Theology in Latin America

Maria Clara Bingemer

This article will survey the historical process behind, and the main topics of, Christian theology as it developed and appears today in Latin America. It will first make a historical retrieval of how this theology had, for a large time, a European configuration, reinforced by a strong romanization (mostly in the nineteenth century). It will then examine how this theology acquired a new configuration after the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) in the twentieth century. Christian churches trying to implement Vatican II in the continent decided not to reproduce the European model of church and theology, or to produce theological thinking which would depart from the reality and the culture of Latin America. After that, the article will reflect on the ascension of liberation theology, the most important theological school in the continent, and subsequently on its crisis and the ruptures it produced. Finally, the article will describe the situation of Latin American theology today and the topics that are part of its effort to reflect on the contents of Christian revelation and tradition in dialogue with the contemporary Latin American society and churches. It will acknowledge in this final section the novelty that Pope Francis’ pontificate – the first Latin American pope in history – brought to theological reflection in the continent.

1 Introduction

In 1492, Christopher Columbus reported to the king and queen of Spain that his expedition had found a ‘new world’. ‘América’ is the name with which the Genoan explorer baptized his discovery. From then on, what afterwards was called the continent of Latin America was dominated by European Christianity. It is, still today, the most numerically Christian continent in the world. But the Indigenous peoples of this continent, like the African people transported there as slaves who endured four centuries of colonization, cannot be ignored when studying the continent’s history, including its religious identity. Diversity is the seal of Latin America and that includes religion.

2 The beginnings: a history shaped by the connection of faith and justice

From the very first arrival of the Europeans, the diversity and plurality of cultures and traditions in the Americas presented challenges that the settlers had to face. This plural context gave rise to perplexities, obstacles, and resistance, and a complex clash among peoples, cultures, and religions began to emerge. The theological and pastoral questions that arose at that time remain a burden on the conscience and development of Latin American Christianity to the present day.

2.1 The link between faith and politics

The Iberian goal of ‘expanding the faith and the empire’ was present in the colonizing movement in Latin America. It is still present today in a theology that questions its colonial patterns and wants to rethink its contents from the perspective of the long-standing struggle for justice. The connection between faith and justice was present since the first moment of colonization in the south Americas. The victims of injustice in this context were the Indigenous peoples, enslaved by the Europeans, and this link continues to exist today – although the identities of the victims are expanded and diversified, as shown by more recent history of the church in the continent (see Latin American and Caribbean Episcopal Council (CELAM) 1979: sections 31–39).

2.2 The link between faith and economics

The link between faith and economics was reflected in the transformation of the new European empires of the sixteenth century into the commercial-missionary enterprises of the emerging liberal-capitalist order. This process continues today: the contemporary migration in Latin America from historical churches (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) to Pentecostalism is often accompanied by a ‘theology of prosperity’ that is sharply criticized by Latin American theologians (see Mo Sung 2000).

For these reasons, to reflect on what it means – both in the past and in the present – to do theology in Latin America is not just a matter of abstract reflection on revelation and faith, disconnected from the context in which the Word of God is heard and responded to. It is also a reflection on revelation and faith moving forward through history, in a way that is inseparable from considerations of social and economic context, politics, and practice. To use a word which is very central to more recent Latin American theology, theological reflection must be rooted in realidad (reality). This concept of realidad was of great importance to Ignacio Ellacuría (see Lee 2013; for reflections on Ellacuría’s views see Sobrino 2008: 1–18). All efforts to develop a deeper understanding how Christian theology is shaped in this part of the Global South known as Latin America must take into account this contextual element.

From the beginning, the question of justice and injustice was inseparable from the announcement of the gospel and the practice of Christian faith in Latin America. This question was raised courageously during the colonization period by distinguished ecclesial voices, such as the Dominican Fray Antonio de Montesinos in his preaching on the island of Hispaniola (now known as the Dominican Republic) in an Advent sermon in 1511. He presented himself as a voice crying out in the desert – this desert being the consciences of his listeners; he pleaded with the colonizers: ‘These are not men? Don’t they have rational souls? Aren’t you obliged to love them as yourselves? Don’t you understand that? Don’t you feel that?’ (see Goodpasture 1989: 11–12).

Together with this connection between evangelization and injustice, there was another damaging link: the conception of European culture as the only valuable culture, and the native cultures as inferior or unimportant. This can be explained by the evolution of Christianity not only as a religion but also as a matrix for the formation of Western civilization. The consequence was a colonial mentality which impacted cultural models, academic reflection, and practical policies, which only saw as true and good that which reproduced the European culture (Mignolo 2007; Alcoff 2007). A colonial mentality has been predominant in every area of Latin American culture and thought throughout its history, including in its theology.

In spite of all this negative analysis, history also shows positive efforts on the part of the church to engage in a different synthesis. One of the best examples of this is the famous Guarani republic, where the Jesuits not only passed on the gospel and Christian culture to the Indigenous people but also affirmed all the native customs which seemed to them compatible with human dignity and a Christian lifestyle. These included Indigenous languages (which the Jesuits themselves studied and used as means of catechesis), arts, and community structures (see Caraman 1975). Nevertheless, this project endured only as long as it could avoid interference by Spanish or Portuguese colonizers, who sought to brutally stop it despite its potential to enable a globalization that respected cultural particularity (Wilde 2015; see also Lugon 2010).

In the postcolonial period of the present day, it must be recognized that globalization in its present form – directed by financial capitalism and the interests of a small minority of investors – is having a negative effect on the continent. It is threatening cultural identity, and it is undermining the possibility of justice and respect for human rights (Scherrer-Warren 2010: 26).

By recalling the history of the church in Latin America between 1960 and 1990, we may find some indications that will inform engagement in the important political and intellectual, as well as theological, tasks that lie ahead for theologians and Christian believers in Latin America and beyond.

3 The impact of Vatican II and its reception in Latin America

The Second Vatican Council is the major event in the Catholic Church during the twentieth century. It was an unexpected and radical break with previous Catholic theology, and brought a previously unknown freedom to discussions and to many relevant texts that was quickly grasped by people in and outside the church: all this made the council an epochal event. It shook minds and consciences and created an impulse to build a more evangelical and updated Christianity.

The council effected a return to the Bible in Catholicism. It shaped the life of communities, religious life, theology, and spirituality, teaching how to live in communion with God and the whole creation, both personally and socially. The translation of biblical texts into the vernacular radically changed participation in the liturgy. The acceptance of literary genres within the Bible helped readers to understand the meaning of the biblical texts in their historical context. In other words, they ceased to be only devotional texts.

The consequences in Latin America were clearly visible. Progress was made in the classic hermeneutical problem of how to let yesterday’s scripture speak today. For example, in the teaching of Carlos Mesters (1989), it was understood that the word of God speaks when (1) the text is (2) read in community and (3) in concrete history. And there was also a fundamental harmony between a church ‘of the poor’ and ‘the poor and oppressed’ who are at the centre of the prophets’ and Jesus’ teaching (see Prophecy, Interpretation, and Social Criticism).

