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Although liberation theology may still be considered a “current event,” nevertheless, given its very evident and widespread impact on Latin American Christianity and elsewhere, it seems fairly safe to state that it is the most important theological movement which has emerged in Latin America in the four centuries since evangelization. Many authors would further contend that liberation theology symbolizes the coming of age of the Latin American church: from a peripheral, somewhat dormant and intellectually dependent church to one which actively contributes to Catholic and Protestant thought throughout the world. For this reason alone, without mentioning the many political ramifications of liberation theology, it merits attention as one of the key themes in Latin American church history. The aim of this article is threefold: to briefly outline the origins and development of liberation theology; to examine the different ecclesial, social and political factors which influenced its development, and finally, to indicate what direction liberation theology seems to be taking currently.
The Peruvian educational reform law of 1972, promulgated by the military regime of General Juan Velasco Alvarado, was considered at the time one of the best to date in the history of Latin America. With the dismantling of many of the reform laws of the “First Phase” (1968-75) of the revolution during the “Second Phase” (1975-80), and the nearly total repudiation of the entire military period by the democratically elected government of Fernando Belaúnde Terry (1980-85), there was no change more regretted than the undoing of the educational reform. One of the main reasons for the reform's setback was the intense opposition it aroused among private upper-class schools which resented the social aspects of the law. Half of these schools were church-run. But contrary to what has happened in other Latin American countries, the battle in Peru was not between an authoritarian laicist state and the Roman Catholic Church. The real forces that lined up against each other in Peru were, on the one hand, the government, the official church and progressive groups within the church, which in the wake of Vatican II and the bishop's conference of Medellín not only came out in support of the law but even participated directly in composing it, and on the other hand, the powerful cluster of upper-class religious and lay schools which represented the traditional and rightest groups in the church. The educational reform, therefore, was the occasion for a clash among Catholics themselves. At the same time it forced the church to make a fundamental choice: between continuing its uncritical support for upper-class religious education or openly siding with the many state-supported church schools for the middle and lower classes, especially in cases of conflict between the two systems.
The dramatic changes in the Latin American church since the Second Vatican Council have taken many observers by surprise. In search of an explanation for these changes, much recent scholarship has devoted itself to analyzing the changing political climate, the influx of foreign religious personnel, the creation of radical priests' groups, the impact of Vatican II itself and the episcopal assemblies of Medellín and Puebla and, of course, the varying currents of liberation theology. In contrast, the tendency has been to overlook pre-Vatican II history. The pre-conciliar Peruvian church in particular has been characterized as tradition-bound, obscurantist or subservient to the upper classes. One author writing in the early seventies stated:
“The intimacy between the church and the Peruvian upper class has been an unvarying characteristic of colonial, post-independence and modern eras in Peru.”
The interim years between the two world wars in Peru witnessed a proliferation of original ideas among Peruvian leftists on the relationship between religion and revolutionary change as a result of their efforts to re-examine national realities and bring about a radical change in Peruvian society. Young social thinkers and protesters such as José Carlos Mariátegui, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Luís Valcárcel and others felt that the new Peru must incorporate and synthesize the best elements of Peru's past and present with the best ideas emanating from revolutionary Russia and Mexico. In their quest to construct a program of action for a revolutionary Peru, the generation of the twenties and thirties realized the necessity of going beyond the literary liberalism of the grand master of Peruvian anti-clericalism, Manual González Prada. They endeavored to propose a new, positive program which would neither discard nor neglect such an integral part of national life as the Roman Catholicism of the majority of Peruvians. Even more, they consciously explored ways by which the popular Catholicism of the Peruvian lower classes might be converted into a source of energy for the coming revolution.
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