Under the Command of a Corpse – Part 3

Olavo de Carvalho explains why Liberation Theology is alive and well in Latin America.


Read Part II here.

Whoever reads the writings by Gutierrez, Boff, and Betto will easily find out their multiple inconsistencies and contradictions. Those flaws reveal that their thought is not the result of serious theoretical effort, but of an intention to keep the theologians from Rome busy with complex refutations, while the network of activists spread its tentacles all over Latin America, reaching, above all, poor communities that were completely deprived of any interest or ability to follow those lofty debates.

Brazilian cowboys have a name for that trick: they call it “piranha’s bullock.”  When they need to cross a river infested with piranhas, they first drive a bullock into the river a few feet downstream so as to keep those carnivore fish busy with devouring it while they take the rest of the herd across the river in safety.

The theology of Gutierrez, Boff, and Betto is so futile and empty from an intellectual point of view, whereas their political activism is so intense, well thought out, and efficient, that we can only explain the trio’s more pretentious writings as a bullock sent to be devoured by the Vatican piranhas.

A brief examination of a typical sample of the style of one of those authors will suffice to make it obvious that there is no serious and honest intellectual effort in the liberation theology, but only gibberish that is more apt to deceive an uneducated or semi-educated audience than persuade well-trained theologians.

Is the style the man himself? Yes, but that can be good or bad. It can be good when analysis reveals, behind syntax and figures of speech, a living insight into aspects of human experience which are obscure and hardly speakable. Through analysis they thus come to light out of the nebulosity where they lay and become docile objects for meditation and action, being transfigured from factors of slavery into instruments of freedom. It can be bad when there is nothing to be found underneath the verbal fabric except a perverse intention to build a “second reality” out of mere words, transporting the reader from the real world into a puppet show where everything and everybody move under the command of the author, who is raised to the heights of a little demiurge, a creator of “another possible world.”

In order to demonstrate that, I will ask the reader to have the kindness to go through an exposition by Mr. Leonardo Boff, a man who is a counsellor of rulers and of a Pope (according to some) as well as, and above all, an eminent spokesman of a “liberation theology” where neither theology nor liberation can be found,

Poverty is not confined to its main and dramatic aspect, the material one, but it unfolds into political poverty through exclusion from social participation, cultural poverty through marginalization of the production processes of symbolic goods . . . .

Pauperization generates massification of human beings. The people cease to exist as a coordinated group of communities that develop their conscience, preserve and deepen their identity, and work for a collective plan. They become a conglomerate of stray individuals deprived of their roots, an army of inexpensive and manipulable labor, according to the plan for unlimited and inhuman amassing of wealth.

That situation brings about a highly authoritarian political template . . . A minimum of cohesion can be achieved only through authoritarian forms of government, which stifle the threatening cries which come from poverty.

The excerpt is from the book And the Church Became People[i]. All that is described above really happened. Those are facts, and they are historically well-documented facts, which would leave us no other choice but to say a definitive “Amen” to Mr Boff, unless, of course, we had the horrible idea of raising the following question: Where and when did that happen?

The second paragraph tells us about something that happened in Europe in the first decades of the nineteenth century: multitudes of peasants were reduced to misery through the deprivation of their few possessions, thus having to leave their land and go to the city to make up “a conglomerate of stray individuals deprived of their roots,” a reserve of inexpensive labor to be used to fuel the prosperity of the new capitalists.  Karl Marx, in pages that have become classic, describes the formation of the urban proletariat out of the wreckage of the old peasantry at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

However, that phenomenon happened where the things that Boff describes in his next paragraph—“political poverty through exclusion from social participation, cultural poverty through marginalization of the production processes of symbolic goods”— not only never happened, but could never have happened. On the contrary, the migration of peasants to urban areas coincided with the advent of general elections, which not only invited but forced the participation of the masses in a kind of politics that was completely unknown to them when they lived on the countryside, isolated from the big urban centers. It also coincided with the creation of mandatory schooling, which removed the children of the proletarians from their local cultures and integrated them into the great urban culture of reason, science, and technology, which was essentially the same culture of the upper classes, those wicked capitalists. One can certainly bewail the dissolution of the old local cultures, but that was caused not by the exclusion, but rather by the inclusion of the masses into the urban political and cultural life.

The “exclusion from social participation” and the “marginalization from the processes of symbolic goods” did happen, but hundreds of thousands of miles away from Europe, in African, Asian, and Latin American countries, which would be later called “the Third World” precisely because no Industrial Revolution ever took place in them, neither therefore the integration of the masses into politics or urban culture. Mr Boff creates the fictitious unity of a hideous straw man out of selections he made from heterogeneous and incompatible historical processes, which occurred in places far away from one another. But Mr Boff’s historical Frankenstein has at least one thing substantially real about it: the hatred that he would like his readers to feel towards it in their souls.

