The influence of Catholicism on social work: from classic conservatism to critical renewal

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  • 1 University of Caldas, , Colombia
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This article takes a journey through history to demonstrate the defining role of social and political conditions on the professionalisation of social work in Latin America. An analysis is made of the influence of the Catholic Church, showing the transition from classic conservative thought towards conservative modernisation and up to aggiornamento and Liberation Theology. Some specific features of the case of Colombia are presented, highlighting the experience of Camilo Torres and Golconda. Through documentary qualitative analysis the influence of the critical renewal of the Catholic Church on Reconceptualisation can be seen, clearly demonstrating the incorporation of a certain degree of Marxism that excludes a critique of political economy.

Abstract

This article takes a journey through history to demonstrate the defining role of social and political conditions on the professionalisation of social work in Latin America. An analysis is made of the influence of the Catholic Church, showing the transition from classic conservative thought towards conservative modernisation and up to aggiornamento and Liberation Theology. Some specific features of the case of Colombia are presented, highlighting the experience of Camilo Torres and Golconda. Through documentary qualitative analysis the influence of the critical renewal of the Catholic Church on Reconceptualisation can be seen, clearly demonstrating the incorporation of a certain degree of Marxism that excludes a critique of political economy.

Religion and the social question

Since the 19th century, and even before, Christianity has had to engage in wide-ranging debates regarding the divine mandates and the earthly conditions in which humanity has developed. In turn, materialist theorists have had to enter into debates that, despite apparently being due to divine causes, are founded on objective relationships. In this way, religious and political understanding has moved forward in a dialectic relationship, particularly on issues such as the social question and pauperism.

According to each strand of thought, the conditions of reproduction of social beings and the causes that give rise to such conditions can be explained through worldly or divine notions. As a result of the materialist conception of history, philosophical reflection on the existence of God grows ever closer to the objective conditions of social reproduction.

In this manner, this reflection shifts from a divine to a worldly plane, focusing more on the specific conditions of the passage of history and less on superterrestrial conceptions. However, while the social relationships built by social beings are not limited to the material plane strictu sensu, they also encompass processes of awareness; philosophical discussion of religion and God is a matter of objective, socially constructed ideas that cannot and must not be rejected out of hand.

If the concrete is a unity of being and awareness, debates regarding the existence of God are not abstract, sterile digressions, but rather objective reflections that have an impact on the subjects that believe in divine forces. In this regard, the young Marx’s approach to the subject in the first half of the 19th century was centred not on the actual existence of a God, but instead on the behaviour that emerges from such beliefs. In his ontological understanding, Marx acknowledges that God only exists as an idea, despite His ideal existence leading to objective impacts on social relationships.

In his essay On the Jewish Question, Karl Marx draws attention to the power of religion and evaluates it in its true proportions, performing an analysis that takes into account broad political dilemmas and conditions specific to private life. By assessing the progress and limitations of political emancipation and how it differs from human emancipation, Marx develops an ontological critique of the world’s religious imaginings while questioning the (abstract) difference between private and public life (an entrenched separation in modern society). Marx sets out to transcend an objective idea that lacks materiality, but that generates material divisions and objective forms of being as a result of being objective.

The analysis of the young Marx,1 criticising Bruno Bauer in late 1843, is groundbreaking when addressing the Christian state in Germany and the limits it imposed on Jewish citizens. A discussion that Bauer intended to address within the framework of religious debate was tackled by Marx in terms of the concrete objectivity of the socio-historic being: ‘We do not convert secular questions into theological ones. We convert theological questions into secular questions. History has long enough been resolved into superstitions, but now we can resolve superstition into history’ (Marx, 2009: 47). By acknowledging the division laid down by modern society between public and private life – a reflection that brings into focus the Rights of Man and of the CitizenMarx (2009) succeeds in deciphering the abstractions that the state and man (also abstract), who belongs to it, have become. Political declarations of rights by the state are far removed from the reality in which the individuals (citizens) who legitimise it operate, that is, the decisions or rights decreed by the state do not necessarily translate automatically into real guarantees or the individual actions of subjects. This is the case with religion, and with Christianity in particular, given that its affirmation or negation does not immediately and directly translate into real events.

A Christian state has no way of ensuring its citizens’ adherence to political mandates, which are mixed up with religious mandates; likewise, the secularisation of the state, or even the disavowal of religion in politics, does not eliminate the objective force that religious imaginings exert on individuals. Textually, Marx (2009: 48) proposes that ‘Therefore, the state can have emancipated itself from religion, even when the overwhelming majority of people is still religious. And the overwhelming majority does not cease to be religious simply because its religion is private.’

That said, the marked influence of religion, and particularly Catholicism, on Latin American society (in part, due to the colonial history here described) leaves an imprint on the state and on the everyday behaviour of individuals. In this way, by developing our reflection based on the Marxist tradition, a need arises to decipher, with a measure of rigour, the direct bearing of the Catholic Church on the professionalisation process of social work. In this effort, we are not starting from scratch, but instead building on the reflections made by several Latin American authors since the 1980s.2

The intention in the following is to reveal the influence and/or defining role of Catholic thought in the social, historical and professional development of social work at the Latin American level, and in Colombia in particular. Beyond any unilateral interpretation, this article analyses the influence of Catholicism on social work, even with its internal contradictions. We do not judge the identity of Catholic thought as being unchanging; while its conservative hegemony (and, at certain times or in certain sectors, a more reactionary nature) is recognised, an effort is also made to acknowledge its internal tensions, which, in some cases, have shown progressive perspectives that also influenced the critical renewal of social work in Latin America.

