When Gustavo Gutierrez first put a definition to his theology of liberation—and, jointly, the “preferential option for the poor“—it was in the context of Peruvian poverty. Indeed, many lay faithful have equated his 1970s thesis on social reforms with Catholic work in Latin American and South American populations. But as summations of Gutierrez work affirm, liberation theology has three distinct, wide-reaching facets that have much broader application: political and social liberation that removes the societal and governmental causes of poverty; a humane liberation of the individual from all those elements that inhibit their ability to find freedom and dignity; and liberation from selfishness and sin, concomitant with a reestablishment of relationship with God. The third of these is of particular interest in a first-world context, where foundations of Catholic earned-grace and sin theology have necessitated a liberation of their own.
While distinctly human, guilt takes on another dimension for many Catholics. With an overly heavy emphasis on contrition and penance—including the prominent Penintential Rite in the liturgy of the mass, and the institution of confession as its own sacrament and obligation—Catholicism spends undue time on the sinfulness of the faithful. Contrarily, God is often rendered as a distant, awesome, inaccessibly perfect divinity who is constantly urging admission of guilt and reparation for wrongdoing. The pomp and circumstance of many Catholic liturgies—while originally designed to impress and convert native peoples across the world in the early days of the church—has since become a sign of God’s power and elevation above humankind. Implicitly, the message comes to young Catholics as: You are not good enough for God’s grace because you are inherently sinful. These under-informed, impressionable Catholics then spend their lives apologizing incessantly for misdeeds and feeling the need to constantly confess. Guilt follows them. It is impossible to shake. To quote the insightful “30 Rock” character Jack Doneghy, “Even though there is the whole confession thing, that’s no free pass, because there is a crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic. Whether things are good or bad or you’re simply eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt.”
This guilt extends from an ingrained need to self-examine every action, thought, and word as though it were a possible offense to God. Running from sin is an exhausting rite of its own, and quite possibly, more impactful than any other rite or sacrament in the Catholic tradition. Timothy Egan, in his treatment of Catholic guilt in The New York Times, says it plainly: “Catholic doctrine, as laid out in spiritual statutes governing human conduct, features an exhaustive list of enumerated offenses.” In other words, Catholic teaching and theology is far more about what NOT to do than what to do. Naturally, this leave Catholics with the persistent question: “Shit, did I do something wrong?”
By the time the 1500s rolled around, the Catholic Church was facing more than just a minor corruption scandal. History tells us, of course, that money and power were the priorities for the Vatican and that messages from the pulpit were designed—in many cases—to reaffirm papal power over Catholics and their purse strings. Luther saw the need for reform and did so aggressively, returning to the roots of social obligation and love as the focus of theology. Primary to this new view of God was a stripping of ceremony and obstacle. Too much stood in the way of man’s full and open-hearted relationship with God, he posited, and the solution was simple: See God for who God really is. Thus, came the seeds of Lutheran theology: A God who gives faith freely as a gift and does not demand anything in return. This faith, freely given, brings with it the freedom to act according to the love that made us part of creation. In other words, Luther sought to tear down walls of obligation and open the path to love and communion that is innate to our humanity.
Naturally, the Catholic Church saw Luther as a threat. And while Lutheranism has thrived since the 1500s, the Catholic Church certainly hasn’t waned. Catholic are no longer pressed to invest in indulgences (thank you, Luther), but the theology of today is not a far cry from that which was disseminated in the 1500s. Emphasis is still placed on obligation and sin, not freedom.
While Gutierrez’s focus on his own country’s poverty was a necessary spark for liberation theology, its import has expanded beyond Peru’s borders to countries where marginalization of every form is a constant concern. Even in the United States, liberation theology has application—particularly in a society where capitalism dominates and the socio-economic conditions of an individual are often harshly judged. But there’s yet another, unlikely area of application that Gutierrez didn’t consider: The mainstrain American Catholic. While the third pillar of his theology addresses the issues of selfishness and sin, it does so with an eye toward a demographic neglected and in need—the poor, the sick, the vulnerable. But settled, financially stable American Catholics could also benefit from liberation theology; the incredible burden of sin and guilt, when stripped away, would given them freedom and personal dignity beyond compare.
It is difficult for me, as a convert to Lutheranism, to say that liberation theology could eradicate the centuries of guilt-ridden obligation and emphasis on sin that have become hallmarks of the Catholic Church. After all, many of the origins of Catholic guilt come from pillars of Catholic faith and tradition; without them, the church collapses. But bringing this to light in parishes and smaller Catholic communities sparks conversations that move to the highest rungs of the Vatican. Indeed, Pope Francis has already begun dismantling the harmful rhetoric that reigned in centuries past. As Egan writes,
The new teachings, from a self-professed less-judgmental church, go to the everyday lives of people who don’t believe that they should be constantly reminded of their inadequacies. By emphasizing the inclusive and the positive, the church under Francis strives to be more “modern family” than “monastic denial,” and will even let some things go. “No one can be condemned forever,” says the pope, which seems to rule out that burn-in-hell-for-eternity thing. He offers tips, as well, for how to keep “the passion” alive.
This hopeful, love-filled approach to everyday faith lives is turning once-was looming Catholicism on its head. And for some conservative populations, that’s a problem. But Catholicism—and its adherents—are not obligated to keep the engines of Catholicism purring. They’re obligated to discern and live out the will of God. And if daily life for the average modern Catholic has been shaped more by guilt and shame than anything hopeful, isn’t it time they were liberated to live out a life of love, giving, and freedom of self?