Religion News Service, in its online bulletin on September 17, 2013, carries an article entitled “Liberation theology finds a new welcome in Pope Francis’ Vatican”, by Alessandro Speciale (who regularly covers the Vatican). The story was triggered by the news that Francis is about to meet with Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian Dominican, who was one of the founders of Liberation Theology. The immediate context of course is how Francis has called for “a poor church for the poor”, in addition to various actions of his showing his concern for the poor and the lowly. Since the RNS story the expectation that Francis will embrace Liberation Theology has been fueled by an interview he gave to a Jesuit periodical in which he urged the Church to stop prioritizing abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception over other urgent moral concerns (such as poverty).
Speciale also mentions Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who was appointed by Benedict XVI as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the doctrinal watchdog of the Vatican) and still holds that office. It turns out that in 2004 Mueller co-authored a book with Gutierrez, which did not attract much attention at the time. But when an Italian translation was released, Osservatore Romano (the principal mouthpiece of the Vatican) carried a two-page story about it on September 3, 2013. I have not read the book and cannot say to what extent it showed Mueller endorsing at least some aspects of Liberation Theology. However, the attention to the book by Osservatore Romano indicates a degree of tolerance if not agreement with a school of thought that had been sharply criticized by Rome in the past. Another indicator of the alleged “new welcome” is the announcement that Mueller’s office will begin the process toward sainthood of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by the military regime of El Salvador in 1980 and has become a hero of the Catholic Left.
Vaticanologists watch every nuance in the often opaque behavior of the Curia, comparable to the way in which Kremlinologists used to watch mysterious goings-on in the Soviet leadership. Speciale has no question mark after his article. I would gently suggest inserting one.
It is useful to recall the trajectory of Liberation Theology since its inception in Latin America some fifty years ago. Arguably its core concept was, and still is the “preferential option for the poor” (“la opcion preferencial para los pobres”). It meant not only that the Church should be concerned for the poor, but that it should express this concern by political action on their behalf; for some this meant revolutionary action to establish socialism. This was at the time when much of Latin America was ruled by authoritarian regimes of the Right, supported by the United States, and opposed to every semblance of socialism.
The definition of the situation assumed by Liberation Theology was Marxist: Poverty is caused by capitalism (both indigenous, so-called comprador capitalism, and its imperialist masters in America); the solution is socialism; the way there is political and if necessary armed resistance to the existent regimes. As far as I know, the core concept was coined in 1968 by Pedro Arrupe, then head of the Society of Jesus, in a letter to Latin American Jesuits. It was elaborated by Gutierrez in his 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation, and by a number of other Latin American writers. It was officially endorsed by the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in the so-called “Medellin declaration” and endorsed by Pope John-Paul II in the encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991).
This fact alone should make one pause before ascribing embrace of Liberation Theology to anyone who uses its signature tune: In the same encyclical John-Paul (whose experience in Communist Poland made him allergic to every whiff of Marxism) endorsed the market economy, a first in papal pronouncements. (He distinguished “market economy” from “capitalism” – a distinction that makes little sense – but this is neither here nor there.) “The preferential option for the poor” is now official Catholic social teaching, though shorn of its original Marxist underpinnings. In the US the name “Liberation Theology” was taken up by various Christian movements speaking for groups considered to be poor or oppressed – African-Americans, Latinos, women, gays. Some adherents of these movements have retained the old Marxist flavor, others have not.
Is it reasonable to expect that Pope Francis will embrace Liberation Theology as his predecessors have not? I think not. We know that throughout his career in his native Argentina, before and during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he did not endorse Liberation Theology. We also know that on choosing the name of Francis of Assisi upon assuming the papacy, he signaled that the Church was always to have a special concern for poor, oppressed and marginalized people. His personal gestures since then have served to express this concern. If the phrase “preferential option for the poor” means that, I think that every Christian would agree with it. Jesus himself expressed, over and over again, his identification with those on the margins of society. To be sure, this attitude has political implications: There are policies that tend to alleviate poverty, some that do not. It should be self-understood that Christian churches, where they have a voice, should advocate for the former and against the latter. The trouble is that they are often wrong in their diagnosis and therefore in the treatment they propose.
Diego Mendez Arceo was Bishop of Cuernavaca, Mexico, in the 1960s. He became famous for denouncing the massacre of peaceful protesters by government forces in Mexico City in 1968, an action that required considerable courage under what was then a semi-authoritarian regime. When he returned from the aforementioned Medellin conference of CELAM, he said to an interviewer (at the airport, I recall): “No hay otra salida”/”There is no other way out”. What he meant was socialism. He was wrong.
Science never produces certainties. The social scientist studying the causes of poverty and its remedies can only offer probabilities. However, some probabilities can be so strong that they come close to knowledge. Leaving aside later adoptions of Liberation Theology, what about its original focus on poverty in an underdeveloped region of the world? What is good for the poor? I think that the evidence of the last fifty years is clear enough, so that we can say that we know the following: The most effective method of reducing poverty is economic growth. The economic system most likely to generate growth is capitalism. By way of contrast, socialism is ineffective in generating growth, and most likely to produce equality in poverty for most people and wealth for a small elite (the nomenklatura of the Soviet Union and other socialist regimes).
Of course this does not mean that, in addition to avoiding policies that inhibit economic growth, there is nothing else that government can do to get people out of poverty. The welfare state, operating alongside a capitalist economy, is the sum-total of government policies that are intended to help the poor, and often do. This is not the place to discuss the balance between economic growth and social welfare in capitalist democracies. Liberation Theology is no help in realistic moral thinking about this issue. Catholic moral teaching can be (though hardly in its entirety). I think that Pope Francis understands this.