We aim to elaborate a reflection that will enable the direct influence of the Catholic Church on social work to be identified, not only in the most conservative or reactionary periods and expressions, but also in the profession’s most noteworthy process of questioning, known as the movement of Reconceptualisation. Finally, we reiterate the hypothesis under which we have been working for several years, which propounds the absence of a Marxist critique of political economy in the process of critical renewal of social work during the 1960s and 1970s.

Catholic conservatism and social work

As a result of the Marxist conception that took over social work in Latin America from the 1970s onwards – consolidated and fully formed in the 1980s – social work is perceived as a contradictory profession that attends to the interests of employers (the state and private capital) and the social actors with whom it works (impoverished sectors). As a salaried profession that emerged to respond to the social question, there is recognition that during the first period, it was geared towards the material and spiritual reproduction of capitalism in Latin American society. The full consolidation of capital brought with it the necessity to provide caring and moralising support for the massed ranks of the poor, who lived in the region under conditions of a peripheral and dependent form of capitalism.3

With the late consolidation of capitalism in Latin America during the first three decades of the 20th century, a short period of time is perceived to exist between the emergence of social work and its subsequent modernisation in the 1940s and 1950s. In this context, two paths in the professionalisation process of social work were favoured; nevertheless, both led to the same goal. On the one hand, the state would be the one to contribute to the full consolidation of capitalist society and its instrumental rationality by undergoing or generating deep reforms in the mode of production and social reproduction. On this path, the state was pressed to create the institutional scaffolding that ensured a controlled answer to the social demands of the working class, demands that were met by the state without altering the immanent dynamics of capital, leading to an instrumentalization of the actions of assistance, which became public policies.

On the other hand, the professionalising option inspired by the Catholic Church led to a moral and caring response to the precarious conditions of society’s most vulnerable sectors. While social work was originally inspired by the most classic (pre-modern) doctrines of the Catholic Church, the changes in Latin American society (in a transition towards the consolidation of capitalism) required the modernisation of the means, methods and even the institutions through which contact was made with those attended. As shown by Manrique (1982), the papal encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum) and Pope Pius XI (Quadregésimo Anno) were guiding doctrines for the Catholic formation of the profession in Latin America.

That said, albeit through different means, the goal and end result of both options sought to limit the political uprisings, forms of organisation and social demands of the subordinate classes. Therefore, either through Catholic social action or state action, the demands of the social classes were appropriated and taken down paths that prevented radical breaks with the capitalist mode of production and reproduction4:

As part of the strategy aimed at regaining its ideological hegemony, both the Catholic hierarchy and laypersons placed greater value on social action and the active, organized participation of the laity in social life, and for that purpose the legal and institutional mechanisms that would make it viable were created. These channels include Catholic teaching, study centres, Catholic action, universities, Catholic unions, new forms of parochial action, and so on. This response from the Church was due to the changes made in the bosom of Latin American societies, where the actions of the Catholic Church and its work through its actors were losing significant ground. (Manrique, 1982: 42)

The Catholic institutional actor that perhaps took on the most prominent role in the whole professionalisation process of social work in Latin America was the International Catholic Union of Social Service (UCISS), created in Rome in 1925. The institution set out to form technical and intellectual groups that would contribute to a response to the social question based on strict compliance with Catholic doctrine.

Due to the UCISS, the most classic and reactionary foundation of the Church was institutionally able to renew its ideology, adapting itself to the conditions of the 20th century. Catholic intervention did not shed its moralising nature, but instead reworked it, now by performing actions underpinned by technical actions with a certain degree of theoretical and philosophical conceptualisation, always within the referential frameworks of theology.

The UCISS carried out its work in three areas: internal relations; study and training; and external relations. The functions of these work fronts took the form of professional exchanges, institutional advisory services, and moral and academic debates. The main setting for international coordination that ensured the involvement of Latin American representatives would be the World Social Service Congress, which also boasted a widely distributed journal entitled Service Social dans le monde.

Manuel Manrique (1982) provides a presentation of the direct influence of the UCISS in the foundation of various Catholic schools of social service in Latin America. The first Catholic school of social service that emerged in Latin America was the Elvira Matte de Cruchaga School (EEMC), founded in Chile in 1929. Despite the differences it showed with the Alejandro del Rio School (created under state protection), both schools – the denominational and the secular – complemented each other in the task of restraining and providing a controlled answer to the demands of the subordinate classes.

Starting with the creation and impact of the EEMC, the influence of the UCISS began to extend across the entire Latin American region:

In 10 years we already have a group of eight Catholic schools: Santiago, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Lima, Bogota, Buenos Aires and Caracas. We are a genuine force in the total group of ten social schools that exists in South America. We hope that the Lord aids our efforts to extend the benefits of Catholic social service to the other countries of the Americas. (EEMC, quoted in Manrique, 1982: 94)

In the Catholic world, the most esteemed general guidance is provided by the Papal encyclicals. Through these and through the actions of the UCISS, Catholic social work fell within the conservative strategy of modernisation.

