Pope Francis enjoys widespread popularity among Americans generally, especially American Catholics. In fact, his favorability ratings are better than any American president when they left office, ever since Gallup began keeping data under Harry Truman! What makes this somewhat surprising is Pope Francis has regularly alluded to liberation theology, which places him at least as far left as any U.S. president and much further left than most Catholic Americans.
Liberation theology takes many forms. It tends to emphasize the importance of overcoming economic oppression of the poor and understanding Christian teachings from their perspective. Christian social scientist Rodney Stark explains the rise of liberation theology thus in his book, The Triumph of Faith, as a response by Catholic theologians to Protestant evangelism efforts, particularly in Latin America:
Known as liberation theology, it was a mixture of Marxism and Catholicism that aimed at “mobilizing the poor for their own liberation.” The proposed tactic to achieve this liberation was to unite small groups of lower-class Latin Americans into a form of utopian socialist commune, wherein they would have their political and moral awareness raised and serve as models of progress for people in the surrounding area.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy, founded in 1982, came about at the height of liberation theology. But it was major Protestant denominations, not just the Catholic Church, which lent moral credibility to Marxist revolution. “During the 1980’s, United Methodist Church missionaries toiled in Nicaragua, not planting churches or winning souls, but flaking for the Sandinista experiment with Central American Marxism,” IRD President Mark Tooley reflected in 2009. Yet most churches have since “lost interest in touting Marxist liberation around the world,” Tooley later noted.
Although certainly not all proponents of liberation theology are Marxists, the worldview still holds sway among high-profile Christian leaders. As Stark noted, “Probably the primary proponent of liberation theology today is Francis, the first Latin American pope.” (However, one must question how the dire economic straights facing his home country of Argentina and the political turmoil in nearby Venezuela failed to convince Pope Francis of the flaws of this progressive worldview.)
Indeed, Pope Francis has frequently employed the language of liberation theology, although his particular policy proposals (if any) remain ambiguous. Considering this, perhaps most Catholic Americans would realize just how far apart the pope’s views are from their own. Here are 13 quotes from Pope Francis about Christianity and liberation:
(1) “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.” (Letter from Pope Francis to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on November 15-16, 2014)
(2) “Responsibility for the poor and the marginalized must therefore be an essential element of any political decision, whether on the national or the international level.” (Message for the Lenten Brotherhood Campaign 2015 in Brazil on February 2, 2015)
(3) “So many poor people — also poor in faith — are waiting for the Gospel that liberates! How many men and women, on the existential peripheries created by a consumerist, atheistic society, wait for our closeness and our solidarity!” (Address at the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelism on May 29, 2015)
(4) “So many poor people, victims of old and new forms of poverty. There are new forms of poverty! Structural and endemic poverty are excluding generations of families. Economic, social, moral and spiritual poverty.” (Address at the International Pastoral Congress on the World’s Big Cities on November 27, 2014)
(5) “The growth of inequality and poverty undermines inclusive and participatory democracy at risk which always presupposes an economy and an equitable and nonexclusive market. It is a question, therefore, of overcoming the structural causes of inequality and poverty. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I wished to point out three fundamental instruments for the social inclusion of the most needy: education, access to health care and employment for all.” (Address at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on October 2, 2014)
(6) “There are economic systems that must make war in order to survive… An economic system centered on the god of money also needs to plunder nature, plunder nature, in order to maintain the frenetic pace of consumption inherent in it.” (Address at the World Meeting of Popular Movements on October 28, 2014)
(7) “Today, added to the phenomenon of exploitation and oppression, is a new dimension, a graphic and hard hue of social injustice; those that cannot be integrated, the excluded are discarded, the ‘leftovers.’ This is the disposable culture…” (Address at the World Meeting of Popular Movements on October 28, 2014)
(8) “Solidarity, this word that frightens the developed world. People try to avoid saying it. Solidarity to them is almost a bad word. But it is our word! Serving means recognizing and accepting requests for justice and hope, and seeking roads together, real paths that lead to liberation.” (Address at ‘Astalli Centre’ Jesuit refugee service in Rome on September 10, 2013)
(9) “An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the ‘dung of the devil’. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home, sister and mother earth.” (Address at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements on July 9, 2015)
(10) “We must recover the whole sense of gift, of gratuitousness, of solidarity. Rampant capitalism has taught the logic of profit at all costs, of giving to get, of exploitation without looking at the person… and we see the results in the crisis we are experiencing!” (Address while visiting homeless shelter ‘Dono di Maria’ on May 21, 2013)
(11) “The Church has realized that the need to heed this plea is itself born of the liberating action of grace within each of us, and thus it is not a question of a mission reserved only to a few: ‘The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might’ … it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.” (The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium, 2014)
(12) “Let us ask ourselves: what does it mean to evangelize the poor? It means first of all drawing close to them, it means having the joy of serving them, of freeing them from their oppression, and all of this in the name of and with the Spirit of Christ, because he is the Gospel of God, he is the Mercy of God, he is the liberation of God, he is the One who became poor so as to enrich us with his poverty.” (Angelus in Saint Peter’s Square on January 24, 2016)
(13) “The Gospel passage we have heard presents us with a figure who stands out because of her faith and courage. This is the woman whom Jesus healed of a hemorrhage (cf. Mt 9:20-22). … This example causes one to reflect on how the woman is often perceived and represented. We, even Christian communities, are all alert to views of femininity invalidated by prejudice and harmful suspicions about her intangible dignity. The Gospels themselves restore the truth and bring a liberating perspective in this regard.” (General Audience at Saint Peter’s Square on August 31, 2016)