This conciliar return to the Bible also gave value and impulse to ecumenism and improving closeness between Christian churches. Historically, Latin America until then had appeared mainly or only Catholic, and in Christian history the continent was almost always referred as having been converted to the Catholic Church. In terms of the movement of Protestant presence together with Catholics in an ecumenical attitude after Vatican II, however, this is a misunderstanding. Protestant missionaries from the United States have been active in Latin America since the nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, there was a change after the 1960s. Until then, Latin Americans, who were predominately Roman Catholic, perceived Protestantism to be ‘so culturally and theologically beyond the pale of their experience that it remained confined to the most marginal sectors of the Latin American society’ (Garrard Burnett 1992: 218). This perception has changed significantly, and it is possible to discern Protestantism taking root and gathering a following even in the most staunchly Catholic countries which seemed immune to other religious influences. Already during the 1960s there were significant figures in Protestant theology who were also very much present in the liberation theology movement, such as José Miguez Bonino, Julio de Santana, and Rubem Alves, among others.

The Second Vatican Council recovered the theological category of ‘people of God’ as the preferential model to understand the church (Lumen Gentium). This is not a static society, but a ‘people’, with whom it is essential to walk in the midst of the vicissitudes of history, accompanying God and accompanied by God. To be ‘people’ means to walk humbly with God (Mic 6:8), to follow Jesus (Mark 8:34), and also to be present in social reality, which in Latin America means a reality of poverty and oppression. Being people of God, the ecclesial community could better combat the social sin present in the structures and the struggles and liberating hopes of the poor. In the church of the poor, what emerges from being ‘people’ are the principles of life, liberation, solidarity, dignity.

The council demanded believers ‘to discern the signs of the times’ (Gaudium et Spes [GS]). Those signs are of the times in a historical-pastoral sense (GS 4). For centuries the church had not felt the need to look at the world to know what to do, turning instead to tradition. Now, however, the council stated that in history ‘the true signs of God’s presence or plans’ must be discerned. These are the signs in the historical-theological sense (GS 11). Without scrutinizing the signs of the times, no real development and liberation is possible, and, by scrutinizing them, although we must always walk ‘around God’, on the way we can meet God (Sobrino 2012).

The signs of times were very eloquent at the time of the Second Vatican Council. The global context, together with the church renewal of the council stimulated new events. The topics of human rights, human flourishing, and poverty emerged emphatically after the Second World War, especially in the northern hemisphere and in international organizations like the United Nations (see Andrade 2015). There, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) was founded in 1945, with the aim of ensuring stable food supplies and nutrition, especially to poorer countries.

Before this, poverty and hunger were problems more or less everywhere on the planet. By contrast, in the present day, serious problems are concentrated in particular parts of the world to the extent that these regions form – alongside the countries of the capitalist West and the communist East – an underdeveloped ‘Third World’, to use the term coined by the French geographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952 (Andrade 2015).

After the Second World War, the Global South began to emerge simultaneously as both a problem and as a new political agent on the international scene. In 1961, the number of countries participating in the FAO increased, now incorporating Latin America, which began to be an important part of the Global South. The Cuban revolution of 1959 marked the beginning of a worldwide anti-imperialist struggle to break the bonds of dependence on developed countries that were perpetuating the legacy of colonialism in new forms.

In the context of this new reality, the question of how the church was to be present in such places and evangelize to their peoples became controversial. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had been conscious of having lost influence among the working classes. The publication of the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII in 1891 was an attempt to repair the breach that had opened between the church and the poor in the era of industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, once again, the church turned to the Global South (cf. Buhlmann 1978; 1990; for a history of Catholic social teaching, see Dorr 2012), eager to provide an answer to the fears and aspirations of the poor.

On 11 September 1962, one month before the beginning of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII made a broadcast that surprised both the Church and the wider world. He affirmed: ‘Where the underdeveloped countries are concerned, the Church presents herself as she is. She wishes to be the Church of all, and especially the Church of the poor’ (Pope John XXIII, opening speech of the Second Vatican Council). This was instrumental in enabling the spread of the idea of the church of the poor. The council opened up new paths for reaching the wider world with the gospel, and its reception in Latin America led to a structural critique of an evangelization conducted by and for the elites together with imitating Europe (cf. Lima Vaz 1968).

Liberation theology – a new structural approach to theology as a whole – was ecumenical from the beginning. Catholics and Protestant liberation theologians took as their starting point the question, ‘what does it mean to be a Christian in a continent of poor and oppressed people?’ Liberation theology aligned with the pastoral practice of a church that wished to make itself freely poor, placing itself on the side of the poor, and committed to the processes of liberation from all forms of oppression and marginalization.

In addition, this was a theology willing to speak the language of the Indigenous and Native cultures, and to validate their traditions, their rituals, and their modes of worship. It wanted to be close to popular religion and to the way the poor expressed their faith in rituals, feasts, and traditions (Scannone 2021; Bianchi 2009: 557–577). This theology did not want to abolish those traditions for being non-Christian but rather sought to respect them. Moreover, where those traditions and cultures existed together with the Christian culture brought by colonial evangelization, the effort had to be made to integrate them as a constitutive part of church discourse and praxis. That would be, as the prominent Brazilian philosopher Henrique de Lima Vaz, SJ (1968) said, our chance, as Latin American church, to take a step from being a church that only projects and reflects Europe to being a church that is a source of a native and original living of the Gospel, thus generating a new way of thinking and speaking about God. Lima Vaz – speaking about the church, and theology – sought to make the passage ‘from projection to source’ (1968: 18).

4 Three priorities and a new school of theology

At the Medellín Conference of 1968, Latin American bishops assembled to reflect on the implementation of Vatican II in their continent. The Church devised a three-point plan of action. The first was a new set of priorities, uniting faith and justice. This was accompanied by a new way of doing theology, based on the ‘see-judge-act’ methodology. Finally, a new model of the church emerged, fundamentally based on local communities at the grassroots and in poor areas, gathering around the scriptures and learning to express themselves as a community of believers. This was centred on a ‘popular’ reading of the Bible, marked by a desire to be a church of the poor. The popular reading of the Bible had a methodology devised by the Carmelite Carlos Mesters (1989), consisting of three steps: examination of reality (facts of life); gospel enlightenment (examination of the biblical text); and transforming action. These local groups became known as Base Ecclesial Communities. These points were confirmed at the subsequent meeting of the Latin American bishops in Puebla, Mexico in 1979, including (1) a preferential option for the poor; (2) a theology of liberation; and (3), the Base Ecclesial Communities as a new way of being church (for the Puebla Documents, see Eagleson and Scharper 1979). This shift in the Latin American church had the support of many prominent church figures, including both Catholics and Protestants.

It was not only the leaders of the churches who took these questions seriously. Every single Christian could interpret them personally, as an invitation and a challenge. Christians living in a continent configured by injustice and oppression, such as Latin America, were challenged to respond in a very particular way, and many of them did so. The movement inspired by liberation theology included men and women, priests, nuns, and lay people, all desiring to transform their lives and understand the gospel addressed to them, to make justice happen together with faith at that moment of history.

