In Dialogue with Cardinal Müller

di Martin Schlag

LIBRO.MULLERIn two books published in Italian in 2013 and 2014, the present Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, argues for the rehabilitation of liberation theology.[1] One must immediately add: the rehabilitation of a “Catholic version” of liberation theology, purified of “horizontalism” and of the accusation of being “social science”, or “socio-theology” not theology in the proper meaning of the word. Cardinal Müller and Gustavo Gutiérrez contend to make a “purely theological” proposal that answers a fundamental question. This question is not what the Church says about injustice in Latin America but of how we can speak of God, of the sacraments, etc. in the face of abject poverty, exploitation and oppression. To present the social teaching of the Church as an answer to such a challenge would not be sufficient, they write, we need a change of the theological method.

In this paper, I will argue that while the preferential option for the poor is a non-negotiable element of Christian faith, liberation theology raises more questions than it can answer. Specifically, first, I will try to show that liberation theology as presented by Cardinal Müller is based on a peculiarly slanted terminology and on a biased evaluation of facts. An effective help of the poor would require a more nuanced analysis; secondly, that his methodology curtails the freedom of the laity in temporal affairs.

What methodical shift does Müller propose? Throughout the two books Müller repeatedly presents a triple methodological step, which we can summarize as follows:

  1. The first step of theological reflection is the socio-economic analysis of society. This is undertaken with the methods of the social sciences, not only with the help of philosophical inquiry. In past centuries theology only used philosophy. This has changed, affirms Müller. Müller insists that this scientific analysis is an integral part of theology, not a preliminary step to it, because liberation theologians realize that the social structures that drag people down to subhuman levels manifest a “loss of God” and therefore of sin. He also affirms that the scientific methods employed must be in accordance with Christian anthropology, and ideologies must not be misused. He also rejects totalitarianism and atheist Marxism. However, he endorses elements of the Marxist analysis of modern capitalist and industrial economies. He specifies three of these elements: the theory – practice schema, the idea that the human being is subject and artificer of social progress, and the “dependence theory”[2]. Thus, theology of liberation is opposed to capitalism, he says, and it opts for socialism. However, the form of socialism that liberation theology promotes is not to be confused with central planning. It is more similar to the social market economy. Its aim is to include everybody in the global economy.
  2. In Müller’s second methodological step, which is systematic-hermeneutical, liberation theology sheds the light of Revelation on social reality as discovered in step one. The Bible shows us God as liberator who chooses human history as the space in which his liberating action takes place. Certainly, Jesus was not a social reformer nor was he a political agitator but his healings manifest that corporeal health has to do with salvation. The Kingdom of God also aims at healing unjust social structures that are manifestations of sin.
  3. Müller’s third step is practical and pastoral, through which the Church becomes the “sacrament of liberation”. Liberation theology understands itself as theology that participates in practice and thus actively transforms empirical reality. Through this focus on social reform the Church continues the process of liberation begun by God in history and converts it into a liberation process. In theology of liberation a separation of theory and practice is impossible, because it denies the separation of faith and reality. It teaches that only that kind of faith that shows works of love, only that faith that has charity as its substantial form and essence, has received the full gift of grace, or in other words the gift of the Kingdom of God. Theology must transform reality, a reality that in the case of Latin America cannot be separated from the hegemony exercised over it by the big centers of political and economic power.

This pastoral practice of liberation also works in favor of the rich. It aims at freeing the rich from the wish to achieve fulfillment in life by devouring the lives of others. However, if a rich person does not convert, and continues to exploit and to oppress the poor, then we must not celebrate the Eucharist with him or her: that rich person is excommunicated, thunders Müller.



Needless to say, the radical concern for the poor that Cardinal Müller’s approach enshrines, is extremely positive. Furthermore, he need not consider the preferential option for the poor as a merely academic topic of interest but has throughout years spent the summer months working pastorally among the poorest of the poor in the Peruvian Andes. His words are therefore not mere theory but also the fruit of personal experience and sacrifice.

His considerations are also timely as the social dimension of the faith is concerned: salvific individualism has for a long time now been justly abandoned in Catholic spirituality. Christian faith has a social dimension. Even though the Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council, in a process of voluntary disestablishment, has chosen civil society as her habitat, and opted for a program of cultural transformation of society from within and from below, instead of the top-down model favored formerly, the Church has never accepted and cannot accept the privatization of faith. Christians must speak out where the dignity of the human person is trodden upon and where basic human rights are violated, be it by individuals or structures of sin.


However, there are also several points that according to my opinion require further reflection.

1. Cardinal Müller affirms that only very few theologians reject liberation theology as such and as a whole. Those who do so, says Müller, are driven by the fear of losing their privileges. In his argument “ad hominem” he moreover does not acknowledge the distinction between theologies of liberation in the plural and liberation theology in the singular, and thus does not permit one to opt out of one form of liberation theology and to choose another: according to Müller, there is only one theology of liberation, with the same object, the same basic aspirations, the same method and the same theoretical point of departure.

I am not quite sure whether I belong to that group of theologians who reject the whole of liberation theology as such – probably not, but I certainly (would) not do so out of fear of losing my privileges. Many theologians who reject theology of liberation have demonstrably committed themselves to theology as a vocation at great personal sacrifice.

