François Houtart: A sociology of liberation

, by  Geoffrey Pleyers

Committed priest and renowned sociologist, François Houtart died on June 6, 2017, in the Indian of the Ecuador Foundation village, where had set his residence seven years ago. Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain since 1958, founder of the Tricontinental Center and Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Notre - Dame (the United States, 1966) and the University of La Habana (2008), the author of about sixty books and innumerable articles.

Professor of sociology, François Houtart is characterized by a humanism rooted in the Christian faith and its involvement with social movements. For him, the religious commitment and social commitment could not be dissociated, but they could be the analysis of social reality and social struggles to transform it. He was theologian, sociologist, and activist at the same time.

This article analyzes the main directions of François Houtart contributions to contemporary social sciences from beliefs that guided his commitment as a sociologist with the social actors. The first part is a brief tour of his career and his contribution to the liberation theology. The second part emphasizes the precursor role of François Houtart in the social sciences in particular in dialogue with the epistemologies of the South that invites to analyze the world, the mechanisms of oppression, and the projects of emancipation from the perspectives of the social actors and the oppressed South, following the "other globalization" approach.

Religion sociologist, theologian, and actor of the Church renovation

Born in 1925 in Brussels, grandson of a former Prime Minister of Belgium and the eldest of a family of 14 children, François Houtart took holy orders in 1949. After the seminary, he began studies in the sociology of religions and urban sociology in Louvain and later in the University of Chicago in 1952 and 1953. He began his career of sociologist putting the urban sociology at the service of the Church in Belgium, through a long survey dedicated to the parishes of Brussels published in 1952. From the beginning, he considered research as a scientific activity that has a practical purpose: to give better tools to social action and, particularly at the beginning of its career, to pastoral action, to "contribute to the emancipating role that the church has in the modern world "(Sahabandhu, 2005).

Houtart was appointed President of the International Federation of research Sociorreligiosa institutes, assumes the direction of Social Compassmagazine in 1960, until 1999 and has become one of the main international references in that speciality. In the sociology of religion, François Houtart sought to explain the role of religion in society and how it contributes to building cultures and society in general. He promoted a sociology of religions that refuses to retreat into itself. On the one hand, he promoted dialogue between religions and analyzed the various religions. He dedicated his doctoral thesis to Buddhism in Sri Lanka (Houtart, 1974) and since the 1970s he emphasized the ecumenical dimension of "liberation theology", highlighting the orientations and similar practices in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism (Houtart, 2000). On the other hand, he noted the sociology of religions in a constant dialogue with the critical analysis of capitalism, political sociology and development and the epistemologies of the South (Houtart, 2001a, 2005a).

His close relationship with Latin America had a decisive impact on his way of understanding the world. Relying on the network of the Christian Working Youth in which he was active, he toured almost all Latin American countries in the 1950s. Between 1958 and 1962, he coordinated the teams that wrote 43 volumes about the Church in Latin America. The Brazilian Cardinal Helder Camara requested at that time the writing of a summary of this extensive work that would be distributed to all the bishops participating in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and invited him later to participate actively in this Council as the expert member of the Latin American Episcopal Council. He played a very active role in the drafting of the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (Alegría y Esperanza) "on the Church in the world of these times" which was one of the main documents emanating from the council (Gigacz, 2017).

François Houtart has always clearly stated that he chooses "the preferential option for the poor" which is at the center of what his friend Gustavo Gutiérrez called in 1970 the "liberation theology": living the faith and analyzing society and transforming it from the point of view of the poor, working with them to transform it. For François Houtart, the message of the Gospel is radical: fight for the emancipation of the oppressed and against the root of oppression: that is the capitalist system.

Very deeply involved in the orientation of the works of students and young researchers who passed through the University of Leuven, Houtart was the teacher and friend of Camilo Torres, a founding Catholic priest of the faculty of sociology at the University of Colombia and who later, after many attempts to transform the particularly unequal Colombian society, chose to join the guerrillas. François Houtart and Jaime Caycedo (2010) dedicated a book of homage and analysis, focused on the concept of "effective love" [1].

François Houtart was through his whole life faithful to the spiritual and social impulse of the Second Vatican Council. He described his struggles within the Catholic Church, promoting the vision of the Gospel at the service of the poor. With the rise of conservatives within the Roman Church and the questioning of some orientations of the Council, François Houtart and the theologians of liberation would increasingly be in contradiction with the conservative doctrine of the Church, especially after the arrival of John Paul II (Houtart, 2005b). Karol Wojtila had been a personal friend of François Houtart since 1947. He met him at his home in Brussels during the summer holidays at the time he was studying at the seminary and they later collaborated on the same commission at the Second Vatican Council. But as pontiff, the Polish priest saw in the progressive experiences in Vietnam and Nicaragua the threat of an atheist communism and in the base communities and in the theology of liberation the seed of a division of the Church.

