PICTURE TAKEN MARCH 3, 2013 In this picture taken March 3, 2013, Argentina's cardinal Jorge Bergoglio drinks "mate," a traditional local beverage, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio was chosen as Pope on March 13, 2013, the first pope ever from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium. (AP Photo/ DyN)

September 13, 2013

Pope Francis: Liberation Theologian?

The Pope is a Jewish teenager. I don’t believe that and you don’t believe that. But according to the random subjects interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” the Pope is both of these and more.

“Did you see the interview with the Pope’s ex-wife?” asks the reporter.

“Yeah,” replies the young man.

The point of Kimmel’s segment was is that when faced with a microphone and a camera, the average person walking down Hollywood Boulevard will say the stupidest things to get on television. When the segment about the new Pope aired, the conclave hadn’t yet concluded. Cardinal Bergoglio was still a somewhat obscure Argentinean. Save for in the mind of God, Pope Francis didn’t exist.

Most of this has changed now. Pope Francis has taken the world by storm during the summer. The Cardinal who rode public transit and drank mate in the streets of Buenos Aires is now the Pope who invites young men to join him in the Pope Mobile.

But for some reason, the speculation surrounding the Pope hasn’t died down following the conclusion of the Conclave. Most Catholics had a good laugh at the response of the popular press to the Pope’s comments about homosexuality during an in-flight press conference. Some thought he was changing the Church’s stance on homosexuality. He was really giving Catholics a chance to speak the truth.

This week, Sojourner’s magazine has hopped on the speculation and exaggeration train with a tweet from Rose Berger saying, “Liberation Theology finds new welcome in Pope Francis’ Vatican.” The reason for the tweet is that Gustavo Gutiérrez has been invited to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis. Gutiérrez is considered to be the founder of a movement known as “liberation theology”. Rose Berger is hopeful and excited that liberation theology, “a movement that swelled in popularity but was later stamped out by the conservative pontificates of John Paul II and his longtime doctrinal czar, Benedict XVI”, may soon be accepted by the Vatican as a legitimate view of God and the world.

This tweet raises three questions. What is liberation theology? Is the Pope endorsing it? Would it matter if he did?

“I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” said William F. Buckley. He was echoing (perhaps unknowingly) an idea Chesterton expressed in his essay The Twelve Men. Chesterton noticed that when the government of England needed to sort out issues of justice, it selected for the jury not twelve specialists in law or crime, but twelve men selected at random from English society. “The same thing was done,” Chesterton whimsically concludes, “by the Founder of Christianity.”

So, to define liberation theology here, for the average Christian reader, I have not turned to this writer or that theologian, but instead to a group of men who just happen to be sitting around. Thanks to my dear friend Fr. Todd, to whom the question was originally raised, a group of priests just sitting around has supplied the following picture of liberation theology.

In its crosshairs are the evils of poverty and suffering, which can be eliminated if first the oligarchic class structures of our society are stripped away. The Church, according to liberation theology, ought to be the organization that does this.  Liberation theology, put simply is a somewhat weird synergy between authentic Christian concern for the poor and vulnerable, and Marxism (particularly South American Marxism).

But Christ, while he was with the poor, was focused on ridding the world of the poverty of sin. He who teaches a man to fish feeds him for life. He who teaches a man to repent feeds him for the next. In so far as liberation theology is focused on the material world rather than the whole of an embodied spirit, it is seen as problematic in the eyes of the Church.

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI criticized this aspect of liberation theology as Pope, but, and this is a point lost on Rose Berger, so did Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina. If I am correct in asserting that liberation theology, in its popular form, ignores the poverty of sin and instead tries to remedy material poverty, then it should be noted that Francis has been tireless in developing a theology of sin. His theology of economics and class structure has yet to emerge.

Nor will it emerge, because liberation theology, in its strong form, has been withering away since the turn of the century. Liberation theologians could once speak glowingly of the socialist regimes that dotted the globe (“at least they fulfill the basic needs of the people.”) But as Castro’s Cuba revealed its true horrors and Tiananmen Square punctured the Chinese communist veneer, liberation theology lost its intellectual gasoline. If socialist ideas led to such human misery and oppression, would couching them in Christian terms really be “liberating”? The answer arrived at by the Popes, the Church, and some of the more clear-headed theologians was no.

This brings us back to the question of Gustavo Gutierrez and his invitation to the Vatican. Is a raging Marxist being invited to advise the Pope on matters of theology? Richard John Neuhaus, (God rest his soul) gave a little perspective on Gutierrez before his death.

While his work of thirty years ago launched the movement (that is liberation theology), Gutierrez has a record of distancing himself from some of the movement’s more bizarre excesses. He has tried to remain within the boundaries of Catholic theology, demonstrates great respect for popular piety, and adamantly resists the Europeans and North Americans who would make Latin America over in their own image.

So, the man being invited to the Vatican is not the raging bull Rose Berger may be hoping for. Further, an invitation to the Vatican does not mean that a person’s ideas will be so welcomed. In Gaudium et Spes, the Church has made clear her mission to communicate with all of God’s people and to hear about their plight in the modern world. Beyond that, as Pope John Paul II noted in Fides et Ratio, the Church takes what is good from the different philosophies it encounters. Being reminded to love the poor is no bad thing. Perhaps that is all Gutierrez is going to emphasize; love of the poor. I don’t know what will be said, but neither does Rose Berger, despite the giddiness of her tweet.

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            As an aside, it was also noted that the green light has been given for the process of canonization to begin for Oscar Romero. Whatever his theology may be, he took a bullet through his body during the sacrifice of the Mass. His blood and the Blood of Our Lord both stained the altar cloth in that humble church. Would that we all would be willing to die so close to Christ.

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            The question remains, would it matter if Pope Francis turned tail and woke up tomorrow completely convinced of the virtues of liberation theology? What if he accepts in his own heart not just the pared down version that exists today but instead the fully loaded Marxist version of the 1970’s? Would that matter? In a word: no.

It is difficult to remember, especially in the age of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, that the Catholic Church is not, nor ever has been, reliant upon the virtues of the Pope. The Pope can be virtuous, no doubt about that, but the existence of the church is not propped up solely upon his good conduct. History, if examined properly, will reveal two things about the papacy. First, some very poorly behaved men have sat in the chair of Peter. Second, none of them, despite their behavior, changed the teachings of the Church to suit their own whims. In other words, the Church can, and has, survived bad Popes.

What the Rose Bergers of the world always forget is that the teachings of the Church, though promulgated by the Pope, do not originate in the back corners of his mind. The Church is not an idea sustained by the outright glorious luck we’ve had in finding smart, virtuous men to sit on the chair of Peter. G.K. Chesterton makes this point the best:

When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society. He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward- in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built his Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

The Church has survived Peter. She can easily survive Francis.


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  • Fr. Robert L. Becerra

    I approached this article with the trepidation that its title was meant to elicit. However, I relaxed as I got into it.

    So-called “Liberal Catholics” are always trying to spin their political ideology into their “religious” beliefs. They grasp at any little thing they happen to see and spin their hoped-for notions of a Church made in their own image. Frankly, it’s sad to behold. They project onto the Holy Father their own expectations for a political candidate, and now see Pope Francis as some sort of Liberal ‘savior.’ If they knew anything about “Papa Bergoglio,” they would see that his stances on topics Catholic are, well, Catholic! They have focused so much on his “style” that they ignore the “substance” of his Faith. This supposedly “Liberal Pope” has mentioned ‘the devil’ in his homilies and teachings more than any other modern Pope. He as a Jesuit clashed repeatedly with the late Jesuit General, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., over his ‘liberalizing tendencies,’ yet has already publicly prayed at his tomn on two different occasions. As a priest and bishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio fought consistently against “Liberation Theology” yet now invites Gutierrez to the Vatican. Might it not simply be that Pope Francis is a symbol of contradiction? That he lives as a peace maker as Christ Himself would have him do as Vicar of Christ?

    I watch with some amusement as the talking heads try to tell us who and what Pope Francis is. Both the Liberal Left and the Traditionalist zanies have spun their own editorials on the Pope. In the end, they’ll both be disappointed. Pope Francis is merely the 266th Successor of St. Peter and the Chief Shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church. And yes, he is Catholic!

  • anne ross

    My first visit to this site. very interesting and informative. Thank you.

  • Courtney

    Yes, it’s refreshing to have a Pope who says what most 21st Century Catholics are already thinking. Amen.