Book Review: Novak – Will it Liberate?

Novak, Michael. Will it Liberate? (1991) Kindle Edition

Liberation theology was one of those things I heard about while growing up, but never understood what it was. Nailing hot tapioca pudding to a tree seemed easier than finding a clear definition of what this Latin American thing was. Well, it turns out that’s in part because the proponents of Liberation Theology didn’t agree among themselves precisely what it espoused, and their beliefs changed over time. Michael Novak’s book, the third in a series about theology and political economy, answers those questions and points out the flaws in the very premise of Liberation Theology. He also shows how Classical Liberalism is not, despite what its critics claimed, incompatible with a Christian life and a just and successful society.

Novak (1933-2017) was a student of Roman Catholic theology and economics, observing the tensions in the church over the Second Vatican Council (aka Vatican Two) and the disputes concerning how to respond to calls for social justice without supporting Marxism. One of the observations I found wryly amusing in Will it Liberate was the Latin American clerics proclaiming that Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) did not understand Marxism properly and were too European in their condemnation of Marx and Communism. Of all the people to have “street creds” to balk at trying to bring Marxism into Christian life, those two men would seem to have the best bona fides.

According to Novak, the problem the liberation theologians faced was trying to balance the materialistic and anti-Christian ideals of Marx with Christianity. Because the Latin American priests, monks, and nuns had never studied the ideas of the classical liberals such as Adam Smith, Jefferson, John Stewart Mill, Hayak, and other thinkers, they assumed that the statist, top-down economies of Latin America were capitalist, and that the worst of consumerism, greed, and corruption stemmed from US and European interventions in the rest of the world. Latin America’s elites, with help from the Yankees, had impoverished the people of South and Central America. Christian teachings demanded that people help those in need and provide justice. That Novak agrees with. However, some of the theologians went so far as to claim that armed revolution and the forced appropriation and redistribution of land and property were justified by the Scriptures and that the ends justified the means. Here Novak balks.

What Novak does is start by laying out the beliefs of the liberation theologians in their own words, summarizing some of their ideas. This is the most useful part of the book if you just want a quick synopsis of the main thinkers in the movement. Then he starts taking their arguments apart, comparing them to what Marx wrote and what the actual situation in Latin America was. More state control, Novak argues, will not help the poor and those in need. More room for innovation, for enterprise, less state rigidity and less state corruption are actually the cure for many of the real ills described by the theologians. Instead of the quasi-medieval top-down traditional economic system of the lands from Mexico south, classical liberalism and the rule of law, less government control over the economy, and more room for individual achievement. Not Marxism, but Smith and Mill, will uplift the poor and help bring down the haughty and corrupt.

The last third of the main text is an outline for a strong, doctrinally sound response to Liberation Theology and a sort of blue print for rebuilding society. Novak agrees that the US and Europe are perhaps too individualistic at the cost of community and family strength, too rich in material things and poor in cultural and spiritual goods. But Communism, and violent Marxism is not the answer or the cure.

Because the book was originally written in 1986, then updated in 1991, some of it reads out dated. The theologians Novak studied changed their tune a little as they watched and learned, and saw the horrible warning that developed in Nicaragua. As much as people hated Pinochet and other authoritarians, they didn’t want to be the next Guatemala, El Salvador, or Nicaragua, either. Novak spoke with one of the Liberation Theologians, and while they agreed to disagree, vehemently disagree, the men shared mutual respect and an awareness of the great need for change and improvement.

I recommend the book for those looking for information on what Liberation Theology was and is (because it has not gone away entirely), and those studying the history of that period in Latin America. It is also a good corrective to some of the arguments we hear now about how impoverished US culture is and how western civilization is just greed wrapped around nothing. Novak uses secular as well as Christian sources, and his notes and bibliography are a treasure trove.

I also recommend his later book, On Two Wings, where he argues that the United States was founded with two philosophies: classical liberalism and Christianity. You might disagree with his thesis, but it is a well-written and thoughtful book.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the publisher or the author’s estate.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Novak – Will it Liberate?

  1. Liberation theology and feminism have combined to destroy most of America’s churches. That’s why people are leaving the churches – because the churches have abandoned the teachings of Christ.

  2. Sounds like good reading. I want to see if he argues for the separation of State from Church. When El Jefe’s brother or first cousin is His Excellency the Bishop, there is no recourse for justice, and revolt is the only outlet. The Spanish practices in the New World were informed by the centuries of the Reconquista in the Old World, and the continued fighting by the Christian states on the Mediterranean against the Turk. A less rigid top-down structure similar to France or Central and Northwest would have helped, but that needed some breathing space which wasn’t there.

