Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Paolo Freire and Liberation Theology

Connecting and Diverging Themes of Liberation Education
and Liberation T

Without knowing well enough the histories of these two traditions of thought and action, and how they might have influenced each other or grown out one from the other, it is still possible to summarize their respective efforts and examine where the ideas of Liberation Theology and Liberation Education may converge and where they may differ.
Paolo Freire’s elucidation of Liberation Education hinges on several key points. First, he speaks of conscientization, or the development of the consciousness of the oppressed to the point of recognizing their position in society and the causes of it, with a view to changing it. Freire writes, “Conscientization
Paolo Freire
implies…that when I realize that I am oppressed, I also know
I can liberate myself if I transform the concrete situation where I find myself oppressed…conscientization implies a critical insertion into a process, it implies a historical commitment to make changes.”[1] Freire also speaks of praxis as reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.[2] Thus, the ideas of conscientization and praxis are two possibilities for the human being that form the basis for a pedagogy of liberation.

On these two points, Liberation Education and Liberation Theology seem to share common elements. Gustavo Gutiérrez remarks that a new phenomenon is taking place in Latin America; that by means of progressive organizations (perhaps referring to efforts like Friere’s ?), “the poor begin to realize their poverty and become conscious of its causes.”[3] Thus, Liberation Theologians focus their reflection on the relationship between the gospel and social justice and formulate an active Christian theology which manifests as political activism on behalf of the poor. This theology emphasizes the concept that God has a "preferential option for the poor"[4] that must be carried out in Christian praxis—that the grace and salvation of Jesus can be understood through the situation of the poor.[5] Gutiérrez, in his essay Renewing the Option for the Poor, touches on several points that are also contained in Freire’s concept of Liberation Education. He stresses the importance of solidarity, that the realities of poverty must be seen and transformed, that the poor must be brought out of anonymity, and that they must participate in their own salvation and cure.[6] Liberation Theology sees this type of self-actualization as part of God's divine purpose for humankind[7] whereas Freire, from a more secular perspective, might call the process of self-actualization human potential rather than divine purpose. It seems plausible to assert that Freire’s Liberation Education is a practical, secular manifestation of Liberation Theology.

I’m not sure, from our readings, that I can determine on what points the two efforts diverge. Both embraced the concept of political empowerment of the poor. However, on certain points that are essential to Freire’s work, the question arises as to how they would be perceived or to what extent they could be practiced by Liberation Theology. One of these points is the concept of problem-posing education. Liberation Theology was clearly a radical and highly controversial movement within the Catholic Church, but because of its affiliation with a religious institution, the movement was ultimately subject to Papal authority in Rome. Liberation Theology was rejected by the Vatican in large part because of its Marxist emphasis on materialism and for its politicization of the figure of Jesus as the liberator of the oppressed. As Pope John Paul II stated, “this conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechesis.” [8] I question to what extent Freire’s problem-posing model could be pursued in the context of Christian doctrine (or doctrine of any sort) where a particular understanding of Truth is seen as authoritative. The idea of problem-posing education also seems to be in conflict with the concept of evangelization, an important component to the Christian effort, according to Gutiérrez in his essay, The Task and Content of Liberation Theology.[9]

Another important concept in Freire’s understanding of Liberation Education is the dissolution of the teacher/student dichotomy with the aim of eliminating or equalizing the hierarchical structure of the educational system. This again is a notion that does not jibe with Catholic doctrine and I am curious to understand how the Liberation Theologians would consider this suggestion or how they would reconcile it with the practices of the church. For these reasons, though clearly influenced by his Christian roots, I think Freire was wise to pursue his movement for Liberation Education outside the confines of religious doctrine.

A third possible divergence is implied in the degree of political action taken on behalf of the poor versus by the poor. While both Liberation Theology and Liberation Education seem to promote political and social liberation of the oppressed, Liberation Theology describes the elimination of the immediate causes of poverty and injustice as a Christian mandate which implies a larger effort on behalf of the poor by those in solidarity with them. Freire’s model seems to focus more closely on empowering the poor to act on behalf of themselves in their immediate communities. While I think Freire would agree that the immediate causes of poverty and injustice should be addressed, he does not have the benefit of the infrastructure of the Catholic community, for example, on which to rely for action. Thus, the action for Freire must be undertaken by the poor themselves, and the poor can be helped by those in solidarity with them through the process of conscientization which happens through problem-posing.

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