Per Caritatem

Faith and IdeologiesSilas Morgan brings us the sixth post in Percaritatem’s Liberation Theology Blog Series, which focuses on the work of Juan Luis Segundo. Morgan’s post will continue with a second post in which he engages Slavoj Zizek’s political-theological use of ideologue critique, highlighting continuities and discontinues between Zizek and Latin American liberation theology, as exemplified in Segundo’s position below.

Brief Academic Biography:

Silas Morgan is an Arthur J. Schmitt Fellow at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois. His research focuses on the relation of ideology to theology in political-theological perspective. He is also a section editor at Syndicate Theology.


In its original and classic variation, Latin American liberation theology (LALT) took its point of departure largely from Marxian social analysis, a matter that, although it is of historical and theological contention, continues to mark its sociopolitical and economic trajectory today.[1] This led early liberation thought to articulate a theopolitical partiality towards oppressed and marginalized communities of the poor, developed in relation to several grassroots social movements. This interpretation of the meaning of praxis within the immediate material conditions of Latin American life was theologically legitimated in various ways, most commonly through a political hermeneutic that relied heavily on Marxist principles.[2] The reception of Marxism, however, was uneven from the start, and became a major sticking point as Vatican leaders and other critics began their efforts to resist the growth of liberation theology in Latin American communities.[3]

One of the primary sites of this uneven reception and usage of Marxism by LALT is the concept of ideology critique. Even casual observers may note that ideology critique ought to be front and center of all liberation theological work. Fueling the Marxist critique of capitalism, specifically the bourgeois control over social relations and productive relations, ideology critique gives weight to liberation theology’s landmark characteristics: its prioritization of praxis, its suspicion of institutional and structural elements in contemporary society and politics, and finally, its desire to realize material conditions of freedom and responsibility for political subjects, notably the Latin American poor. And yet, the attention to ideology and ideology critique in LALT is absent and cursory at best.

One exception is the Uruguayan Jesuit Juan Luis Segundo. His explicitly methodological works, The Liberation of Theology[4]and Faith and Ideologies[5], discuss the relation of faith to ideology as a matter of serious theological and pragmatic import. Here, I hope to briefly overview Segundo’s position on ideology. In a subsequent post, I critique his position, contrasting it with major developments in the theory of ideology within critical theory, namely Slavoj Zizek, whose political theology has important continuities and discontinues with the Latin American liberation tradition.

What is ideology critique, according to Segundo, and what is its relation to the faithof liberation theology? Defining ideology critique is difficult, even for its proponents.[6] Raymond Guess discusses two major perspectives: (a) the negative and pejorative usage, exemplified in the narrow, critical Marxist definition, and (b) the positive and general usage, proffered by Paul Ricoeur.[7] Whereas for Marx ideology is the forceful use of distorted ideas that conceal the real workings of a system so as to directly benefit the interests of the powerful, Ricoeur sees ideology as an integrative force that binds a social group together around common values and goals.[8] It is a group’s collective opinion, its rhetorical performance of its positioning, “within”which a particular group thinks and acts: ideology is an integrative schematic for identity that it defines what membership and inclusion. It constitutes the social body as such.[9]

Where does Segundo fit in here? A major theme of the method outlined in the Liberation of Theology is a radical “reideologization”that seeks to properly link faith to ideology for liberative purposes.[10] He defines ideology as “all systems of means…that are used to attain some end or goal.”[11] But this strategy is not meant to liberate authentic Christian faith from the clutches of ideology, but rather to argue for its necessity. Ideology, according to Segundo, is neither false consciousness or illusion, nor is it solely a tool of class struggle. Ideology is the concrete means to achieve and actualize the basic system of goals and values, held by individuals and social groups alike.[12] Without ideology, any real action in history would be impossible.

And so, we see that Segundo aligns his position with the latter of the two views outlined above, although he does try to connect his work to the Marxist legacy by building this theology of liberation on a general philosophical anthropology.[13] Faith has a central place here, but again it is defined in more general terms as “the anthropological constant”whereby all human persons affix themselves to a core system of values and goals that governs both social agency and personal identity. ‘Religious faith’ is a type of an anthropological faith that, when paired to a specific ideology, like Marxism, can be morphed into a socially transformative force that can act in history towards particular goals, using ideology to accomplish itself.[14]

Faith is “the total process to which man submits, a process of learning in and through ideologies how to create the ideologies needed to handle new and unforeseen situations in history.”[15] As “a system of values and goals” that substantiate the content and motivation of all human action, faith is the psychological mechanism through which we adopt the meaning structures that generate the horizon of our action, it requires an ideological supplement in order to be efficacious in history and the social order. Ideology helps faith actualize its goals and to realize its values. For Segundo, like Ricoeur, ideologies are not false representations of the Real, but the instruments of faith’s effective actualization in history and society. When Segundo agrees with the Marxist axiom that that all religions are manifestations of ideology[16], he does not mean this pejoratively (as Marx does). It is not a normative-based critique of religion, but a description of how faith partners with ideological means to achieve its goals. A faith without ideology is dead; it cannot be actualized in history, and so cannot become a force for change. It is impractical and in this sense, rendered impotent. This, says Segundo, is part of the problem with western theology that liberation theology rectifies.


