John Paul II was perceived as anti-communist pope, who not only contributed to the collapse of the communist bloc, but he also ‘stifled’ leftist theology of liberation in Latin America. Is this superficial opinion true? In order to study this issue more, I conducted and interview with an Italian philosopher and today also a politician, Rocco Buttiglion, who in the 80s of XX century was closely cooperating with John Paul II – at that time he was called a ‘philosopher of pope’ – and with his command he made many journeys to Latin America.

WŁODZIMIERZ RĘDZIOCH: - John Paul II passed into history as Pope, who ‘dealt with’ theologians of liberation. Professor have participated in studies of this theology characteristic for Latin America. Could you share your reflections on it with us?

PROF. ROCCO BUTTIGLIONE: - We must go back to the first months of the pontificate of John Paul II. The Pope, still before his journey to Poland, had made pilgrimages to Latin America. Paul VI had promised to go to Pueblo, for the Third Conference of Episcopates of Latin America and John Paul II decided that he should keep the promise of his predecessor. The conference was very important – it was held at the time when on the continent sociology called ‘rebelde’ was developing, according to which rich Western countries were supposed to impose capitalist economy on the continent, which caused its regression. These were the times when there were references to statements of Mao, among which ‘Rely on your strength’ meant that it was necessary to get out of the capitalist market and create socialist economy outside it. On the wave of this sociology also the so-called theology of liberation was developing. A book of Fr. Gustavo Gutierreze entitled ‘Theology of liberation’, published in 1968, is considered to be its beginning. This theology was supposed to be the result of the Second Vatican Council and the Conference of Episcopates of Latin America in Medellin.

– What does theology of liberation say?

– Firstly, theology of liberation says that it is impossible to proclaim a Christian message in an abstractive way, but it should be referred to the existential situation of a poor Latin-American man, with his suffering and hope for liberation. Next – theology must proclaim eternal salvation, but Christ’s message is also a call for solidarity experienced here, on the Earth, and to the transformation of the world, in order to make the world more human. Whereas the third point says that an instrument for liberation of an inhabitant of Latin America is Marxism because it allows us to understand the world from the perspective of a poor man. I would say that theology of liberation is based on these three pillars.

– But there is not only one theology of liberation…

– That’s true. There is theology of liberation which accepts the first two points, but not the third one. When John Paul II was in Puebla, he emphasized these two aspects: a Christian message is a message of liberation, but it is not something abstractive – it ‘takes on’ the history of the nation. It was obvious for John Paul II, because he perceived history of Poland as history of liberation, where a Christian message takes on the history of the Polish nation.

– Certainly, from the perspective of Polish experiences, John Paul II knew well that Marxism cannot be a tool of the authentic liberation…

– Therefore, as the third pillar of theology, Wojtyła suggests the culture of a poor Latinos man who is not a man without culture. This man is not a proletarian about whom Marx wrote, but a poor person, deeply marked with evangelization which gave him dignity and sense of life (birth, work, death). This Latinos poor man conducts a fight about liberation – because we deal with a situation of injustice – but he does it within the Christian message, with a Christian heart. John Paul II thought that theology of liberation must have originated from a great tradition of evangelizers of Latin America, such as Fr. Bartolome de Las Casas, Fr. Motolina, St. Toribio de Mogrovejo, the Jesuits who established ‘reducciones’ in Paraguay- because the history of the continent is the history of invasion, but also evangelization. Therefore, theology of liberation is needed, but the one which concentrates on Christ and takes a form of history of Latin America. It is necessary to fight for human liberation, but respecting every human being, without resorting to an armed fight, that is, to partisan war. And it must be reminded that at that time Che Guevara was telling about ‘100 focuses of the partisan war’, and it was the leftist partisan army which provoked assassinations in whole Latin America, which led to the authority with the fascist attitude towards the rightist party. From the year 1964 (coup in Brazil) to the year 1973 (coup in Chile), practically on the whole continent local weak protests were replaced by regimes of ‘national safety’. Partisan armies are burdened with responsibility for ‘death’ of weak Latino democracies.
So, in Puebla John Paul II proclaimed a different theology of liberation. After a conference a fight started, because a part of Episcopate of Latin America demanded the rejection of Marxist theology of liberation and implementing the order. There were also pressures so that this theology would be officially condemned.

– In this context of discussions and pressures on the Holy See in 1983, the instruction ‘Libertatisnuntius’of the Congregation of Faith Teaching was published, on some aspects of theology of liberation – it was prepared by cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a prefect of the Congregation, to the request of Pope…

– The instruction concerning theology of liberation was created in reply to requests for doctrinal explanation of this phenomenon. Its central point is acknowledgement of a series of theological thesis, which theology of liberation does not respect, as well as Marxism condemnation. Marxism cannot be a tool for sociological analysis, because it has a false picture of a human being and is an impartial scientific method.

– Why was the second instruction on the same topic prepared a few years later?

