I have nothing insightful to add, but I will say: When the life, safety, food and clothing and shelter, or very basic human dignity of not only *oneself* but one’s *community* are under threat by the dominant culture, personal spiritual salvation may not be one’s primary concern. It’s in these conditions that political change becomes an inextricable part of life. Before one works on one’s personal relationship with God it is necessary to see oneself as a child of God, and that is kind of difficult when the wider society is constantly denying you that in ways big and small. Gutierrez put it more succinctly: “I desire that the hunger for God may remain, that the hunger for bread may be satisfied…Hunger for God, yes; hunger for bread, no.” Secondly, on a more personal note: liberation theology is wider than Catholicism and maybe even—but I’m parroting “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus”, as someone said in a rather different context. I am a Jew, an atheistic/humanistic kind of Jew, and the Jewish tradition has never really been very big on sin or individual salvation or resurrection. What is central is seeking justice and collective liberation (the only kind, yeah?) in the *olam ha-zeh*, this world. The “materialistic” slant of liberation theology may put off some Catholics, but from a Jewish perspective it is perfectly natural and not particularly areligious. I am also a socialist in the good old Canadian tradition, so, you know, hella biased.
The problem isn’t redistribution of wealth or that they’re too liberal economically. The Church does in fact call for redistribution of wealth. Caritas in Veritate addresses this, as do several other Church documents.
Liberation theology’s problem is that it, due to its Marxist roots, tends to have a materialist anthropology that is inconsistent with Christian beliefs and as a result tends to place salvation within this life—ie, Jesus came to save us from oppressors, not from sin/death.
As far as I know it’s not really especially connected to Jesuits. Gustavo Gutierrez is a Dominican, Oscar Romero was diocesan, etc.
Ratzinger addressed liberation theology here.
Faced with the urgency of certain problems, some are tempted to emphasize, unilaterally, the liberation from servitude of an earthly and temporal kind. They do so in such a way that they seem to put liberation from sin in second place, and so fail to give it the primary importance it is due. Thus, their very presentation of the problems is confused and ambiguous. Others, in an effort to learn more precisely what are the causes of the slavery which they want to end, make use of different concepts without sufficient critical caution. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to purify these borrowed concepts of an ideological inspiration which is compatible with Christian faith and the ethical requirements which flow from it.
Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Elacuria were Jesuits, the latter was one of the major thinkers of the method behind liberation theology as well as one of the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador.
The problem with Ratzinger’s approach is that he doesn’t treat the systemic injustice within society as sin; by saying that unjust social structures come first and sin comes second he himself profoundly misunderstands the argument of liberation theologians. There is no justice first, salvation second; in liberation theology, the search for a living world free from systemic oppression is identified with the Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of. Salvation and liberation are not identical, per se, but they are each necessary. You cannot have salvation without liberation, and liberation leads to salvation.
Also to speak of liberation theology as being a Marxist ideology misunderstands the place of Marxism in Latin American society at the time of liberation theology’s birth. Many intellectuals, both Christian and non-Christian, used Marxist principles to understand the place they were in. For the liberation theologians like Sobrino, Boff, Guteirrez, etc Marxism presented tools to look at the society they lived in and understand the ways in which there were existing class conflicts.
In addition liberation theology is not limited to the Latin American situation, but is a truly global theology which seeks to understand issues of social justice and oppression. It cannot even be said that its origin is in Latin America, because black American theologians were using liberation as a theme around the same time without any real communication between the two cultures. Liberation theology is a method of doing theology that takes seriously Jesus’ proclamation that “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.” In Latin America in the 1960s, this was considered to be the poor and indigenous who were persecuted by unjust governments and US backed death squads. As time went on, this expanded to specifically women’s issues, as women’s voices became more included in liberation theology’s discussions and was no longer considered to be side issues. The founder of mujerista theology, which is a womanist method of doing liberation theology, recently died actually and her role in bringing women’s issues to the mainstream of liberation theology can’t be underestimated.
In America today there are liberation theologies of the disabled, of those who are queer, black, Asian, Latin@, womanist theologies, feminist theologies, etc etc. It is linked in some places to Marxism, but it has never been married to Marx’s views of political reality and in most cases has since surpassed Marxist view of social conflict. Issues of race, class, gender, orientation, disability, etc are at the forefront while Marx is considered only if and when he is relevant.