On theology and liberation


A reflection on justice-oriented church traditions Latin America after CUSLAR’s Spring 2016 study of Pope Francis and his context

by David K. Johnson
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

For progressive Christians and non-Christians alike, the ascendency of the first Latin American Pope presents us with an occasion both for excitement and contemplation. How did the present Pope rise from his origins in the Catholic culture of Argentina to his position of power and leadership in Rome? What is the significance, for the Catholic Church and for world politics, of Pope Francis’ inauguration as the first Pope in history from the Global South? Is Pope Francis a political radical, or do his progressive positions on social and economic issues find their home in the Christian tradition? What is the place of the Catholic Church in shaping the global political discourse and the conditions of the global political order?

These questions have provided the basis for our research this semester, and I would like to take this space to reflect on where these questions have brought us.

Particularly critical at the outset of my own study was the question of in what precise sense Pope Francis can be considered a political radical. There is obviously something exceptional about the man, but this question led me in unexpected directions.

What is certain is that there is something strikingly divergent in the rhetorical style and political directness of Pope Francis when compared with his more recent predecessors. But does it follow that Pope Francis is a radical in relation to his own tradition, to his own cultural and historical context? That is far less certain. When we study the religious cultures and discourses out of which Pope Francis has emerged, it becomes apparent rather quickly that the Pope is no maverick. And if foregrounding the politics of underdevelopment, economic inequality, and a cry for economic rights and standards of livelihood seems radical to us, this may be less a commentary on the radical character of a single individual, and more an indication of the limited scope of our own discourses concerning religion, politics, and the global economic order. It may be time to refocus our critical inquiry on the narrowness of our own discourse and ask: why do calls for economic rights, from whatever corner, seem radical to us? What ideological obstacles prevent us from embracing a global politics of economic rights?

As our study developed, we quickly found that to understand Pope Francis means to understand the cultural and historical context of the man. One remarkable aspect of Latin America’s Catholic heritage is the tradition of liberation theology. Studying this tradition and the present-day rhetoric of Pope Francis, we can glean remarkable ideological parallels.

Liberation theology as an historical phenomenon emerged in the early 1970’s as the religious aspect of a wider social movement in Latin America, characterized by a growing consciousness of the global economic injustices that constitute the Third World. Many social critics and activists began to see and critique the ways in which the economic development of the wealthiest countries in the world and the deep poverty and underdevelopment of the Third World are intimately connected – that they are in fact two strikingly different aspects of one global system.

Liberation theology was born out of the friction between religious inspiration and this ongoing social injustice. It is a movement that originates not merely as religious faith, nor yet as a form of social criticism, but as a convergence of these two. In practice, liberation theology can be defined, as Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff puts it, as “faith’s confrontation with oppression.” The central question of liberation theology, then, in Boff’s words, is: “How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?” The answer this tradition provides is: to be Christian in a world of oppression is to make “common cause” with the oppressed and to fight by their side for liberation. According to liberation theology, to follow the teachings of Jesus – the vocation of all who call themselves Christian – is to condemn and to struggle against oppression in all its forms, so as to secure for every human being their livelihood and dignity.

Liberation theology thus combines religious faith with rigorous social criticism. These critical theologians observe that poverty is a structural component of global capitalism, and that therefore “economic aid” and “economic reform” are two solutions to poverty which deflect its deeper causes, and are therefore unacceptable and dishonest. “Aid” – or charity – is condescending and further dehumanizes the poor, while failing to acknowledge that the poor are not simply poor but are made poor through particular social relations of oppression and exclusion. “Reform” attempts to salvage or ameliorate a system which is corrupt at its foundation – a tactic which goes further than aid in its acknowledgement of the reality of injustice, but falls short in its refusal to entertain new models of social organization. Liberation theology calls for just such a radical social restructuring, which makes it a radical form of social criticism in its own right.

But it is a form of social criticism which takes its inspiration, content, and method not from Marx or Lenin but from the Gospels. The tradition of liberation theology offers a way of reading the Bible which privileges its solidarity with the poor, and urges practitioners of the Christian faith to see that their own dignity as human beings is connected to, indeed is dependent on, the status of the lowest ranks of society. The state of the poor – indeed, the very existence of stratified economic classes with vastly different material means – is a kind of litmus test for the integrity of a society. Liberation theology accuses global society of a political scandal which disgraces us all, and calls on the faithful to recognize their religious responsibilities to fight for equality and justice. The Bible is read as a prophetic discourse on the liberation of the poor and the redemption of human purpose in history and eternity.

It is in this emphasis on a basic economic right to livelihood, and an insistence that economic rights are also sacred rights, that we can locate the intersections of this Latin American tradition and the rhetoric of the first Latin American Pope. In his speeches all over the world, Pope Francis champions many of the fundamental principles of liberation theology: in his solidarity with the poor, in his explicit criticism of capitalism’s excesses, in his condemnation of “a globalization of exclusion and indifference,” and in his affirmation that a more equal distribution of wealth throughout global society is both possible from a political perspective and necessary from the perspective of the Christian faith.

While at the beginning of our study we were interested in direct links between Pope Francis and liberation theology, that inquiry now seems relatively unimportant. Regardless of the historical connections, there are profound overlaps in the content and form of these two movements. It does not matter what the Pope’s formal ties with this particular tradition happen to be. What matters is the work that is being done and the principles underlying that work. To study these two phenomena is to find that the key link in principle is a radical solidarity with the poor, a critique of structures of economic inequality and exclusion, and the liberation of the poor from economic injustice.

In line with its populist impulse, liberation theology privileges the everyday human being above the sophisticated theologian. Taking its cues from below, from the needs and desires of the poor, liberation theology’s ideal is collaborative, dialogical, collective, and above all, social. Without the millions of lay faithful, liberation theology would be just another ivory tower theology. And this marks another important overlap between this grassroots tradition and our present Pope. Francis possesses a dialogical openness which is felt by all of us, faithful and secular alike, as a breathe of fresh air, yet nevertheless grounds itself in tradition and faith. Pope Francis’s public addresses are written to all human beings, not as a prescription for living rightly, but as an invitation to participate in a global conversation – across cultures, across faiths, and, we cannot omit, across classes.

Ultimately, the question of who Pope Francis is, or who he will be as Pope, is inseparable from the question of who we want him to be. The political contents of the Francis’s preachings are as profound as the dialogical style with which he delivers them, and we have a responsibility to seize this moment in history as the special political opportunity that it is. We all have a responsibility – as political beings, as religious beings, or simply as citizens of the world – to continue pushing the international conversation to address economic injustice and to secure for workers, for the poor, and for the dispossessed across the globe the dignity and livelihood that is rightfully theirs.

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