VATICAN CITY — To the solid, if unspoken, satisfaction of the keepers of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, the once-volatile question of liberation theology has slid quietly into the background of church thought.
In some parts of Latin America, the activist philosophy continues to attract radical priests. But overall its impact and future seem constrained by the simple fact that it has been overtaken by events.
For one thing, the Marxist analysis that underlies some forms of liberation theology is now discredited even in countries, such as the Soviet Union, where it was applied longest and hardest.
For another, most Latin American regimes whose abuses encouraged the growth of a theology of liberation no longer exist. Stroessner, Pinochet and Noriega are gone.
From his first trip abroad as pontiff in 1979, Pope John Paul II has repeatedly warned priests against radical theologies that seek social justice on the basis of Marxist analysis. Returning to Mexico last May, the Pope inveighed against "theologies of liberation that create concrete risks for the faith and for a very Christian life."
"These mistaken ideas continue generating a spirit of conflict and produce painful division," the Pope told bishops in Mexico City.
Officially, the church has no quarrel with liberation theology's demand for social justice, but it is leery of the paths by which it may be sought.
A 1984 "instruction" warned against theologies that "use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought." A follow-up document in 1986, though, acknowledged the struggle "of contemporary man as he endures oppression and yearns for freedom" and said it is "perfectly legitimate that those who suffer oppression on the part of the wealthy or the politically powerful should take action."
The Vatican also insists that, in caring for the poor, priests must not neglect the spiritual needs of the rest of their flock. Neither may they tamper with the essentials of Catholic dogma.