The Catholic Church posited that the fundamental role of Catholicism was to contribute to the construction of social relationships of cooperation, union and fraternity, rejecting any expression of antagonism between the social classes. The justification of the social division of labour, the differential enjoyment of wealth and private property (structuring elements of the social question) were presented as ‘divine conditions’ that cannot be altered by men and should instead be morally accepted.

The first encyclical referred to by Manrique is Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII on 15 May 1891, in which the naturalisation of the social question becomes evident:

It must be first of all recognized that the condition of things inherent in human affairs must be borne with, for it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such inequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. (Rerum Novarum, quoted in Manrique 1982: 46, emphasis in original)

The message was addressed to capitalists and workers, asking the former to prevent abuse in the labour process, and the latter to carry out their duties without questioning their position in the division of labour, much less attempting to change it.5

Manrique (1982) lays bare the influence on social work, and the connecting thread between the encyclical of 1891 and that of 1931. While the encyclical in the late 19th century made a particular call to ecclesiastical organisations for evangelising endeavours and a modernised response to the social question, 40 years later, in addition to ecclesiastical institutionality, this call was extended to professionals and academic specialists.

The Quadragésimo Anno encyclical issued by Pope Pius XI on 15 May 1931 contained the same call for the appeasement of the classes, except, by that time, new actors had become involved, trained with a renewed technical and instrumental grounding:

Let well-merited acclamations of praise be bestowed upon you and at the same time upon all those, both clergy and laity, who We rejoice to see, are daily participating and valiantly helping in this same great work, Our beloved sons engaged in Catholic Action, who with a singular zeal are undertaking with Us the solution of the social problems in so far as by virtue of her divine institution this is proper to and devolves upon the Church.… These Our Beloved Sons who are chosen for so great a work, We earnestly exhort in the Lord to give themselves wholly to the training of the men committed to their care, and in the discharge of this eminently priestly and apostolic duty to make proper use of the resources of Christian education by teaching youth, forming Christian organizations, and founding study groups. (Quadragésimo Anno, quoted in Manrique, 1982: 55–8)

Despite there being no direct reference to social work, the preceding quote makes clear the possibility of many professionals signing up to the Catholic guidance, as occurred with the members of the UCISS.

The aggiornamento of Catholic thought and professional renewal

Although, according to critical thought, the foundations and endeavours of Christianity are assumed to be conservative and reactionary, the impoverishment caused by capitalism has had varied interpretations within the Catholic Church, leading to questioning of the traditional premise of ‘divine mandates’ or ‘natural differences’. In some cases, the interpretive differences transcend the near-monopoly of the conservative and reactionary foundations, making it possible to identify Catholic-inspired practices and movements of a counter-hegemonic nature.

According to Löwy’s (2016) interpretation of Max Weber, the principles of Catholicism are contrary to the social relationships established by capital. This is due to Catholicism being founded on personal relationships (love, charity, acceptance, coexistence and so on), whereas in the capitalist world-system (mediated by the market through values of exchange), relationships become impersonal: ‘In any event, Weber hints at the existence of a basic, irreconcilable aversion to or rejection of the spirit of capitalism by the Catholic Church (and also probably by some Protestant denominations)’ (Löwy, 2016: 58).

One of the main expressions of religious thought that became counter-hegemonic is Liberation Theology.6 As a consequence of the internal contradictions of the Catholic Church (and the social and historical determinants that act upon it), from the 1960s onwards, an aggiornamento took shape that called into question the reactionary foundations. This process of renewal encountered ample opportunities for development with the naming of Pope John XXIII and his encyclicals Mater et Magistra (in 1961) and Pacem in Terris (in 1963).

By questioning the ‘divine mandates’ and the conservative nature of the Catholic Church, Pope John XXIII brought about a clear shift, declaring a new option for the poor. Mater et Magistra stimulated the renewal of the Catholic Church amid a context that demonstrated the limits of capital and the start of a cycle characterised by a rise in social struggles across the world. While it is impossible to suggest that the postulates of Pope John XXIII aimed to overcome capitalism, he questioned the grave consequences that it causes for humanity, and for the most impoverished in particular.

After warning that the process of work could not be limited to the distribution of wealth, but rather included the free realisation of human beings, in his first encyclical, John XXIII stated:

Consequently, if the whole structure and organization of an economic system is such as to compromise human dignity, to lessen a man’s sense of responsibility or rob him of opportunity for exercising personal initiative, then such a system, we maintain, is altogether unjust – no matter how much wealth it produces, or how justly and equitably such wealth is distributed. (Pope John XXIII, 1969: 408)

Despite being published on 15 July 1961, this first encyclical was announced on 1 May, the day commemorating St Joseph the Worker for the Catholic world, and the traditional date of the international day of the working class. Mater et Magistra abolished the anti-communist doctrine, encouraged cooperativism, acknowledged the variation between the developed world and underdeveloped countries (breaking away from classic Eurocentrism), and recognised the need for working conditions and the enjoyment of material wealth to keep pace with scientific and technical progress.

