Liberation theology's obituary has already been written by its enemies. "The fall of the European governmental systems based on Marxism turned out to be a kind of twilight of the gods for that theology," the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has declared. And the subject barely featured in dispatches from the Pope's recent visit to Brazil.
During the 1970s and 1980s it was international news. The Committee of Santa Fe, a policy group close to President Reagan, advised in 1980: "US policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is utilised in Latin America by the `liberation theology' clergy." When the Catholic head of the CIA, William Casey, met with Pope John Paul II to talk about Poland, the Latin American church was on the agenda.
In the Cold War context, and in the aftermath of Fidel Castro's guerrilla success in Cuba, the opponents of liberation theology conducted a propaganda campaign to project it as the bastard offspring of Christianity and Marxism, as Communist infiltration of the Church. So the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the electoral defeat of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, were together proclaimed as the last nail in liberation theology's coffin.
This at least is the Vatican's authorised version of history. The dragon is slain. The new dragon is religious relativism, the idea that the world's religions represent different ways to God, and it does not matter much which one you choose.
What really happened is somewhat more complicated. Liberation theology grew out of the faith, struggles, sufferings and hopes of the poor. The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, one of its founding fathers, took as his starting point the profoundly practical missionary question: "How is it possible to tell the poor, who are forced to live in conditions that embody a denial of love, that God loves them?" The Christian Gospel had to be about changing the world of the poor socially, economically and politically.
The crucible in which this theology was forged was the basic Christian communities; rarely more than 2 per cent of mass-going Catholics were involved in them in Latin American countries, but they were seen as inordinately threatening. They were no revolutionary cells, rather reflection on the scriptures in the light of experience was their mainstay.
By 1986 the Pope was acknowledging to the Brazilian bishops that liberation theology was "correct and necessary", but it "must constitute a new stage - intimately connected with those that have gone before". Yet he made sure none of its advocates were consecrated as bishops. The radical Christian commitment expressed in a theology of liberation had meanwhile become universally known as the "option for the poor". Its spirituality and way of doing theology recognising its specific context had entered the bloodstream of the churches and had spread far beyond Latin America.
Between 1990 and 1992, 710 new churches sprung up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, one of the biggest urban conglomerations in the world; 91 per cent of them were Pentecostal. Pentecostalism, the product of a great missionary wave of evangelical religion from California, is more plausibly presented as liberation theology's nemesis. With its championing of individual advancement, the virtues of sobriety, cleanliness, punctuality and loyalty, alongside cathartic forms of worship, it offers to insert Christians smoothly into the neo-liberal economy and arm them spiritually for the brutally competitive urban world.
It is not so much the basic Christian communities who have proved vulnerable to this assault but Catholicism as a whole. Neither liberation theologians nor conservative cardinals now have much idea how to hold on to their congregations, other than by embracing the Pentecostalist style of worship. The combination of immediate spiritual and emotional satisfaction and the longer-term promise of the glittering prizes of advanced capitalism are irresistible. The cargo stamped "Jesus Export USA" is the cult of the future.
Or is it ? One school of thought sees Pentecostalism in Latin America as halfway house to secularity. First- generation rural Catholic, second- generation urban Pentecostal, third- generation secular Yuppie.
Catholicism, as it has always done with its radicals who formed Religious Orders, has absorbed liberation theology, not without pain, and has been significantly influenced by it. But had the Vatican put its considerable weight behind the basic Christian communities and supported the liberation theologians, rather than working to neutralise them, Pentecostalism might not have had such an easy ride. Like political parties, divided Churches cannot expect to retain their members.
`Liberation Theology: Coming of Age?' is published by CIIR, 190a New North Road, London N1 7BJ, price pounds 2.50Reuse content