Latin American Theology

Roots and Branches

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Maria Clara Bingemer
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , June
     128 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Consistently emphasizing the concept of the preferential option of the poor as the theocentric demand of Christian thought and practice, Maria Clara Bingemer provides an accessible and concise introduction to liberation theology in Latin America in Latin American Theology: Roots and Branches. While she frequently draws upon the works of Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Jon Sobrino, Bingemer contends that liberation theology was never simply an academic expression, but that it has always been an ecclesial practice grounded in, and oriented toward, the poor.

Bingemer traces the roots of the spiritual privileging of the poor in liberation theology beyond the first liberation treatises by Gutiérrez, to the “Pact of the Catacombs,” a document signed by, among others, a group of Latin American bishops on the eve of the conclusion of Vatican II. That document, whose translation she includes, specifies manifold ways in which the signatories committed themselves to living in evangelical poverty.

Although she identifies the conceptual roots of liberation theology with the discussions, documents, and events associated with Vatican II, Bingemer locates the source of liberation theology within a mystical experience of the divine that involves encounters with the poor. Specifically, Bingemer addresses how the reality of poverty—a social plague that engulfs more than one-third of the people in Latin America—can become a theological method, in addition to its provocation of acts of ecclesial compassion. The poor become the theological subject because they manifest the presence of the divine, and the poor become the core concept by means of Christians identifying with and advocating for them. In that regard she enumerates ways to express solidarity with the poor: by engaging in practices that move beyond providing them with economic relief and  into developing habits for establishing their social recognition; by alternating work-week commitments to one’s family and career with weekend opportunities, for example, to live among the poor and to assist them personally and directly; and most dramatically, by incarnating oneself as poor, living completely with them in their conditions of deprivation and distress while working to relieve their plight.

Beyond providing a historical overview of the emergence of liberation theology and an evaluation of its mission, Bingemer analyzes its viability in Latin America for the twenty-first century. She criticizes the rejection of liberation theology by Pope John Paul II given its use of marxist language and methods, and she reproves former proponent Clodovis Boff for his renunciation of liberation initiatives due to their political objectives. Despite these significant setbacks to the possible growth of liberation theology, Bingemer avers that in Latin America liberation, theology has branched out in several constructive ways. It thrives in the development of the new theological school theología del pueblo in Argentina, a people’s theology of the poor that has influenced Pope Francis. It continues its spiritual and political protests in the work of basic ecclesial communities, its challenge of the systemic violence perpetrated by expansive gangs and drug cartels, and its generation of ecofeminist theology, which utilizes the testimonies of the marginalized poor as a source for spiritual reflection. Bingemer also suggests that in liberation theology’s dialogue with indigenous religions, Christian theology can discern common ground with its understanding of the aim of the kingdom of God—to build a better life for everyone and all the Earth.

Yet, missing from Bingemer’s list of outgrowths of and tangents to Latin American liberation theology is identification of mestizo theology (in the works of Virgilio Elizondo), mujerista theology (in the works of Ada María Isasi-Díaz), and theologies dealing with immigration and border issues. Even so, in short space Bingemer provides an engaging and illuminating introduction to liberation theology in Latin America and to its trajectories that address the socio-political and spiritual conditions of the poor.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph L. Price is the Genevieve Connick professor of religious studies at Whittier College.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maria Clara Bingemer is professor in theology at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro. Among her works in English are (as coauthor), Mary: Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, and (as co-editor), Witnessing: Prophecy, Politics, and Wisdom.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.