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Religious Changes in Peru:
The Rise of Liberation Theology

Ulf Borelius
Sociology Department
Göteborg University, Sweden
May 2001

My research looks at the rise of liberation theology in Peru. Liberation theology aims to establish the relation between human emancipation and the kingdom of God. Moreover, it is a socially engaged theology that gives preference to the oppressed poor. By making an integrated analysis of the experiences of churchmen and of the objective social structures that form the necessary conditions for these experiences, I hope to contribute to a greater understanding of the changes within the Peruvian Church in general, and the theological field in particular. Special consideration is given to the social trajectory of the Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who was one of the founders of liberation theology in the late 1960s and who has since been the most important and influential liberation theologian in Peru.

Liberation theology has its specific history in each Latin American country. Peru was one of the first countries in which it emerged, and at an early stage it had a great impact on the development of the Church.

The main analytical tools used in my study are the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's key concepts: field, habitus and capital. According to Bourdieu, human practice can be explained and understood through an analysis of the relation between social positions, “habitus,” a system of cognitive and motivating structures and a product of life-long experiences that are always made from a specific social position, and stands taken by the agents in the various spheres of practice. A social position is always part of a system of objective power relations between social positions, i.e. a field that is above all characterized by struggle and differences in habitus as well as in possession of different forms of capital (resources) - economical, cultural, educational, social, etc.

I propose in my study that the underlying principle of the development of Gutiérrez's liberation theology is to be found partly in the formation and development of his habitus and partly in the Peruvian field of theologians in which he occupies a social position. However, I can only present preliminary findings, since my research is still in progress.

When he first produced his liberation theology, Gutiérrez did not occupy a dominant social position in the field of theologians, meaning that legitimate power within this sphere was in the hands of theologians other than him. It is a position that corresponds to that occupied by the lower classes in society. This correlation may partly explain why Gutiérrez opts for the poor and lower classes in his theology.

Gutiérrez represented something new within the field of theologians. Almost all other theologians were foreigners and members of religious orders. Most had a doctorate in theology and some even had a doctorate in philosophy or some other subject. They generally worked full-time at the Faculty of Theology in Lima, teaching theology to students who were mainly candidates to the priesthood. Gutiérrez, on the other hand, was a Peruvian and a secular priest. He had a licentiate in theology and psychology, and worked part-time at the Catholic University, where he taught theology to students majoring in subjects other than theology. He also worked as an advisor to the National Catholic Student Organization.

While analyzing the development of Gutiérrez's habitus, my research has revealed that the biographical facts and information previously held about Gutiérrez were defective and contradictory. One reason is that many of the biographical texts tend to take on the character of heroic stories and consequently circulate myths rather than measuring up to scientific and analytic research.

The development of the Peruvian field of theologians not only depends on its own dynamic but also on the development within the national and transnational Church and the development within the Peruvian socio-economic and political context. In the second half of the 19th century, the social position of the Church in Peru deteriorated, leading to a crisis in the growth of clergy and laity and creating a worsened economy. The number of native priests decreased markedly and the social composition of the priesthood changed as well, with an increase in the proportion of priests from lower social classes. This development presumably facilitated the break up of the ancient alliance between the Church and the economic and political elite.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Peruvian Church gradually became more preoccupied with the situation of the poor. The papacy and the permanent Episcopal Council of Latin America (CELAM), played an active role during this process of change, which principally began with the gathering of Latin American bishops in Rio de Janeiro in 1955. The arrival of great numbers of foreign missionaries during this period also contributed greatly to these changes, since the missionaries were, in general, promoters of change and mediators of new religious ideas.

New religious and secular movements in the 1950s and 1960s challenged the Peruvian Church's monopoly of legitimate power to define and form the practice and world-view of the lay people. To retain its religious influence over the popular sector, the Church had to adjust its message to the religious and temporal interests of the lower social classes.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), apart from implying new theological and pastoral ideas, brought new social relations within the Church. The theologians were given a new position in the Church by which they received greater freedom and more influence over the religious message of the Church. Simultaneously, the Roman Curia was weakened significantly, at least temporarily. This development provided space within the Peruvian Church, as well as within the global Church, for new theologies and theological experiments.

Finally, liberation theology in Peru seems to have emerged as a result of the relation between Gustavo Gutiérrez and the field of theologians. At the same time, the field of theologians developed within a greater context of religious and social changes in Peru.