The Editors

Pope Francis and the Ongoing Dialogue of Liberation Theology

Catholic Social Ethics

This is the third of four posts in a Symposium on Pope Francis and Liberation Theology. The earlier posts can be found here and here. Subsequent posts will be published each Friday.

The election of Pope Francis as the first pope from Latin America has inevitably raised questions about his relationship with liberation theology, the controversial theological movement that emerged in the region in the late 1960s and that has since had a profound impact on theology and church life throughout the world. Although not unchallenged, the dominant narrative is that under Francis there has been an “about-face” in the Vatican’s attitude toward the movement, a reconciliation between the Vatican and liberation theology.

Certain gestures by Pope Francis and Gerhard Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, support this narrative. In September, Müller and Gustavo Gutiérrez, often considered the father of Latin American liberation theology, celebrated in Mantua the publication of the Italian translation of their co-authored book On the Side of the Poor: Liberation Theology, Theology of the Church, originally published in German in 2004. Gutiérrez then reportedly had a private audience with Pope Francis in Rome. The Vatican under Francis has also re-opened the cause for sainthood of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador assassinated in 1980 for his criticisms of the oppressive Salvadoran government on behalf of the poor. Romero’s canonization process was slowed during the papacies of Francis’s predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

As MT Dávila suggests in her contribution to this symposium, Pope Francis has also made the preferential option for the poor, a key theme of liberation theology, central to his papacy. He has encouraged Catholics to incorporate this option into the church’s pastoral practice in an unprecedented way. According to John L. Allen, Gustavo Gutiérrez once claimed that the preferential option for the poor was ninety percent of liberation theology.

As is often the case with storytelling, however, this narrative involves some simplifications. The first is that a narrative of an “about-face” implies that in the past the Vatican had set its face against liberation theology, but in fact the reality is more complex. Of course, the Vatican did issue condemnations of certain liberation theologians during the pontificate of John Paul II (when Joseph Ratzinger was the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), but the Vatican’s engagement with liberation theology began much earlier.

As early as 1971, when the first works of liberation theology were being published, the Synod of Bishops was engaging with the ideas of this nascent movement. In Justitia in Mundo, the synod affirmed a key insight of liberation theology:

 Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.” (#6)

Similarly, in his 1974 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI insisted that “Between evangelization and human advancement–development and liberation–there are in fact profound links” (#31). Paul made explicit appeal to the language of “liberation,” signaling a recognition of the insights emerging from Latin America.

It also should not be forgotten that even under Pope John Paul II, the relationship between the Vatican and liberation theology was more complex than one of simple opposition. As Jeffrey Klaiber points out in his contribution to this symposium, Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1984 condemnation of “certain aspects” of liberation theology was followed two years later by a second instruction on the positive aspects of liberation theology. Similarly, in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II adopted “liberation” as an appropriate theological category, insisting that it must be an “authentic” and “true” liberation (## 46-47). John Paul also adopted from liberation theology the concept of “social sin” or “structures of sin” in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (#16), and in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis more explicitly applied the concept to the exploitation of the poorer nations of the world by the wealthier nations (## 36-37).

Therefore, although many individual liberation theologians were censured, Vatican relations with liberation theology before the election of Pope Francis can hardly be characterized as univocally condemnatory. The story is more complex. The second way in which the narrative of “about-face” or “reconciliation” is simplified is that it treats liberation theology as a single entity, when in fact it is a diverse movement whose practitioners have disagreed amongst themselves over matters large and small. When speaking of the Vatican reconciling with liberation theologians, then, it is important to be specific about which ones.

Of course, the harshest critics of liberation theology, such as Samuel Gregg in the article linked to above, have always tended to place all of its practitioners into a single basket. Their perception of liberation theology seems to be drawn solely from the CDF’s 1984 instruction and polemical works written in the 1980s rather than from a reading of liberation theologians themselves. Even more sympathetic commentators have made the same mistake of interpreting liberation theology monolithically, however. There have always been disagreements among liberation theologians, for example, on issues such as the role of popular religious piety, the relative importance of economic versus ethnic categories in analyzing the situation of the oppressed, and the role of women.

One of the most important disagreements, and perhaps the most important for understanding developing relations between the Vatican and liberation theology, is over Christology. For example, disagreements over Christology lie behind the rift between the brothers Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, both prominent liberation theologians, as reported by Sandro Magister. At the risk of simplifying the issue, Clodovis accuses Leonardo of interpreting Christ’s Incarnation as merely sacralizing the more fundamental principle of “the poor,” while Leonardo accuses Clodovis of holding to an abstract Christ shorn of his historical context of struggle against Roman and Jewish authorities. Although perhaps most evident in the dispute between the Boff brothers, these diverging Christologies are key to understanding Latin American liberation theology as a whole. Therefore John L. Allen is incorrect when he claims that the CDF’s censure of Jon Sobrino in 2007 was a question of Christology disconnected from the earlier investigations of liberation theology; in fact, Christology cuts to the core of what liberation theology is about and how it is incorporated into the life of the church.

It is also no coincidence that the censure of Sobrino occurred only two months before the fifth meeting of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) in Aparecida, Brazil. The conference’s final document was seen by many as a vindication of certain key themes of liberation theology, such as the preferential option for the poor and the “see judge act” method of pastoral action. Many liberation theologians, such as Gutiérrez and Sergio Torres, the then-president of the liberation theology group Amerindia, therefore enthusiastically supported the conference’s final document, but others, such as Leonardo Boff (link in Portuguese) and José Comblin (link in Spanish), were more critical precisely on the issue of Christology and its impact on pastoral life.

As reported by the then Bishop of Petrópolis in Brazil, Filippo Santoro, after some debate the bishops at Aparecida decided to preface their endorsement of the “see judge act” method of pastoral action with a statement on missionary discipleship; as Santoro describes the document, “Its point of departure was not social analysis, but the faith of a people made up to a large extent of the poor, making use of the method of seeing, judging, and acting, ‘starting with the eyes and heart of missionary disciples.’” The primary advocate for this editorial change was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who was president of the conference’s drafting commission. As Pope Francis clarified in his visit to Brazil earlier this year:

 The way we ‘see’ is always affected by the way we direct our gaze. There is no such thing as an ‘antiseptic’ hermeneutics. The question was, rather: How are we going to look at reality in order to see it? Aparecida replied: With the eyes of discipleship.”

This was not a repudiation of liberation theology, but rather a taking sides in an ongoing discussion within the movement. When we dispel these two myths, that the Vatican was consistently opposed to liberation theology prior to Pope Francis, and that liberation theology is a monolithic movement, we can get a more accurate picture of Pope Francis’s relationship with liberation theology. He is not so much bringing about a reconciliation between the Vatican and the movement, but rather taking a further step in an ongoing dialogue between the Vatican and liberation theologians, and among liberation theologians themselves.

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