Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Philosophy Group: Social Justice & Liberation Theology


I have given too much space between the night we discussed social justice and the time I spent actively categorizing and meditating on our discussions, ramblings, disagreements, and conclusions. Therefore, permit me to admit that I will probably, more than once, misinterpret someone’s idea or main point. I am sorry.

Church’s Teaching on Social Justice

We digressed often from the, nominally speaking, main topic: the Church’s teaching on social justice. Here are three simple points that stuck in my head: 1) Every person must be given what he or she needs to develop as a person. Although I understand the often vagueness used by the Church (in order for Her not to overstate Her case, or so that the Truth can apply to all places, peoples, and times), there is a problematic indistinctness here. Who is “in charge” of making sure all people obtain what they need to develop as persons? Is biological subsistence enough to fit within this definition, or are we discussing an individual’s need to fit within a cultural level too? (Do people have a right to broadband Internet?) Are we speaking on a national or global level? Etc? 2) Private property is enormous part of a society’s insurance that it is potentially just. Regardless, this isn’t an “absolute” right. For example, your individual right to a specific piece of material property can be trumped by a greater good. 3) Giving “charity” to people who actually need it – i.e. food, water, shelter – isn’t charity, but justice. Giving people something they have a right to is justice. This is a hard truth for us.

I sped through that preliminary work to get us to what I found most engaging: the discussion of liberation theology, why it gets such a knock, how it (potentially) changes our perspective on salvation, and whether or not we can take Marxist analysis at all – I add a further section on my reflections on these matters.

Arguments Against Liberation Theologies: “Straw Men”

As Mike Clemente so aptly explained, perhaps B16’s and others’ criticism of Liberation Theology are straw man arguments. (I am not well-read enough in this area to give personal opinion.) This is the way this story goes: Yes, there are bad, violent liberation theologies; and these were and are incompatible with Church teaching. Rightfully so, the Church came out and declared these theologies as incorrect. However, this is only the extreme liberation theologies. There are more moderate ones, ones that are comparable with the Church. However, when people preach against these moderate theologies (I’m not sure moderate is the correct word, but it’s all I have recourse to at the moment), they are essentially arguing against the violent, bad theologies. Therefore, in the end, they aren’t actually making arguments against the liberation theologies, as they are espoused by, say, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Mike C said that B16’s arguments fall into this “straw man” trap. Of course, what needs to be explored, if this narrative holds water, is a more in-depth analysis of the good (moderate) theologies – those compatible with the Church. We obviously didn’t have time to go into too much depth here; however, we did discuss one of Gutiérrez’s major points concerning our perspective on salvation and the afterlife. I will get to that in a moment.

Using Marxist Analysis Within a Catholic Framework

Another problem Mike C saw in B16’s analysis is that Benedict categorically rejects any analysis that sounds as if it comes from Marx. More specifically, Gutiérrez uses Marx’s analysis of class struggle, and places it within a Catholic framework. Because Marx was a deep-set atheist and his conclusions were anti-religious, B16 distrusts anything related to Marx, and that includes some of his more basic analysis. This is an interesting question – and it goes beyond. Can we use analysis from any thinker who arrived at conclusions we disagree with? I think this is a case-by-case question. For example, a lot of Freud begins with the assumption that our sexuality is analogous to our desire to eat. His analysis that proceeds from this assumption is bound to be flawed on some level, since I believe man’s sexuality is so much more than a desire. Although it may express itself sometimes simply as a desire, it is, in my opinion, one of the deepest connections between the physical and transcendent aspects of ourselves. Because Freud looks only at sexuality’s materialistic side, he misses half of the story. On the other hand, with some of Freud’s other analysis, such as his perceptions about the unconscious, are fine to examine and use, trusting that we aren’t unknowingly accepting assumptions we find as false. Back to the discussion at hand, I think it is fine to use a portion of Marxist analysis, since I don’t find the entire critique rests on a theory that is necessarily materialistic and atheistic – some of it, definitely; but not all of it.

