Words by Charles Baker (Maryland, USA)
“HERE THE CHURCH, LIKE every human being, is faced with the choice that is most fundamental for its faith: to be on the side of life or on the side of death. We see very clearly that on this point no neutrality is possible. Either we serve the life of the Salvadoran people or we connive in their death. Here, too, is the historical mediation of what is most fundamental in the Christian faith: either we believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death” – Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, OP; Address at Louvain, Feb. 2, 1980
This past Friday, Mother’s Day weekend 2018, I was following up with my friend, Kokayi, about a Catholic anti-war activist whom I thought he would be interested to know about: the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, SJ. As is often the case when I bring things into discussion that I think are new, Kokayi was already familiar with him. But he followed up with a very interesting segue into the topic of liberation theology.
As it turns out, another religious social activist, the AME minister and theologian James Cone, had just passed away last April, and liberation theology was salient in my friend’s mind. He asked me, a Roman Catholic, whether or not Pope Francis endorses/advocates for liberation theology. What followed was more or less a soliloquoy on Francis’ perspective, the overarching Catholic perspective, and my personal perspective on the theological-political school of thought called liberation theology. But before that: some background.
Liberation theology arose in the Spanish-speaking countries of Central America in the early second half of the 20th Century as a distinctly Christian religio-political response to widespread poverty and human rights violations perpetrated by far-right military dictatorships in several nations in the region, particularly Guatemala and El Salvador, but including Honduras, Colombia, Dominican Republic, and others. The Latin American bishops, priests, and theologians who developed this branch of theology attempted to place key events from Scripture into the historical context of the liberation of persecuted cultures, thereby doing the same thing with the Abrahamic God. Like James Cone, these Catholic scholars and theologians look to events like the Murder of Abel, the Exodus, and the Incarnation, Ministry, & Passion of Jesus Christ, through the hermeneutics (i.e. the interpretive ‘lens’) of the lived experience of the poor and oppressed peoples whom they shepherd. In so doing, liberation theology attempts to build a bridge between Christian theology and political activism geared toward the political and material deliverance (in addition to the primary, spiritual deliverance) of poor people. God does not desire for the poor to be happy and free in the next life only, but in the here and now too (after all, God exists wholly in the present).
It is from liberation theology that the phrase “preferential option for the poor” was born; and it has since been a cornerstone of contemporary Catholic Social Teaching. This phrase and concept, first articulated by the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, presents a moral challenge to nations and their governments to institute social policies that engage their poorest constituents with compassion – both material and spiritual. In essence, if “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” in Heaven (Mt 20:16), then according to liberation theology, our political leaders have a moral responsibility to institute policies aimed toward bringing that Kingdom of God to reality here in this life, as well. Not only this, but when our leaders fail to provide for the poor and to accompany the poor (as a loved one accompanies a sick or grieving person, with charity and compassion), liberation theology claims a right of the poor to take specific, concrete action against those leaders.
However, liberation theology offers prescriptions and proscriptions, both for the bourgeois and for the masses. The ongoing moral question, then: just what sort of action can the poor take, without stepping off the “narrow path” of the Gospel (Mt 7:14)? For some, like Father Gutierrez, liberation theology identifies strongly (though not entirely) with the Karl Marx’s notion of ‘class struggle.’ It is not enough that the ruling class merely perform ‘charity’ for the poor on an individualist basis, as he expounds in his 1971 seminal work A Theology of Liberation:
It is also necessary to avoid the pitfalls of an individualistic charity… (one’s) neighbor is not only a person viewed individually. The term refers to a person considered in the fabric of social relationships, to a person situation in economic, social, cultural, and racial coordinates. It likewise refers to the exploited social class, the dominated people, the marginated (sic). The masses are also our neighbor… This point of view leads us far beyond the individualistic language of the I-Thou relationship. Charity today is a “political charity,” according to the phrase of Pius XII. Indeed, to offer food or drink in our day is a political action; it means the transformation of a society structured to benefit a few who appropriate to themselves the value of the work of others. This transformation ought to be directed toward a radical change in the foundation of society, that is, the private ownership of the means of production.