What, then, is the relation of liberation theology to the critique of ideology? As such, Segundo contends that the goal of liberation theology vis-à-vis Christian faith is not to divest itself of ideology, but rather to clarify how best to leverage its ideology against others, and to deploy its theological resources of its faith to create and sustain new ideologies that are capable of competing against the ones that are tantamount to domination and exploitation.

The only way for a liberative Christian faith to realize itself effectively in history is through ideology. It is through ideological means that human social actors gather under a common rubric to achieve collective goals. The realization of these goals (‘Christianity’) is based on specific values (‘faith’), accomplish a set of effective means (‘ideology’). For Segundo, in contradistinction to Marx (and Gutierrez for that matter[17]), the goal of ideology critique is not to demolish or destruct ideology, but rather to understand it, to become more self-reflective about it in order to effectively challenge competing ideologies by creating alternatives. Within liberation theology, the aim of ideology critique is to think ideologically better. Put differently, it is to think ideologically in more self-informed way, so as to use ideology as a more generative and creative means of efficacy, of actualizing one’s values. If liberation theology seeks to generate radical and transformative social change, it must become more ideological, rather than less.

The ultimate aim of Segundo’s thinking on faith and ideology is to reconfigure their relationship in support of a Christianity that is socially and politically mediated, the goal of which is historically immanent: the concrete transformation of people’s lives through economic liberation. By uniting the values of the biblical gospels (faith) with its action-oriented dimensions (ideology), Segundo seeks to refashion theology as a critical social theory, with the theological commandment of neighborly love as its normative, ethical undercurrent. To do this, Segundo says, Christian faith must align itself with an ideology that is up to the task of efficaciously delivering this neighborly love into the Real.

With Segundo’s position firmly in view, my subsequent post will challenge Segundo’s ideology critique (or lack thereof), not on the basis that it is inadequately Marxist (as others have done), but on the ground that it is inadequately negative, and by that I mean, dialectical. To clarify this, I will turn briefly to Slavoj Zizek’s political-theological use of ideologue critique and outline some continuities and discontinues that I find between him and LALT, as exemplified in Segundo’s position here.


[1] LALT’s relation to Marxism has been characterized in various ways: conceptual borrowing (which may or may not include political alliance), appropriation, and strategic common ground (i.e., critique of international economic development as the cause of exploitation and alienation). What is clear is that while there is not a strict adherence to Marxist categories, liberation theologians applied principles with a loose, almost ad hoc, flexibility. For some Vatican theologians, (such as the then Cardinal Ratzinger), even this goes too far, while for others (Alister Kee), it is far from adequate. For Kee, liberation theology is not Marxist enough. It must incorporate Marxism in radically self-reflexive way, rather than simply “baptizing”its theory so as to fit its peculiar theological concerns and political aims. See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1984), andAlister Kee, Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990).

[2] Michael Löwy, “Liberation-Theology Marxism”in Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism, Jacquet Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis, ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 225. Here, Löwy gives the status of the question in reference to the Marxism of Liberation theology in Latin America, characterizes the type of usage as “‘neo-Marxists’- that is to say, as innovators who offer Marxism a new inflection or novel perspectives, or make original contributions to it.”(228) Examples include the concept of the poor, the critique of capitalism, and the affinity between idolatry critique and commodity fetishism. Unsurprisingly, absent here is the concept of ideology.

[3] Defending LALT from the Vatican critique that it was too aligned with Marxism, the Boff brothers argue that Marxism is only helpful for LATL when “submitted to the judgment of the poor and their cause.”Its relationship is one of a “decidedly critical stance.”Since Marx can be a “companion, but not a guide”, it is treated as an ‘instrument’and so liberation theologians “feel no obligation to social sciences for any use it may make, correct or otherwise, of Marxist terminology and ideas.”LALT “freely borrows from Marxism certain ‘methodological pointers’, one of which is “the mystifying power of ideologies, including religious ones.”Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 28.

[4] Juan L.Segundo, Liberation of Theology. (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books), 1976.

[5] Juan L. Segundo, Faith and Ideologies. (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books), 1984.

[6] A recent example of the plural and ambiguous meanings of ideology critique between those on the political left is the brouhaha over Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky’s dispute over the meaning of ideology critique in contemporary critical politics.