The Salvation Narrative as Singular

Now back to Mike C’s quoting of Gutiérrez. I know I’m doing a huge injustice to the both of them, but I must continue. Gutiérrez wanted people, and the Church, to see salvation not simply as something for the afterlife, or that there are two different modes/avenues/roads of salvation: one for this world and one for the next. Instead, our salvation story is singular – and, therefore, salvation here on earth is essentially the same as the salvation we refer to when we discuss heaven. Although I initially reacted poorly to this idea – on an emotional level, I’ll admit – I think my problem is centered more on how I view certain people can use or interpret this. This is similar, perhaps, to Mike C’s reaction to my point that life’s goal is to “get as many people in heaven as possible.” This idea could be interpreted as a complete ignoring of anything temporal or physical, i.e. “Don’t worry about the physical position of the poor since all that matters is whether or not they get to heaven.” However, this is not what the first sentence necessarily implies. Despite my acceptance of Gutiérrez’s statement (I actually find the idea quite powerful now), I will end this entry by pointing out some of my potential issues with its possible interpretations, as well as some thoughts on liberation theology in general.

My Thoughts

There is only one story of salvation, and an integral part of that narrative is Christ’s death on the Cross; therefore, it is essential (and almost obvious) that our salvation story here on earth is the same as the salvation story of heaven. In this way, I full-heartedly agree with Gutiérrez. However, what is our salvation? Fundamentally, it is a freedom, but a freedom from sin. Our salvation story is not a story about Jesus coming to ensure material success or material freedom: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Of course, I understand that there are shortcomings of focusing too much on this side of the story, i.e. “Let’s not worry at all about poverty or people’s status in society, since the kingdom is not of this world.” Regardless, humanity’s essential poverty is not a poverty of material goods, but a poverty of spiritual goods. These are two exclusive categories.

This comes down to putting Gutiérrez’s comment into practice. Yes, the salvation story is one and not two; but what part of the salvation story here on earth means trying to work for material equality here on earth? Is salvation essentially about material equality? (By the way, I’m not saying working for equality isn’t good.) I guess what I’m driving at (and I’m still working out a lot of this in my own head) is this question: what is the relationship between spiritual and material poverty? I don’t see, as some medievalists may have seen, these as two completely mutually exclusive groups. But what part of working for salvation here on earth means working for material equality or fairness? Of course, some of it is connected. A person must be treated with the human respect and dignity that his intrinsic value requires. But how else does material poverty or success or fairness actually affect the salvation story? To return to Gutiérrez, how is freeing the oppressed in a poor country working toward Christ’s salvation? I’m not saying there isn’t an answer; I just can’t think of a cogent one at the moment. I’d prefer someone else who can think beyond my limitations to let me know where I’m wrong.

My final thought on liberation theology: Because spiritual poverty is distinct from material poverty, what I sometimes find potentially problematic in liberation theologies is that the rich get overlooked. (Yes, I see the irony in this statement.) What I mean is that those who are spiritually poor but materially well-off – or at least materially comfortable – are forgotten. Now, I understand that not everyone can fight for everything, so this problem doesn’t mean that liberation theologies are in any way incorrect. However, what I see as problematic is when material poverty is emphasized more than spiritual poverty. This, of course, gets back to the connection between the two poverties. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, I recognize that there is a deep connection between these the poverties, but I can’t put it into words or even emotional utterances.

Encouraging Dialogue

At times, I overstated what I believe (or overemphasized certain aspects of what I believe). But the point was so that people who disagree with me will feel led to respond. The salvation story is essentially the Christian story; it is the heart of life. I seek a better understanding of this story, but I recognize that this comes in dialogue. Where my intellect and experience ends, another’s can inform me.

{By the way, what is life’s goal? I may sum it up by saying, like Mike C, it is to show people who they truly are. However, considering we are made in the image and likeness of God, to show people who they truly are is to introduce them to Christ. If I wanted to have an eagle know what it truly was, if I didn’t mention that it could fly, or if it didn’t figure this out on its own, the eagle’s knowledge of itself would be lacking.}


  1. Drat, I wish I'd been there, if only to listen. I don't know enough about the topic to give really intelligent comments, but I have a couple of surface-level reactions.