– The first instruction was recognized as a definite condemnation of theology of liberation. However, a big social movement, tens of thousands of basic communities, wide charity activity of the Church were connected with this theology…..It seemed that this all had been condemned and caused a kind of bewilderment in the Church of Latin America. Together with a group of friends: Fr. Francesco Riccim, Guzman Carriquiry, Alberto Metholem, LucioGera, Pedro Morande, I contributed to the preparation of the second document. This group whose work was coordinated by Alberto Methol, a chief of the committee of experts of CELAM dealt with a positive theology of liberation. Within our activity we established a magazine ‘Nexo’ in Montevideo, with which also the Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio cooperated, who was a rector of the seminary in San Migual at that time, and earlier a provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina.

– Did Professor inform John Paul II about the results of your work?

– Yes. I remember that after one of journeys to Latin America I was invited for dinner with Pope, in order to talk with him on this issue. I explained the Holy Father that theology of liberation has many faces: there is theology of liberation in Nicaragua which is rather theology of revolution, where the person of Christ disappeared; it is not God who redeems people but people redeem themselves (it is theology which should be condemned). But there is also theology of liberation which is consistent with the Evangelical message, and its example is Argentinian theology (it should be reminded that in this country a big labor, Christian, not Marxist movement was functioning) – this theology should be supported. Between these two poles there is Brazil and theology of Gustavo Gutierrez which remains ambiguous.
I will mention a funny fact. One day I and John Paul II were discussing the issue of theology of liberation and theology of Fr. Gutierrez. At some point the Pope asked me: ‘Does he (Fr. Gutierrez) really believe, celebrate the Holy Mass, give confessions, pray to Our Lady?’. When I answered: ‘Yes’, the Holy Father said in a firm voice: ‘In this case we cannot condemn him! We must talk with him’. This all caused a situation when Pope John Paul II encouraged cardinal Ratzinger to prepare the second instruction which explained many problematic issues.

– What does the second instruction particularly say?

– It says that there is theology of liberation, good and bad (Marxist) and doubtful, which has some positive aspects, but it must be ‘purified’ (theology of Gutierraz). I remember when John Paul II was in Lima, and he also went to the last descendant of the Incas in order to pay tribute to this people in this way. On that day, near the house of Fr. Gutierraz, many journalists appeared, who were trying to get an answer from him against the Pope. But Fr. Gutierrez left his house, introduced himself and said: ‘Today’s day is a feast for my people. Let me go and celebrate. We will talk about other issues another time’.
Next Fr. Gutierrez provided necessary explanations concerning his theology. Once he said: ‘My theology is very good. What you criticize in it, is not Indian- it is what I learnt from you, studying in Munich and Leuven’. In next books, especially in a book entitled ‘Drinking from one’s own well’, Fr. Gutirenezz presented and idea of Latino theology, which is much more radical and rejects the Marxist dimension and European raids. Later, the theologian joined the Order of the Dominicans and now his theology – is completely consistent with the second instruction of the Congregation of Faith Teaching.

– How did the collapse of the communist bloc influence theology of liberation?

– The creation of the labor Union ‘Solidarność’ in Poland had had a big influence on Latin America before the collapse of the communist bloc. At those times we were trying to create a ‘bridge’ between ‘Solidarność’ and Latin America. Everybody was enthusiastic that the labor movement had been created which was not Marxist but Christian and was aiming at liberation. Hopes connected with it did not come true completely, even in Poland, but at that time, it was a big stimulus. If Latin America got liberated from dictatorships, it was not due to the activity of partisan army- revolutionary leftist party was defeated here, similarly as fascist rightist party. Latin America got liberated from dictatorship thanks to a big movement in defense of the human being. And dictatorships of Generals of Argentina, Chile and Brazil are collapsing so one by one. In the years of the pontificate of John Paul II – between 1978 and 1989 – not only does communism collapse, but also all dictatorship of Latin America.

– What remained from theology of liberation today?

– Hardly anything was left from the Marxist theology of liberation. Unfortunately, after the collapse of communism, some theologians, driven by the spirit of rebel, moved from Marxism to the apology of radical society (which is exemplified by their activity in the No Global movement). Whereas good theology of liberation remained, the one about which John Paul II cared.

– Would pope Francis like to be recognized as a theologian of liberation?

– I do not know. Whereas I know that theology of liberation which appears from the spirit of sharing fate with the poor, is close to his vocation. Christianity is only one, but is different in every country. There is one truth, but there are many roads which lead to it – there is a Latino road, there is a Polish road. And all these roads constitute Catholicism.

– So, the thesis that the election of cardinal Bergoglio as pope is a revenge of theology of liberation on John Paul II – anti-communist Pope - is unacceptable?

– Certainly, it is. Who thinks so, has not understood anything about what had happened in Latin America. Pope Wojtyła was not ‘anti’, was ‘for’ – for Christ. Certainly, he had to condemn the violence of human freedom but he did it, in order to confirm the truth, not to destroy an opponent. John Paul II opposed to a class fight, he was for a fight for the truth, in which the conscience of an opponent was significant, because also he is a human being and has conscience. When I used to answer the Pope, saying that communists do not have conscience, he used to say: ‘We all are in the hands of God, and we should always believe in conversion of a sinner’. In one of his messages, the Pope wrote that violence builds the lies, whereas a fight for justice needs the truth. Therefore ‘Solidarność’ won without resorting to violence (although blood of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko and of many others was needed).


"Niedziela" 27/2013

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: