Published On: September 12, 2014

Pope Francis Embraces Liberation Theology

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Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.

Pope Francis grabbed headlines recently when he announced that Rome had lifted the block on sainthood for Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, who was shot dead while saying Mass in 1980. Archbishop Romero was assassinated after speaking out in favor of the poor during an era when right-wing death squads stalked El Salvador under an American-backed, military-led government in the 1970s and ’80s.

For three decades Rome blocked Romero’s path to sainthood for fear that it would give support to the proponents of liberation theology, the revolutionary movement that insists that the Catholic Church should work to bring economic and social as well as spiritual liberation to the poor.

Now, under Pope Francis that resistance to liberation theology has been removed. The Pope says it is important that Archbishop Romero’s beatification, the precursor to becoming a saint, be done quickly.

In Argentina, where Pope Francis was the archbishop of Buenos Aires before he was chosen as Pope, liberation theology equals the more conservative Catholicism of the Vatican, as it does throughout Latin America, particularly in Brazil.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador

Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador

In another effort of support for liberation theology, Pope Francis also lifted a ban from saying Mass imposed nearly 30 years ago upon Rev. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, who had been suspended as a priest for serving as foreign minister in Nicaragua’ s revolutionary Sandinista government.

Rev. d’Escoto is a strong proponent of liberation theology; he once called former President Ronald Reagan “a butcher and an international outlaw.” Later, as president of the United Nations General Assembly, Rev. d’Escoto condemned American acts of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a remarkable turnaround, liberation theology is being brought in from the cold, thanks to Pope Francis. During the Cold War, the idea that the Catholic Church should give preferential option for the poor was rejected because it was seen in Rome as a disguise for Marxism. Pope John Paul II, who had been brought up under Soviet bloc totalitarianism, which supported the theories of Marxism while not actually practicing them, was a staunch opponent to liberation theology. On a visit to Nicaragua, he famously wagged a finger at Rev. d’Escoto’s fellow priest and cabinet minister, Ernesto Cardinal.

Rev. Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann

Rev. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann

Under Pope John Paul, the Vatican also silenced key exponents of liberation theology, including its founding father, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, who was placed under investigation by the Vatican’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or C.D.F.

Washington shared the Polish Pope’s fears that liberation theology could open another door to communist infiltration of Latin America. The C.I.A. created a special unit that informed on hundreds of radical priests and nuns, many of whom became victims of the region’s military dictatorships.

Pope Benedict XVI took a more sophisticated approach than his predecessor. As head of the C.D.F., before becoming Pope, he had issued official reports on liberation theology in 1984 and 1986. These endorsed its advocacy for the poor but denounced serious ideological deviations by radicals who embraced Marxist economic determinism and class struggle.

However, most liberation theologians were not saying the poor should take up guns. They were saying the Catholic Church should help the poor liberate themselves from unjust economic systems through labor unions, cooperatives, and self-help groups.

Pope Benedict XVI in Brazil

Pope Benedict XVI in Brazil

After the Cold War ended, Pope Benedict encouraged bishops in Latin America to find new ways of expressing the church’s support for the poor. He attended the bishops’ seminal meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, at which they refined the message of liberation theology. The priest the bishops elected to draft the document was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, who six years later was elected Pope Francis, and announced that he wanted “a poor church, for the poor.”

Pope Francis has gone through his own revolution on liberation theology. He was named leader of the Jesuits in Argentina in 1973, in part to crack down on the liberation theology movement. But 15 years later, after undergoing what he has called a “great interior crisis,” he became ‘Bishop of the Slums’ in Buenos Aires and revised his views. Over the following decades, he rehabilitated key figures in liberation theology in Argentina, and he supported the kind of initiatives that the Vatican had feared.

When Argentina underwent the biggest debt default in banking history in 2001, which plunged half the population below the poverty line, Father Bergoglio began to condemn what he called corrupt economic structures. He attacked unbridled capitalism for fragmenting economic and social life and said the “unjust distribution of goods” created “a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven.” The Argentine priest was expressing the language of liberation theology subsumed into Catholic social teaching.

Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez

Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, founder of liberation theology

Last year Pope Francis invited Father Gutiérrez, whose 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation, had been for years under investigation by the C.D.F., to meet with him in the Vatican. L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, marked the event by proclaiming that liberation theology can no longer remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years, at least in Europe.

Moreover, Father Gutiérrez has recently co-authored a new book with Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the current head of the C.D.F., who was appointed to the post by Benedict XVI. Archbishop Müller now describes liberation theology as one of the “most significant currents of Catholic theology of the 20th century.”

The perspectives of the West, which have for so long dominated the thinking of the Vatican, are now being augmented by those of Latin America. Pope Francis is taking a risk. Conservatives, who are already muttering about other changes in this new Franciscan era, are not happy. However, at a time when the economic gap between the rich and the poor is widening, the Pope’s championing of liberation theology is timely and welcome.



[This article was written by Paul Vallely and appeared in The New York Times. It was edited by CIE.]

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