Here is where liberation theology becomes a thorn in the side of many Catholics. Reading Gutierrez’s words, one can very quickly draw the connections between liberation theology and Marxism. This makes it a very hard pill for many Catholics to swallow; Marxism is fundamentally 1) materialist and 2) atheist. As such, the majority of Catholic criticism of liberation theology has focused around the perceived necessity to distinguish it from Marxism.
Now we arrive at Pope Francis. An Argentine Jesuit, Francis (born Jorge Mario Bergoglio), now in the sixth year of his pontificate, has spoken in apparent endorsement of liberation theology more than once. “So many poor people — also poor in faith — are waiting for the Gospel that liberates!” he said in a May 2015 address to the Pontifical Council on the New Evangelism. Earlier the same year, in a message to the Lenten Brotherhood Campaign in Brazil, Francis declared that “responsibility for the poor and the marginalized must therefore be an essential element of any political decision, whether on the national or the international level.” Again, the following year, January 2016, in address after praying the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Francis challenged Catholics and the world at large: ““Let us ask ourselves: what does it mean to evangelize the poor? It means first of all drawing close to them, it means having the joy of serving them, of freeing them from their oppression, and all of this in the name of and with the Spirit of Christ, because he is the Gospel of God, he is the Mercy of God, he is the liberation of God, he is the One who became poor so as to enrich us with his poverty.”
It sounds an awful lot like a tacit endorsement of liberation theology. And indeed, it is. However, in his book The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical pope, Vatican historian and essayist Austen Ivereigh draws a subtle distinction between the Argentine strain of liberation theology and that which prevails in much of the rest of Central & South America; as Provincial Superior for the Society of Jesus (i.e. Jesuits) in Argentina, and later as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis shaped liberation theology to emphasize the unifying culture of a people (rich and poor together), stressing not the need for a struggle between classes, but the need to seek out and build up reconciliation between them. Reconciliation, a cousin of mercy, is a pillar of Francis’ pontificate.
So to answer my friend’s question: yes Francis endorses liberation theology, but that endorsement stops short of calling for a class struggle, or some form of Marxist-Leninist proletariat revolution. To Francis, “the Gospel that liberates” is one that reminds the oppressed that the Kingdom of God is not of this world (contained within that nugget is a sort of caution against using violent resistance to achieve liberation), and also one that reminds the rich and the mighty that if they want to get there, they’d better redistribute that wealth!
For me personally, as a poor person (by USA standards), remembering that the Kingdom of God is not of this world brings my liberation: from fear; fear of death, fear of not having enough, fear of failing to protect and provide for my family, fear of being torn apart by the beast of capitalism.
This is not to say that I just roll over and play the good serf, awash in a blissful ignorance because I have my Personal Jesus. That would be undignified. But to laugh when they want me to cry, to rejoice when they want me to be numb, to declare all the way to the gallows that Jesus Christ is Lord and I won’t bow to the god of money… here is divine liberation… for me, anyways.
Now, please don’t get me wrong, it is always better to live and prosper than to languish and suffer. We are given life on this Earth for a reason, and God WANTS us to rejoice, not just after death in Paradise, but here and now on Earth. God came to us in the world; he did not suffer us His absence amidst this creation. The Incarnation and its promises as proclaimed by the Blessed Virgin Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord… He has shown the strength of his arm and scattered the proud in their conceit… He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty….” (Luke 1:46,51,&53)… these promises are made for this world we live in now as much as for the next, because God is active here and now. And likewise, God has told us the fate of the oppressor: “if a man begets a son who is a robber, a shedder of blood, who… oppresses the poor and needy,… lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, lends at interest, and takes increase; shall he then live? He shall not live. He shall surely die; his blood will be upon himself.”(Ezekiel 18:10,12,&13a) (emphasis mine).
I leave you with a final quotation from Father Gutierrez in A Theology of Liberation, because I was always bad at closing essays with my own prose. May the blessing of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit descend upon us and remain with us forever. Amen.
“(Neighbor is) not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek… If there is no friendship with them and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.”