Latin America became a laboratory which brought good news for the universal church. It was the local setting which became the starting point of a global project: the church converting its identity to be the church of the poor. According to Gustavo Gutiérrez’s definition, liberation theology is ‘a critical reflection on praxis’ (Gutiérrez 1973). However, Gutiérrez also said that liberation theology does not begin simply from a critical analysis of reality but as a mystical experience: a deep encounter with the Lord in the face of someone who is poor (Gutiérrez 1973; see also 1984). Moreover, Gutiérrez and other theologians followed the particular method known as ‘see- judge-act’. In their view, in an unjust and oppressive system there cannot be a theology without a social analysis of reality (to see). It must then confront this reality with scriptural revelation (to judge). From these two processes, what should then emerge is a transformative strategy that can guide and inspire transformative actions and political commitments (to act; Boff 1982, published in English 1987; on the See-Judge-Act method, see Wijsen, Henriot, and Mejía 2005).

This theology could not be confined to books and academic courses. It represented the desire of a whole ecclesial community to walk towards the margins and be close to the poor, in order to help them create their own process of liberation. The ultimate objective was to contribute, humbly, to the aid of poor people, to make possible a new society, and to enable the poor to become the subjects and transformative agents of their own history.

Many Christians were committed to these aspirations. Among them, many began creating communities of ‘insertion’ among the poor. For example, there were Jesuit communities that moved out of institutional settings or comfortable houses to live as and/or with the poor (Gonzalez Buelta 1988). Others were committed to doing a new kind of pastoral theology, which had the poor at its centre (Muñoz 1979; 1990; Boff 1978; 1986; 1987). Still others applied this theology in institutions where they worked, especially schools and universities: for instance, João Batista Libanio, who taught at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro and then from 1982 at the Jesuit faculty of theology in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Libanio wrote many important works, such as Spiritual Discernment and Politics (1982). Other examples include Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of the Catholic University of Central America in San Salvador, who was murdered with his whole community in 1989 (Lee 2013). Ignacio Ellacuría was a key figure of liberation theology, together with Jon Sobrino, also a Jesuit, who was a professor at the same university. Both wrote important works on Latin American theology, such as their edited volume Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology (1993; see also Ashley, Burke, and Cardenal 2014).

This was the beginning of a new chapter in Christian social thought in Latin America and beyond. The first generation of theologians built a global and universal movement, departing from a local context, with ecumenical and dialogical inspiration.

5 The poor as subject and method: the heart of a theology

The option for the poor arose explicitly in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 (Gutiérrez 1983: 25–90) at the General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopal Council (Conferencias Generales del Episcopado Latinoamericano y Caribeño, known as CELAM). As Clodovis Boff notes:

It was not just Vatican II, but together with it, the concrete circumstances in which the continent lived, that caused the Church in Latin America to redefine its identity. And this redefinition was connected with this reality and determined a strongly social perspective. The Church in Latin America was characterized as a ‘social Church’, a prophetic Church, a Church of the poor, a liberating Church. (Boff 2016)

This option attempted to turn to the addressee as well as the content of evangelization. According to the concluding documents of Medellín:

The Latin American bishops cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tremendous social injustices existent in Latin America, which keep the majority of our peoples in dismal poverty, which in many cases becomes inhuman wretchedness. A deafening cry pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else. ‘Now you are listening to us in silence, but we hear the shout which arises from your suffering’, the Pope told the ‘campesinos’ in Columbia [Paul VI, 23/08/68]. (CELAM 1968, chapter on ‘Poverty’, section I: ‘Poverty of the Church’, sections 1 and 2)

In 1979, eleven years after Medellín, the Latin American bishops’ next general conference occurred in Puebla, Mexico. In these documents, one can see the preferential option for the poor more solidly and consistently defined. Now the text speaks not about a ‘desideratum’ for the future but about something that had been on the move in the continental church for more than a decade:

The objective of our preferential option for the poor is to proclaim Christ the Saviour. This will enlighten them about their dignity, help them in their efforts to liberate themselves from all their wants, and lead them to communion with the Father and their fellow human beings through a life lived in evangelical poverty. (CELAM 1979: section 1153)

The basis for this option resides in the announcement of the gospel of Jesus himself (section 1141), and in the proclamation of God’s defence of – and love for – those who suffer due to the mere fact of being poor (section 1142). Historically the concept is compelling because of the ‘scandalous reality of economic imbalances in Latin America’ (section 1154). It is a preferential option, but not an exclusive one. Revelation and salvation are universal, and to opt for the poor does not entail neglect for the evangelization of others. Nevertheless, Puebla states that even for the evangelization of those who are not poor this option is important and necessary: ‘The witness of a poor Church can evangelize the rich whose hearts are attached to wealth, thus converting and freeing them from this bondage and their own egotism’ (section 1156).

The concluding document of the Puebla conference recalls the option of Medellín, confirming that its novelty and importance go beyond the pastoral dimension. It launches a logic and dynamism which permeates everything, so that it configures the whole being and practice of the church, spiritually and historically. It is an option for life informed by faith (Sobrino 2008: 19–34), as God is the God of life, who wants life in its fullness for all creatures.

After the Puebla conference, CELAM did not convene another assembly until 1992, in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Those were years that the prominent theologian Karl Rahner described as an ‘ecclesial winter’ (1984). Liberation theology suffered a deep crisis, which considerably impacted the development of the field, but also opened a new chapter for theology in the continent.

6 The enlargement of theological reflection in the 70s and 80s

The 1970s were very fertile and productive years in the development of Latin American theology. Many initiatives began and steadily advanced. A considerable number of bishops and religious authorities supported the option for the poor and the new theology prompted by the reception of Vatican II. Many institutes and faculties of theology had professors who were inspired by liberation theology and taught its contents and methods.

The Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs) grew and spread in many parts of the continent, especially in Brazil. It was estimated in the 1980s that the number of their members reached around 80,000. Leonardo Boff elaborated on the ecclesiology emerging from these communities, particularly in his book Ecclesiogenesis: A New Way of Being Church (1986). A collection of books, Teología y Liberación (Theology and Liberation), published simultaneously in different languages and countries, had a group of prominent theologians in its list of authors. These included João Batista Libanio, Xavier Albó, Bartolomé Meliá, Francisco Taborda, Pedro Trigo, and the most famous of all, Jon Sobrino. Sobrino wrote notable books rethinking Christology and ecclesiology from the standpoint of ‘the victims’ – his more inclusive expression to denote those who suffer from injustice and violence (see Sobrino 1994a; 1988; 2001; 2008). Plans for a collection of fifty volumes of Teología y Liberación were halted after only twenty volumes due to the intervention of Catholic authorities in Rome. Many theologians were reduced to silence, forbidden to teach, or faced many restrictions in doing so. Leonardo Boff was one of them (Cox 1988).