Those theologians opposed to theology of liberation who, nonetheless, remain open, are kindly asked by Müller to overcome their misunderstandings of liberation theology, caused by a use of concepts that differ form his. This, on my view, is exactly the problem because I think there are some debatable representations of facts and uses of concepts in Müller’s two recent books that deserve greater attention and even correction. Perhaps there are several misconceptions, which would require some rethinking also on the part of the authors. Specifically, and with all due respect, I wish to refer to wealth, property, and capitalism as presented by Cardinal Müller.

Yes, wealth is mostly in the hands of the rich. The rich in Latin America, according to Müller, wish to achieve fulfillment in life by devouring the lives of others. His conception is linked to that of private property: in Latin America, writes Müller, private property is not the small portion of goods acquired with the personal effort of work, but enormous expanses of real estate. Obviously I do not deny that there is great injustice in the distribution of wealth in Latin America. Nonetheless, Müller’s economic description exaggerates the inequalities. In Latin America, there are also smallholders, and many small and medium enterprises. Private property exists in all dimensions, not only in the form of vast estates. What is lacking, and most especially impedes development, is the rule of law that permits owners of reduced property to convert their possessions in titles for credit. The lack of rule of law and especially the respect for contracts limits the economic growth of the poor. The Peruvian Hernando de Soto has written insightful pages lamenting the plight of the poor whose potentials are laid waste by the deficiencies of many Latin American legal and corrupt political systems.

According to Müller, Capitalism in Latin America is a lifestyle aimed at unlimited and unfettered growth of personal wealth, taken as the ultimate criterion of human action. Such capitalism produces oppression and exploitation. Capitalism is a combination of money and other material means, and of power in the hands of oligarchs or of international centers of political and economic power. The capitalists must engage in a class struggle from above: they maintain their wealth oppressing the poor. This form of capitalism has nothing to do, adds Müller, with a free economy of enterprise, with a free economy in a democratic state.

This terminology reflects the European prejudice, inspired by Marxist critique, of the capitalist system. Defined the way Müller defines it, one cannot but be against such a form of capitalism. However, already St. John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus distinguished between a “good capitalism” which we could also call free economy, and a “bad capitalism” severed from all legal and ethical norms and cultural frames. Such a terminology would have been much more sensitive for the Anglo-American tradition. Would it not have been better to call the Latin American economies crony-capitalist? They probably do not qualify as free market economies in the Western sense of the word. This is precisely the problem: a lack of free, ethical, legal markets in a sturdy cultural framework of rewarding work. In this sense, doesn’t Müller’s critique of capitalism miss the main point? The problem of Latin America is not capitalism but the lack of ethical and prosperous free market economies that create wealth for all. Shouldn’t the accent thus be placed squarely on the need to create sustainable prosperity for all instead of shadow boxing against “foreign powers”?


2. The second question I would like to raise is a methodological one. If socio-economic analysis is the first step in the formulation of theological insights, and the implementation of social reform its third step, then disagreements on socio-economic questions become a theological disagreement. People who lean towards more state intervention to guarantee welfare then must theologically (not only politically or technically) disagree with others who prefer less state intervention. Does this not unnecessarily introduce a new source of discord into Church communities? Is this not a new form of clericalism? Have people not already got enough political enemies and economic competitors? Must the conflict become even more vicious by adding the religious dimension? Would it not be much better to leave such questions outside of the theological realm and debate on them in different settings? Certainly, the faith and the Church are called to catalyze the achievement of greater social justice, however questions like the extent and the detailed design of the technical instruments of state intervention should be left to the laity. Leaving theological freedom in socio-economic questions would be more consistent both with Paul VI’s Apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens, in which he distinguished between principles, criteria and directives, and with the constant teaching of the Church that she does not offer technical solutions in socio-economic affairs.


Cardinal Müller writes that liberation theology must not degenerate into a mere social program of self-redemption but that the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity necessarily entail social responsibility for the world. This undoubtedly is true. He also writes that theology of liberation is a “necessary regional theology”. Such an affirmation is highly debatable. The question is rather whether liberation theology is the right answer to poverty and the correct path out of it. Unfortunately, my students who are laypeople and clergy in Latin America give testimony to their experience in their parishes: wherever and whenever liberation theology has entered, people have lost their faith. Liberation theology is a theological experiment that unfortunately and despite the best intentions of its authors does not help the poor because of the flawed economic assumptions it presupposes. It is by far more helpful to follow the proposal of Pope Francis, who does not use the term “liberation theology”, to structurally include the poor in the economy. The quest remains as challenging as ever: to find convincing ways of strengthening the Christian faith in the face of poverty and of stimulating Catholics to use their freedom in responsibility to create sustainable prosperity for all.


[1]          The first one was written together with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the doyen of liberation theology, and originally published in German under the title „An der Seite der Armen. Theologie der Befreiung, Augsburg: St. Ulrich, 2004. The Italian title is: Dalla parte dei poveri. Teologia della liberazione, teologia della chiesa, Padova – Bologna: Messaggero di Sant’Antonio – emi, 2013; the second book is edited by Müller, Povera per i poveri. La missione della Chiesa, Vatican: LEV, 2014, with a preface by Pope Francis.

[2] A Latin American theory based on Marxism that blames the lack of development of poor nations on the dependence on powerful nations who in turn try to maintain their position of dominance over the poor countries and to reduce the “periphery” to suppliers of raw materials.

Leave a comment

July 17, 2014 · 8:33 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s