The sociological commitment: to root struggles in the analysis of social reality

His message in his homily delivered on 2 February 2003 in the mass for the feast of the University of Leuven clearly defines the meaning of his commitment as a sociologist: "never before has mankind so many material means and scientific knowledge, and never before so many humans have suffered from hunger and misery" (Houtart, 2005a:166). The sources and causes of misery are not found in material or production problems, but in social relations, an aspect that must be analyzed with rigor.

The need to anchor social struggles within the framework of a solid and rigorous analysis of the situation and the system was the true leitmotif of François Houtart. This was the meaning of his work as a sociologist, of his innumerable interventions in the universities and in the boards of social actors.

Like his Latin American colleagues in liberation theology, Houtart considered the Marxist theory as the best tool for analyzing society and the economic system. It was not an atheistic and dogmatic Marxism, but an analytical perspective that allows us to understand the social reality lived by the peoples of the South. Its condition could not be changed without attacking the roots of the oppression he identified within the capitalist system, finding in the Marxism the intellectual basis of his analysis, stressing that capitalism is not only an economic system but above all a social relationship that subjects human beings and nature to the logic of accumulation (Houtart, 2005a). The capitalist system is based on an ideology, a set of values and a vision of the world, to which he attributed all its importance as a sociologist of religion. For Houtart, it is a question of articulating the criticism of the system to analyze the ongoing experiences of the transition towards a post-capitalist society, either through the analysis of the action of progressive governments (in Vietnam and in Nicaragua in the 1980s and then in different Latin American countries as of the year 2000) or of the resistance and the alternatives of the social movements.

Until the end of the twentieth century, his sociological analyzes were based on quantitative analyzes of data collected in various countries. At the beginning of the 2000s, he returned to the Vietnamese town of Hai Van where he had studied quantitatively the transition to socialism in the years 1980 and analyzed a second transition in the same village, this time from socialism to capitalism. What’s published in a book (Houtart, 2004) remains as one of the best illustrations of the methodology he applied in so many case studies: a solid quantitative basis that combines on the one hand with what he learned in the experience lived with the inhabitants and the way they perceived it and on the other with a systemic analysis where the global perspective and the local experience are not disconnected.

Changing the world

François Houtart was not only an analyst of the evolution of society and social movements. First and foremost, he was an actor of change. Since the 1960s he insisted on the need to achieve the confluence of social struggles, both between countries and between different sectors in struggle, a perspective that found its greatest incarnation in the World Social Forum, which François Houtart helped to promote. He also distinguished himself by his support to different progressive governments that he considered as actors of social change.

Convergences and globalization of resistance.

Since the 1960s, François Houtart has not stopped trying to fight against the fragmentation of the struggles. The necessary convergence of struggles and progressive sectors to achieve popular unity was a dream he shared with his student and Colombian friend Camilo Torres. Together they explained that "We need unity above the groups".

At the end of the 20th century, this convergence became more urgent in the face of capitalist globalization. "While the material bases of the reproduction of capital (...) are increasingly held globally, the resistances are still essentially local" (Houtart, 2001b: 65). Against neoliberal globalization, he proposed opposing "The globalization of resistances and struggles" (Houtart & Amin, 2002). This was the goal of the anti-globalist alter-summit "The Other Davos" (Houtart & Polet, 1999) that he organized in Switzerland with his friend the critical economist Samir Amin, and then the World Social Forum (WSF) to set himself as a target to articulate the criticism of the system around the emergence of alternatives and to converge the struggles that took place on all continents. François Houtart was an important actor in the world social Forums since 2001 and one of the main protagonists of the WSF International Council where he managed to relate the actors of the social struggles he had known so much in the different countries where he carried out his research and as when he had participated as a guest professor.

The experiences of progressive governments

As summarized by Nicolás Herrera Farfán (2017), François Houtart promoted and was passionate about the construction of popular power and the organization of the "down and left", François Houtart was never an anti-statist. On the contrary, he maintained his scepticism about the prospects that proposed "changing the world without taking power" (Holloway, 2002) and considered that "ignoring the importance of the political sphere is a pure illusion" (Houtart, 2005a: 195). The coming to power of progressive governments is necessary to "promote alternatives and make social changes" (Houtart, 2005a: 158). In 1955, the Bandung conference (Indonesia) in 1956, the first great meeting of the newly independent and "non-aligned" countries (neither with Soviet communism nor with North American capitalism) driven by the progressive presidents of Egypt ( Gamal Abdel Nasser), India (Jawaharlal Nehru), and Indonesia (Sukarno). The Pacific project against neo-colonialism promoting South-South cooperation permeated deeply in François Houtart, who I consider even 60 years later as a reference to assess the actions of the progressive governments (Houtart, 2015).