    1. From what I understand of the singular salvation idea, I very much agree with it: it goes right along with the idea of Man beginning to live Heaven or Hell already in this life ("Thy kingdom come and Thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven").

    2. Heaven is Love, and Love is a huge, wild, cosmic, creative ... Spirit. I firmly believe that while Love may use the physical things of this world, it is in no way bound by them. Even death, which was Hell, is Hell no longer, for God is there through Jesus's own death and resurrection. Love, for us, must incorporate our corpi; we are bodily creatures, and must love with our bodies. As JPII argues in Love & Responsibility, the personalistic norm (the value which is the corollary to the Commandment to Love) is the value by which we must base our actions. Justice, therefore, is part of love. We must treat each person according to his/her dignity.

    So far so good.

    3. "Marxist analysis": to broad to be meaningful. Insofar as he was rationally observing group dynamics and class struggles, he was not original nor was he the final word on it (consider Gregory Stanton's "8 Stages of Genocide"). In my understanding, what distinguished Marx was his application of Hegel's dialectical notion of linear history (history as a collision of matter, maintaining constant mass and momentum, but gradually achieving an equilibrium of direction and speed, like in physics). The main problem with such a model is that it doesn't take into account decision-making, especially for non-economic reasons; for a world full of humans to match a model based on physics, total (or totalitarian) control is necessary, as writers from Orwell to Lowry have emphasized. After reading Hannah Arendt's "Origins of Totalitarianism," and also after much meditation on the links between dogma, reason, and freedom, I can't give weight to Marx.

    So I don't know what use Liberation Theology makes of Marx, and therefore I can't speak anymore on the subject. I for one don't see how Marx can add anything to the personalistic norm and the Commandment to Love. But perhaps he can.

  2. (1 of 2)

    Basil –

    I’m glad you’ve joined the conversation. I was pretty sure the term Marxism would elicit a proper response from your quarters.

    Let me break down my reply into two parts. First, when we discuss Marxist analysis or Marxist thought, theory, etc., we aren’t necessarily discussing the very narrow political theory you just outlined. I see your outline as one of Marx’ conclusions – those conclusions we decided we didn’t find in line with the truth preached by the Church. Besides, that theory, the way you explained it, most people would reject, since it is pretty obvious (at least to me) that is was proved incorrect by history. Perhaps Marx-Purists stick by it, but our contemporary history belies the world’s move toward equilibrium on a social scale.

    Most of the analysis that is used contemporarily is Marx’ observations about how societies and systems of economics work, particularly in terms of dominant and suppressed groups of society (more on that later). Perhaps it’s a water-downed version of Marx – perhaps. And perhaps Marx wasn’t really the innovator in this line of thinking – I grant that. But let’s be clear: the term “Marxism” is one of those terms that really steps outside the bounds and analysis of a single man in history. You may object to this; but this is simply a fact. If theorists refer to themselves as Marxists, they aren’t implying they accept everything Marx wrote; additionally, they will probably accept other “Marxist” doctrine that Marx didn’t personally theorize about or discuss. This is one of the problems with the term Marxism. It’s almost like saying you’re an existentialist. I think if you took any three thinkers, alive or deceased, that either defined themselves as existentialists or that history labeled as such, and asked a very basic existential question, you would get, at the very least, two different answers – if not three. The point here is that because the term and theory of Marxism is like this, it is unfair of people to take an observation that a large amount of people would label as “Marxist” and call it incorrect, immoral, or necessarily wrong on account of this label.

    You may be asking yourself the question, in response to my previous paragraph, “So what is useful about Marxist thought? In what ways can it add to Church preaching and teaching – or, as you put it, the “personalistic norm of the Commandment to Love”? (Caveat: I do not consider myself too grounded in the subject to give a detailed answer to this question; however, I think I can at least point to possible answers.) Let me begin by pointing out that there are a lot of “new” discoveries that add to our understanding of ourselves as human persons, both physically and spiritually. I don’t think there’s anything within Church teaching that says that only Scriptures and Tradition can teach important lessons about humanity. We learn much about God’s glory through astronomy; we learn much about how systems and societies work through economic discoveries and theories; a lot of Catholic psychologists use pertinent psychological discoveries (let’s not talk about Freud) to help patients discover their true identities; the list goes on. The point is, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that certain theories and ideas about how societies function economically and collectively can help add “new” knowledge to our understanding of humanity. I understand that saying Marxism can aid our understanding of societies is a loaded statement. But I truly feel that there is much to be learned through certain – key word: certain – Marxist analysis.