But the monster’s physiognomy would not be complete without a third feature, which Mr. Boff fetches in another place,

That situation brings about a highly authoritarian political template . . . .  A minimum of cohesion can be achieved only through authoritarian forms of government, which stifle the threatening cries coming from poverty.

It is true that authoritarian governments emerged to control the famished masses, but they neither appeared in the Europe of the Industrial Revolution, nor in the United States of that same period, where democratic institutions triumphed along with nascent capitalism. Rather, and on the contrary, they came on the historical scene in countries that either were underdeveloped, or impoverished by war, in those nations that envied the prosperity of industrialized countries, but did not have a creative and puissant capitalist class, and then decided to become industrialized in a hurry and under coercion by means of the state bureaucracy, from above, so to speak, through massive government investment and planned economy. That was the formula adopted by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and, obviously, by all those socialist nations that are so dear to Mr Boff’s heart. For the same reasons and to a lesser extent, the formula was adopted in Brazil by both President Vargas during his dictatorship (1930-45) and the military government, from 1964 to 1985.

In short, if it were possible to put together all the evils that happened in the most distant countries, in the most different times, and in the most heterogeneous regimes, we would then have the ideal monster towards which Mr Boff would like to direct the hatred of his audience. Mr Boff trusts that his readers will not notice his artificial superimposition of historical events and that, impressed by the total sum of evils, will believe they are really caught up in the claws of a monster and draw the logical conclusion they need to be liberated by Mr Boff.

This is what the Boffian “liberation theology” is all about, and nothing else. His superimposition technique is, rigorously speaking, both Mr Boff’s only dialectical and stylistic procedure and the quintessential summary of his, let’s say, thought. We can find that technique in practically every page he has written, and it is pointless to look for something different.

A few lines below the paragraphs quoted above we can find another example, in the passage in which he makes use of the figure of St. Francis of Assisi as the prototype of the revolutionary man who Mr. Boff himself intends to be. My readers, so kind and generous, will do me another favor and read this other brief paragraph,

Such attitude [St. Francis’ rejection of the goods of this world] corresponds to that of the revolutionary man and not that of reformers and agents of the current system. Reformers reproduce the system, only introducing ways of rectifying the abuses by means of reforms. . . . What [Francis] did represents a radical criticism against the dominant forces of the day . . . He did not simply made an option for the poor, but for the poorest among the poor, the lepers, whom he called, lovingly, ‘my brothers in Christ.’

Here Francis appears as a revolutionary who, instead of being a servant of the system, seeks to destroy and replace it for something completely different. I will not even discuss the historical untruth of those words, which is all too obvious. St. Francis never turned against the hierarchical system of the Church, but, on the contrary, he turned his mendicant order into the most docile and efficient instrument of Papal authority. If we employ Mr Boff’s own terms, St. Francis rigorously corresponds to the definition of “reformer,” and not to that of “revolutionary.”  But that is not the point. What is truly amazing is that, according to Mr Boff, there is a clear case of protest against social hierarchy going on when Francis approaches not only the poor, but “the poorest among the poor,” that is, the lepers. But since when does leprosy choose its victims according to their social class?  Were not the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, and the king of Germany, Henry VII, son of the great emperor Frederick II and Constance of Aragon, lepers either?  Would Francis refuse to kiss a leper from a wealthy family? By artificially superimposing the idea of morbid deformity onto that of economic inferiority, Mr Boff turns the least anti-social of all gestures of Christian charity into a symbol of revolutionary hatred, and the reader, stunned by the composite image, does not even realize he has been fooled once again, and ends up buying as pure Catholic theology the old Marxist distinction between reform and revolution. Once his magic trick is dismantled through analysis, Mr Boff’s “liberation theology” reveals itself as nothing more than a technique for making people stupid.

This sample is enough to show that seriously discussing the theoretical content of liberation theology has only served the purpose of diverting the attention of the Roman Curia and conservative theologians away from the true nature of the liberation movement, which thrived and grew stronger as a political power in the exact measure as its intellectual pretensions were dismantled.

Intellectually and theologically, liberation theology has been dead for three decades. But it was never meant to be an intellectual and theological movement. It was and still is a political movement adorned with artificial theological pretexts of unmatched frivolity, which were driven into the waters of Rome as a “piranha’s bullock.” The herd crossed the river, took over the whole territory, and there are no land-dwelling piranhas that can pose a threat to it.

Granted, liberation theology is dead, but its corpse, raised to the top of the chain of command, rests all its weight upon an entire subcontinent, oppressing it, choking it, and blocking all of its movements. Today, Latin America is governed by a cadaver.


Translated from the Portuguese by Alessandro Cota.


[i] Boff, Leonardo, op. cit,  p. 167.

Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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