The aggiornamento driven by this encyclical guided the preparation of the Second Vatican Council, convened in 1959 by Pope John XXIII, who presided over the first phase in 1962.7 The process of aggiornamento coincided with the modernisation introduced in Latin America through the Alliance for Progress, which mutually stimulated and facilitated these processes of renewal.

According to Enrique Dussel (1987) (one of the most prominent theologians in the critical renewal of Catholic thought), the foundations that overcame the classic and conservative thought of the Catholic Church arose in tandem with the new foundations of the social sciences during the 1960s and 1970s. Marxism would also be a recognised influence, in some cases, being incorporated into the new theology.8 That said, as the author makes clear, ‘Liberation theology employs a certain degree of Marxism in a certain way, never inconsistent with the foundations of the faith’(Dussel, 2016: 542).

Dussel (2016) achieves a characterisation, in its due proportion, of the type of Marxism that made inroads into Liberation Theology. According to this author, two conditions are to be considered: first, the Marxism involved came not from the direct sources of Karl Marx, but rather through the mediations of priests and French, Italian and German theologians; and, second, on the very rare occasions where a direct link with Marx was established, these corresponded to certain texts of the ‘young Marx’, not his fully formed, mature work9:

However, in fact, far beyond the Marxism that we could call ‘theoretical’, the Marxism that marked Liberation Theology was the sociological and economic Marxism of dependency, from Orlando Flas Borda to Theotonio dos Santos, Faletto and Cardoso, and so on (many of which, in fact, were not and are not Marxists). (Dussel, 2016: 541–2)

The increase in social struggles and the crisis of capitalism that took shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s set an appropriate stage for the formulation and realisation of the new Catholic doctrine, with critical sectors of the Church creating or coordinating with social organisations to foster social transformation.

The electoral and organisational struggle of political parties, unions and social movements was joined by armed struggle, which was heavily influenced by the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Amid vulnerability to a nuclear confrontation with the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pope John XXIII issued his second encyclical, entitled Pacem in Terris, on the subject of the impacts of political dispute (civil and military). The progressive position adopted by the Pontiff, refusing to revive the anti-communism of other popes, drew condemnation from various conservative and reactionary sectors, who viewed the development of the Soviet Union and revolutionary organisations in other parts of the world as a contemptible process.

Michel Löwy (2016: 81–2) suggests that a wide variety of nuances exists within the Catholic Church, identifying four currents:

  1. A very small group of fundamentalists, who espouse ultra-reactionary and sometimes semi-fascist ideas, for example the ‘Tradition, Family and Property’ group.

  2. A powerful conservative and traditionalist current, hostile to Liberation Theology and organically associated with the ruling classes (and also with the Roman Curia), for example the leadership of CELAM [Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano].

  3. A reformist and moderate current (with a certain degree of intellectual autonomy with regard to the Rome authorities), ready to defend human rights and support some of the social demands of the poor. This position prevailed at the Puebla Conference in 1979 and, to some extent, in Santo Domingo in 1992.

  4. A small yet influential minority of radicals, sympathetic to Liberation Theology and capable of active solidarity with popular, workers’ and peasant farmer movements. This group’s most well-known representatives were bishops or cardinals, such as Mendez Acero and Samuel Ruíz (Mexico), Pedro Casaldáliga and Paulo Arns (Brazil), Leonidas Poraño (Ecuador), Oscar Romero (El Salvador), and so on. The most progressive wing of this current is represented by revolutionary Christians: the ‘Christians for Socialism’ movement and other trends that identified themselves with Sandinism, Camilo Torres or Christian Marxism.

According to Löwy, despite its differences, the Catholic Church conserved a certain degree of institutional unity due to the fact that its religious objectives seem not to be reducible to the social arena.

While Liberation Theology as a movement lacks a defined political programme (a function chiefly carried out by political parties), each country expressed support for or worked with different social organisations, or even armed movements. It took on the greatest significance in the processes of revolution and national liberation in Central America, with the events in Nicaragua of the triumph of the Sandinista National Liberation Front being particularly noteworthy.

Catholic social expressions of critical renewal emerged in various Latin American countries, involving the participation of the new generations of social workers. At a professional level, a wide range of settings and actors stimulated this process of critical renewal, with the most prominent being the Latin American Association of Social Work Schools (ALAETS) and the Latin American Centre for Social Work (CELATS). In terms of the most active dissemination of literature the ECRO [Grupo Esquema Conceptual Referencial y Operativo], Hvmanitas and CELATS editorials should be mentioned, each with its respective journal: Hoy en Servicio Social (ECRO), Selecciones de Servicio Social (Hvmanitas) and Acción Crítica (CELATS). Noteworthy academic events include those financed by the ISI [Instituto de Solidaridad Internacional], the ALAETS seminars and the Regional Latin American Social Service Seminars (Quintero, 2019). These actors, organisations and settings shaped and provided content for the movement of Reconceptualisation, which was the primary strand of critical renewal at the Latin American level.