  3. (2 of 2)

    Mike C touched upon very briefly an important Marxist idea that Gutiérrez uses in his liberation theology: the perception of class struggle. Integral to this theory is that class struggle is closely connected to economics. To be more specific, we need to recognize that societies often (naturally?) are broken down into different classes based on economics; and often, the dominant class uses its economic status and power to suppress the oppressed. I think history makes this point pretty clear and almost obvious. Of course Marx was focused on the effect of laissez-faire had, and how the wealthy in this system of economics overpowered the poor. Marx was concerned about what the long-term effect this would have, prophesying that revolution would overturn this system, since the evolution of societies tends toward equilibrium. However, you don’t need to go there in order to see the clarity and pertinence of clearly recognizing and studying class struggle. In fact, it is a very Christian idea to fight for the poor (the preferential option for the poor), and to seek ways to transform societies so that the least of this earth (in terms of material power) are not oppressed.

    You may say this is obvious, or that the analysis expressed here is such a watered-down version of Marx not worthy of the title. On the one hand, you may be correct; but on the other hand, I think that this sort of analysis was definitely not obvious at one point in time, even within Christian teaching and practice. The relatively modern world’s history of colonialism and oppression points us in this direction. Interestingly enough, the more I read of older texts, the more I am painfully aware that humanity often lacked this sort of thinking, simple as it may sound. For example, all you need to do is read early Gandhi texts to realize how much colonialism was ingrained in his way of life and thinking; it was only until Gandhi began to live and empathize with the poor that he began to see the inherent flaws in the systems of governments of his times. Read earlier texts than Gandhi (a lot of Shakespeare, for instance) and you find the system of oppressor and oppressed, determined here via economics, both constantly at play as well as relatively unrecognized by the writer, audience, and society.

    I think Gutiérrez is simply pointing to certain corrupt states of government around the world, recognizing that there is a wealthy class that uses it economic power to oppress the poor, and stating that the Church should not be, as it has been in the past, aligning itself with the oppressors. Instead, it should recognize this struggle, align itself with the oppressed, and seek ways of making the society more equitable – all in the name of the human dignity inherent within each one of us as sons and daughters of God. I believe that a lot of liberation theologies begin with a premise such as this. But to look at this line of reasoning, see the phrase “class struggle,” and to call it Marxist and therefore incompatible with Church teaching is hasty and potentially damaging to what we are called to work for in this life.

    Did we need Marx to see this sort of analysis? Probably not. Isn’t this sort of analysis inherent within Christian teaching? Yes. However, I see Marx – or perhaps Marxist theorists before and after Marx – as responsible, in a good way, for making the Christian conscious of the injustice that is inflicted through the use of economic power – and injustice that fails to treat each individual with the dignity he or she is due. Does the personalistic norm of the Commandment to Love do the same? Yes, but Marxist theories can aid in this conversation. They give us a framework to analyze societies and determine real practical steps in transforming the world. “Transformation” and “Marxism” may be two dangerous terms too closely aligned; but, as I’ve been arguing, I thinking some of the basic analysis works perfectly within a Catholic framework.

  4. eihhh.... (the sound of unsure discomfort with your line of reasoning)...

    1. Yes, Marxist analysis (quite different from Marxism, you'll agree) as social class economics can be necessary to best achieve justice--human decisions and life do not occur in a vacuum.
    So I agree there.