Committed to solidarity with Cuba since the 1950’s, Houtart was Counselor of the regime within the framework of the preparation of the Pope’s historic visit in 1997 and would later play an important role in the intellectual life of the island. He was involved in the experience of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s, teaching social sciences at the Central American University from 1983 to 1990 when he became one of the closest advisers to the government. Along with sociologist Geneviève Lemercier, he carried out opinion polls in order to advise the government and whose analysis led them to be the only ones capable of foreseeing the defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections.

François Houtart maintained a deep friendship with Fidel Castro and with the progressive presidents who came to power in Latin America in the 2000s, particularly with Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Lula (Brazil) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) , the latter had been housed in the Tricontinental Center (CETRI) when he was studying at the UCL. While his vision was sometimes biased by the friendship built during the old common struggles [2], Francois Houtart regularly called the attention of these leaders and made a critical assessment of the regimes of the Latin American left, evaluating their policies as "post-neoliberal, but not post-capitalist" (Houtart, 2015b). He pointed out the contradictions between the discourses inspired by ecology and the policies that favoured the extractive industries in those countries. He was also very critical of the repression of indigenous movements and researchers, which he visited in jails at the end of the regime of Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

A pioneer sociologist

Social Sciences evolved much in the nearly seven decades of the academic career of François Houtart. Marxism and the structural analysis lost a lot of its centrality. The return of Marxism in the social sciences is combined with a renewal of his thinking, heterodox perspectives, and a growing attention to ecology (Martínez Andrade, 2016).

François Houtart was an intellectual and a sociologist of his time, marked both by a structuralist sociology he had learned in Chicago and by Marxist analyzes and liberation theology. If we reread his biography and his texts in 2017, Houtart nevertheless appears as a precursor, since he anticipated several decades or at least two major evolutions of the contemporary social sciences and for which his work and his projects since the years 1950 remain as historical references: on the one hand the epistemologies of (from the) South on the one hand, and on the other the importance of the peasants and the ecology.

Epistemologies of the South

Both in his work and in his life, François Houtart was an actor what Boaventura Sousa Santos (2009) would later call the "epistemology of the South": to see and think the world, oppression and emancipation from the South and from the oppressed.

Half a century before the publication of Sousa Santos’ book, François Houtart already applied this perspective from his first research in Latin America, inspired by the methodology of the priest Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Christian Workers Movement: "see, judge, act". He did not stop enriching his analyzes with the points of view of the actors and researchers of the South and he multiplied the meetings and the projects to spread the perspectives of the intellectuals and progressive actors of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the other countries of the South as in the North of the planet. It is the founding project of the "Tricontinental Center" that Houtart established in Belgium in 1976 and after the magazine Alternatives Sud, which publishes four thematic issues a year with this same purpose since 1984.

As summarized by Nicolás Herrera Farfán (2017), François Houtart’s thought "is a situated and ethically committed thought (...) He always started from realistic looking at the problems with the eyes of those below; he took sides, abandoning the positivist pretension of objectivity and neutrality. His "place of enunciation (Dussel, 2001) was always the exteriority of capitalist Modernity: the exploited, humiliated, condemned, offended (...) and therefore privileged the South-South dialogue, drawing on the popular sap, without abductions nor looting of the generating ideas." This epistemological perspective was widely disseminated since 2000, in the heat of debates about post-colonial and decolonial perspectives.

Exit Eurocentrism leads thinking differently emancipation and social movements. François Houtart put into practice a sociology of emergencies, in which local experiences are in fact "islands in the ocean of the world market, at the same time that they announce the development of a critical vision of the contemporary model from a clearly holistic perspective" (Houtart, 2011a: 49).

Ecology and common goods of humanity

The influence of the perspectives of the actors of the south is particularly dominant in the evolution of François Houtart’s thought during the last ten years and above all influenced the central place that for him occupied the ecology and the common goods of humanity to think about resistance and the alternatives towards a post-capitalist society. The paths of criticism and emancipation are redefined in an uncertain world (Houtart, 2009): "The new circumstances demand a renewal of the perspectives and paradigms of the daily life of humanity" (Houtart, 2011a: 35). Faced with the "current globalization that means the irrational use of natural resources" (Houtart, 2005a: 168), François Houtart opposes the "common goods of humanity" and ecology as the nucleus of the new paradigm to think about emancipation in the century XXI.

