In contrast to Marx’s view that religion was a conservative force, neo-marxists recognize the role that religion can play in bringing about radical social change.
One of the earliest Marxists to recognize this was Engels, who saw similarities between some of the early Christian sects that resisted Roman rule and late 19th century communist and socialist movements.
So from a neo-Marxist point of view, while Christianity may have originated as an oppressive force, it is possible for it to ‘evolve’ into a source of resistance which has the potential to bring about radical social change.
Otto Maduro – the relative autonomy of religion
Otto Maduro was a neo-Marxist who argued that religious institutions have a degree of freedom from the economic base. Religious institutions do not always work for the benefits of powerful elites, they can act independently (with autonomy).
Going even further, Maduro argued that in some societies, religion might actually be the only institution through which people can organise for radical social change.
Writing about Latin America, Maduro does argue that Catholicism has traditionally tended to act as a conservative force. It has tended to support the political and economic elites, even if they are military dictatorships.
However, towards the middle of the 19th century, some catholic priests became increasingly critical of the radical inequalities in Latin America. These priests took up the cause of landless peasants and became supporters/leaders of movements for social justice. One example of this is the Liberation Theology Movement (forthcoming post). In the late 1970s especially, Liberation Theology was very critical of the wealth and power of The Bourgeoisie in Latin America, and were vocal supports of wealth redistribution.
Maduro argues that where oppressed and impoverished populations have no outlet for their grievances other than the church, the clergy are ‘forced’ to represent them.
You might also like to check out this post on Marxist/ neo-Marxist theory and methods.