As had been anticipated, the Pope has met with Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the fathers of liberation theology. Apparently the only thing we know about the meeting is that it happened, in early September.
Is there a sort of “rehabilitation” of liberation theology, after much criticism by Church authorities in the mid-1980s, in the works? Several things have led some, including myself, to think that may be so. Besides this meeting with Gutierrez, we know that Pope Francis has also recently asked (in a way that became public) for a copy of the new book by another big name in liberation theology, Leonardo Boff, for his review.
In addition to that, and more importantly, Francis’s thinking — to the obvious consternation of many — is marked by clear echoes of liberation theology. The preferential option for the poor is at the center of his thinking and ministry — not just in the benign “it’s important to help the poor” way that many understand in that phrase, but also in the sense specific to liberation theology: that there are powerful structures of society which conspire against the poor and that these structures must be opposed by the Church and by individual Christians. The Pope’s repeated and sharp criticisms of consumerism, “savage capitalism,” and the unjust global economic system since his election are pure liberation theology.
We should add, finally, that despite the official suspicion, several ideas central to the work of Gutierrez, Boff, and other liberation theologians have already made their way into official Church teaching. Structures of sin that support injustice, preferential option for the poor, and solidarity (prominent in the social encyclicals of the past three decades) owe much to liberation theology. For that to have happened even as the liberation theology was being officially criticized is somewhat remarkable. It’s no wonder that John Paul II referred to liberation theology, in a 1986 letter to the bishops of Brazil, as “not only timely but useful and necessary.” So it could certainly be argued that it deserves to be more highly regarded within the Church.
On the other hand, there’s the recent interview with Pope Francis published by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Liberation theology came up in the course of it, quite naturally actually within a line of thinking the Pope was expressing. At a moment ready-made for him if what he has in mind is fresh thinking about liberation theology within the Church, Francis, to my mind, seems rather uninterested in discussing the topic. Here’s the pertinent passage:
You heard your calling at a young age?
“No, not very young. My family wanted me to have a different profession, to work, earn some money. I went to university. I also had a teacher for whom I had a lot of respect and developed a friendship and who was a fervent communist. She often read Communist Party texts to me and gave them to me to read. So I also got to know that very materialistic conception. I remember that she also gave me the statement from the American Communists in defense of the Rosenbergs, who had been sentenced to death. The woman I’m talking about was later arrested, tortured and killed by the dictatorship then ruling in Argentina.”
Where you seduced by Communism?
“Her materialism had no hold over me. But learning about it through a courageous and honest person was helpful. I realized a few things, an aspect of the social, which I then found in the social doctrine of the Church.”
Liberation theology, which Pope John Paul II excommunicated, was widespread in Latin America.
“Yes, many of its members were Argentines.”
Do you think it was right that the Pope fought against them?
“It certainly gave a political aspect to their theology, but many of them were believers and with a high concept of humanity.”
And that’s it. Then the interviewer changes the subject. No correction of the interviewer’s obvious overstatement that John Paul II “excommunicated” liberation theology — on the contrary, a “yes.” And let’s face it, “Many of them were believers” is decidedly not the statement of a Pope who wishes to offer long-withheld support or vindication of theologians whose work has been the object of considerable suspicion on the part of Church authorities. Indeed, Francis’s comments are a far cry from JP2’s above-mentioned “not only timely, but useful and necessary.”
So until Francis is much more clear on the topic — and maybe this is as clear as he will get — we shall have to wait and see.