in the European context?

Barely twenty years after the Council, there was widespread and alarmist news about LT. Already in 1969 shortly after the Medellin Conference, the Rockefeller Report launched this warning: “We must take into account that if the Church puts into practice the decisions taken in Medellin, our interests will suffer”.

And in 1979, the Santa Fe Council explicitly declared: “American foreign policy must start confronting Liberation Theology as expressed in Latin America and not just confine itself to reacting against it”.

Little by little, public opinion assumed to a growing degree that LT was a revolutionary marxist policy that had infiltrated in the Church and was trying to replace the word of God with Marxism and the service of the poor by the Class War. Its method was invalid as it accepted historical materialism or it was only for Latin America and not for Europe.

Today, reading the testimony of some authors of that time, we can better understand the novelty and impact of Liberation Theology in the world of theology in general and in that of the Progressive European Theology, especially.

GIULIO GIRARDI.- The theologian Giulio Girardi, very knowledgeable on the subject, analysed this problem, in an article (Revista Misión Abierta, La posibilidad de una Teología europea de Liberación, pp. 151-159, Madrid,1984)(The possibilities of a European Liberation Theology), in which he recognised an incipient LT in Europe, with a positive function in the political and cultural context of Latin America and which could be a contribution for the European Progressive Theology.

With reference to the question: Does the dialectic domination – liberation exist in Europe? he concludes that internationally «The dominant culture in Europe and in the United States tends to impose its own answers to the countries of the Third World » (P. 154), in the sense of being guided by a subtle racism, presenting as preordained the international division of labour, colonization as part of the history of civilisation and concealing the way in which multinationals systematically conquer and sacrifice peoples in their own interests. It makes essential reading to understand the Eurocentrism that has invaded our culture.
Domestically, in our own European nations, the dominant culture tries to ignore the problem of the poor in Europe, by insisting that in our countries there are not any poor people, strictly speaking, nor are the poor a direct result of their social and economic structures.

To overcome this situation, Girardi proposes the way of solidarity as a means of jointly creating subjects that are a real alternative.

To advance towards this, Theology cannot avoid progressing in the light of the dilemma domination-liberation, endorsing it in the thinking of Jesus of Nazareth, which was the comprehensive alternative to the culture and society of his time.

In this sense, LT supposes a certain break with Progressive Theology, by endorsing the fundamental inspiration of Jesus, the option for the poor: “Ultimately, in the dialectic oppression-liberation, the life and message of Jesus are ranged on the side of liberation and represent a fundamental moment in the whole history of liberation.” (P. 158). And, as a result, ”With regard to Liberation Theology there is no middle way of engagement: Either you accept it or you reject it. European Theology cannot continue on its path of idealistically asserting “spiritual values” whilst dispensing with the power systems in which they are developed and with the actual role that they develope in these systems. In this theology, Eurocentrism and Church centralism go hand in hand” (PP. 158-159).

JOHANN BAPTIST METZ.- Metz, confronting the relationship between the theology of European politics and the theology in Latin America of liberation, declared: “ The new political theology developed in Europe and the Latinamerican theology of liberation try to create a conscience of that final goodbye facing any Christian theology: the goodbye to its social and political innocence, and the goodbye to its cultural and ethical innocence, in other words, the Eurocentrism that it had assumed” (Cambio social y pensamiento cristiano en América Latina, Teología europea y teología de la liberación, Trotta, Madrid, 1993, pp. 263-264). (Social Changes and Christian Thought in Latin America, European Theology and Liberation Theology)

JON SOBRINO.- Jon Sobrino, points out that, together with Conservative and Progressive Theology, there was another newer theology “With an inspiration similar to Liberation Theology, that seriously takes into account the world of the poor and oppressed, in Europe and in the rest of the world, and makes them the place for the renovation of faith and also of theology (Misión Abierta, “Teología de la liberación y teología europea progresista,n.4, 1987,pp. 11-12). (Liberation Theology and European Progressive Theology)

In Europe, this theology appears after the Council but does not manage to replace the relevance of Progressive Theology.

Jon Sobrino, in the abovementioned article, stops to underline the difference between the assumptions of the liberating theological tasks and those of Progressive Theology.

Progressive Theology claims liberating the enslaved human subjectivity, giving back its autonomy, whilst Liberation Theology, without abdicating from the autonomy of a responsible reasoning, searches for the liberation of an oppressed reality, both of persons and peoples, that are slowly dying or are being crucified.

He does not consider Progressive Theology and Liberation Theology mutually exclusionary but whilst the former stresses the the liberation of self, the latter stresses the liberation of the other persons and realities: “When Theology is centred – obsessively – on the person of the believer, it can only become interested, with difficulty, in the liberation of the reality, whilst the interest for the reality better integrates the interest of the faith itself and de facto provides a positive solution “(Idem, p. 15).

Liberation Theology differentiates, therefore, from Progressive Theology, in that what it claims to liberate more directly is the stronger oppression, consisting of the slow or rapid, structural or violent death of millions of human beings. In other words, the historical and social realities, referred to the Kingdom of God, that claim to liberate both theologies are not both equally near or far from this Kingdom; in the Third World, life is perennially threatened and this becomes the fundamental and decisive utopia of the kingdom, which is translated into partial accomplishments of that Kingdom and which must be discerned. The achievement of the Kingdom of God is the ultimate objective of Liberation Theology.

Sobrino highlights other aspects that differentiate LT from PT, such as the sources of its knowledge and its cognitive and ethical character.

Without denying the nature and merits of each one of them, what enhances whatever theology is developed is the Christian frame of mind of every theological task:: fidelity to what has been transmitted to us by the revelation of God, with its corresponding effect of clarity and encouragement in the People of God and in the poorest of that people; service to a historical and meaningful liberation; a readiness to immersing oneself in the conflictivity of History and suffering some form of persecution; working amonst the people of God and at their service, in solidarity with all the entities of the People of God; an endeavour that must be spiritual and promote spirituality, that presents God in such a way as to motivate prayer, confidence, availability; speaking like this introduces the mystery of God; presenting Christ like this motivates following him.

This endeavour opens new eyes, that are grace, that invigorates the theological task, counting on the fact that very often this free experience occurs in the presence of the poor who are the privileged persons of the Good News. Good for Mankind and History and good, above all, because it leads to our final blossoming and now it humanises and saves History.

Sobrino recognises the achievements in the past of PT, its growing evangelical radicalism and its option for the poor, its opening to the Latin American and World realities: “But, he concludes, there is no doubt that LT has placed its finger in the wound of Humanity today, the massive human misery, the crucifixion of entire peoples; and, on the other hand, their hopes of reaching the ability to live in dignity as children of God, their demand to cooperate in their own liberation” ( Idem, P. 26).

Vatican II and the Restoration Offensive of John Paul II

Some were in a hurry to declare that the time of the Council was over.
Pope Paul VI warned:

“We cannot dispense with the Council. By its nature it is an important historical event, decisive for the life of the Church, it must last and it is clear that we will find it for a long time in our path. And it is good that this is so.” (Osservatore Romano, 16th December 1965). “To a certain degree, the period following the Council is more serious and arduous than the time of its celebration. In its acceptance and fidelity it is testing the vitality of the Church” (AAS 58, 1966, 799s.).

¿What happened to that loyalty to Vatican II? What were the things that happened? It is interesting to highlight this to understand the real context in which the new Spanish Theology came into existence, favouring a line of complete loyalty to Vatican II, to the Theology of liberation, liberty and resistance to the involution sought by the Church hierarchy.

Three fundamental things happened:

1ª) There was an initial period – up to 1978 more or less – in which there was an enthusiastic goodwill in the reception and application of the Council.

2ª) Then, immediately, began the deactivation of the Council. Although Vatican II projected the light of a new era in the Church, some new approaches, a new style that began to draw up a new concept of Catholic identity, with John Paul II (1978-2005), soon it was apparent that the winds were blowing in new directions. A tension started to consolidate in the Church, in which each day the neoconservative movements imposed their influence with increasing strength. Wojtyla aligned himself with the immobilist part of History, with a fondness for the past and with a fear of the future.

Vatican II took a leap: a new era was beginning in the Church in which she was coparticipant of the History of Mankind and shared with all kinds of peoples and entities the search for a new way forward for Humanity. She was not the exclusive depositary of truth nor did she hold the monopoly of goodness, nor the obligatory entity for everyone for fulfillment and salvation. And she was designing, in a pragmatic way, a new style in relationships based on respect, mutual assessment, dialogue and engagement with the major causes of justice and peace.

Wojtyla brought another model and another direction. Major sectors of Christianity warned of the counterpoint: involution against renovation, authoritarianism against democracy, clericalism against the people of God, clasism against equality.

Already in 1985, Cardinal J. Ratzinger qualified the 20 years of the post-conciliar period as being decisively unfavourable for the Church. That was the signal that the Restoration or Counter Reform was well underway. And it continued right up to the election of Pope Francis.

3ª) Major sectors of the Church, from then onwards, became disillusioned and opted to cease their engagement or leave the Church. The theologians, starting with those who prepared and developed the Council, were the ones who mostly suffered harassment, silence and censure. Their dissent was made public spectacularly in the famous Declaration of Cologne, that was signed by more than 700 theologians, questioning the involutionist about-turn of John Paul II.

The decisive post-conciliar involution of the pontificate of John Paul II

Vatican II established a reconciliation with Modernity, a dialogue with Science, an unconditional support for Human Dignity in all its rights, a priority with the problems and major causes of Humanity, a mobilisation of society for the major values of the Gospel. This sowing made Christianity, integrated basically by lay people, incentivise its own dignity, responsibility, independent criteria, creativity, adulthood and it was no longer possible to halt the change by appeals to obedience.

John Paul II came from a traditionalist formation, marked additionally by an Anti-Nazist social political context, that was also profoundly Anti-Communist and, to a certain degree, Anti-European. His country had suffered the humiliation of several empires and all its children had open wounds, cured largely by the Catholic Religion.

All this had made him see that Europe did not follow the path of his Christian past but was advancing on paths of secularisation and laicism, of atheism and of a hedonist and consumerist materialism.

His vision of Modernity was negative, because he saw that in it the Church was losing prestige and predominance and was being reduced increasingly to the private sphere.

Wojtyla's option was therefore going to be to restore, rechristianize Europe, redirect everything to the past. It was vital to remedy present evils, reintroducing a preconciliar Church: a centralised, male orientated, clerical, compact, disciplined and obedient, anti-modern Church.

It is not surprising that the great theologian Schillebeekx wrote:

“The second Vatican Council consecrated all the new modern values of democracy, tolerance, liberty. All the great ideas of the American and French revolutions, combatted by generations of popes; all the democratic values were accepted by the Council... There is now a tendency to take sides against Modernity considering it a kind of Antichrist. The current Pope appears to deny Modernity with his project to re-evangelise Europe: it is necessary - he says - to return to the ancient Europe of the Slav saints, Cyril and Methodius, and of Saint Benedict. The return to the catholicism of the First Millenium is, for John Paul II, the great challenge. In the Second Millenium, Europe has declined and, with it, the whole western culture has declined too. To re-evangelise Europe, we must overcome Modernity and all modern values and return to the First Millenium... It is the pre-modern, agricultural, uncritical Christianity, that, according to the Pope's thinking, embodies the model for Christianity.

I criticise this return because the modern values of liberty of conscience, of religion, of tolerance, are not, evidently, the values of the First Millenium” (Soy un teólogo feliz, (I am a happy theologian)
p. 73-74).

The restoration encompassed the universal Church at all levels and bodies: synods, bishops' conferences, meetings of the Latin American bishops, religious congregations, the CLAR (confederation of latin american male and female religious), bishops, theologians, professors, publications, magazines, etc.

To undertake the restoration it was necessary to return to the instruments of power and be able to count on strong unconditional movements. These were mainly the Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, Neocathecumenals, Legionaries of Christ, etc.

What happened inside the Church, was qualified by the great theologian K. Rahner as “a long winter's night”.

Such excessively negative conditions prevented finding in the Church structures of welcome that invited confidence, respect and dialogue. All this created a climate, in which in spite of vast multitudes applauding the Pope in stadiums and public squares, the churches became increasingly empty.

Justifiably, the theologian Hans Küng wrote: “We need a change of direction for the Church and for Theology: we must decidedly abandon the image of the medieval world and accept, the modern image of the world and, consequently, for theology a new paradigm. (Küng, H., Ser cristiano, p. 173) (Being a Christian).

Liberation Theology in Spain

In the 1980s, the government of Cardinal Enrique Tarancón was coming to an end. He had played a very important role in the transition from the dictatorship to democracy. With the appointment of John Paul II as Pope, the position and declarations of the Spanish bishops' hierarchy took on a new direction and provoked a growing discomfort and bewilderment amongst people. This situation reached its peak with the apparition of insistent declarations of the Spanish ecclesiastical hierarchy about the new social political situation created by the Socialist Government:

“There is a state of criticism and manipulation of facts about the Church, an uncompromising siege in the mass media. We are a Church that is being increasingly marginalised. Let us not delude ourselves. What is at stake is not a rejection of religious fundamentalism, it is not about specific debatable moral questions -What we are witnessing, perhaps without realising it, is a rejection of religions as such and more in particular of the Catholic Church and of Christianity itself”(Mons. Fernando Sebastián, Situación actual de la Iglesia: algunas orientaciones prácticas, Madrid, ITVR, 29 –III- 2007)(The current situation of the Church: Some practical guidelines).