It is widely known that Reconceptualisation was not a homogeneous movement, but rather was receptive to a variety of currents of critical thought, such as dependency theory, popular education, various strands of Marxism (Maoism, Soviet Marxism, Althusserian Marxism, Guevaran Marxism, Latin American Marxism and so on) and particularly Liberation Theology and Christianity. The critiques developed in the movement of Reconceptualisation were oriented towards capitalist society, imperialism and the specific expressions of the mode of production in Latin America. Likewise, in terms of professional foundations, the aim was to break with classic conservatism (and especially with Christian morality), traditional ‘methodologies’, empiricism and the apparent ideo-political neutrality.10

Some approaches to the case of Colombia

During the first half of the 20th century, Catholic moral doctrine of a conservative and reactionary nature was embraced in Colombian society and its institutions. The conservative guidance of the highest level of the ecclesiastical hierarchy was joined by the national hierarchy, which identified with the struggle for the hegemonic recuperation of the Catholic Church and the struggle against radical liberal thought, socialism and communism.

Even in the periods of modernising capitalist development led by liberal sectors between 1930 and 1946, and despite efforts of secularisation in some social functions, the Catholic Church continued to play a decisive role in cultural, educational and assistance training. In this context, the conservative Catholic influence on the first schools of social work took shape. This influence was not limited to the personal characteristics of its protagonists (as is often found in most historical analysis), but included the institutional nature of the universities that were open, in general, to the hegemonic cultural and ideological movement in Colombian society and state.

The first school of social service was opened in the Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario in 1936, under the leadership of its rector, Monsignor José Vicente Castro Silva, and María Vergara de Carulla. Both the institution and María Vergara stated the relevance of creating a school that would contribute towards a better response to the social question and slow down the advance of socialist and communist ideas. Catholic thought was the moral compass of the institution and would also be the foundation of its professional training.

The journal of the Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario included extensive articles by teachers, students of different degrees and even some administrative officers that put forward arguments to ‘demonstrate’ the impertinence and falseness of Marxist theory.11 Furthermore, in various texts by María Carulla, her Catholic conviction can be identified, as can her adherence to anti-Marxist doctrine.12

The second school was opened in Medellin in 1945, based first in the Normal Antioqueña de Señoritas teacher training school and later in the Pontificia Universidad Bolivariana, part of the Archdiocese of Medellin. Before the 1940s had ended, the school of the Colegio Mayor de Cundinamarca was opened, along with another in Cartagena.

Malagón (2001) underscores the moral and Catholic nature of these first schools in Colombia, mentioning some of the courses taught to students: religion, liturgy, social doctrine, ethics and morality, among others.13 The first schools showed coordination between Catholic institutionality and private capital, subsequently acknowledged and endorsed by the state. The Catholic nature and influence of the dominant sectors of the economy and local and national politics could also be found in the other schools that gradually emerged during the 1950s.14

The secularisation between the state and the Catholic Church was not consolidated, but reached significant levels from the second half of the 20th century onwards. The modernisation of capitalism required a state with a greater capacity to ensure the development of the mode of production and social reproduction.

In order to provide technical, instrumental and theoretical training in line with the new era, the state stimulated and regulated the operation of higher education institutions (which included the Colegios Mayores de Señoritas girls’ schools) and created the legal provisions for issuing professional qualifications and the Colombian Institute for the Promotion of Higher Education (ICFES). Professional training during the 1950s and 1960s was characterised by a combination of Catholic thought and developmentalist doctrine, both of which were guided by conservative modernisation.

Due to the institutional controls of the state to regulate training and professional practice, modifications had to be made to academic training in some universities. Faced with the legal impossibility of issuing professional qualifications, some higher education institutions – including the colegios mayores – even had to transfer their schools and faculties of social work to public universities.

The transfer of social service from private Catholic institutions, the majority guided by conservative doctrines, to secular public universities with a broad range of left-wing ideo-political currents created the ideal conditions for the critical renewal of the profession. By the 1970s, this critical renewal was gaining strength within Colombia. There was a long list of priests in the country (both Colombian and foreign) who signed up to the option for the poor in the understanding that the latter must be the subjects of their own liberation. The most renowned and popular individual figure (who is an expression of a collective and social process) in Colombia, and perhaps in Latin America, was the priest Camilo Torres Restrepo.

His decision to contribute to the revolutionary process led him to take on a leading role in the formation of the Frente Unido del Pueblo (United Front of the People), an abstentionist political project that rallied Colombia’s most varied subordinate sectors to carry out radical change. Launched in 1965, Frente Unido’s platform brought peasant farmers, workers, intellectuals, students and neighbourhood organisations together with political organisations of progressive and revolutionary inspiration.

The unity of the so-called ‘popular class’ became the primary objective of Frente Unido in order to carry out the revolution in Colombia. Torres’s proposal involved fundamental critiques of Catholicism and Marxism, though his professions of ‘effective love’ and the ‘liberation of the people’ were based on these two currents of thought.

