Something exciting is happening, thanks to liberation theology: hundreds of thousands of Catholic base communities—small groups who gather to read and study the Bible—have sprung up throughout Latin America.

In Brazil, for example, the number of base communities has climbed from 70,000 to 200,000 in just five years. From the favelas of Rio to villages in the Amazon, Catholic laypeople meet for hours to study the Bible, worship, sing, and discuss how the gospel applies to their daily lives. These groups, in turn, are playing an increasingly important and controversial role in the shaping of Latin America’s destiny.

Familiar Protests

True, some liberation theologians espouse dangerous and wrong theology, deemphasize personal salvation, or have used the gospel solely for political ends. But their critics have overlooked the similarities between aspects of this movement and the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Consider the Protestant-ness of three main emphases in the movement’s writings:

First, liberation theologians emphasize the priesthood of all believers. Like Luther, they speak scathingly against the Catholic church’s lofty view of the hierarchy because they believe it goes against scriptural teaching.

The case of Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff, a leading spokesman for liberation theology, illustrates the danger of such thinking. In May 1985, the Vatican summoned him to Rome and offered an ultimatum: He was either to reinterpret his writings or be subjected to a silencing order. He chose the latter.

What was Boff’s heresy? The Vatican mentioned his use of Marxist analysis, but it is clear Rome had other, more serious concerns. In one of his 40 books, Church: Charisma and Power, Boff compared Catholic hierarchy to the organization of the Soviet Communist party, and denounced the infallibility of the pope. Then, after making a powerful, biblical case for the priesthood of all believers, he wrote: “There exists a fundamental equality in the Church. All are people of God. All participate of Christ, directly, without mediators” (emphasis added).

As Luther found out, these are revolutionary, if not heretical, statements for a Catholic to be making. Compare Boff’s statement with the one that Luther made in his treatise, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation: “All Christians belong to the priesthood and there’s no difference among them except in terms of ministry.” No wonder Boff defends the Reformer: “It was a mistake for the Catholic church to expel Luther.… it expelled the possibility of reform from within.” Liberation theology is releasing Catholic laity into ministry, one of the very things Luther fought for.

The Role Of Scripture

Liberation theologians are also encouraging the Catholic laity to study the Bible. The right of each Christian to interpret the Scriptures, another Reformation battle cry, dominates liberation theologians’ thinking and the base communities’ practice. Listen to Boff again: “The base communities are born from the Word of God.… There the Gospel is read, shared and believed in.…”

Bible study among Catholics in the base communities has become so popular that leaders of the United Bible Societies report that in several Latin American countries they are selling more Bibles through the Catholic churches than through the Protestant churches. And many base community meetings now seem so “Protestant” that evangelicals find it easier than before to relate to these Catholics.

Finally, liberation theologians stress God’s sovereignty over all areas of life. The Reformers vehemently protested against Rome’s separation of the sacred and the secular. Faith, they said, had to have a day-to-day effect on the Christian life. The Radical Reformers took this concept of discipleship even further and called believers to share in the sufferings of Christ.

Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit priest in El Salvador, voices this common theme among liberation theologians when he says emulating Jesus means “saving the world through persecution and martyrdom.”

Furthermore, though we might oppose their political agenda (and even consider it ungodly), liberation theologians’ insistence that faith influences society coincides with Reformed thought.

With liberation theologians at a crossroads as they try to consolidate the exponentially growing base-community movement, evangelicals need to observe and listen more carefully so they can help fan the flames of orthodoxy and quench unbiblical beliefs. By continuing to caricature liberation theology as politically leftist, we risk opposing a movement that is clamoring for many of the things the Reformers fought for.

SPEAKING OUT offers responsible Christians a forum. It does not necessarily reflect the views of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

By C. Rene Padilla, general secretary of the Latin American Theological Fraternity, and Andres Tapia, assistant editor of U magazine (formerly HIS).

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