The collection project brought together the great theological themes, rethought from the perspective of the poor. The bibliographic output of liberation theology was abundant and powerful. Thanks to the collection Teologia y Liberación, liberation theology could be made accessible to those who did not speak Spanish and Portuguese. The collection was translated into many Western languages such as Italian, German, or English. Among the vast quantity of books and works, some merit highlighting, as they are true milestones on the history of liberation theology (see Bingemer 2023). They are discussed below.

As previously mentioned, the collection was expecting to do much more than it was able to achieve. But those works which were ultimately published left a mark on the theological history of the continent. For instance, Gustavo Gutierrez’s book A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation (1973) brought a new subject for Christian theology: the poor and oppressed who must be active in building their own project and destiny. For that, liberation theology proposes a reflection and a discourse centred not on abstract concepts but on praxis. This praxis includes the political level and does not remain within the paradigm of personal conversion. In this prophetic book Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian, rethinks many of the classical theological themes such as Christology and ecclesiology. He also demonstrates that theology is not simply a theory but a reflection grounded in a mystical experience and mostly in a transformative praxis.

Regarding Christology, on the other hand, Leonardo Boff’s book Jesus Christ the Liberator (1978) brings a new way of thinking theologically about Jesus Christ. In this book, Boff develops a portrait of Jesus Christ that is very human; in so doing, he tries to adhere closely to history, but not a static reading of history. Instead, history is seen with its conflicts and difficulties, the same that Jesus of Nazareth had to face. Boff’s Jesus does not run away from the political implications of faith. His ‘political’ portrayal of Jesus Christ is carried out via a complex hermeneutical re-evaluation of what and how Jesus Christ ‘signifies’. He situates Jesus Christ in special reference to forms of oppression found in certain Latin American contexts.

Besides Boff, Jon Sobrino also wrote more than one important book on Christology. The most important would be Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims (2001). Sobrino takes as his point of departure the reality of faith, as set in motion by the event of Jesus Christ, and the situation of the victims – the ‘crucified people’ of history. Sobrino’s Christology takes its place among the most significant contributions of Latin America to the contemporary church and theology, as his theology identifies the poor with the ‘victim’, proclaiming the necessity of a political holiness that would assume the risks of an incarnation in the life of the poor in order to fight for their liberation. Sobrino’s concept of victim – though he ties it explicitly to the poor – opens Latin American theology to think about, and investigate theologically, other victims and other anthropological poverties, issuing from the questions of gender, race, ethnicity, religious intolerance, etc.

Another theological subject which acquired great importance is the reflection about the Christian God. On that subject the books of Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society (2005) and Ronaldo Muñoz, The God of Christians (1990), made significant contributions to reconceptualize the Christian God in the process of liberation and option for the poor. In this frame, Boff and Muñoz take the whole of reality as a sign of the times and a call from God in history. They put theological reflection at the intersection of faith with economics, politics, and the social sciences, to read reality from the point of view of the poor and the victims, the excluded, to whom the God of life reveals Godself in a privileged way. They embrace their cause and their dreams, and strive for the changing of this unjust reality as an essential aspect of following Jesus Christ. In particular, Leonardo Boff makes claims for the communitarian identity of the Christian God: that the trinitarian community is the matrix for all human communities, including the ecclesial one. These became important elements in how Latin American theology conceived of God in the twentieth century, especially in the seventies and eighties.

At the end of 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, the dialogue between Latin America and the Vatican was very difficult. The Roman Curia was concerned about the use of socio-analytical mediation, and about adopting Marxist categories to do theology. To the Curia, that would be incompatible with Christian faith (on this question see McGovern 1989; Gutiérrez 1990: 53–84). Liberation theology resisted these pressures; bishops and theologians engaged in dialogue with the Vatican, seeking to affirm that this theology was faithful to the Church.

In 1989, the world crisis – culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Eastern European state socialism – had strong repercussions for the entirety of Latin American theology, as well as for the political situation in the continent. Many of the lay leaders, who had emerged from the base communities and were deeply committed to social and political struggle on the basis of their Christian faith, experienced a deep psychological crisis.

That provoked some critiques of liberation theology from some of its former practitioners. For instance, Clodovis Boff accused liberation theology of making the poor the centre of reflection at the risk of replacing God. He reaffirmed that the only standard for theology is Christ the Lord; everything else, including the poor, is a secondary theme (Boff 2007).

At this moment, the question arose as to whether liberation theology would be condemned or would die away completely. In the present day, with historical distance, it is possible to see that this crisis was a necessary one for liberation theology: it compelled liberation theologians to expand their horizons, diversify, and expand the scope of their theological efforts and reflections.

6.1 Anthropological poverties

One aspect of liberation theology’s reflection was that the process of liberation was not and should not be focused only – or even mainly – on the economic, social, and political perspectives of liberation. Liberation has to do with the entire life, and so must focus on everything oppressing and diminishing God’s creatures’ lives. The existence of anthropological and cultural poverties, together with socio-economic and political oppression, came to be the enlarged scope of Latin American theology.

7 Ecology and the cry of the earth

Liberation in Latin American theology came to be understood as being not only for human beings but for the whole of creation (see Ecological Ethics). Ecological concerns and struggles were understood as inseparable from economic and anthropological themes. Ecology, sustainability, and concern for the life of the planet were thus included in the liberation theology agenda. Building a habitable world became a challenge that coincided with empowering people to become subjects of their own history.

This movement began with the conviction that building justice goes together with building a sustainable world. The consciousness that everything that does harm to human beings is harmful to the planet – and vice versa – began to grow. The inseparability of the struggle for justice and the struggle for environment and biodiversity became a central component of theological concerns.

The ecological cause is natural to the spirit of liberation. Liberation theology understands human beings to be in communion with the whole cosmos. The same God of life who privileges the poor also reveals the sacred status of creation, which is otherwise emptied and violated by a consumerist society. Liberation theology advocated for a new cosmic and solidarity covenant, thus rejecting all domination and exploitation (see Boff 1995; Libanio 1993).

Traditional Christian theology, even in its more open and contemporary models such as liberation theology, was accused of fostering an overly anthropocentric conception of the world and human life in it. The traditional interpretation of the Genesis mandate to ‘grow and dominate the earth’ (Gen 1:28) was considered responsible for humankind’s greedy attitude towards nature and creation. Recent theology has assumed the task of reversing this picture, and the Christian conscience has become increasingly sensitive to the connection between respect and reverence for the earth and the cause of liberation revealed in the Bible and the gospel of Jesus (see White 1967; McFague 1993).

Throughout the 1990s, there was a growing awareness of rising threats to the planet. These threats were not simply theoretical; they had urgent, practical implications. This situation gave rise to new awareness of the dangers facing the earth and all humankind. This prompted concern for reforms in lifestyle, to be simpler and healthier – in short, a need for sustainable living. The concept of sustainable living refers to an individual or societal lifestyle that can be sustained with limited exhaustion of natural resources. Its adherents most often hold true sustainability as a goal or guide and make lifestyle compromises with respect to things such as methods of transportation, housing, energy sources, and diets in ways that favour sustainability (White 1967).