It cannot be ignored that over the last centuries there was a positive evolution in the social and ecclesiastical conscience. The Second Vatican Council understood this perfectly and, for the first time, there was an official reconciliation with the modern world, with Democracy, Equality, Pluralism and Liberty.

Before the Council, the situation was one of the alliance of the Church with State authorities, the primacy of the Catholic Religion, the prominence of the clergy, the subordination of human knowledge to the theological knowledge, the devaluation of the earthly and temporary, inequality, a distrust of the world and other religions, obedience as the supreme law.

And, in this same direction, John Paul II and Benedict XVI proposed to act, with the winds blowing towards an authoritarian and neoconservative model of Church, neither handmaid nor announcer of a Kingdom of brothers and sisters, in equality, liberty and love. It was a model that dictated a return to the past, fearful of an authentic insertion in the present.

Birth of the John XXIII Association of Theologians (Asociación de Teólogos Juan XXIII)

After all the above, it can be understood the importance for the 1980s in Spain, the creation of the “John XXIII Association of Theologians”.

It was founded in the year 1980, in that crossroads of the pontificate of John Paul II with the Transition in Spain and, with Vatican II, disregarded and and sidelined, but not dead.

After ten years of activity, the John Paul XXIII Association of Theologians assessed its progress and stressed that it was not prepared to deviate from its aims of promoting the development of theology in Spain and its dissemination; of introducing it with a renovating committment in Church movements and communities, taking care of dialogue with the contemporary culture and with the advances of the modern day; making the preferential option for the poor the basic framework and epistemological location for theological reflections; contributing with the sectors most committed to the evangelical renovation of the Church; encouraging fraternal solidarity amonst all its members.

Objectives and Tasks of the John XXIII Association of Theologians

The Association knew from the start the arduous task it had assumed in the face of a clerical Church, depositary of truth, management and control, with the simple faithful reduced to a passive and obedient flock.

To the astonishment of many, the Association had shown in its first ten years, with a strong staff of theologians (over 50) coming from the dioceses and several religious congregations, with studies in several foreign universities, well-prepared and willing to carry forward the fundamental spirit and contents of Vatican II. That was its strong point, which the Hierarchy could not deny.

Without a doubt, the principal characteristic of the Association has been the convening of the Theology Congresses which started in 1980 and continue to be held today. I think it is important to underline what these Congresses have meant for the life of Society and the Church in Spain.

The Congresses began to attract an interest and an impact in the media that is probably unknown in any other place in Europe, as some important observers declared later.

Their duration, in the first four years, was a week, with the presence of about 2,000 people. And, what had never occurred before, with a considerable presence in the television, radios and most important newspapers. Each session was supported by about 60 organizations, reviews and groups.

From the 5th Congress onwards, the duration was reduced to the last four days of the week. And it continues like that to this day.

Each Congress has a central theme: Theology and Poverty; Hope of the Poor, Christian Hope; Christians and Peace; Christians in a Democratic Society; God of Life, Idols of Death; Church and People; etc. So it goes on and in the last Congress, the 37th, “Women and Religion. From Discrimination to Gender Equality”, which was held in September 2017.

The topics are treated in interrelated disciplines by means of 7 presentations, supplemented by testimonials and experiences in Round Tables and submissions. The speakers, alone, who have participated in the Congresses (sociologists, economists, politicians, historians, philosophers and, of course, theologians) number more than 250.

The male and female theologians have been many but amongst them the Liberation theologians present must be counted in all the sessions...

It is also important to note that the unabridged content of all the Congresses has been published by the Centro Evangelio y Liberación (Gospel and Liberation Centre). Up to the present, they consist of 37 volumes; a gem for anyone who wants to research the theological history and content of this period.

Perhaps the most important thing about the Association has been that, since the first convocations, the different types of participants looked for a way to channel similar initiatives in the principal cities of Spain. Soon sessions of this type arose in Barcelona, Malaga, Valencia, Vitoria, Pamplona, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Saragossa, Albacete, Burgos, Logroño, etc…, like a shock wave that accomplished and promoted increasingly the bond between movements, organizations and communities inspired by a renovated theology, that was engaged and liberating. The Congresses, Forums or Weeks stimulated the continuous demand for theologians to give talks in many venues and to distribute their writings.

