It’s a commonly held perception that the popularity of religion has been declining in recent years, and with it, the impact on liberation theology—a Christian movement favored in the 1960s and ’70s that emphasizes concern for the poor and oppressed.

But Raúl E. Zegarra, Ph.D., says that’s all wrong.

“We’re not seeing the decline of religion, but the transformation of religion into new forms and the building of new sacred spaces,” said Zegarra, the winner of the Fordham Curran Center for American Catholic Studies’ fourth annual New Scholars essay contest.

“And liberation theology has been essential in the process of building those new spaces.”

It’s an argument that Zegarra, an assistant professor of theology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, makes in his winning essay, “The Preferential Option of the Poor: Liberation Theology, Pentecostalism, and the New Forms of Sacralization.”

The article was published in the journal  European Journal of Sociology (Cambridge University Press) in April. In addition to receiving a $1,500 cash prize from the Curran Center, Zegarra was invited to speak at Fordham. He’ll give his talk virtually on Nov. 13 at 5:30 p.m.

Zegarra said he wrote the paper because he knew the narrative about declines in religion clashed with reality on the ground, particularly in South America, where he has done research.

Latin America was where liberation theology flourished with the official blessing of the Catholic Church in the 1970s and ’80s, but the church’s support withered in the face of a backlash.

What Zegarra found is that the backlash might have forced the Catholic Church in Latin America to withdraw its support for the liberation theology movement, but the ideals behind it have lived on through secular institutions.

The New Sacred Spaces

“A lot of the work done for the poor and for social justice started to move to other areas of society—the universities, the nonprofits, human rights activists,” he said.

“For many of these [Catholics], these became the new sacred spaces to care for their neighbor and to love God in that way. The sacred doesn’t disappear; it just takes a new form.”

John Seitz, Ph.D., an associate professor of theology and associate director of the Curran Center, said Zegarra’s research is important because it fosters a conversation about Pentecostalism and Catholicism in Latin America and also features on-the-ground research from communities in Peru.

‘A Product of Religious Commitment’

Zegarra also helps loosen the definition of what counts as liberation theology, which Seitz sees as a positive sign.

“Raúl is pointing to secular organizations and saying that they’re made up of Catholics who are committed to liberation theology principles. We can think then about recognizing the sacred nature of these organizations, even though they’re not ecclesial organizations,” he said.

“How do we decide that religion is gone? It depends on how you define religion. Raúl shows that these organizations are a product of religious commitment and ideas oriented toward the advocacy of human flourishing and the uplift of the poor.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.