Along with individual measures, there is recognition of the need for structural changes. Modern society is founded on an ideology of unlimited growth. Ecological consciousness, however, calls for a change of paradigm (see Pope Francis 2015: 217–220). Emphasis on growth along with an increasingly fast-paced life needs to be replaced with downsizing.

Nevertheless, the Latin American approach to ecology had its own distinctive features, largely because of the determination to relate to it the question of the poor. The Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff has been continually developing a reflection upon social ecology and care for the earth. He says:

Social ecology doesn’t have the environment as its only concern […] Its concerns are not only with the beauty of the city, better avenues, or squares or more attractive beaches. […] it prioritizes basic sanitary measures, a good school network and a decent health service. Social injustice means violence against the most complex and singular being of creation: the human being, man and woman. This human being is a part and a bit of nature. Social ecology proposes a sustainable development. This is the one that responds to the basic needs of human beings today without sacrificing the natural capital of the earth, and if we consider also the needs of future generations who have a right to their satisfaction and to inherit an inhabitable earth with human relationships that are minimally just. (Boff 2000; see also Boff 1996; 1997; 2008; for his reflections on the relation between Christian theology and cosmology, see Boff and Hathaway 2009)

Boff calls on humankind to take a more critical and rational vision of the actual situation of the planet: we must act ethically in all our relationships, including with the planet, with nature, and with ‘the other’; we must learn to take care of the other, to use nature in a sustainable form, taking from it only what is necessary, without abusing it, and thereby guaranteeing a future for coming generations. All problems are interdependent, and the problem of ecology is no exception. Because of that, it is not possible to develop an isolated solution with mere technical, political, or commercial resources. A coalition of minds is needed, along with a new heart, imprinted with a sense of universal responsibility and action-values essential for a new world order. The intrinsic link between the struggle for justice and the struggle for the environment become especially central to committed Latin American theological reflection (see, for instance, the recent output of work by Leonardo Boff on ecology and care for the earth; Boff 1995; 1997; Murad 2019; 2021).

The encyclical Laudato Si’, delivered by Pope Francis in 2015, says that

the world and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us. (Pope Francis 2015)

With this remarkable encyclical the Pope reaffirmed the Latin American intuition that care for the earth is inseparable from the care for the poor. In other words, ecology always goes hand in hand with justice.

8 Gender and human rights

Theology produced by women in Latin America began entering the theological mainstream around 1968, when the assembly of the Bishops’ Conference at Medellín undertook an evaluation of the reception of Vatican II within the continent. If Vatican II emphasized the value of history, reality, and anthropology, highlighting the signs of times as a key category, in Medellín those signs of the times which were made visible in the continent had many faces and many voices. One of them was the voice of women. Feminism, which was growing in the northern hemisphere, mostly in the US, entered Christian theology as a new and powerful school with Mary Daly’s book, Beyond God the Father (1973; see also Christian Feminist Theological Ethics). Feminist thought influenced Latin American theology also, although taking a different configuration.

The key to the Medellín conference was the inseparability of the announcement of the gospel and the struggle for justice. Women who intended to do theology in this initial moment had their eyes drawn to the reality of the poor and perceived that theology should be done in a close dialogue with the social sciences. They also recognized a reality that was later called ‘the feminization of poverty’. An introduction to this concept is given by the North American thinker Diane Pearce, in an article published in 1978. For Pearce, the feminization of poverty is a process that develops when women, without the support of a husband or partner, must assume responsibility for the care and wellbeing of their children. A poor person who is also a woman is doubly poor, since her female condition adds to her marginalization, making her life even more complex and difficult. The experience of Latin American women corresponded to Pearce’s reflection, and it generated a new sense of solidarity in Latin America that linked women theologians with poor women who were in grassroots communities. The former understood themselves as spokespersons for the latter, and responsible for recovering their rights. The meetings of women theologians and pastoral agents, in a fertile and revealing progression, represented a collective face of passion and a commitment to the struggle for justice, inseparable from the building of the kingdom of God (see about those meetings Tepedino 1985; Bingemer 1986; Cavalcanti 1988).

Starting with desires and communal experiences, the status of women theologians began to be recognized within the church. Besides their presence in grassroots ministry, women gradually carved a space for their work in universities and institutes of theology and obtained academic degrees (Gebara 2020). During the 1990s, Latin American women theologians felt the impact of the global political situation, which saw the failure of many hoped-for utopias, as well as the crisis of liberation theology, the movement which initially inspired many of them. Socio-economic and political questions dominated their agendas. Like all intellectuals in that historical moment, they had to confront reality and try to search for new directions in their method of doing theology. One such method arose from a sense of moral responsibility and the need to bridge the gap with feminist theology elsewhere in the world which, as well as with Latin American feminism, was developing in other areas of knowledge (cf. Freitas 2003).

At this stage, theologians were challenged to rethink issues on female identity in the areas of anthropology, cosmology, and theology – all of which were historically dominated by patriarchal discourse. Feminist theology arose as a radical change to the ways of reflecting on the content of revelation and the texts of scripture, but also to ways of thinking about the world, relationships between people, nature, and divinity.

Other feminist struggles – those present in Global North theologies, in Latin America, and in social and human sciences (see, for example, Aquino and Rosado-Nunes 2007) – became interesting to theologians. Topics such as embodiment, sexuality, sensitive and controversial issues surrounding reproductive rights, and any question pertaining to Christian morality – the mystery of the human body, its functions, its vocation, and its mystery created by God – all became part of the agenda of Latin American feminist theology. In that field, it must be recognized that Protestant theologians, whose church structures are more flexible, took larger steps than their Catholic counterparts (cf. Deifelt 1999; Ströher, Deifelt, and Musskopf 2004; also Andrade 2007 and many issues of Revista de Estudos Feministas from Universidad de Santa Catarina, Brazil and Conspirando, a feminist Chilean periodical). Associations of women theologians were formed in Latin America, like Teologanda in Argentina, that have done valuable work on the theological scholarship of women in the continent (see There were international meetings with women from Latin America, together with those of other continents (Azcuy, Di Renzo, and Lértora Mendoza 2008).

Subsequently, ecofeminist theology emerged and developed at a continental level. Ecofeminism is a term the reflects the synthesis of environmentalism (or ecology) and feminism. It is the theory that seeks the end of all forms of oppression. It relates and connects the domination of people based on race, gender, and social class, as well as the domination of nature and of the other – women, children, the elderly, the Indigenous. This will be discussed more fully in the next section. Currently, in Latin America, only a few theologians have written extensively about ecofeminism (Gebara 1999). However, openness and attention to this new interdisciplinary field of reflection has enabled Latin American feminist theology to engage in dialogue with all areas of environmental studies: philosophy, social sciences, and environmental law, among others. The whole area of ecology promises tremendous growth for the future. Any reflection on ecology in relation to land rights and nature is combined with reflection on women’s rights. Since ecofeminism means the end of all forms of domination, theology cannot avoid the concomitant debates; neither can feminist theology, which is becoming the key to liberating women from all forms of oppression (in the US, see Ruether 1990: 135–142; 1994).

