Dr. Edward Peters 

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12 jan 2013

Review of Q. Quade, ed., The Pope and Revolution: John Paul II Confronts Liberation Theology (1982)

Edward Peters, Review of Q. Quade, ed., The Pope and Revolution: John Paul II Confronts Liberation Theology (1982), in Faith & Reason 9 (1983) 169-174.

Until quite recently, liberation theology was the bete noire of sound Catholic thought on socio-political topics. Monopolized, as it was, by leftists, and adulated by a liberal press, American Catholic scholarship seemed for a time unsure of  how to answer this vaguely articulated apology for much of the violence gripping Latin America.


Instincts were correct: The Gospels, one felt, were not a blue-print for revolutionary violence; Christ was not an agitator for class-struggle; and evangelical poverty was not a condemnation of the right of men to own property. But the problem lay in developing these instincts, sharpening the arguments (both theoretical and practical) and marshalling the wisdom of Holy Mother Church against what was rapidly degenerating into a shallow excuse for bloodshed, and for a genuine step toward justice, peace, and most of all, love.


The Pope and Revolution, under the guidance of Quentin Quade, has called together three of America's ablest social critics; indeed, when the subject is liberation theology, one is hard put to find three clearer thinkers than James Schall, Michael Novak, and Dale Vree.


But Quade's collection is more than just a forum for these three intellectuals, valuable as that would have been. For, in addition to Quade's own informative introductions, one finds a lengthy (for this book) essay typical of the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the leading proponents of liberation theology. Finally, there are, of course, several of the Pope's addresses delivered mainly during his first visit to Latin America. A clear understanding of the Holy Father's second trip to Latin America--with the warmth of the Costa Ricans, and the crudity of the Sandinistas--makes The Pope and Revolution more important still.


Schall, Novak, and Vree have answered well the Christianity-equals­revolutionary-praxis line espoused by Gutierrez. But before turning to their essays, a few words on Gutierrez's essay may help prepare the reader for some difficulties sure to be encountered in studying liberation literature.


The greatest problem facing the student of liberation theology is its penchant for using terminology which is either devoid of practical meaning, or, so loaded with nuance as to render the words capable of almost any meaning. Consider this cryptologist's conundrum penned by Gutierrez: "This sharing of Christians in the process of liberation varies in radicalism and is virtually a process of searching and advancing by trial and error." Oh, really?


It makes one giggle to think how Stuart Chase in The Tyranny of Words would have rendered this sentence: This blahing of Christians in the blah of blah blahs in blah and is blah a blah of blahing and blahing "by trial and error." Seriously though, the range of meaning one could draw from Gutierrez's assertion is limited only by the imagination. And of what possible use is that, except, perhaps, as propaganda?


Moreover, in marked contrast--as James Schall repeatedly shows--to the Holy Father's solicitude for the individual as persons, Gutierrez et al. betray a distinct coldness toward the poor as human beings. He labels them "by-products" of the system or, worse yet, "a marginal social surplus." Or again, the poor do not, for example, find work, instead they are "reabsorbed by the system." Finally, though, how can one be sure of whom Gutierrez speaks when he speaks of "the poor"? At more than one point, Gutierrez curiously defines the poor as "someone who questions the ruling social order."


The first of Quade's essayists, Dale Vree, whose own intellectual and spiritual odyssey from Marxism and the revolution is now unfolding in the the pages of New Oxford Review, argues against the theoretical aspects of liberation theology. Vree's argumentation--as well as Schall's and Novak's--is happily marked by accurate delineation of the issues and a straightforward point-counterpoint exchange. Indeed, it may well be that The Pope and Revolution will contribute not only to correcting the errors of liberation theology, but to a genuine revival of rhetorical skills and literary debate. One sample of Vree's style, which focuses on the central theological objection to Gutierrez's argument, must suffice for the present:


But how can the integral "salvific process" [proposed by Gutierrez] be a product of men's "conscious responsibility" as well as a "total gift" from Christ? Is liberation-cum-salvation something humans must go out and earn for themselves or not? If so, then it cannot be a "total gift." If not, then it is something humans are not fully responsible for. Gutierrez does not seem to know whether he wants to be a Christian, a Pelagian, or both. If it is possible to grant that Gutierrez avoids complete capitulation to Pelagianism, it is not possible to grant that he escapes the logical contradiction.


Next, Michael Novak, whose own earlier history of radical thought is well-known, concentrates on the persistent failure of the revolution to achieve practical results. Novak points out that almost three-fourths of the world's nations are officially Marxist, and that most of them have had over 30 years to test their theories. Yet, liberation theology conspicuously avoids any candid assessment of the experiments. Quite simply, the results would be appalling. Moreover, liberation theology refuses to discuss the actual practice of third-world nations which do utilize various forms of democratic capitalism-nations like Taiwan, Hong Kong, or South Korea, nations whose economic growth rates approach 10%. Such intellectual dishonesty is a hallmark of liberation theology.


