This is the first of four posts in a Symposium on Pope Francis and Liberation Theology. Subsequent posts will be published each Friday.
In September of this year Gustavo Gutiérrez concelebrated a mass with Pope Francis, along with Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Faith. Of course there were other priests present, so it was not, as some have claimed, a “legitimization” of liberation theology.
This turn of events should not come as a complete surprise. Müller began visiting Peru in the nineties and befriended Gustavo Gutiérrez. In 2008 he received an honorary doctorate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and praised liberation theology. Gustavo Gutiérrez, of course, was in the audience.
For many it may come as a surprise that Rome never condemned liberation theology. In 1984 Cardinal Ratzinger, then the prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, wrote an “Instruction” on liberation theology. In it he warned of the dangers of that theological current, particularly the influence of Marxism. But Ratzinger received many criticisms from around the globe for his apparently overly harsh assessment of liberation theology. In 1986 he wrote a second document, Instruction on Christian Liberty and Liberation, which was much more positive and nuanced. In the second document Ratzinger declared that the pursuit of liberty is essentially a Christian task. God is the God of freedom. In the same document Ratzinger repeated his warning not to confuse Marxism with Christianity.
Although he did not explicitly approve of liberation theology, his open praise of Christian liberty came close to an approval. The difficulty was that in Roman circles liberation theology was held in suspicion. Basically, many bishops hoped that it would simply fade away. As a result, many theologians, priests, nuns, and pastoral agents were afraid to use the term for fear of being accused of being Marxists or leftist sympathizers.
The fact that liberation theology had been officially investigated and the near silence that followed gave the impression that it had been condemned.
Liberation theology uses the book of Exodus as its basic source of inspiration. Just as God accompanied the children of Israel through the desert on the way to the Promised Land, so He is also accompanying the peoples of the Third World (or the poor of the First World) in their quest for a better life. Liberation theology emphasizes solidarity as opposed to an individualist ethic. Critics of liberation theology have accused it of being materialistic and political. In fact, Gustavo Gutiérrez and all the other liberation theologians have always held that the first form of slavery is sin. But they also claim that there is such a thing as social sin which is manifested in social structures. Just as slavery was a social sin, so, too, is massive poverty, the drug culture, sexual slavery, etc. One can claim that he or she is not responsible for those evils. For the liberation theologians all men and women are responsible for the world in which we live.
Liberation theology has been accused of being a political theology. In reality, it is a spiritual theology but with political implications. It was liberation theology which inspired Christians in Nicaragua to support the Sandinistas to overthrow Somoza. The presence of Christians and priests in the Sandinista government, of which Rome disapproved, was nevertheless important. It explains to a great degree why Nicaragua never became another Cuba. In most of Latin America liberation theology aims to change unjust structures, not overturn governments. In Villa El Salvador, a huge settlement south of Lima, the mayor for many years, Michel Azcueta, cited liberation theology as the reason why Villa El Salvador is now a fairly built up city. Azcueta, a former seminarian, urged the people to work together. As a result, Villa El Salvador, which began forty years ago with a few shacks in the middle of the desert, is now a model community.
In Peru also liberation theology was important during the Shining Path years. The Shining Path, which was a terrorist group, inspired by a fundamentalist Marxism, sought to impose its will on the poor. The older popular religiosity which emphasizes personal salvation, offered no resistance to the Shining Path. But liberation theology offered a “mystique” to the poor: God is with you as long as you stand together. It was liberation theology which finally defeated dogmatic Marxism in Peru.
Liberation theology has it sympathetic critics. For them, it is too dualistic (oppressor versus the oppressed). In this sense it clearly reflects the reality of much of the Third World. While it is true that there are exploiters, it is also true that there are capitalists in Latin America who are socially responsible. Also, liberation theology created messianic expectations: the Kingdom of God is right around the corner. Of course, this is a constant theme in the entire history of Christianity. But a milder liberation theology also appeals to the parable of the mustard seed which grows quietly over a long period of time, but in the end, produces a robust tree.
In the sixties and seventies the liberation theologians cited Marx to enter in dialogue with university students. But as they drew closer to the poor, they learned that for the vast majority of Latin Americans it was sufficient to simply cite the Bible and to appeal to the communitarian spirit of the poor.
Liberation theology lives on in the poor neighborhoods of Latin America, but with a more pragmatic outreach. There is a Jesuit in El Agustino, a huge former shanty town in Lima, but still very poor. There the problem is delinquency. This Jesuit, affectionately known as “Chiqui”, has performed a modern miracle. He has single handedly solved the problem of the gangs in the neighborhood. He did it by getting the gangs involved in something constructive. Several years ago, with Father Chiqui’s encouragement the members of a gang founded the Martin Luther King Rock Band (it was their idea to use Dr. King’s name). Then Chiqui got them involved in sports. Then, with the aid of a wealthy Peruvian he got them interested in studying. This is the new face of liberation theology in Latin America: pragmatic and down to earth.
In March, 2012, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then the archbishop of Buenos Aires, participated in a panel to present a posthumous book by Rafael Tello, a priest who had worked in the so called “misery villages” of the capital city. Tello, who died in 2002, was closely associated with liberation theology. Bergoglio praised the man and his work. The key to understanding Bergoglio is the concept of “inculturation”. He praised Father Tello because he sought to find Christ in the poor. Bergoglio has never singled out liberation theology as better than other theologies. But as a pastor he has praised those who go out to the “peripheries,” to the poor and excluded. In this sense he has a kindred spirit in Juan Carlos Scannone, a Jesuit who teaches at the Jesuit theologate in Buenos Aires and is a friend of Francis. Scannone, considered a liberation theologian, has written extensively on the cry for justice which arises from ordinary people in Latin America. For Scannone that cry for justice comes from God himself. Inculturation in this context means going out to the people and not expecting the people to come to the church. This seems to be Francis’ message: the church should be wherever God is.
Jeffrey Klaiber is an American Jesuit priest teaching at the Catholic University of Peru and the Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University (Jesuits) in Lima.