Consistent with its origins, Latin American feminist theology will remain the reflection of women on their faith in relation to their identity: their condition, their bodies and their rights, their configuration, their feelings, their thinking, and their speech. However, as all of that happens in a context marked by conflict and injustice, it is also a reflection on ecclesial belonging that remains inseparable from citizenship. It implies a tireless effort to connect Christian faith with theology. Together with feminist theology there is today a growing LGBTQIA+ (queer) theology, which has elements in common with feminism but opens other concerns of a different agenda. Queer theology allows the expectation of new things for theology from the perspective of gender in a not-so-distant future (in Latin America, see the works of Marcella Althaus Reid and André Musskopf).

9 Race and ethnicity

When the colonizers arrived in Latin America, they found other inhabitants: the original peoples, who subsequently survived the long history of colonization and slavery of the region. Their cultures were suppressed but not destroyed, and today they are the object of a powerful and beautiful theology which inspires the whole of theological thinking. Along the way, contact with Christianity through Christians who spoke for the Indigenous rights – such as Bartolomé de las Casas, and in recent times Samuel Ruiz and Leonidas Proaño – made possible the birth and development of Amerindian theologies which think about the condition of those peoples in dialogue with Christian values.

Amerindian theologies seek reconciliation and closeness with Christian culture while minimizing the harm done to the Indigenous cultures. This ‘reconciliation’ supposes a critical and decolonial vision of Indigenous history from an evangelical and sapiential re-reading that gives way to the process of personal-community creative healing of memory. Thus, it is a theological proposal taking Indigenous ancestor symbols as a point of departure, and able to connect with other theologies. In this sense, Amerindian theology recovers the characteristics of the Indigenous collective subject (community-cosmic sense, narrative-experiential style, mythical-symbolic expression etc.), a certain way of being in reality (practical-concrete, contemplative-spiritual), and an integrating epistemology (reciprocity, interrelation, connection) that allows Amerindian theology to present itself to the public as one of the several theologies recognized by the ecclesial community (Tomicha 2022).

In the late twentieth century, in both the socio-cultural and political sphere, much of Latin America experienced the so-called ‘insurgency’ or ‘Indigenous emergency’, when the original peoples began to emerge as the subject of thought in social and human sciences. This was paralleled with a ‘theological emergency’ which highlighted the need to take seriously the differences and plurality among peoples (Tomicha 2022).

At the same time, a reflection on the pueblos originarios (original peoples), together with reflection on the popular religion traditions, gave birth to a new way of doing theology. This was notable especially in Argentina, where this reflection – rooted in traditional cultures and popular expressions in the feasts, processions, etc. – gave birth to a new theological school during the 1970s. Teologia del Pueblo (theology of the people) is the name of this theology, which greatly influenced Cardinal Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) when he was in Buenos Aires. According to Juan Carlos Scannone (2021), the elements of this theology are as follows: to take the Indigenous Latin American peoples as a starting point; and to use a historical-cultural analysis as a form of mediation to build theology with the help of anthropology, science of religion, and history. The central categories of this theology are people, popular religion, and culture, with the poor at the centre. This theology considers itself as a branch of liberation theology, despite having an alternative approach that is more focused on political and economic issues. Here the hermeneutic is rooted in culture, history, and anthropology.

Contemporary Amerindian theology in Latin America reflects on daily life through the frame of ancestor memory, allowing one to connect with their own religious roots. It takes the community as theological subject, a nest of humanity, nature, and spirits. It considers the nomadic state of Indigenous life, leading Indigenous peoples to be designated as foreigners everywhere. Finally, it understands Mother Earth as a vital cosmic being announcing the mystery of life. This theology is made not only with texts, but also with images and symbols which are in themselves true theologies.

The Indigenous peoples who do this theology understand their theological reflection as transcultural; they prioritize the agency of women and hail the feminine as a category with which to think and to transform society. This theology conceptualizes the cosmos in constant and unceasing expansion, and the human condition as on its way to cosmocentric narratives, where – as said by Pope Francis in Laudato Si' – everything is connected. The concept of buen vivir (good life) is very important in that theology (Acosta 2016).

Another key aspect of the history of race and ethnicity in Latin American theology is the historical fact that, over the course of four centuries, Europeans took millions of Africans from Africa to the south of America. Those who survived their passage – no more than half – suffered a process of ‘deculturation’. Nevertheless, they continued to hold on to religious beliefs and traditions that affirmed their past. As a result, an Afro-Black ‘diaspora’ culture developed, especially in Brazil. It was expressed in a new family – the família de santo (the holy family) – united in search of the axé, or vital force, which was expressed in diverse forms of religion. A similar process took place in the Caribbean islands, Cuba, and the Antilles, with the emergence of Santeria (cf. Espín 1997).

The religious cults of African origin served as a privileged space to safeguard the cultural identity of descendants of the Africans brought to Latin America (see Theology in Africa). The traditional African religions retained their own cultures by reinterpreting their forms, renaming former local gods and simplifying their rituals. Through this process they were able to affirm the values of Africa under new socio-historical circumstances. Hence, a new Black identity was created, in configurations linked to African identity to varying degrees and in varying ways. The essential feature of such configurations remained the characteristic of ‘colour’, which denotes racial origin and, in the case of Brazil, a history of slavery. The last countries in Latin America to abolish slavery were Cuba in 1820 and Brazil in 1888. As European colonizers had children with African women, a new ‘mulato’ (mestiza) population emerged as a visible sign of cultural synthesis, while also consolidating a deeply rooted ‘machismo’ in the local cultures (see Freire 1998).

Today, descendants of enslaved Africans make up a large part of Brazilian and Caribbean population. However, they belong mostly to the poor classes of society and find obstacles almost everywhere: in employment, in social acceptance, and in enjoying the opportunities available to those of European descent (see Cagnasso 1995; Suess 1995; Brighenti 1998). In spite of this, their religious ceremonies are sought out by white people who enjoy the experience of the dance and the music of the candomblé (an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition). Carnival, a festival first appropriated by African descendants, has become a commercialized event, attracting multitudes of tourists.

In the case of the Indigenous peoples and descendants of Africans, the problem of difference in ethnicity, culture, and religious tradition is deeply connected to the problem of poverty – a connection of increasing interest to liberation theology.

10 Diversity and dialogue

In contemporary Latin America, the great majority of people are ‘officially’ Catholic, while the numbers of Pentecostal protestants are growing steadily (Instituto Humanitas Unisinos 2019). Liberation theology initially appeared within groups dedicated to renewing the mission of the church in service to people within strong Catholic cultures. But it was ecumenical from the beginning, and that ecumenism became stronger after the 1970s – although one should not forget the important figures working in ecumenism since its inception, such as José Míguez Bonino (1984; 1995) Rubem Alves (1974), Julio de Santa Ana (1980), and Guillermo Cook (1994). After the 1970s, a more visible collaboration emerged between Catholics and Protestants, in organizations such as the base communities, women’s groups, and biblical circles, and around pastoral projects. This was a practical ecumenism rather than an ecumenical ecclesiology elaborated in academic or theological circles (Irrarázaval 2000).

