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, ...

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