Marcel Clement on Liberation Theology

Silvie D. Rousseau reports that the French philosopher Marcel Clement in his youth aspired to study philosophy, but was perplexed by the plethora of modern philosophical systems opposing each other. This was not a way to advance toward truth, but rather to invite intellectual chaos. The young student’s professor counseled Clement to understand that he “had a dogmatic mindset and that philosophy could do perfectly well without absolute truth.” Years later, having discovered Aristotle and Catholic philosophy, Clement dedicated his life to philosophy and journalism. From 1962-1998 he edited the Catholic newspaper L’Homme Nouveau, through which he promoted Ultramontanism (allegiance to the special authority and powers of the papacy). Though somewhat influential in his prime, Clement’s legacy is marred by general neglect. His most significant work may be Christ and Revolution (1974) in which he seeks to refute the liberation theology that flourished in Europe and elsewhere in the era following Vatican II.

In South America liberation theology was given its first considerable impetus through the writings and influence of Catholic theologians, namely: Gustavo Gutiérrez (Dominican) Juan Luis Segundo and Jon Sobrino (Jesuits) and Leonard Boff (Franciscan). In the United States the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox advanced the cause in The Secular City. There he writes that a number of sayings of Jesus clearly convey the social message that Jesus came not just to save souls, but to establish institutions that would address the problem of poverty and oppression (this is essential to any definition of liberation theology). Very soon the Catholic hierarchy grew divided on liberation theology when it became evident that it was dangerously close to a merging of Christian theology with Marxist economics.

Sympathetic to liberation theology, Spanish Cardinal Henrique y Tarancón observed: “Among the present forms of sin, one should list some social facts, such as colonialism, cultural or economic domination, oppression, etc. The grace of God through which man is liberated from sin is not only given to him individually, but also socially, through the ecclesial community, so that it may impregnate the whole social reality.” But Cardinal Hoefner, Archbishop of Cologne disagreed. “In the New Testament, ‘justice’ signifies the just life of man before God, or the justification of man through Christ. Evangelical freedom consists not in the liberation of man from the slavery of other men, but in the liberation of man from his own sins, through Jesus Christ. I doubt whether it can be said that the liberation and development of peoples are integral parts of redemption.” Clement agreed with this position, stating that liberation theology “has strictly speaking nothing to do with the Gospel.” The focus of Jesus was on the Kingdom of Heaven, not on the kingdoms of earth. Jesus talks plenty about overcoming Satan, but not at all about overcoming the oppressive Roman Empire. In fact, Clement complains, modern sermons rarely talk much about angels and devils, but they peach plenty about social justice and the institutions that must be created to bring it about.

Socialism and the Church of Christ

Clement views that such diversions from the real mission of the Gospels, which is to create clean hearts rather than just societies, must really be in the end the work of atheists rather than Christians. Indeed, any student of history can see that wherever socialism has been tried as a way to create just societies, the life of the spirit is weak and the work of the Church is relatively ineffectual. The system of socialism under the Nazis and communism under the Soviets proved, in the end, to be the greatest of threats to the mission that Christ and his Gospel was supposed to fulfill. (The case could be made that, to the degree socialist proposals have been legislated in the Americas and Europe since the decade of the 1960s, there has been a corresponding decline of growth in the Christian churches and a general increase in moral anarchy. Is this purely coincidental?)

Yes, in one theology (the ancient Catholic one) it is certain that at least one institution was designed to produce a community in which love would produce justice and peace. That community was the Church of Christ. If that community succeeds in promoting in each of its members the vital importance of the virtue of love, justice and peace would naturally follow. “But if a man does not first change in his heart, no mere reform of a structure or system will ever solve social problems,” Clement argued. This principle is equally applicable to capitalism. But socialism, for example, no matter how pure its stated motives may be, if it is not guided by the dictates of a noble morality, will not only fail, but fail spectacularly in the fact that it will draw into its inner circles of power those who would not have the noble reasons Christ preaches to establish justice and peace in society. Any economic/political structure that emerges from a socialism bereft of Christ at its center is more likely to produce the very envy, hatred, fear and unrest that its founders supposed it was able to prevent. Perhaps not at first, but sooner or later the truth will out, and the revolutionary Gospel of Christ may well be supplanted by a revolutionary gospel of blood, sweat, and tears.