The plurality present in the continent has brought into sharp relief the need for dialogue with other religious denominations and traditions. Latin America is known today as the major Christian continent in the world. Yet there is an increasing awareness of its multicultural religious identity. The fact is that religion in Latin America has always been a pluralistic phenomenon.

Since their first contact with people of the Caribbean and the Americas, Europeans have responded to this encounter with many different questions: anthropological, social, religious, and finally theological. ‘Are they human? Do they have a religion? Who is their God?’ (see Beozzo 2014). José Oscar Beozzo, a Brazilian historian, says the answers to these questions reflected a deep ignorance – ‘They have no religion!’ – or the biased assertion, ‘It is enough to learn their languages, to announce the gospel to them, so that they can embrace the Christian faith and accept baptism’. Christopher Columbus, soon after touching America’s soil, wrote in his diary: ‘I'm sure, serene Majesties – says the Admiral – that knowing the language and oriented with willingness by pious people and religious, then all would become Christians’ (Columbus 1986: 59; for many documents relating to the conquest/evangelization of the Americas, see Goodpasture 1989; Penyak and Petry 2006).

Latin America has more than 300 Indigenous or ethnic groups, representing close to 20 million Indigenous peoples. In Guatemala and Bolivia, they constitute a majority of the population. In Brazil, they number close to one million persons. Among them are diverse minority groups, spread across the country, some of which number only a few hundred members (Cardozo 2015).

By two centuries after the European conquest of Latin American territories, the vast majority of the peoples situated at the heart of the conquered areas had accepted baptism. Exceptional missionaries, such as the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas who lived among the Mayas of Chiapas and Guatemala, were in some cases able to restrain military violence against the Indigenous peoples. Later, the Jesuit missions in Paraguay and elsewhere followed a similar model (as shown in the film The Mission [1986], a historical drama about the Jesuit missions in Latin America).There were other peoples, like the Mapuches in Chile and the Guaraní in Chaco, Bolivia, who steadily resisted the conquest and evangelization until they were finally conquered by the European armies at the end of the nineteenth century.

Even among Christianized Indigenous peoples, an intense process of syncretism has prevailed. Their communal life and internal form of government incorporate ancestor beliefs and practices. Expressions of their communal identity coincide frequently with religious celebrations, reflecting an appropriation of Christianity marked by their ancestor cosmovision (or cosmology) within a whole range of syncretism. For instance, in the Andes, the Virgin Mary is very frequently identified with Mother Earth or Pacha Mama. In addition, the work of distinguished anthropologists and theologians in Mexico has shown the elements of synthesis between the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Nahuatl Indigenous culture (see Elizondo 1997; Matovina and Deck 2006; Gebara and Bingemer 1989).

The point is that interreligious dialogue – whether conducted well or badly – is not a new phenomenon in Latin America; it has been a reality from the beginning, even within an apparently solid and monolithic Catholicism. What is generally true in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America is even more so in the complex case of Brazil, which has three significant ethnic groups: Portuguese, Indigenous, and African.

African slaves were forcibly baptized into the colonizer’s religion. While ostensibly accepting this new religion, however, they gave the names of Catholic divinities or saints to their own orixás, or manifestations of the divine. Thus, we find in Brazilian African religions that God the Father is Oxalá, Jesus Christ is Xangô, Our Lady is Iemanjá, Saint Barbara is Iansã, Saint George is Ogum, etc. This strategy of resistance allowed Africans to maintain relatively peaceful relationships with the white Europeans, without really adopting their religion. Instead, they continued practising their own beliefs under a Christian cover (see Rocha 1999).

Did the strategy adopted by Africans solve all of their problems? Did Afro-Brazilian and Caribbean religions find real peace and harmony in this way? Certainly not. Since the ‘abolition’ of slavery in Brazil (although Brazilian liberationist groups question whether slavery was actually abolished in Brazil in 1888; slavery, as they understand it, continues to exist), many persecutions were directed against the terreiros (places of worship and liturgy of the Afro-Brazilian religions) and those descendants of Africans who tried to resume their religious practices. These persecutions were obviously connected to the question of race.

In order to ensure their cultural survival, oppressed peoples of African descent entered into dialogue with the religion of the colonizer and with the religions of other peoples, such as the Indigenous religions. They forged a synthesis between Christianity, the African-based cults and rituals, and the rich culture of the native peoples on the continent. As Eliezer López, a Mexican Zapoteco theologian, affirms: ‘The people knew how to reform their culture […] in the context of the system […] They re-read the Christian religion in order to give continuity through it to the ancestral traditions of our peoples’ (López 1991). Diego Irarrázaval further explains:

According to the characteristics of each region and according to local processes, the peoples have developed spaces that we call polycentric […] It looks like polytheism; in truth, it is a human polycentrism marked by religious references. (Irrarázaval 2000)

In addition, the attention of liberation theology shifted to popular religion through the involvement of religious communities in the world of the poor. At first, the option for the poor relied on a lens of socio-economical-political perspective. However, another side of this inculturation began to emerge, as pastoral agents sent to minister to poor communities began to identify more with the religious culture of the people. For instance, in the diocese of São Felix do Araguaia in Brazil, a community of the Little Sisters of Jesus lived in a village of the Indigenous Tapirapé people. They identified themselves with the people there; Sister Genoveva, a French nun, was recognized by the Indigenous community as a true Tapirapé. During the 1970s, Fr Bartholomé Meliá SJ, a Spanish priest who lived with the Indigenous Salumã in Paraguay, also took part in the Indigenous peoples’ religious rituals. Similarly, Fr François de l’Espinay, a French priest who was committed to liberation theology, became a member of a community of Candomblé, in Bahia (L’Espinay 1987: 870).

These were decisive movements in the development of a spirituality of liberation which was a powerful source for theology. With the practise of this spirituality, a whole movement of openness and diversity emerged. The concept of ‘macro ecumenism’ grew stronger, with a new consciousness of an ecumenism sealed by the universality of the people of God, an understanding that the people of God consist of many peoples (Teixeira 1997: 150; Teixeira, Casaldáliga, and Vigil 1994).

At this point a theological question emerged: is it possible for a person who belongs to one particular socio-religious group to feel at home and participate in another? Can two or more religious or spiritual traditions co-exist within one single individual? Exploring this question at an abstract level, either sociologically or philosophically, the answer would probably be no. Religions seem to offer a view of the world that, by necessity, precludes contradictory truth claims. In this sense, it is difficult to conceptualize that a believer would be able to embrace two apparently contradictory systems of truth simultaneously. However, when we analyse the situation in phenomenological terms, we meet people who seem to feel at home in different religious traditions. Outsiders regard these as syncretistic or parallel religious systems, but their practitioners seem comfortable with both.

