Acton Commentary

Pope Francis and Liberation Theology


So is Pope Francis a closet liberation theologian, or someone with strong sympathies for the school of thought? It’s a question that’s been raised many times since Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the papacy in March. Most recently, the New York Times weighed in on the subject. While discussing the tone adopted by Bergoglio since becoming pope, the NYT article claimed that Francis has “an affinity for liberation theology.” “Francis’s speeches,” the article argues, “draw clearly on the themes of liberation theology.” It also suggested that “Francis studied with an Argentine Jesuit priest who was a proponent of liberation theology.”

I’m afraid, however, that if one looks at Francis’s pre-pontifical writings, a rather different picture emerges. Certainly Bergoglio is a man who has always been concerned about those in genuine material need. But orthodox Christianity didn’t need to wait for liberation theology in order to articulate deep concern for the materially poor and to remind those with power and resources that they have concrete obligations to the less fortunate. From the very beginning, it was a message that pervaded the Gospels and the Church’s subsequent life.

Indeed, in a preface to a 2005 book written by one of Latin America’s most thoughtful Catholic figures, Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, Una apuesta por America Latina (A Commitment to Latin America), for example, Bergoglio had this to say about liberation theology:

After the collapse of “real socialism,” these currents of thought were plunged into confusion. Incapable of either radical reformulation or new creativity, they survived by inertia, even if there are still some today who, anachronistically, would like to propose it again.

That’s not to suggest that Bergoglio is a fan of contemporary capitalism. Plainly, he’s not. And to the extent Francis’s words about the financial crisis can be read as a condemnation of crony capitalism, his critique is more than justified. But not many people would describe the words above as endorsing the thought of as outspoken a liberationist such as Leonardo Boff.

Interestingly, Bergoglio chose the same preface to go after “progresismo adolescente” (adolescent progressivism) and “laicismo militante” (militant secularism) which, he argued, often enlist state power to attempt to destroy the “sabiduría católica” (Catholic wisdom) of many people in developing nations.

On these grounds, I suspect he’s not a fan of Western governments lecturing people in developing countries, especially with regard to sexual morality and sanctity-of-life questions. Such governments don’t hesitate to use foreign aid (an increasingly discredited way of helping those in need, but I digress) as a means to try to force, neo-colonial style, these nations to become as hedonistic and anti-life as, say, modern-day Belgium.

But getting back to liberation theology, does Bergoglio reject holus-bolus everything about liberation theology? In the interview-book El Jesuita, Bergoglio says liberation theology had its pros and cons: the “pro” being its expression of what’s called the “preferential option for the poor,” the “con” being its “ideological deviations.” Well, that’s very close to the assessment expressed in the two “Instructions on Liberation Theology” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984 and 1986.

And who is the Argentine Jesuit that our NYT friends have in mind? In all probability (because there’s really no other candidate), the reference is to Juan Carlos Scannone, S.J., who taught Bergoglio Greek and literature in the seminary.

The difficulty with the Times’ claim, however, is that Scannone isn’t much of a liberation theologian. In fact Scannone has written papers emphasizing where his thought differs from the liberationists. In a 2011 interview, for example, Scannone himself said: “Myself, I‘ve never had anything to do with Marxism.” Scannone specifies that the primary difference between his thought and that of the liberationists is, to use his words, his theology “has neither used Marxist methodology for analyzing reality nor categories taken from Marxism.”

Instead, Scannone is best known in Argentina for developing what’s called a teología del pueblo (theology of the people) — something, he says, that is viewed positively by Rome and which Bergoglio has praised on numerous occasions. It’s a theology that takes seriously the popular spirituality and often deeply traditional piety of ordinary people — the kind of thing that’s often the subject of much condescending commentary by your average German progressive theologian but which was also regarded by liberationists such as the late Juan Luis Segundo as a mass phenomenon incapable of fostering revolutionary change, making it an obstacle to “progress.”

But the teología del pueblo, Scannone specifies, also draws considerable inspiration from Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. In that sense, Scannone argues, the theology of the people represents “a journey of return between Latin America and Rome.” Here it’s worth noting that Evangelii Nuntiandi firmly rejected — over and over and over again — politicized concepts of Christian liberation and underscored that the Church “refuses to replace the proclamation of the kingdom by the proclamation of forms of human liberation.”

Practically speaking, the teología del pueblo that’s alive and well in Argentina tends to be translated into bottom-up and locally based approaches to poverty. It also rejects calls for class struggle and Sandinista-style revolution. And while adherents of teología del pueblo in Argentina certainly insist on a great deal of government intervention, they also firmly reject top-down paternalism — something no doubt reinforced by the populist and statist policies pursued by the Krichners that have wreaked havoc upon Argentina’s economy over the past ten years.

But if you want to get a sense of where Francis may take the Catholic Church regarding social and economic issues, you needn’t waste your energy toiling through texts like Boff’s Church: Charism and Power. Instead, pick up a copy of the concluding document of the Fifth General Conference of the Consejo Episcopal Latino Americano held at Aparecida in 2007.

Alongside Honduras’s Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the text’s other major drafter was one Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. It’s the document that Bergoglio gave to Cristina Krichner when she found herself (much to la Senora Presidente’s obvious discomfort) in Rome visiting the very same man who she and her late husband had done their level-best to ignore while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, but who now finds himself seated on Peter’s Chair.

Somehow I doubt that Cristina has read it. But if she did, she — and others — would soon discover how little it says about liberation theology, and how much it speaks about Jesus Christ.

This article first appeared in National Review Online.