This mix of interpretations brings together Catholic elements concerning the people of God (with a clear acceptance of the Exodus of the people of Israel) and the conception of social classes developed by Marxism, giving rise to the category of ‘the people’, made up of social sectors involved in the process of production (salaried workers) and the impoverished population excluded from the productive and consumption cycle15:

However, despite efforts to include scientific conceptions regarding social reality, the rejection of capitalism has a moral foundation. In an attempt to break with Stalinist dogmatism, Camilo Torres and Liberation Theology at large sought to explain the social situation of dominated peoples by turning to arguments and criteria beyond Marxist critique of political economy. (Quintero, 2020, emphasis in original)

In Colombia, this ‘popular class’ or ‘people’ had been suffering the aggravation of pauperism in cities such as Bogota, Cali and Medellin since the late 1940s and 1950s. It should be remembered that the growth of these principal cities, which occurred in parallel with the rise in pauperism, was a product of the ‘scorched earth’ strategy that caused increased displacement of rural inhabitants towards the cities.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) was the guerrilla organisation that most explicitly adopted Liberation Theology, due not only to the incorporation of Camilo Torres into its ranks, but also to the participation of other padres and, in general, the group’s own ideological roots. In addition to Camilo Torres, it is worth mentioning the role played by Golconda, an organisation of clerics who identified with Liberation Theology16:

The Golconda group emerged in late 1968, and was made up of around 60 priests who had the support of progressive bishops such as those of Buenaventura (Gerardo Valencia Cano) and Facacativá (Raúl Zambrado Camader). Some of the foreigners, such as Domingo Laín, José A. Jiménez and Manuel Pérez, were expelled from the country and would later return clandestinely to join the ELN. (Archila, 2003: 104)

While, at first, the coordination of the priests was designed for study of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio and for discussion on the conditions of the Second Episcopal Conference, an immediate decision was made to analyse the social and political reality in Latin America and Colombia. Golconda intended to: employ a scientific method for analysis and action; condemn the dominant nature of imperialism; confront the power of the traditional parties; end the relationships with the conservative structures of the state; and bring about a new revolutionary front.

Their first gathering was held in July 1968, followed by another in December, with the holding of the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference falling between the two:

The political foundation of Golconda was primarily expressed in two documents: one directed to the Latin American sphere entitled ‘Comments on the working document of the 2nd CELAM General Conference’, and another was the document that arose from the second gathering of the Golconda group of priests, which was aimed at the national sphere. (García, 1989: 57–8)

The stance of Golconda was reflected in the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference, held in Medellin in late August and early September. The conference was convened by Pope Paul VI and the subject of that year’s edition was ‘The presence of the Church in the current transformation of Latin America’. The incorporation of the postulates of the Second Vatican Council took place in a creative way, not only by adapting its content to the Latin American context, but also by progressing to a more settled position in favour of ‘popular struggle’.

The critical sectors had a notable presence in the Episcopal Conference, to the extent that the CELAM-controlled aggiornamento transcended the limits of conservative modernisation to establish criteria for breaking away that gave Liberation Theology stronger foundations and made it more radical:

The influence of Golconda (strengthened by the path previously travelled by Camilo Torres) was found in grassroots communities, neighbourhood processes such as the Community Action Boards, trade unions, peasant farmer and agricultural organizations such as ANUC [Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos], and student and university movements such as FUN [Federation of University Students]. With the revival of the Frente Unido newspaper (which had disappeared with Torres’ death), progress was made with the premise of ‘Two tactics and a strategy’, which consisted of ensuring participation in community processes based on the Integrated Education Model (MEI) and on armed insurgent organizations, particularly the National Liberation Army (ELN). (Quintero, 2020)

During the second half of the 1960s, the influence of Camilo Torres and Liberation Theology would have a huge impact on the university students’ movement. The FUN, sympathetic to the ideological stance of the ELN, became the leading national student organisation, with the participation of social work students from different cities. Therefore, with Liberation Theology being one of the predominant forces in the university students’ movement and given the participation of social work students in said movement, the mediations were in place that allowed for the direct influence of the critical renewal of Catholicism on the movement of Reconceptualisation.

A brief examination of the most prominent actors of the movement of Reconceptualisation reveals the Catholic origin of its militancy, a bond that, in many cases, was never broken. People such as Juan de la Cruz Mojica, Roberto Rodríguez, Clara María García, Flor Prieto de Suárez, Jorge Valenzuela, Antonio Puerta, María Cecilia Tobón, Víctor Mario Estrada and Jesús Glay Mejía were involved in the process of professional renewal that took place in the 1970s, inspired by the aggiornamento of Catholic thought.

During the first five years of the 1970s, the curricula of the Universidad de Caldas, Universidad Nacional, Universidad de Antioquia and Universidad del Valle underwent significant reform. Either explicitly or implicitly, all of these processes are testament to the critical renewal of Catholic thought.17

By way of conclusion

Historical reflection on the conditions in which the professionalisation of social work took place in Latin America inevitably leads to analysis of the social and political conditions of the capitalist mode of production, and the Catholic Church’s role in it. While the primary trait of Catholic doctrine in Latin America has been its conservative and/or reactionary orientation, the tensions stirred by aggiornamento and Liberation Theology in the late 1960s and early 1970s required acknowledgement of the different strands that impacted the internal structures of the Catholic Church, and the social sectors over which its influence was exerted.

Social work has consistently been influenced (and, in some cases, defined) by Catholic doctrine, initially in the most traditional and conservative sectors, and subsequently in the 1960s and 1970s by the critical sectors inspired by Liberation Theology. At first, conservative Catholic influence helped to limit the demands of the working class by providing a caring and moralising response to the social question. Later, critical influence played a decisive role in the process of professional renewal, providing significant support to the movement of Reconceptualisation.

