Liberation theology finds new welcome in Pope Francis’ Vatican

VATICAN CITY — A progressive theological current that emphasizes the Catholic Church’s closeness to the poor and the marginalized but … Continued

VATICAN CITY — A progressive theological current that emphasizes the Catholic Church’s closeness to the poor and the marginalized but was subject to decades of hostility and censure is now finding increasing favor in the Vatican under Pope Francis.

Francis, who has called for “a poor church for the poor,” will meet in the next few days with the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and scholar who is considered the founder of liberation theology.

The meeting was announced on Sunday (Sept. 8) by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, during the launch of a book he co-authored with Gutierrez.

It’s a remarkable about-face for a movement that swelled in popularity but was later stamped out by the conservative pontificates of John Paul II and his longtime doctrinal czar, Benedict XVI.

Liberation theology arose as a Catholic response to the Marxist movements that fought Latin America’s military dictatorships in the 1960s and ‘70s. It criticized the church’s close relations, including often overt support, with the regimes.

It affirmed that, rather then just focusing on seeking salvation in the afterlife, Catholics should act in the here and now against unjust societies that breed poverty and need.

In his seminal 1971 book, Gutierrez argued that the church should have a “preferential option for the poor,” following the example of Jesus, who chose to live mostly with poor and marginalized people.

During the pontificate of the fiercely anti-communist John Paul II, some of liberation theology’s leading exponents, such as Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff, were accused of espousing Marxist ideas and were censured by the Vatican.

In the ‘80s, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Benedict XVI) condemned liberation theology for its “serious ideological deviations.”

Yet, it was Benedict himself who appointed Mueller as his successor to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, despite the fact that he was a well-known admirer of Gutierrez.

The move signaled a thaw in the tension between liberation theology and the Vatican, spurred by the end of the Cold War and the demise of Communist regimes. Even Gutierrez himself — who was never condemned by the Vatican — attended penitential rites officiated by Benedict in recent years.

Now, with the election of Francis, the first pope from Latin America, liberation theology can no longer “remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years, at least in Europe,” according to the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Though never a supporter of liberation theology himself, the Argentine pontiff has condemned the exploitation of the poor and called on Catholics to reach out to them.

When Mueller originally wrote the book with Gutierrez in 2004, it didn’t attract much attention. Yet on Sept. 3, when its Italian translation was released, L’Osservatore Romano devoted a two-page spread to it.

In the book, Mueller describes liberation theology as one of the “most significant currents of Catholic theology of the 20th century” that helped the church bridge the divide between “earthly happiness and ultra-earthly salvation.”

During the book launch in Mantua, a city in northern Italy, Mueller also announced that the Vatican doctrinal office has given the green light to proceed with the sainthood of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero of Latin American Catholics who was assassinated in 1980 after condemning violence by the military dictatorship in El Salvador.

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  • newsreader60

    Neither John Paul II or Benedict XVI (or prior to becoming pope as Cardinal Ratzinger) was against Liberation Theology as such. This is a common misrepresentation of the Vatican’s criticism of Liberation Theology.

    Catholic social teaching has always espoused the main ideas behind Liberation Theology, except for one: to bringing about social change through conflict. Some forms of Liberation Theology accepted, together with Marxist social analysis, the concept of class-conflict or class-struggle, where the oppressed overcome, eliminate their oppressors through class struggle, through adversarial conflict, which might include physical violence as well. This fundamentally adversarial method of bringing about social change is contrary to the Gospel message and its emphasis on the pursuit of human dignity, truth, reconciliation and love as the acceptable method for breaking down divisions, including social divisions such as divisions between rich and poor. For example, because of this basic principle could Francis so effectively question the acceptability of the pending war against Syria: conflict and aggression begets conflict and aggression and not peace.

    Therefore, it is a complete misrepresentation to, first, say that the Vatican was against Liberation Theology as such and. second, to say that there is a major change in the Vatican’s approach towards Liberation Theology with Francis.

  • Maurice Held

    Thank you Alessandro, you wrote another piece of balanced and informed I was in Nicaragua during the last visit of Pope John Paul II and in the poor parish where we worked we saw the Pope visiting the private home of Violetta Chamorro widow of paper owner and reporter who was killed by the police of Dictator Samoza. While President Chamorro was a very respectacle woman, the Pope drew a very sharp line between the former regime and the actual one (darkness and light kind of analogy!!!) Yes, there was a deep gap of understanding between the liberation theology and the more dogmatic aproach of the last two popes. We may also remember Pope JP II scolding with the finger in public the poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal (Minister of the Arts) in his first visit to Nicaragua. Cardenal’s brother. a Jesuit, was Minister of Education at the time: a very humble man completely dedicated to the education of the poor illiterate majority (80%) of the Nicaraguans. There are other ways to approach our fellow priests. The killing of the Jesuits, their maid with her daughter, at the Catholic University of San Salvador did not bring any sympathy from the hierarchy at that time…And to top it all, Pope John Paul II did not pay a visit to the cript below the Cathedral where Martyr Oscar Romero is buried! It brings tears to my ears and great joy to my heart to read that offically the green light has been given for the canonization of Monsignor Romero…

    Guttierez is a great guy and so are Boff and Sobrino and so many others who have suffered so much from this ban and rigid suppression contrary to the Gospel message.

  • Top_8305

    Thank you newsreader60, for presenting the rest of the story correcting the propaganda of this “Journalist” with historical fact that can easily be confirmed with the slightest diligence. Anyone who has read Pope Francis thoughts prior to his Papacy on or the Vatican’s history on Lib Theo will know the truth of what you have pointed out.

    Thank you and God Bless you for cogently revealing the truth about the Church’s consistent concern with the advocacy of violent class struggle in Lib Theo.