In a separate chapter should be mentioned the list of all these publications, that have served to drive, deepen and strengthen this new liberating Theology that gives a new vision of the Gospels and a new face to the Church.

Relationship of the Association of Theologians John Juan XXIII with the Church hierarchy.

Taking into account the social political and ecclesiastical situation we have described, nobody would be surprised by the attitude of the Church hierarchy with the Association.

Over the first five years, it was a question of mutual misgivings and distrust. There followed a shorter spell of two years in which there was an attempt at alignment by means of a committee of five theologians with three bishops. This intent never achieved a positive agreement since the bishops expressed a series of fundamental points that the Association must abandon: Its non-hierarchical characteristic, its civilian nature and its rejection of a canonical recognition of this fact. The Bishops Conference - we were then under the new orientation of Pope John Paul II - had to accept the line of Rome, and could not forget the denunciation that Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had formulated against Liberation Theology.

The Association, in the above mentioned evaluation, wrote, “We honestly consider excessive the bishops' claim of almost continuously deciding in disputes on theological questions, and additionally, of pretending that theologians must be antennae to merely repeat the teaching of the hierarchy.”

The attempt at dialogue ended there. The involution grew and there was a watchword amongst the bishops about not attending the Congresses, although some of them did go.

Fernando Sebastian, the then secretary of the Bishops' Conference, sent a document addressed to the Masculine and Feminine Conference, in the following words: “ The three bishops who have intervened in these dialogues with the theologians express our conviction at not reaching operational conclusions that would allow a modification of the Congresses to make them a legitimate activity within the Christian community...We have found a mentality... firmly anchored in the Liberation Theology Movement and with some especially critical European theologians”.

Against this position of the bishops, voices were not missing that denounced this statement as arbitrary and unjust. It is sufficient to cite these two examples:

” I do not understand the misgivings you can have with the John XXIII, when practically it is a good mediation to carry out this evangelically critical attitude in the face of a regime that presents itself as a liberator with respect to the recent dictatorship” (José Mª González Ruiz).

“I am against the suffocation carried out against the Second Vatican Council, which promised an opening up of Christianity, of the christian social ethic and, however, this has not occurred. The strength of Christianity has been sufocated by the conservative movements that we all know.” (José Luis Aranguren)

I take off my mitre in front of the good theologians

If it turns out that the renewal of the Church, before and after Vatican II, was prepared and driven by theologians, it is also true to say that no other profession as the theologians has had to suffer the censure, discredit and repression after Vatican II. Over a hundred had to suffer this.

For this reason, the joyful fraternal and loving words resounded in the presentation made by Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga (for 50 years a witness in the Sertao of Brasil, without ever coming home) and sent by video for the XVIth Congress of 1996: “I take this occasion to take off my mitre in front of the good male and female theologians of Spain repair the tendency, an almost inbred, practically visceral tendency of certain bishops of the hierarchy in general, with respect to theologians. I ask the male and female theologians to continue to help us. We bishops frequently believe that we are right, we normally believe we are always right, but what happens is that we do not always have the truth, especially the theological truth, so I ask you not to leave us in a kind of dogmatic ignorance. And speaking of the theologians of Spain, I think that it is only fair to say that today in Spain there are male and female theologians (the female theologians are more recent) with the stature of the Spanish writers and intellectuals of that Golden Age of Spanish Literature and Reason and neither Italy, nor France, nor Germany, to mention our nearest neighbours, can compete either in number or quality with the gallery of theologians we have in Spain, and I call on the Assembly to grant them an applause”.

A new Christian Theology and Lifestyle

Fortunately, Vatican II had assumed the results of a new Exegesis and of a new Theology that contributed to recover the disfigured originality of Christianity. Vatican II was the accolade to this encounter of unpredictable consequences, that would generate and new frame of mind and a new way to be a Christian.

In this perspective, the John XXIII Association of Theologians understood that Theology had a massive task for changing and “aggiornamento”, bringing up to date: to locate in History the Gospel making it perceptible in the midst of the iniquity that divides the world between the rich and the poor; to reconcile Faith with Reason and Science, Earthliness with History, Democracy with Pluralism,
Liberty and Difference, the Universal and the Individual; to place at the centre of everything the dignity of people and their rights to build between them a world that is supported by this common faith in the dignity of people and their rights; to provoke spaces for research, doubt and openness to transcendence: The heaven of human beings is not going to be explored by technology cosmonauts but by the inborn muses of the spirit. The very extasis of existence is the threshold and condition for the development and creation of Theology.

Benjamín Forcano

Translated by Hugo Castelli Eyre