    2. But I think Marxist analysis brings with it so much baggage as to be unhelpful beyond that statement. For one thing, Marxist class theory is not proven by history; on the contrary in many cases it's demonstrably incorrect. I happened to have studied the French Revolution a great deal (ish), a key event which Marx focused on in great detail, and largely used in his historical picture as "proof" for his dialectical theory. Indeed, of almost any period in history (besides perhaps pre-Civil War South), the Old Regime in France was the epitome of class stratification in society. They even called themselves the 3 Estates (Nobility, Clergy, and Commoners). A surface-level picture of the Revolution apparently shows the 2 dominant classes oppressing the lower class, which then reacts and sets up a new balance between middle-class bourgeois and laborers (no more kings, nobles, or land-holding bishops). But Marx's narrative has been debunked ever since by more accurate scholarship. Indeed, the role of ideology turned out to be far more consequential than one's "class," which even in that clear-cut stratification was by and large nominal, with varying interests and loyalties (aristocrats calling for revolution, bourgeois demanding constitutional monarchy, clerics rejecting the Church, peasants demanding bread and also leading counter-revolutions).
    I don't want to get to caught up in Marx himself, but I think any discussion of class in more than general terms needs to be extremely careful. Perhaps, of course, these distinctions are clearer in the situation in which Gutierrez was writing.

  5. None of what I wrote, by the way, is argument against the Church defending the poor; but our central dogmas and theology of the Triune God is failsafe and foolproof (if followed correctly). What we learn from Robespierre (and Stalin and TseTung, etc) is that placing other values which purport to provide a just situation in which humans will then act justly ABOVE the human person leads inevitably to human sacrifice. The Church seeks equity and equality, but in the service of the human person, not vice versa. It seems clear that if the Church supported specific social policies as "the way," it could end up endorsing unjust human sacrifice. The commandment to love demands personal will, not social situations; I can't help but contrast MLK's or Ghandi's or Lech Walesa's non-violent protests with the El Salvadoran civil war. (I'm no expert but it seems war immediately gives advantage to the economically dominant group) The Church, it seems, can adamantly uphold the dignity of the human person without achieving a certain social situation ("nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!' For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.").

    But maybe I'm wrong and Marxist analysis doesn't even entail producing a certain social/political/economic state. Maybe it just means that money is a powerful mover, and let's keep an eye on it. I'm rambling, and it's late, so ta ta for now!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Good afternoon gents! It is always enjoyable to stumble upon an argument in progress at Skrignov's Corner. And as with Basil, I was disappointed that the one day we ended up meeting about social justice I could not attend.

    These comments thus far have brought back such fond memories of taking Marx in school. Our professor - who assumed the character of Marx the entire semester - adamently emphasized that in order to understand Marx and Marxist ideas rooted in dialectical and historical materialism, one absolutely must understand Hegel (as Basil pointed out). From a philisophical perspective, this is probably true.

    I remember talking to two other people who were taking Marx the same semester; one in a political science class and one in an economics class. Neither of them ever heard the name Hegel be brought up. They studied an aspect of Marx's theories and ignored having to trace back to where the theories came from. Obviously - and especially in our schooling - we do this all the time (address small portions of ideas of an author, study theories without addressing the context it was written, etc.).

    This is a basic observation (granted somewhat long winded), but I wanted to make the point clear. The use of Marxist ideas separated from the rest of Marx is totally acceptable. However, in doing so, it sort of loses it's Marxist roots. And any time you pull out an idea from one train of thought, you are now required to ground that idea to another train of thought.

    My point here is that the Church can certainly take an idea of Marx and tie it their own teachings. And if done successfully, that particular idea is not Marxist anymore! So to answer Jonas who posed this an a question, i believe the Church can (and I think does) take secular and/or ideas founded from an antheistic bent, and make it their own. So Basil emphasizing that Marx or Marxism itself is holistically unfounded becomes sort of moot point. All that says is that we have to be careful not to accept one idea and then accept others that were tied to it. Therefore, in argument, we have to be mindful of not assuming that the one idea supported entails all the "baggage" that comes with it. Jonas I believe would agree that we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and Basil would say try as you might but the baby is still wet with bathwater...or maybe I took that saying alittle too far. I find it amusing anyway. Good day!