[7] Raymond Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[8] Paul Ricoeur, “Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology”, in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. ed. John B. Thompson. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 71-88ff. This more general understanding of ideology does not consider itself to impartial or neutral. Riceour, and Segundo, to point that he follows him, offers a critique of ideology but insofar as its integrative force produces an inertia that is resistant to otherness and change, and so becomes an undue legitimation of unjust forms of power (i.e., domination, oppression, exploitation).

[9] Paul Ricoeur, “Science and Ideology,”in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. ed. John B. Thompson. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 226ff.

[10] Segundo, Liberation of Theology, 116.

[11] Segundo, Faith and Ideologies, 16, also see 27-28 and 121-122, respectively.

[12] Segundo, Liberation of Theology, 154.

[13] For more on Segundo’s understanding of Marxism within his liberation theology, see Faith and Ideologies, 200ff. In Faith and Ideologies, 117, he describes Marxism alone as “an efficacy—structure which forgets the values it is serving and gets carried away by its presumed autonomy and so will lose the achievement—ordered efficacy it exhibited at the start.”

[14] Segundo, Faith and Ideologies, 75.

[15] Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, 120.

[16] Segundo, Faith and Ideologies, 39.

[17] Although Gutiérrez does not offer a robust account of ideology critique, he clearly operates with a much more negative and critical – so Marxist – theory of ideology. See Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1973), 12, 234-235.


Having read my first Žižek book, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, this past semester in a faculty/student reading group, I have to say that, among other things, I am not quite sure what to make of his reading of the “feminine” or “femininity.” Likewise, and this is my caveat  prefatory disclaimer, my knowledge of Freud and Lacan is limited, both of which seem fundamental to Žižek’s reading of women.  With that said, here are a few of the questions that arose as I read chapter 3 of the aforementioned book.  On the one hand, in this work generally speaking, Žižek seems to manifest (problematic) dichotomizing tendencies such as the following:  Judaism verses Christianity, masculinity verses femininity, the “male” religion of Judaism verses the “female” orientation of Christianity—for example, the Pharisees have a “male” approach to the Law and the world, whereas Jesus’ attitude toward the Law expresses a “female” sensitivity. Also, I wonder whether for Žižek, female or femininity ultimately translates into a lack?  What does it mean that Žižek situates woman on the side of the “real” and men on the side of the “symbolic”?  Does it mean that womens’ material existence must ultimately be negated, extinguished?  He seems to suggest that desire is always focused on loss and thus has an intimate relation with the death drive.  If this is the case, why should we accept that claim?Zizek on Toilet

If lack always equals loss for Žižek, then I wonder whether this “loss-logic” is part of his misread of Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross (von Balthasar writes an entire book on the positive theological meaning of the Godforsakeness of God, viz. Mysterium Paschale)?  Contra Žižek, couldn’t Jesus’ cry of “desire” for the Father arise out of a plenitude rather than a lack—a love that is willing even to go to hell in order to stand in solidarity with humans who have freely rejected God?

Also, the Catholic Christian tradition holds that materiality is ultimately redeemable because of its “connection” to the divine.  We see this is the sacrament of the Eucharist, which occurs again and again—the material revealing the divine which can never be exhausted.  Here the material (including the female body) has value then because of this connection with divine plenitude.  If I am not mistaken, I believe that John Milbank offers a critique of Žižek along these lines:  he cannot be a consistent materialist because matter ultimately has value only by virtue of participation in the divine.

On the other hand, perhaps Žižek could be read, following Lacan, as saying something along these lines. In Žižek:  A Very Critical Introduction, Marcus Pound, having commented on the un-representability of feminine sexuality, goes on to explain, “there is no objectifying trait that defines woman as a whole in the way that castration defines men as a whole” (107); this is the meaning of Lacan’s claim, “The woman does not exist” (107).  The idea is that men share a common identity as “castrated,” whereas women have no such common unitary trait. Theirs is the logic of the “Not-All.” Thus, they cannot be reduced to mothers or simply the “other set” to men.  Rather, they are the “open-set” (108-9).  If this is Žižek’s point, then I find it much more appealing and worthy of further development, as it navigates around a dichotomizing and ultimately subject-less view of women and avoids some of the problems noted above.

However, I must say that generally speaking Žižek’s work has a—how shall I put it—rather phallocentric aura about it.  At the end of the day, I’m with Foucault and find these psychoanalytic Freudian hand-me-down-ism-inspired theories to be misguided and part of the social construction of a particularly modern subject seeking in a supposed “hidden, repressed” sexuality the ultimate meaning of life.  Nonsense.  There’s no doubt about it, though– Žižek is quite entertaining.  Let me end my musings in the “spirit” of Žižek-ese:  could it be that “women” in fact do share a “unitary trait,” namely, menstruation?  If so, then is Pound’s more positive reading of Žižek’s view on women negated?  There you have it, the “orthodox fox” deconstructs the Slovenian “rock star” philosopher.