It is about "passing from exploitation (concept of capitalism) respect for the earth as the source of all life, physical, cultural, spiritual, and fostering a biocentric vision of the universe" (Houtart, 2011a). It is in this context that family, peasant and indigenous agriculture, indigenous movements and the defense of sovereignty in all sectors (food, energy or politics) make full sense (Houtart, 2011a: 49). We find here the holistic perspective that has the obligation to integrate relations with men, with society, and with the planet, in which the material and spiritual dimensions are closely articulated:

"The human being is one: his spirituality presupposes matter, and its materiality has no meaning without the spirit. A culturalist vision of spirituality that ignores the materiality of the human being, that is, a body for the individual and an economic-political reality for society, is a conceptual deviation that leads to reductionism" (Houtart, 2011a: 57).

It is perceived in Houtart, a strong influence of the indigenous movements, peasants, and ecologists of the south (Houtart, 2010) of the cosmovision of Sumak Kawsay (translated into Spanish as "Buen vivir") of the indigenous communities of Bolivia and Ecuador. This worldview promotes respect for nature, the insertion of man in the community and a concept of what a good life means, very different from the perception proposed and imposed by capitalist and colonial modernity (Houtart, 2011b).

The ecology of François Houtart is not a complement of the soul or of the class struggle, nor of a capitalism in crisis. It stands at the center of the new paradigm for thinking about emancipation and post-capitalist society in the 21st century. This ecology can not accommodate a green capitalism, virulently denounced by Houtart. In the mid-2000s, he was one of the first researchers to verify deviations from agro-fuels (Houtart, 2009), then announced as "green fuels" that offered an outlet for farmers and replaced oil; It showed that these fuels in the background favored the big landed proprietors, destroying biodiversity and threatening small farmers. A few years later, in his book dedicated to the common good of humanity, he makes it clear that

"There are no longer "regulatory" solutions within the system itself. Capitalism has imposed the logic of individual solutions to collective and common problems, such as hunger, unemployment, pollution, insecurity, etc. These individual solutions, in turn, are commodified; that is, its resolution is through the market. Transnationalized and financialized capitalism has taken this commodification and individualization of life to extremes that endanger the very life of the planet. " (Houtart, 2011)

This new paradigm recognizes the value of indigenous and peasant movements as well as local resistances and asserts, "each in its own way, contributes to the general struggle that is the search for the Common Good of Humanity" (Houtart, 2017: 3). This attention given to small farmers and the challenges of food is not new at all. François Houtart has been publishing a book since 1956. But the new paradigm in which we think about emancipation and the overcoming of capitalist modernity gives it a renewed and probably central importance in the transition towards an environmental society and life in common on a planet with limited resources (Pleyers, 2015).

An intellectual and a cosmopolitan human being

François Houtart embodies the figure of a global progressive intellectual. Deeply cosmopolitan, internationalist and ecumenical. Since the 1950s, he has engaged in international solidarity, particularly with the Cuban, Tamil peoples in Sri Lanka and Vietnamese. He taught at the University of Sri Lanka from 1968 to 1972 and then at the National University of Vietnam from 1977 to 1980. At the age of 92, he continued to tour the world to denounce the massacres against the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, the occupation of Palestine and the war in eastern Congo, and also to achieve peace in Syria and Colombia, and accompanying the peasant movement of the Landless in Brazil or to understand the situation in Venezuela [3].

His nomination in 2008 as a member of the UN commission "for the reform of the international monetary and financial system," chaired by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, along with the Singh prize "for the promotion of tolerance and nonviolence", which UNESCO attributed to him in 2009, are proof of the magnitude of the international recognition enjoyed by François Houtart. He remained available to support social movements in Latin America, Africa and Asia. He had established himself at the Pueblo Indio Foundation of Ecuador in Quito since 2010. He taught at the Central University of Ecuador and later at the Institute of Higher National Studies in which he was appointed at the age of 88, professor in 2013 and where they inaugurated the "François Houtart Chair" in 2015.

Tireless critic of neoliberal globalization, François Houtart did not stop crying out to another globalization, the globalization of justice, love and life [4]. Polyglot, he was a citizen of the world and a global intellectual for whom it was necessary to apprehend reality at a local, national and global level and bring resistances and struggles also to the global level. His multi-faceted analysis was also holistic, connecting the economic, social, political, cultural and spiritual dimensions of human beings and societies. This ecumenist went through the daily experience of interculturality in the sense understood by Fornet Betancourt (2011): a true encounter with others and an openness to their culture, their worldview and their differences.

It is in this encounter with the neighbour that François Houtart cemented his commitment and his analyzes. He remains as a committed sociologist, a cosmopolitan theologian and a protagonist of his time who did not conform to the analysis and who contributed to the emergence of emancipation movements on a global scale. But all of us who knew him were left with the memory of a simple man, always generous with his time, who valued contact with everyone, whatever their social status.

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