Although the Reconceptualisation took shape amid a web of disparate trends and currents of thought, questioning of the classic conservative foundations (theoretical, methodological, political and moral) was its primary vindication. In this process, there was a central role for students and teachers that were involved in or sympathised with the critical renewal of the Catholic Church, and with Liberation Theology in particular.

Despite its critical foundation following the aggiornamento, theological inspiration conserved its mystical roots, which did not transcend the boundaries of moral critique. Due to the political commitment to social transformation, this led to revolutionary messianism in many cases; the political voluntarism that sought ‘popular liberation’ was unaware of and/or undervalued the objective determinants of a salaried profession such as social work.18

The articulation of Liberation Theology with Marxism was limited to a political judgement of capitalist society, without finding objective solutions to the pauperism that is proper to it. From there arises Dussel’s description of a certain degree of Marxism appropriated in a certain way. In our understanding, this situation occurred due to a conscious or unconscious ignorance of the critique of political economy, a theory through which Karl Marx succeeded in discerning the contradictory roots of capitalism, and the possible emancipatory ways out of it.

Notes

1

While we acknowledge Marx’s process of intellectual and political maturity, which showed different interests and material between the period of his youth (from 1840 to 1845) and the period of maturity (from 1848 until his death in 1883), we share the view that his work contains a connecting thread that, despite changes and turning points, gives shape to a body of work that appears as a clear dialectic process of overcoming and conservation.

2

See Manuel Manrique (1982), and Marilda Iamamoto and Raúl de Carvalho (1984), both linked to the research development of the Latin American Centre for Social Work (CELATS). For the case of Colombia, see Martínez et al (1981).

3

Some classic authors of texts on the particular conditions of capitalism in Latin America include José Carlos Mariátegui, Agustín Cueva, Ruy Mauro Marini, Florestan Fernandes, Theotonio dos Santos, Vania Banbirra and Orlando Fals Borda.

4

According to the analysis of José Paulo Netto (2003) regarding the European social and historical process from the second half of the 19th century onwards, faced with the impossibility of disregarding the social question, both secular and denominational thought constructed a theoretical approach and specific action that was based on its naturalisation. Therefore, its action was focused on reforming the mode of production and reproduction, framed within moralising and conservative modernisation that maintained the immanent dynamics of capital.

5

An attack on socialists and communists is explicit in the encyclical given that they were working to eliminate the social classes and private property.

6

Löwy (2016) establishes a difference between Liberation Christianity and Liberation Theology, adopting the designation of ‘Christianity’ insofar as the movement of renewal that revolves around Catholic thought is not exclusive to theologians or the ecclesiastical institutionality (padres, nuns and churches), but rather takes in other social structures such as grass-roots communities, youth organisations, trade unions and social movements, among others.

7

As a result of the death of Pope John XXIII in June 1963, the three remaining phases of the Second Vatican Council would be presided over by Pope Paul VI.

8

According to Dussel (1987), the Liberation Theology gathering held in El Escorial in 1972 revealed two currents of thought that allowed for the entry of the critical social sciences and Marxism. On one side stood the theologians and padres of Peru and Chile (the latter being participants in the social and political construction of Popular Unity), who expressed their alignment with the Marxist idea of social class more decisively. The other group, led primarily by the Argentinian delegates, vindicated the category of the popular and the people.

9

In the movement of the Reconceptualisation of social work, a process took place with very similar conditions with regard to the type of Marxism involved (see Quintero, 2018).

10

The growth of critical thought in social work did not suppress the presence and influence of conservative thought, or even the most classic Catholic thought. This was demonstrated by the 11th World Congress of the UCISS, held in Buenos Aires in 1967, guided by the Latin American Secretariat headquartered in Argentina and led by Martha Escurra. According to historical data, approximately 1,200 Catholic professionals participated in the event.

11

It is striking that some critiques of Marxism are based on qualified analysis of the texts of Marx himself, including his principal work, Capital. This characteristic is not so common in vulgar critique of Marxism, which has primarily been based on moral disparagements, epithets and ideological judgements of low or non-existent quality.

12

One of the texts that best reflects the biography of María Carulla is by Cifuentes and Gartner (2003). The authors aim to show both sides of Carulla: the traditionalist and the progressive. In our understanding, the information presented by the authors confirms the conservative–modernising nature that we have been attributing to both María Carulla and the first school of social service.

13

It should be clarified that Malagón’s analysis sustains the hypothesis that the emergence of social work in Colombia was due to the progressive sectors of the Catholic Church, and, as such, the profession would have a progressive nature.

14

By way of illustration, two cases can be mentioned: Cali, where the first school was opened with the endorsement and guidance of Bishop Miguel Antonio Medina and the director of the National Business Association of Colombia (ANDI), José Castro Borrero; and Manizales, where the first school emerged in the Colegio Mayor de Caldas, known as the Universidad Católica and directed by the community of nuns of the Convent of the Presentation.