Liberation Theology

Virtually everyone loves the word “liberation.” What is there to hate about it? Everyone also likes the word “progress.” What is there to hate about it? Progress should denote a condition of bad to good, or good to better, or better to best. The ideas of liberty and progress have been with us forever. But being at liberty, or being free to do as one likes, simply must have its limits. One cannot be free to violate the natural law with impunity. While the person who does so may think he is free and has made progress in his life, it will be brought (sometimes brutally) to his attention that liberty must be modified by the laws of nature and the laws of social contracts. The most dramatic effect of Rousseau’s grandiose scheme of liberation was the French Revolution. That was a revolution that, by way of the liberal use of the guillotine, boomeranged on many of its champions. It could not have been a revolution of which Christ would have approved.

Proudhon and Marx

It was the French philosopher Proudhon, according the Clement, who gave modern socialism its first great push toward realization. Proudhon’s anti-Catholic views are summarized by Clement in his comment on Proudhon’s book Justice in Revolution and in the Church. “He attempts to set revolution in opposition to revelation and endeavors to show that the Church recognizes only a sinful and cowardly humanity, whose salvation can only come from the will of another – the will of God. Proudhon contrasts the socialist revolution to this image and puts forth the theory of liberty and justice in equality. To the system of subordination of services advocated by the Church, he opposes equality of services…. “Let her [the Church] agree to preach a new revolutionary morality to the sovereign people in her churches; let her relinquish all her possessions to the commune; let her release all monks and priests from their perpetual vows – in short, let her ‘desacralize’ herself, and do away with the clergy; let her preach the revolution, and her own salvation will be assured.” It’s very clear where Proudhon is headed. The State will supplant the Church (and therefore must be the enemy of the Church) and the new God will be Human Equality. And the way to create this new religion is not by revelation, but by revolution.

Karl Marx gets similar recognition and analysis. Not content with Proudhon’s grudging acceptance of socialism as a new religion, Marx argued for the abolishment of capitalism altogether, and all religion abandoned along with it. Marx imagined a revolution of the proletariat (the working class) that would lead ultimately to the dictatorship of that class at first, but finally to a classless society. It was Pope Leo the XIII who answered with a ringing denunciation of such utopian silliness. Did God will that all classes should disappear? Was there any indication of that anywhere in Scripture or Tradition? Was God himself to disappear from human affairs? Pope Leo replied: “Man must remain completely in a real and ceaseless dependence on God, and therefore it is absolutely impossible to understand man’s freedom without his duty of obedience to God, the submission to his will.” Pope Leo successfully established the nexus between liberalism and socialism/communism, a nexus that in modern times remains obvious enough to any student of current events.

Complete Liberation

Clement points to the so-called champions of liberation from the binding chains of the past. Rousseau established political revolution, Marx began the economic revolution, and Freud founded the sexual revolution. All three revolutions challenged the religious heritage of the ages. The more recent movement toward liberation has been the Feminist Revolution. In all cases liberation meant making Man the end of Man’s purpose for being, not God. There is no other way to account for the radical rise of atheism throughout the West. Atheism is the ultimate liberation from God, by which Man, not God, becomes the Alpha and Omega. As Clement points out, “Man aims at the transformation of society because he longs to change human nature. He wishes to abolish human subordination in political society, in social economy, and in family life because it reflects and expresses man’s ontological dependence on God.” Pope Pius XII had already sounded the alert: “The Enemy of Christ [Satan] … does and has done everything in his power to spread erroneous ideas about man and the world, about history, the structure of society, and the sphere of economics.”
(At the time he was writing, Clement had no way of knowing how radically family life would be altered by Roe v Wade and the mass holocaust of the unborn; nor how much even more radically it would be altered later by same-sex marriage, the first time in recorded history that such a freedom had been granted legal status anywhere in the world. In both cases, traditional religion was regarded as an obstacle to be overcome. Not content with these achievements, the liberals under the guise of establishing economic equality, have threatened to take over a major American political party and are openly preaching egalitarian socialism as the economic liberation of people everywhere. The case could well be made, and has been argued in the media, that the recent socialist candidate for President of the United States was only stopped from being nominated by the fact that the nominating process of his party was rigged to help his rival prevail.)

Revolutionary Liberation

Clement rightly identifies the essence of liberationist aims and goals: to overcome the tradition of the natural law stated both in the Old and New Testament and corroborated by such ancient pagan philosophers as Aristotle and Cicero, who understood natural law as a self-evident law of our human nature. But the liberationist, because he recognizes that his thesis is at odds with the Church’s teaching through the ages, must find a rationale that sugarcoats the overturning of natural law and makes redemption not the business of Christ, but of the State. According to Clement, the adjunct General Secretary of the French Communist Party cleverly enclosed the following remarks in a document distributed at the doors of hundreds of churches: “The building of a socialist party does not presuppose the universal acceptance of materialism. It presupposes something completely different: the transfer of the property of all great means of production and exchange to the state, and the exercise of power by the workers, the popular masses. Is anything in the Christian faith opposed to this? I do not believe so.”

Here we detect that the champions of socialism seek to identify their cause with the cause of Jesus Christ. But this cannot be done. Pope Paul VI firmly asserted that the solutions to social problems must not clash with the doctrines of the Church. Nor must they contradict natural law, which is consistent with those doctrines. Clement cites the words of St. Paul against the idea that equalitarianism is the ultimate goal of any society. “Do not harness yourselves in an unequal team with unbelievers. Virtue is no companion for crime. Light and darkness have nothing in common. Christ is not the ally of Belial, nor has a believer any share with an unbeliever” (II Corinthians 6:14). Certainly not all religions are equal with each other, no more so than all economic systems are equally efficient, nor all types of family structures, nor all political institutions. The dream of socialist equality for all is a dream only; but to force that dream into reality would be a nightmare.

The Revolutionist’s Gospel

Clement complains of the recent and regular publication of propaganda (such as Jacques Duchesne’s The Left of Christ with the subtitle Can one reconcile Marx and Jesus?) which was designed to persuade Catholics that in good conscience they can be Communists. Clement insists it is a fallacy of liberation theology to conflate secular liberation from inequality with spiritual liberation from sin. “… we are led to believe that the system of private property labors under an evangelical condemnation …. Christ did not come to reform temporal society. If at one point he spoke of himself as Liberator … it was analogously, in order to make it clear that the liberation from sin – liberation from spiritual slavery with a view to heaven – is more important, more desirable still, than the temporal liberation of an oppressed people.” Had he come to defeat secular oppression, he would have led the Jews to revolt against Roman oppression, which is entirely without evidence in the Gospels, yet was precisely what the Jews were hoping the Messiah would do.

The revolutionist’s gospel includes, among other doctrines, the heretical notion that we have no human nature per se. That is, we may define our nature as we see fit. We might even change it. Therefore, all institutions are subject to change. Even the Church, according to certain liberation theologians. That very effort was made, during the reign of Pope Paul VI, to insinuate that Paul had broken with previous popes on traditional Catholic doctrine, especially regarding the right to private property. Paul did no such thing. He affirmed the doctrines preached by John XXIII and Pius XII all the way back to Leo XIII regarding the right to private property. Clement warns that if the socialists take over government, it will be at the top of their agenda to persuade Catholics that they cannot be truly Catholic unless they follow the socialist gospel because it is consistent with the Gospel of Christ.

Is Property a Sin?

Clement goes on to list the demands of those who identify the commands of Christ with their demands for a socialist revolution. There are three such demands, and each must be answered separately. The first demand is that we must agree to recognize the key problem of our time, which is injustice in the world. Clement cites the Spanish document Justice and Peace as among the most extreme, ambitious, and utopian of documents emerging from liberation theology. The document asserts, “The question of justice is today the most serious and the most important for all of humanity.” This is a tall order and can only end in the crushing realization that all of humanity is not going to get the justice they deserve, and some will get considerably less than they deserve. But having established this as the mission of the Gospels (and then failing to achieve it, given our fallen nature) the world will turn on the Catholic Church and denounce it for an abominable lie. “Any effort to make them realize they have misunderstood will be in vain. They will have texts [of the liberation theologians] to prove they have been cheated.” Moreover, the proverbial cart has been placed before the horse. It is not universal justice that is the goal of the Gospels, but rather universal love. Without love, there is not even a possibility of justice anywhere.

The second demand of liberation theologians, according to Clement, is that the question must finally be raised: “Is ownership of private property itself unjust?” Having surveyed the literature of the liberation theologians, Clement finds it curiously ambiguous and open to interpretation. Whereas the word “liberation” is used frequently enough in the Gospels, it is always used in the context of being liberated from slavery to Satan, not in the context of liberating all the poor (“The poor you will always have with you.” Matthew 26:11) Certainly there is nothing in the Gospels that indicate Jesus condemned private ownership of property (though he did condemn greed). If he had seen abolishing private property (or even the means of producing wealth surrendered to the State) as the key to social justice, it would be astounding that he never mentioned it, considering that he mentioned enough other teachings that put him at odds with the merchants in the synagogues. For Clement, the liberation theologians have been reduced to an evangelical poverty of their own kind when they seek to turn the Gospels into propaganda bulwarks for socialism. And so, Clement reasons, “Never did Jesus, even in the remotest sense, preach the revolt of slaves. He brought about the conversion of their masters, and this proved to be much more efficacious.”

Socialism, Clement concludes, is a caricature of the Gospels in that it seeks to superimpose on all what all should be able to choose by virtue of their own charity, rather than the creation of hell on earth by the seizure of their property to be disposed of as the seizers like. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, there can be little doubt that totalitarian socialism, even naively backed by liberation theologians, will finally rain blood, sweat, and tears.

The third demand of liberation theologians is a necessary submission of the Christian Gospel to Marxist interpretation. If we are not with Marx, we are against Christ. This is never explicitly said, but rather insinuated in the propaganda of liberation theology. It cannot be said directly because the popes and councils of the Church have explicitly defended the right of private property, while at the same time they have preserved their prerogatives of preaching the gospel of social justice in a way that does not preclude the right of private ownership. Thus, the Church is free to exercise her right to urge and influence the coming of social justice agreed to by all the political and economic players, while at the same time being conscious that to imagine “… man will cease to be domineering, envious, jealous, covetous, dishonest, etc., if in practice the right of ownership were abolished, is an incredible flight of fancy.” The philosopher Aristotle, no Christian, is cited by Clement for seeing what some liberation theologians seem to have forgotten in the doctrine of original sin: “One hears it said that the evils actually existing in the states are attributable to the fact that goods are not possessed in common…. In reality, these evils are never caused by the lack of community goods, but by human weakness.” (Politics, Book II Chapter v)

Does Socialism Have a Human Face?

Clement does not hold back on his indictment of socialism. “In my humble opinion socialism is today the most serious temptation Christians are confronted with, and the one most threatening to their faith.” Liberation theology might ask Christians to see the human face of socialism, to see it as an alternative to the evil face of capitalism. But this either/or dichotomy seems to overlook how socialism, no matter where it has been and still is strenuously tried, seems to fall flat on its human face. Clement cites Pope Pius XI in 1931: “If socialism, like all errors, contains a portion of truth, it is nonetheless true that it rests on a theory of society of its own, and which is irreconcilable with authentic Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism are contradictions in terms: no one can, at the same time, be a good Catholic and a good socialist.” Again Clement reminds the reader: there is no human face of socialism to look forward to, as “the socialisms of Moscow and Peking have long been concentration camps from which escape is most difficult.” (Since the writing of Clement’s book, some of the more moderate socialisms of Europe have survived without concentration camps; yet one cannot fail to notice that over the last three generations Christianity has taken a great hit throughout socialist Europe, and if Christianity goes, might the concentration camps, sooner or later, return?)

Socialism Defined

Near the end of Christ and Revolution Clement addresses the difficulty of defining socialism, there being so many types of it. The critics of capitalism know pretty well what they are attacking; not so with the critics of socialism. The usual reply of socialists to their critics is that socialism can accommodate itself to many different ways of surviving in different cultures. They often point to the success of socialism, but they are hard pressed to find a case that proves their point. Capitalism with a conscience (if it will just have one) may produce more prosperity than socialism without a conscience, and there is certainly no reason why the Gospel should not be preached to the capitalists; whereas it seems that socialists today (judging by their propaganda) are gravitating away from, rather than toward, Christian values. This does not bode well for liberation theology.

No matter which version of socialism is considered, they all have the same constant feature: that the common good must be ascertained by leaders, and that citizens must submit their will to the production and distribution of common goods which is decided by those leaders.

Again, the teaching of Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno is cited: “Society, as socialism conceives it, is on the one hand impossible and unthinkable without the use of obviously excessive compulsion; on the other it no less fosters a false liberty, since in such a scheme no place is found for true social authority, which is not based on temporal and material well-being, but descends from God alone, the Creator and the last end of all things.”

Socialism with a Christian Face

Clement next proposes to show that it is the objective of liberation theology, by way of socialism, to transform the very faith that has spiritually nourished Christians. He cites the words of a worker-priest at the 1970 Pastoral Session of Lourdes. “Class struggle can become a love impulse – even violent – to destroy the sin of this world, and to transform humanity into a fraternal and upright people.” This would, of course, be an amazingly absurd interpretation of the Gospel. Clement comments on this Marxist interpretation of the Gospel: “What matters is that we are dealing with a new Christian thought, a new Christian faith, a new Christian religion…. I insist upon this point because we are dealing with a theology which is spreading full speed within the Church … it is ubiquitous, and infiltrates movements, sermons, even families, in the name of the Gospel.” The only significant sin of this new religion will be the sin of social injustice. The only significant sacrifice for that sin will be class warfare. The only significant redemption will be by totalitarian control of the state for the sake of the huddled masses.

In the chapter titled “What I Believe,” Clement remarks: “I believe that Jesus’ preference for the poor implies an invitation to immolation and self-sacrifice and, as a result, a call to reasonable temporal action to fight against misery and suffering which exist to a greater or lesser degree in all classes, and in all walks of life. This preference for the poor can never, under any circumstances, be legitimately presented as a justification for violence toward a certain class designated as oppressors, or as the justification of militant Christians to harden themselves, within the Church, to the imitation of Jesus Christ.”

Anatomy of Totalitarianism

Clement concludes Christ and Revolution with an analysis of how three main powers vie with each other in the social structure of society. These three powers – the political, the economic, and the cultural – continually perform a balancing act whereby the needs of a society are defined and met. Clement does not include the fourth power (the Church) as any longer able to play a decisive role in this process, since its one time contribution has been preempted by the cultural power (mainly massive education and media conglomerates hostile or indifferent to the role of religion in society). Under the influence of socialism, the three powers merge into one, and by this merging they achieve a totalitarian influence over society. Whereas long ago the politicians and the private sector were able to jockey for position, now they join with the cultural forces to become one overwhelming collective in which the rights and prerogatives of the person are inextricably submerged.

And so, Clement reasons, “Due to the weakness of character and their ignorance (which in social matters is often great), numerous priests and, alas, bishops, fail to raise their voices against an economic system which makes public collectivism the only axis of the social order … an omnipotent and irreversible political totalitarianism, which Christians associated with or even committed to the ideologies of socialism and communism end by helping.”

Clement does not mention it, because by 1974 the policy had not quite reached its peak effect, but in the United States Catholic colleges and universities agreed to radically diminish their accountability to the Church’s hierarchy in the Land O’ Lakes Statement of 1967. The colleges entered a phase of liberalization that resulted in the diminishment of their Catholic identity, and this done in the name of academic freedom.

The degree to which Catholic colleges have accepted federal and corporate funding suggests the degree to which the political, cultural, and economic powers combined have succeeded in muting the voice of the Catholic Church in North America. In 2008 Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska at his installation Mass remarked that the Land O’ Lakes Statement “declared that Catholic universities would become independent from the hierarchy of the Church, from any obligation to orthodoxy, and from the authentic spirituality of the Church.” If many Catholic colleges have abrogated their orthodox Catholic identity, where then is the voice of a sane orthodoxy in America to be found?
If it is arranged that the three powers (political, economic, cultural) will be combined in one bureaucratic overarching State, private property is in danger of being radically diminished under the guise that it is the Christian thing to do. The evangelical power of the orthodox Church is also in danger of being radically diminished, the following scenario may result according to Clement. “It is therefore inevitable, as soon as the system of private property is abolished, that press, radio, television, movies, publications, records, publicity, and all the forms of intellectual and artistic expression can no longer exist except through the collectivity. Every book, every broadcast will require a political decision, taken within a collectivist universe, both homogeneous and sealed hermetically. From then on, cultural and intellectual contributions, decisions about nominations, and credits granted will depend upon an uncontrollable administration, if not purges…. Religion then is subjected to the worst possible violence: the buying of its own freedom at the price of its complicity with the technique of slavery applied to a whole people.” Something of this sort prevails in China where the Communist government seeks to control the appointment of Chinese Catholic bishops. To the extent that this is tolerated by the Church, some sort of “complicity with the technique of slavery” will be evident.


Clement’s closing remarks seem fairly conciliatory. While defending the rights of labor, corporations, and religion, he recognizes that social justice is far from being universally recognized. The way to achieve that justice might be found so long as each of the three powers (politics, economics, and culture) are kept separate enough to be corrective of excesses in each other, thereby preventing a totalitarian threat to human freedom. In any case, the role of Christ’s Church is not to foment a socialist revolution. As St. John Paul II so aptly put it at the 1979 Puebla Conference in Mexico, “This idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechesis.” And again: “Whatever the miseries or sufferings that afflict human beings, it is not through violence, power-plays, or political systems but through truth about human beings that they will find their way to a better future.”

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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics