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Future of liberation theology is down road to ecumenism.

Liberation theology is in a new moment in Latin America. New forms are born as the older ones are proved inadequate. Liberation theology was shaped in the 1960s and 1970s during a particular period in the Latin American societies and the Catholic church. The Cuban revolution in 1959 and the revolutionary struggles in many other countries, such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, against the traditional oligarchies appeared to make a Latin American version of socialism the hope of the future.

At the same time, the Second Vatican Council and the Latin American church council at Medellin in 1968 opened a vista to a new church committed to the poor and to social transformation, and no longer the right arm of the traditional elites.

Much of that promise has now faded. The defeat of socialism in Eastern Europe and in Nicaragua has put the socialist project in crisis. A regnant North American-style capitalism has been proclaiming loudly that socialist ideas have been proved bankrupt and that there is only one viable economic model for global society, namely, its own.

At the same time, the Catholic hierarcy, under constant pressure from the Vatican, has been engaged in a campaign to eliminate the bases in the church for liberation theologians and the "popular church." The progressive diocesan seminary created by Dom Helder Camara in Recife, Brazil, was closed by the new bishop, an all its teachers dismissed. One of the most prominent liberation theologians, Leonardo Boff, was so hounded by the Vatican that he finally felt there was no alternative but to leave the institutional ministry.

Is liberation theology to disappear as a discredited moment in Latin American Catholicism, tied to a passing period in church and social history? I think not. Surely the basic crises of desperate poverty for the majority of Latin American peoples that gave rise to liberation theology have not disappeared; rather, they have worsened.

The world economic policies of hegemonic capitalism have markedly worsened the economic prospects for the poor of Latin America, to the point that critical economists here speak of genocide: a policy of simply discarding the lower third of the population of the world that the dominant model of capitalism does not need for its labor force.

Military violence has faded somewhat, partly because economic violence has proved more effective in controlling the poor. But the tools of military repression are in place, ready to be reasserted in most countries if movements of protest arise from the poor.

Although some of the institutional bases for liberation theology have been repressed by the hierarchy, others are in place and new ones are emerging. The Jesuit-run Central American Universities in El Salvador and Nicaragua continue to be major centers for liberation theologians. In addition, a host of important ecumenical research centers have developed, many funded mainly by liberal Protestants, such as the Instituto da Estudos Da Religiao in Rio de Janeiro, SEPADE in Santiago Chile and the Departmento Ecumenico de Investigaciones in San Jose, Costa Rica; and others by Catholics, such as the Centro Ecumenico Valdivieso in Managua, Nicaragua.

Progressive Protestant seminaries, such as ISEDET in Buenos Aires and the Seminario Biblico Latinoamericano in Costa Rica support liberation theology among both Protestants and Catholics. Catholic theologian Pablo Richard is on the DEI staff, while the Boff brothers in Brazil find a base at the Instituto da Estudos Da Religiao. When Hans Kung spoke in Costa Rica in March of this year, it was the Seminario Biblico.

Progressive Protestants and Catholics in Latin America have a lot in common. They basically share the same perspective on theology and the mission of the church. In addition, both have been marginalized by the institutional leaders of their churches. Latin American Protestantism is mostly sectarian, anti-Catholic and fundamentalist. It is often not ecumenical with other Protestants.

Ecumenical liberation Protestants are unacceptable to these evangelical church leaders of two reasons: They challenge the basic premise of Protestant evangelism in Latin America that Catholics are not Christians and therefore Protestantism is needed to bring "the gospel" to Latin America; and they challengek the cconservative politics and privatistic ethics of these churches.

Consequently, progressive Protestants are unwelcome in these churches, and their seminaries are boycotted by their church leaders. Progressive Protestants join with liberation theology Catholics as people who share a common vision of the faith and support each other. Neither the Protestants nor the Catholics in this alliance intend to leave their respective churches. They feel a responsibility to continue to try to provide a more authentic understanding of Christian faith and life for their communities.

Catholics also need to recognize that Protestantism is in Latin America to stay. The Catholic church cannot "reevangelize" Latin America primarily on the grounds of trying to "check" the expansion of Protestantism. The authentic task of preaching the gospel is not to try to negate the existence of other church traditions, but to open all church traditions and their people to the authentic call of Christ.

Liberation theology continues in these ecumenical centers, but at the same time there is a growing recognition of the need to rethink liberation theology, to widen its vision. Classic liberation theology in 1965-90 spoke mainly of the "poor," in the sense of the economically deprived. It was generally insensitive to other categories of oppression, such as cultural and racial discrimination of the Afro-Hispanic and indigenous people. It ignored women's issues and was not very receptive when feminist liberation theologians began to rise in its ranks. Ecology was not on the agenda..

Today, it is being widely recognized that the redevelopment of liberation theology must be particularly through encompassing these issues: the issues of the Afro-Hispanic and indigenous peoples, of women and of the ecological crisis. This will not only widen the social base of liberation theology, but it will transform much of the social and even the religious and cultural models with which it was working.

Liberation theology is and will continue to be needed by the church and by the world as long as poverty and oppression exist. But what it means to believe in and work for a new society of justice is being expanded significantly in Latin America today.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.
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Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 9, 1993
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