Why does the Church in Latin America support the land owners and punish priests who champion the landless, poverty stricken population?
Answer: In many countries in the world people are no longer willing to accept their conditions as unchangeable fate, especially because the unjust structures that cause oppression, illiteracy, dereliction, hopelessness and despair are the responsibility of man and can be changed by him.
Liberation theology starts with the question of how it is possible to speak of the love of God and His care of the poor in the face of the immeasurable suffering of the poor in Latin American countries, and how this suffering can be overcome through united help. These are the basic motives of liberation theology.
With its preferential option for the poor the Latin American Bishops Conference adopted a principal commitment to Liberation Theology at their general Synod in Medelin in 1968. Pope Paul VI pointed out that the vocabulary of liberation and salvation can, at some level, be understood to be the same: The word liberation deserves its place in the Christian vocabulary, not only because of its expressiveness, but because of its underlying content. (Address of 31.7.1974). Pope John Paul II here speaks especially of the Latin American Theology, which raises liberation to a basic category and guiding principle for the solution of the problems of suffering and underdevelopment.
The motivating power of the message that the aim of salvation is liberating practice, has lead to a new beginning, which attempts to bring about a change in inhuman conditions.
According to Catholic teaching it is entirely justified that those who suffer from oppression at the hands of the overlords of riches or political power apply morally acceptable means to achieve those structures and institutions in which their rights are truly respected (“Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Christian freedom and liberation”, dated 22.3.1986, 75 ff).
The moral judgment as to which means of concrete actions are be allowed in such dire situations, has to be based on focusing on human dignity and freedom. Because if the rights of freedom are not respected from the very beginning, there can be no true liberation.
Furthermore, it has to be taken into account that the command to love ones neighbor cannot be reconciled with hatred against other people, be they individuals or a community. Liberation in the spirit of the gospels allows the conclusion that someone may believe that the only legitimate resistance against unjust violence is peaceful resistance. Peaceful resistance makes it possible to show that only love leads to true freedom, while violence always leads to further violence.
It may be possible to think of peaceful resistance as a strategy, the kind of which has been lived in modern history in exemplary fashion by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Whether this path leads to success depends largely on whether those in power are able and willing to change the unjust circumstances.
Any kind of reform of structures and institutions has to be preferred to an (armed) revolution as a path towards the liberation from unjust violence, especially as in modern times, revolutions are generally linked with ideologies and result in renewed oppression and disregard for human rights within just a short period of time.
If a people is so oppressed that peaceful resistance does not bring about any changes, the right to violent resistance can be exerted as a last option, but only if there is no further alternative of (for example passive) resistance.
In his Encyclical “Populorum Progressio” (The Progress of Peoples), of the year 1967 in nr . 31 Pope Paul VI speaks of this last option and says that armed battle could be justified as a last resort to end a clearly established and long lasting reign of violence, which strongly violates basic human rights and severely damages the common good of the country. However, a systematic use of violence as a supposedly necessary way to liberation is considered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as a damaging illusion…. which opens up the way to new oppression(Instruction on Christian freedom and liberation, nr. 76).
Today, all countries and the Church are called to do their share to ensure that in no country on earth situations arise in which unbearably violent oppression forces people to liberate themselves with means they deeply abhor. (see Katholischer Erwachsenen-Katechismus (Catholic Adult Catechism). 2. Bd. Leben aus dem Glauben [Freiburg: Herder , 1995],p. 260-262).