Many contemporary theologians see a combination and even an integration of local cosmic religiosities as something that is not only normal but even inevitable and necessary (see Cornille 2002; Knitter and Haight 2015). These phenomena can be found all over the world where the so-called ‘great religions’ spread across new geographical areas. The cosmic and meta-cosmic nature of the different elements does not make their coexistence or even their integration a problem. In actuality, people live in different symbolic worlds and seem to move from one to the other with ease. Coexistence, if not integration, between the two is often marked by local historical and social conditions. Various studies of popular religiosity in different continents have shown that, alongside the official and approved liturgies of the churches, people continue to invoke other powers – often spirits and ancestors – in times of need for protection from danger, for healing from physical, mental, and social diseases, and for establishing favourable relations with the powers of nature and society. Such rituals are prevalent in rites of passage in individual and social life. These practices in the form of popular devotions are variously condemned, tolerated, or even encouraged by the official institutions of the church. Sacred places and times, powerful mediators living or dead, pilgrimages, and special penances are common all over the world, even today (Cornille 2002; Küng 2001). Moreover, that seems to be the case in Latin America with Indigenous and African traditions.

Therefore, is it possible to drink from more than one well, to live several faiths, to follow several guides? If the answer is yes, under what conditions? Taking a closer look, it seems that a ‘double belonging’ (or ‘dual belonging’; see Christian Theology of Religions) does not mean that someone lives fully within two traditions in a parallel way and at the same level. Is it not more fruitful to understand this phenomenon as a dynamic and spiritual movement in which one is exposed to another tradition and embraces it without leaving behind one’s own? In such an encounter, beyond surface curiosity, there runs the acknowledgement of a need and a thirst that the ‘pilgrim’ – the one who passes from one religious belonging to another – cannot ignore. (For the concept of religion as a place of transit, see Certeau 1989.)

Today, an important trend within Christian theology has developed the conviction that every religion, within its own limits, bears ‘seeds of truth’, and is bearer of form of genuine salvation (see the document Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council; for some example post-conciliar theologies, see Dupuis 1994; Amaladoss 1990). It becomes increasingly evident that the encounter between religions must not occur in a context of mutual accusation or threats but in an atmosphere of respect and dialogue. Therefore, relations between Christianity and African-Brazilian religious traditions, for instance, would not have to deny each other’s truth or salvation. On the contrary, they might find mutual renewal and enrichment (Bingemer 2017).

11 Conclusion

The legacy of Vatican II, found especially in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, calls attention to the duty of being attentive to the human as the heart of the Church’s vocation and mission. According to the opening words of that document,

The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community of people united in Christ and guided by the holy Spirit in their pilgrimage towards the Father’s kingdom, bearers of a message of salvation for all of humanity. That is why they cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history. (GS: section 1)

The big question of humanity and creation is, and must be, the main concern of the church and of theology. In addition, among those men and women who comprise this humanity, the poor and afflicted of all kinds are always present, calling for justice and recognition. Unfortunately, poverty is far from being overcome and justice is not a universal feature in the world – certainly not in Latin America, in spite of all the efforts of the local church. In continents like Latin America, where one third of the population is below the line of extreme poverty, the option for the poor remains a real priority.

It is by putting that question at the centre of its reflection that Latin American theology found and continues to find its vocation and its God-intended purpose. There are theologians who continue to read and interpret reality with the same pathos and the same ethos as in the foundational years. Pedro Trigo, a committed liberation theologian of the first generation, remarks:

This is decisive. If it is not there, theological elaboration will be reduced to scholastics, an academic practice which, at best, can be rigorous and full of good intentions, but won’t be anything other than a mere intellectual product. It can refer very correctly to reality, but without possessing its density, instead reducing itself to be a mere reference to it. (Trigo 2005: 291)

Latin American theology today continues to connect faith and justice, either in economic, social, or cultural terms. That means that today there continue to exist theologians who conceive their theology not only as a rational enterprise – intellectus fidei – but as mercy seeking for understanding – intellectus amoris.

According to Jon Sobrino, the first awakening for humankind in modern times was the awakening from dogmatic slumber thanks to Kant, Hegel, and the masters of suspicion. Its consequence is the intellectus fidei. The second awakening, this time from the slumber of inhumanity, helps us to understand the need for theology to be preferentially intellectus amoris. This theology is concerned with ‘taking the crucified peoples down from the cross’. Liberation theology has always tried to be this intellectus amoris, understanding itself as a theology at the service of God’s infinite mercy (Sobrino 1994b: 27–46).

In recent years, liberation theology has not given up this calling to be intellectus amoris. Now this intelligence of love is richer than before, for it has enlarged its scope and recognized other anthropological poverties besides the socio-economic and political kind. All these are also poverties afflicting human beings and making oppression a reality. Latin American theology continues to be a contextual theology, and thus continues to give very close attention to all of those claims.

Finally, the election of Pope Francis has had a strong impact on Latin American theology. The Latin American Pope turned the world’s eyes again to the church and the theology of his continent: ‘Something akin to a resurrection is taking place in the Catholic Church in Latin America, thanks to Pope Francis’ (O’Connell 2015).


Copyright Maria Clara Bingemer ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Aquino, Maria Pilar, and Maria José Rosado-Nunes (eds). 2007. Feminist Intercultural Theology: Latina Explorations for a Just World. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
    • Ashley, J. Matthew, Kevin F. Burke S.J., and Rodolfo Cardenal (eds). 2014. A Grammar of Justice: The Legacy of Ignacio Ellacuría. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
    • Boff, Leonardo. 1995. Ecology & Liberation: A New Paradigm. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
    • Boff, Leonardo. 1997. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
    • Bingemer, Maria Clara. 2017. Latin American Theology: Roots and Branches. New York: Orbis.
    • Bingemer, Maria Clara, and P. Casarella. 2021. Pope Francis and the Search for God in América: The Significance of His Early Visits to the Americas. Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press.
    • Gutierrez, G. 1993. Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ. New York: Orbis Books.
    • Panotto, N., and L. Martinez. 2023. Decolonizing Liberation Theologies: Past and Present, Future. Cham: Palgrave-Macmillan.
    • Tombs, David. 2002. Latin American Liberation Theology. Boston/Leiden: Brill.
  • Works cited

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    • Amaladoss, M. 1990. Making All Things New: Dialogue, Pluralism, and Evangelization in Asia. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
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    • Andrade, Paulo Fernando Carneiro. 2015. ‘Opción por los pobres en el magistério. Pensamiento social católico desde el Vaticano II hasta la Conferencia de Aparecida (Option for the poor in teaching. Catholic social thought from Vatican II until the Aparecida Conference)’, Concilium 361: 31–41.
    • Aquino, Maria Pilar, and Maria José Rosado-Nunes (eds). 2007. Feminist Intercultural Theology: Latina Explorations for a Just World. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
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