Liberating Catholicism

Pope Francis’ encyclical has already made shockwaves around the world cementing his place as the most popular Pope on the left, at least since Pope John XXIII died in 1963, and making enemies on the right who tell him, paradoxically, to keep religion out of political matters.

For some, the strong statements made have come as a pleasant (or unpleasant) surprise. The encyclical is full of statements like:

The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.

Access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse.

The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development.

His call, and thereby that of the Catholic church, however, that humanity must make sweeping changes to our economic system and to how we care for the planet did not come out of the blue. For many familiar with a particularly Latin-American and leftist Catholic teaching known as liberation theology, however, the encyclical sounded familiar.

Liberation theology was a teaching that boomed in the 1950s and 1960s in Latin America that focused on the poor, but also reinterpreted Catholic scripture through the eyes of the poor, all to fight the direct causes of poverty, and controversially, in some cases, condoning armed uprising as a way to do this. Liberation theology operated somewhat outside of the traditional Catholic structures, yet at the same time remained very Catholic.

Liberation theology was born out of the deep poverty in Latin America, and the poor’s relationship to Catholic teachings in their everyday struggles against unjust social structures. ‘Liberation’ here meant liberation from these social structures as much as liberation from sin. For adherents of liberation theology, the scripture provided the principles and inspiration to work toward releasing people from unjust social patterns. Getting to heaven was not as important as changing people’s lives for the better. In this way, it was a cultural challenge to the traditional Catholic teachings.

Before Francis, however, liberation theology had been sidelined in the church –even though it sounds remarkably similar to what Jesus might have done if he existed today. Joseph Ratzinger shunned this strain of Catholic thought before coming Pope Benedict XVI, calling it ‘a fundamental threat to the faith of the church.’ And for Pope John Paul II, liberation theology was at best, a thorn in his side. But under Francis, at least parts of liberation theology seem to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Francis himself has made the ‘preferential option for the poor’ central to his theologySome see Francis himself as the author of a ‘refined version of liberation theology’.

It is no coincidence that Francis is the first Pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit Pope – closest to liberation theology both geographically and in terms of his religious order. Although it was reported that he originally opposed liberation theology in Argentina, this it was apparently more to keep his fellow Jesuits from becoming politically active in a political volatile country.

Yet while it would be a step too far to say he is an adherent, the influences on him are obvious. Back in 2007, before becoming Pope, Francis was the author of a paper at a bishop’s conference in Aparecida, Brazil, which put huge emphasis on helping the poor. Picking up on two of the key themes, the primacy of helping the poor and the possibility of dying for that cause, he wrote:

We pledge to work harder so that our Latin-American and Caribbean church may continue to accompany our poorest brothers on their journey, even to martyrdom.

Further, the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and key mover and shaker in the Catholic hierarchy and close ally of Francis is Gerhard Ludwig Müeller. And although Müeller rejected the ‘Marxist influences’ of liberation theology, he was a pupil, friend and collaborator of Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of the movement, with whom Francis met in 2013, effectively making him the first Pope to accept Gutiérrez, who was previously shunned for his radical ideas. Commenting on Gutiérrez, Müeller stated:

The theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, independently of how you look at it, is orthodox because it is orthopractic and it teaches us the correct way of acting in a Christian fashion since it comes from true faith.

In an interview in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Cardinal Müeller said Pope Francis:

is not so much a liberation theologian in the academic sense, but as far as pastoral work is concerned, he has close ties with liberation theology’s concerns.

He went on to argue that liberation theology should be held in equal stead to traditional theology, saying it coincided with the Gospel for the Poor and ‘for those on the periphery’, which Pope Francis never tires of emphasising.

Francis also has close links to Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian priest who was one of the other architects of liberation theology, consulting him on numerous occasions on the preparation of the encyclical. Boff himself welcomed the election of Francis, highlighting that he was more progressive than most. Like the pope, Boff was deeply influenced by Saint Francis, whom he called ‘the purest figure of Western history’. Boff has argued for a radical Christian eco-theology representing a return to a pre-Cartesian reverence for the Earth, a living world created by God as home for all things. For him, ecological destruction is a sin.

It was Boff who said:

Along with the poor, you have to add the Earth as the ‘great pauper’ that is oppressed and devastated. It’s the eco-theology of liberation. It is not as if we went from red theology to green theology. It is the same liberating impulse.

It should come as no surprise that this sounds very close to the words used in the encyclical, which ties the fate of the poor with environmental destruction, since the poor are those who suffer the worst effects of climate change.

Francis’s encyclical openly states this link between the poor, justice and environmental concerns that Boff developed. It puts forward an ‘integral ecology’ which goes far beyond the soft green ecology of organisations like the United Nations or even Greenpeace. It covers all aspects of environmental, economic, social and cultural life.

However, although influenced, Francis is most likely not a complete adherent of liberation theology. Francis idealises the idea of the ‘people’ which, related to Latin American populism can be understood as the poor majority. The section of the world which needs to be valorised and protected from late capitalism, as taught by his former teacher Carlos Scannone. A ‘popular spirituality’, if you will, but still closely linked to the ideas of liberation theology. Maybe more Polanyi than Marx, or even Spinoza.

Nonetheless, Francis has opened up a space for liberation theology, and its key commitment over any other to turn theology into a critical reflection on the lived experiences of the poor. It is a definite move away from traditional theology which is often based on abstract reasoning and timeless truths; rather, it is about the dignity of the marginalised in changing historical circumstances. For him, ‘poverty is not a sociological, philosophical or cultural category. No, it is a theological category.’

Through his encyclical, Francis is turning the church’s gaze toward the earth, making a dramatic shift in an attempt to put forward a culture of not only social, but ecological inclusion, not unlike the saint he was named after, who wrote, ‘Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us.’ Something which liberation theologists (and many ecologists) could agree on.

Andrew Self

Andrew Self is a journalist and teacher from Melbourne. He tweets at @andrewself.

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