    • I have a summary history of South America (from Colombia south) that argues Latin America went from the Medieval system to the modern without the Renaissance or Enlightenment to temper things. When in doubt, everyone looks for their feudal lord to fix things. Or now, the caudillo or strong man.

      • This arguement has merit. Also that it has always been this way (not really, but to most of the locals it is much closer to consistent than in other places like the US) and so this is the way it is always/supposed to be.

      • That sounds right, going from king, viceroy, and lord to President/Dictator and El Patron. Tribute and gifts become bribes or ‘la caja’.

  3. I will not wax wroth about the current Bishop of Rome.
    I will not wax wroth about the current Bishop of Rome.
    I will not wax wroth about the current Bishop of Rome.

      • I just keep reminding myself that crowd-funding a mercenary force to conquer Vatican City and clear out the corruption is not legal.

        • Do some research on Swiss as mercenaries, going back to the 16th century. There were excellent reasons to let the cantons stay neutral and keep them out of wars. Ferocious was an understatement. The Vatican is protected by the Swiss Guards, and they’re not ceremonial. Worse, they can call home for more, if the contract is expanded and paid.

          I prefer to pray for change and a temple clearer.

          • The need to overcome the Swiss Guard was why I’d factored in the need to crowd-fund a mercenary group. Though I suppose simply nuking Vatican City, or hitting it with something like an FAE, might suffice. It’d be a bit disappointing to lose all that art and history, though.

            • You do know that even hitting the Pope is a sin that can only be absolved by a pope? (Unless you’re talking self-defense, of course.)

              Put the pope in a medical coma — that would be a medieval/Renaissance thing, if they had had the technology. (Although probably not advisable, especially since the guy has weak lungs.)

              Kidnapping would probably be safest, especially since the guy has a history of tooling off to do his own thing; but it would almost have to be an inside job by Vatican physical staff, and it would also ruin a lot of stuff for successors.

              But yeah, even David declined to do anything to Saul. Just wait it out, and do as much good as you can where you are. Popes are important, but they are just servants and vicars. They are supposed to strengthen the brethren; but if they’re not doing a good job of it, the brethren shouldn’t let that weaken them.

            • Anyway, the most effective technique for pope control is to be a saint, and then pray for the pope. And If he doesn’t listen, you just keep praying until the next one does.

              It worked for St. Catherine of Siena; It was only a few popes later when one got the message.

        • Vatican City is a nation state. Nation states can war with nation states.

          If Trump can be justly hanged for the treasonous collusion of praising Putin too heavily, and condemning him too weakly, what of a number of American Catholic federal officials? Decisions made by judges and bureaucrats could be understood as acts of sabotage carried out as part of a de facto state of war with Vatican City. If Buddha crosses your path, kill Buddha.

          More seriously, Roberts’ votes to preserve Obamacare could be explained as partly the influence of the apparently corrupt archdiocese of Washington. (Thomas, Alito, and the late Scalia seem to have been a little more resistant to that, if it was in fact employed.) It would be interesting to find out more about the practice of Catholicism in the FBI. America is only about a fifth Catholic. If there is truth to this speculation, there are potentially votes to do something about it. If the matter escalates to that point, we will have a huge can of worms to deal with. I wish I had a viable recommendation, but I’m blank.

            • Look at it in the context of a possible second civil war, or the United States stressed to the point of requiring a change to the prohibition on religious tests or to some other part of the Constitution. Extreme Greens being one religious group whose drives are extremely conflicting. Islam is another obvious possibility. Lenin and Stalin were basically Popes of the communists, with the Soviet Union as their Vatican City. At what point of US citizen practice of the communist religion does war with the Soviet Union become unthinkable?

              Okay, judging by works of individual believers, maybe Catholicism is different from those other religions. Yet, I can think of seemingly decent people who are environmentalist, Muslim, or at least communist sympathizing. (I may be a poor judge of human beings.)

              The Catholic church has alienated populations before by sponsoring political interventions. My understanding is that their backing of a Spanish prince’s rule in the Netherlands influenced the formation of the Dutch Republic.

              Francis has a great opportunity to persuade people with his actions. I’m not convinced his judgement in that is great.

              I like turning stuff up to 11, or even 12. I’m not sure I’ve even got up to 10. 8 or 9 are possible.

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