Outcasts In From the Cold

Yet the Latin American poor are still poor, and the rich, richer. And liberation theology is experiencing something of a revival. Its time may have come, again. Its rehabilitation can be dated from the appointment by Pope Benedict XVI of Archbishop Gerhard Müller as the new head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The archbishop is a close friend of the founder of liberation theology, Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez; they have studied together and they wrote a book together. He has declared Gutiérrez’s theological views entirely orthodox, which is more than Pope Benedict ever managed to do. When as Cardinal Ratzinger he occupied the same Vatican post as Archbishop Müller, the CDF issued two long denunciations of key aspects of liberation theology. Leonardo Boff, another liberation theologian, was suspended by the CDF and subsequently left the Franciscan order and the priesthood.
Pope Francis’ own relationship with liberation theology was ambiguous when he was in Argentina, but as Pope he seems to be embracing it more and more. He is even said to be in regular contact with Boff. It is easier for Francis to do so now that the more Marxist elements of liberation theology – such as the proposition that there are only two sides to class warfare, and the Catholic Church has to chose which one it is on – have fallen away. What emerges more strongly is not just a “preferential option for the poor” as a requirement to prioritise the treatment of the vulnerable, but the recognition that the poor may have spiritual insights into the Gospel message that others may lack. It takes “blessed are the poor” more literally and does not reduce it to being “poor in spirit” as a mere attitude of mind. Thus it privileges rather than patronises the poor. Wealthy and even middle-class Catholics might find that disturbing, but discomfiting the comfortable is no bad thing. This is clearly the example – renewed on a daily basis – that Francis is setting by his own lifestyle, which the theology itself calls orthopraxis.
Benedict XVI also moved towards liberation theology, recognising in his last encyclical Caritas in Veritate that the Catholic Church had to be an agent of social, economic and political transformation. He was still ambivalent about the relationship between personal conversion and structural change in society, and how the former had to precede the latter. Liberation theology has the potential to resolve that tension, seeing work for social justice and evangelisation as two sides of the same coin, inseparable if not identical.
As both Benedict and Francis agree, social justice means opposing the dominant ideology of the age, free-market capitalism – and liberation theologians would add, freeing humanity from its enslavement. So it is perhaps not so much Washington that ought to worry this time round, but Wall Street and the City of London.