It is also interesting to note that, despite the anti-capitalistic blinders worn by the liberation theologians, such blinders have not closed their eyes to the very capitalistic sales potential of liberation theology publications. Novak reports that Fr. San Luis Segundo's five-volume Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity has sold 64,000 copies, while Gutierrez's A Theology of Liberation has sold 45,000 copies for Maryknoll's Orbis Books. Apparently there is big money in criticizing capitalism.


Novak locates the refusal of liberation theology to face economic reality in the psychological need for certainty at any price, a need which has worked to transform an intellectually bankrupt theory of history into a collection of pseudo-religious dogmas. And Novak, for one, expresses no little impatience with the resulting deceptions: In a quite literal sense, the works of liberation theologians are innocent of both empirical verification and of sophistication about Marxist theory. Their originality lies chiefly in their openness to fantasy.


Whereas Vree concentrates on the theoretical deficiencies of liberation theology, and Novak on the practical, James Schall looks closely at our perceptions of liberation theology. Schall, quickly emerging as the chief spokesman for the clerical right, is, by virtue of his wide experience in the print media, particularly well-suited to assess the American press vis-a-vis liberation theology. The report is not a good one:


North American politicians and intellectuals are vaguely beginning to grasp what their training in law and political science never taught them: that in the modern world ignorance of religion is a major form of political and journalistic ineptitude.


"What was particularly noteworthy in the reporting and analysis of papal statements in the American press," writes Schall, "was the persistent failure--there were exceptions, of course--to grasp the specifically religious import of the Pope's message." And where the press did attempt such a religious analysis, it usually got it wrong. For example, a writer for the Washington Post stated "that Biblical scholars 'commonly stress the revolutionary role that Christ assumed in secular society--he incited people against the state religion and against paying taxes."' Schall answers: "The fact that Christ told his disciples to pay taxes and to put away the sword makes one wonder just what version of the Bible [the writer] had been reading."


But Schall does not just defeat an antagonist's point in debate, he buries it: "The only thing revolutionary about the cleansing in the Temple was the insistence that religion be something besides commerce and politics." Writing like this only whets the appetite for Schall's own forthcoming anthology, Liberation Theology.


As mentioned earlier, the essays by Schall, Novak, and Vree, as well as Gutierrez, make The Pope and Revolution a valuable contribution to the discussion of liberation theology. But the star of the show is, of course, Pope John Paul II, and Quade includes seven of the Pope's addresses delivered in Latin America and Africa. And, as Quade points out, "There is precious little ambiguity in what John Paul II says about the Church's direct political role: it has none."


The Pope's theme, his "specifically religious import," is his emphasis on the transcendent. "Man cannot eliminate the transcendent--in the last analysis, God--without cutting himself off from his total being," says the Pope. "Man in the end will only be able to find light for his own 'mystery' in the mystery of Christ." Consequently, the Church, that "expert in humanity" according to Pope Paul VI, withholds direct intervention in the political realm; she is, as Pope John XXIII put it, "far above these opinions and parties."


"The Church will respect the competence of public authorities in [political] matters," affirms John Paul. "It will not claim to intervene in politics; it will not aspire to share in managing temporal affairs." In light of this statement during his first visit to Latin America, could one be surprised when, during his second visit there, the Pope withheld his ring from a priest holding a governmental office, instead telling him to "straighten out his position with the Church?"


It is clear then what the Church will not do. But the question arises as to what She will do. She has a role to play in the daily lives of her people, and John Paul knows what that role is: "[The Church's] specific contribution will be to fortify the spiritual and moral bases of society . . ." Christopher Dawson would be pleased, as he, more than any other English-speaking scholar, demonstrated the vital importance of sound spiritual and moral bases to any healthy body politic.


By no means, of course, is the Holy Father silent as to economic problems. He warns, for example, against trust being "placed solely in the economic laws of growth and greater profit for regulating the domain of the distribution of goods." The statement applies, apparently, to both the centralized control of Marxist systems and a strict laissez faire economy. Moreover, says the Pope:  "Those who have possessions ought to acquire the spirit of being poor. They ought to open their hearts to the poor, for if they do not do so, situations of injustice will not change." But throughout the Pope's speeches, the ultimate importance of transcendent values and the individual heart and mind rings clearly: "The political structure may be changed, but a just and stable social order will not be achieved without change of heart and conscience."


This, then, is a sampling of the materials to be found in The Pope and Revolution. (Actually, there is yet more, as the statements issued by the Latin American bishops at Medellin in 1968 and Puebla in 1979 are also included as appendices.) Subtitled, as it is, Pope John Paul II Confronts Liberation Theology, The Pope and Revolution draws chiefly on the thought of the Pope on this most important topic, with the confrontational aspect being made clear by inclusion of the Gutierrez essay. It was the task of Quade, Richard Neuhaus in his foreword, Schall, Novak, and Vree to illuminate the debate for the interested observer. It was a task at which they have succeeded admirably.+++