This is the second of four posts in a Symposium on Pope Francis and Liberation Theology. The first post can be found here. Subsequent posts will be published each Friday.
A number of years ago, as I was trying to finalize my dissertation proposal at a large Catholic university, I ran into some problems. My topic was the preferential option for the poor and U.S. middle-class Christians. I knew I was stretching some of the boundaries of theological ethics by focusing on class analysis and the philosophical underpinnings of “The American Dream” as obstacles to faithful expression of the option for the poor in the U.S. However, the key challenge to my proposal was not its incursion into sociology or philosophy. Concern arose regarding my assumptions about the centrality of the preferential option for the poor for the Christian faith. I was baffled as to why this would be a question at all in a Catholic institution. Had we not established the centrality of the option for the poor throughout the Church fathers, in Aquinas’ treaties on justice, in countless World Council of Churches documents, in the special place of the poor during Vatican II, especially Gaudium et Spes, in the writings of John Paul II, and most theological reflection of the last third of the 20th century?
Documenting the development of the preferential option for the poor in Latin American liberation theology and in Catholic social thought led me to define it as the incarnational principle of Divine love. As such, it is the contemporary understanding of an activist God, a God who enters history, choosing to be in solidarity with humanity, becoming incarnate and suffering the poverty of our death. Therefore, the call to followers of Christ is to become incarnate in the suffering of others, and, in some measure take on their poverty as we struggle for justice as an expression of Divine love.
Francis’ ministry prior to and after becoming bishop of Rome is representative of the option for the poor as an incarnational principle. Location, where we do church, and the intentionality of the space we choose to occupy in our journey of faith is crucial to a loving encounter with Christ and an authentic response to its transformative effects. Francis’ choices offer a loud witness to this principle: Lampedusa, where migrants risk everything for a better life; Varginha, the favela where Francis gave one of his addresses during World Youth Day in Brazil; Casal del Marmo, the prison for minors where he celebrated Holy Thursday, washing the feet of the inmates; the streets of Rome, where some have hinted at the possibility of nightly escapades by a Francis wanting to share money and resources with the homeless and poor.
Whether in interviews or most recently in his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Francis proposes that a church that is closed in on itself is sickly, unbecoming the mission of the true church of Christ:
The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open… everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason…” (EG, 47)
…let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (EG, 49)
Will the preferential option for the poor gain much needed traction now that it has found a global voice of authority to witness to its transformative character as the incarnational principle of Divine love? Controversy still abounds on whether Francis’ critique of economic practices that victimize and dehumanize makes actual economic sense or is an expression of Marxist tendencies. These discussions must not be allowed to shadow his careful and intentional locating himself in places outside the thresholds of comfort and luxury. In Francis’ ministry the preferential option for the poor is not an ideological reading of the market, but rather the building of the church where it must become present, “For the church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category, rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor ‘his first mercy.’” (EG, 198, quoting John Paul II)
A church that takes the preferential option for the poor seriously is messy and dangerous. Already many of Francis’ actions and statements are being met with cautious resistance grounded on an ecclesiology and understanding of the relationship of God to God’s church that is rule-driven and bounded. As an incarnational principle the option for the poor requires that the entirety of our lives, where we are enfleshed and where our actions and decisions have concrete consequences on the lives of others, represent Divine love and care to the human and non-human members of creation. Furthermore, it demands that we seriously consider where and with whom we are called to live our faith. In the U.S. this takes us outside the comfort of our church buildings, into the church on the streets. Examples abound of Congregational churches, who, not having to fiscally respond to a central authority, turn over their buildings to service and house the homeless, renting a modest space for Sunday worship, making service to the poor the core practice of their physical location. Others are stepping outside the thresholds of their buildings for Sunday worship, recognizing that true worship goes out into the world, into factories, city commons, and jails, not confined within the bounds of irrelevantly ornate buildings. Such moves make many faithful uncomfortable, but they are the result of carefully listening to and discerning the Spirit’s call and challenge to a church infected with irrelevant self-importance.
In his contribution to this symposium, Jeffrey Klaber, S.J. described some of the history of liberation theology vis-à-vis its contentious relationship with the Vatican. He spoke to the ways in which a spirituality and ecclesiology inspired by liberation theology continues to concretely challenge unjust structures and transform realities of suffering. But the dialogue or rapprochement between liberation theology and the Vatican is a separate conversation from that of the instruction of the faithful in the preferential option for the poor. Liberation theology in the 20th century concretely birthed this phrase that so succinctly and clearly communicates the way humanity experiences God’s love in history as witnessed to in the biblical narrative. As an incarnational principle, it required a moment in history to become concrete and enter the narrative of the people of God, much like God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ also represents the historical expression of God’s eternal and activist love. I can only hope that in Francis we have a concrete challenge for the church, especially the church in the U.S., to faithfully and authentically live this core principle.
MT Dávila, a Roman Catholic laywoman, is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School. Her current work focuses on the intersections of activism and discipleship in the life of faith.