15

Dussel (1987) underscores the important role that the interpretation of the Exodus has played in Christianity, and in Liberation Theology in particular. His interpretation aids in understanding the situation experienced by the people of Israel to escape pharaonic subjugation (clear circumstances of humiliation and exploitation), cross the desert (suffering hardships but discovering themselves as a people liberating itself) and finally reach the Promised Land (which would be a new condition of life structured around freedom and self-government). Translated to the Latin American context, this theological interpretation sought to demonstrate how the people of the region, in light of theology and their own liberating action, constructed a new society rising above the domination of exploiters and sinners.

16

The name ‘Golconda’ arose from the name of the farm where the first gathering of the priests was held in Viotá, Cundinamarca (Colombia).

18

With regard to the analysis showing the polarity between revolutionary messianism and fatalism in social work, see Iamamoto (2001).

Acknowledgements

This article is the result of the research study ‘The Movement of the Reconstruction of Social Work in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia): Historical Determinants, International Dialogue and Memory (1960–1980)’ (Rio de Janeiro: UERJ and CNPQ), carried out between 2016 and 2020.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cifuentes, R. and Gartner, L. (2003) María Carulla de Vergara. Entre la Tradición y el Progreso [María Carulla de Vergara: Between Tradition and Progress], Manizales: XI Colombian Congress of Social Work.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dussel, E. (1987) El Paradigma del Éxodo en la Teología de la Liberación [The Paradigm of the Exodus in Liberation Theology], Revista internacional de Teología, Supplement No. 209, https://enriquedussel.com/txt/Textos_Articulos/181.1987_espa.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dussel, E. (2016) O marxismo na América Latina: Uma antología de 1909 aos días atuais [Marxism in Latin America: an anthology from 1909 to the present day], in M. Löwy (ed) Teología da Libertação e Marxismo [Liberation Theology and Marxism], São Paulo: Expressão Popular e Fundação Perseu Abramo.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • García, R. (1989) El Frente Unido de Camilo Torres y Golconda [The United Front of Camilo Torres and Galconda], in G. Gallón (ed) Entre Movimientos y Caudillos. 50 Años de Bipartidismo, Izquierda y Alternativas Populares en Colombia [Between Movements and Warlords: 50 Years of Bipartisanship, the Left and Popular Alternatives in Colombia], Bogotá: CINEP and CEREC.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Iamamoto, M. (2001) Servicio Social y División del Trabajo. Un Análisis Crítico de Sus Fundamentos [Social Service and the Division of Labour. A Critical Analysis of its Foundations], 2nd edn, São Paulo: Cortez Editora.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Iamamoto, M. and Carvalho, R. (1984) Relaciones Sociales y Trabajo Social [Social Relationships and Social Work], 3rd edn, Lima, Peru: CELATS/Editorial Alfa S.A.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Löwy, M. (2016) O Qué é Cristianismo da Libertação. Religião e Política na América Latina [What is Liberation Christianity? Religion and Politics in Latin America], São Paulo: Fundação Perseu Abramo & Expressão Popular.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Malagón, E. (2001) Hipótesis sobre la historia del Trabajo Social en Colombia [Hypothesis on the history of social work in Colombia], Trabajo Social Journal, 3: 1127, https://revistas.unal.edu.co/index.php/tsocial/article/view/32935/32972.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Manrique, M. (1982) De Apóstoles a Agentes de Cambio. El Trabajo Social en la Historia Latinoamericana [From Apostles to Agents of Change: Social Work in Latin American History], Lima, Peru: CELATS.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Martínez, M.E. et al (1981) Historia del Trabajo Social en Colombia 1900–1975 [The History of Social Work in Colombia 1900–1975], Bogotá: Tecnilibros.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marx, K. (2009) Para a Questão Judaica [On the Jewish Question], São Paulo: Expressão Popular.

  • Netto, J.P. (2003) Cinco notas a propósito de la ‘Cuestión Social’ [Five comments concerning the ‘social question’], in E. Borgianni, Y. Guerra and C. Montaño (eds) Servicio Social Crítico. Hacia la Construcción del Nuevo Proyecto ético-político Profesional [Critical Social Service: Towards the Construction of the New Professional Political and Ethical Project], São Paulo: Cortez Editora.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pope, J. XXIII (1969) Mater et Magistra, in F. Muñoz (ed) Las Encíclicas del Mundo Moderno [The Encyclicals of the Modern World], Barcelona: Editorial Bruguera.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Quintero, S. (2018) El marxismo en la reconceptualization: ¿de qué marxismo se trata? [Marxism in the Reconceptualisation: what type of Marxism was involved?], Servicio Social & Sociedade journal, 133(Sept–Dec): 56684, www.scielo.br/pdf/sssoc/n133/0101-6628-sssoc-133-0566.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Quintero, S. (2019) Contexto, tendencias y actores de la Reconceptualización [Context, trends and figures of the Reconceptualisation], Eleuthera journal (Universidad de Caldas), 20(Jan–June): 17998, www.scielo.org.co/pdf/eleut/v20/2011-4532-eleut-20-00179.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Quintero, S. (2020) La Reconceptualización Del Trabajo Social En Colombia: Análisis histórico-crítico de las décadas 1960–1970 [The Reconceptualization of social work in Colombia: Critical and historical analysis of the 1960s and 1970s], Manizales: Editorial Universidad de Caldas.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 University of Caldas, , Colombia

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