Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Shift of emphasis within Latin American Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, from a definition of charity as almsgiving to an advocacy of social justice through the empowerment of disadvantaged classes. Its intellectual articulation is found in the theology of liberation and its most concrete application in base ecclesial communities.

The option for the poor originated in the 1950s in the actions of bishops and priests who were concerned about the growth of socialist movements and Protestant sects, which they saw as threats to the influence of the Catholic Church. To counter these trends, the bishops encouraged pastoral innovations, such as lay leadership and Bible study in small groups, as well as activism toward social reform. The option for the poor was institutionalized in 1968 at the Second General Conference of the Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Colombia. At this conference, the Catholic bishops signed documents that would eventually place them in opposition to the military governments that were in the process of taking over almost all of the continent. During the years of the military dictatorships, when many sources of opposition were suppressed, the church provided a space for dissent. Although it is likely that some of the bishops who signed the Medellín documents were not aware of their radical implications, both for the church and for the larger society, these documents would provide an inspiration for the actions of many priests, sisters, and laypeople as well as legitimation for liberation theology.

The theology of liberation may be defined as the articulation of the belief that one's eternal salvation is inseparable from the struggle toward social justice. Among its major writers are the Catholic theologians Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Clara Maria Bingemer, José Comblin, Carlos Mesters, Alejandro Cussianovich, and Ivone Gebarra and the Protestants Rubem Alves and José Miguez Bonino. Although critics have accused liberation theologians of Marxism, these theologians indicate that their beliefs are rooted in Scripture. It is likely that there is truth in both positions. On the one hand, there is evidence of sociological insight in liberation theology, and Latin American sociologists tend to draw heavily on Marx's theory of social class. On the other hand, it also could be argued that the writings of both liberation theologians and Marx were influenced by a common source, that is, the socially critical Judaic tradition, seen especially in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible.

Base ecclesial communities (CEBs), also called base Christian communities, are small groups of laypeople who gather to study the Bible and to discuss its implications for their everyday lives. The priests, sisters, and lay workers who organize these groups give particular encouragement to their formation among the poor. As a result, the discussion of everyday life results in a critical analysis of the conditions in which these people live. The relating of their experiences to the biblical themes of love and justice frequently leads base community members to engage in social activism. In urban areas, base communities have become involved in organized labor, women's issues, and mobilization around housing, health care, and sanitation. In the countryside, they have been active in mobilization for agrarian reform. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 base communities in Latin America.

In recent years, there has been evidence that the Roman Catholic Church is withdrawing from the more radical implications of the "preferential option for the poor." After the Medellín conference, conservative forces within the church began to mobilize to reverse its effects, and they found allies in the Vatican. The main strategies of the Vatican have been to silence liberation theologians and to replace progressive bishops, who retire or die, with conservative ones. As a result of the latter strategy, the anti-liberation theology forces were in control of the Fourth General Conference of the Latin American Bishops, held in Santo Domingo in 1992. In contrast to the Medellín documents, and those of the Puebla conference in 1979, which advocated the transformation of society and encouraged the formation of base communities, the Santo Domingo documents emphasized personal holiness and traditional middle-class lay movements. Base communities were scarcely mentioned. These developments have led some observers to speculate that the option for the poor will die out. However, others have argued that the lay dynamic that it unleashed cannot easily be reined in.

Although the base communities have never represented more than a minority of Latin American Catholics, they are an active and vocal minority who have become accustomed to lay initiative. In addition, they are supported by priests and sisters who remain progressive, despite the changes in bishops. Finally, not all of the bishops oppose the option for the poor. There are progressive bishops who are still alive and not ready to retire. Furthermore, the Vatican's strategy of appointing conservative bishops does not always work. Some of the bishops who did not have a previous record of supporting social activism and lay leadership have changed their view when confronted with the harsh social realities in their dioceses. A realistic prediction for the future of Latin American Catholicism would not include the disappearance of the preferential option for the poor but, instead, increasing conflict over lay leadership and the relationship of the church to social justice.

See also Social Justice, Third World

Madeleine R. Cousineau


M. Adriance, Opting for the Poor (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1986)

L. Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1978)

G. Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1973)

D. H. Levine, Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992)

S. Mainwaring, The Catholic Church and Politics in Brazil (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986)

M. A. Neal, The Just Demands of the Poor (New York: Paulist Press, 1987)

M. Peña, Theologies and Liberation in Peru (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).

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