pope_Francis_subwayThere has been so much in the Catholic and popular (aka: “secular”) media coverage about Pope Francis, his past, his thoughts, his writings, his actions, and what the future holds for him, that it can be difficult to untangle the various threads of information (such as why he decided to select the name “Francis” in the hours and days after the election) and misinformation (such as the Cardinal Law banishment rumors of recent days). An interesting story was published today by Laurie Goodstein, the New York Times religion reporter who has a very hot-and-cold history with the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the United States and particularly after the sex-abuse cover up crisis of recent decades (not all her facts have been spot-on and subsequent corrections in the Times often go unannounced in hidden parts of the newspaper afterward).  Nevertheless, her latest piece titled, “New Pope Puts Spotlight on Jesuits, an Influential Yet Self-Effacing Order” is, for the most part, very good.

Goodstein draws on a number of very reliable sources in her presentation of the significance and, let’s face it, utter surprise that a Jesuit Cardinal would be selected to be pope. She spoke with a number of insightful European and American Jesuits (including Fr. James Martin, SJ, a well-known Jesuit in the US), who offered helpful background on the various factors that led to this surprise election of Pope Francis.

One thing, though, was mentioned at the end of her piece and in passing. It is something that has been repeated without much qualification over the last week in various summary news stories. Namely, that Pope Francis as a then-Jesuit-Provincial-Superior and, later, a Cardinal Archbishop, was hostile or rejected liberation theology. This is a very simplified presentation of a complicated set of conditions and factors. Part of the confusion, it seems to me, is what it means to talk about “rejecting” liberation theology — it also seems to rely strongly, if unacknowledged, on the interpretation of liberation theology and its reception according to the various commentators.

Here’s what Goodstein wrote in the Times:

The selection has thrilled many Jesuits, but dismayed others. Shaped by their experiences with the poor and powerless, many Jesuits lean liberal, politically and theologically, and are more concerned with social and economic justice than with matters of doctrinal purity. Jesuits were in the forefront of the movement known as liberation theology, which encouraged the oppressed to unite along class lines and seek change.

However, Francis, when he was head of the Jesuits in Argentina in the 1970s, was opposed to liberation theology, seeing it as too influenced by Marxist politics. The future pope came down hard on Jesuits in his province who were liberation theology proponents and left it badly divided, according to those who study the order and some members who did not want to be identified because he is now pope.

Goodstein very accurately describes the “mixed feelings” of many who heard these early reports about the new pope’s previous engagement with so-called “liberation theology” in Argentina during his tenure as Provincial and then Archbishop. But, I would suggest, this needs a much more nuanced interpretation — something that cannot be done in a paragraph or two in a major newspaper’s article and is impossible in a twenty-second cable-news soundbite.

What I mean by this call for an openness in complex thinking and nuanced approaches to the new pope’s relationship to liberation theology involves a few guiding principles.

First, what do we mean when we use a hegemonic and singular umbrella term like “liberation theology?” Are we referring to the particular texts that arose in the 1960s and 1970s from the academic and professional theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff? Both of whose work, by the way, varies in style, method, and outcome. Do we mean the pastoral legacy of the slain Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero? Do we mean the Jesuits and diocesan priests who took up arms in El Salvador against the will of Romero who, according to the critiques of now-Pope Francis, would also be labeled “hostile to liberation theology?” What exactly do we mean?

Second, how are judgements made about what it means to “support,” “oppose,” “reject,” or “be hostile toward,” liberation theology in its manifold iterations? Without a very clearly defined notion of what it is we mean when we talk univocally about a broad (and continually growing) academic and pastoral field of social-justice concerns and contextual theology, it is nearly impossible to make an accurate statement about whether one is for or against this or that.

Third, what does someone’s lived experience say about the person we claim is for or against a given theological or pastoral opinion? I am reminded of the Gospel parable of the two sons who are told by their father to go into the field to labor.

A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. (Matt 21:29-31)

Just because someone “talks the talk” (in this case, perhaps, the ecclesiastical “party line” about liberation theology in general following the two CDF documents on the subject) doesn’t mean that someone “walks the walk.” Actions speak louder than words and are more indicative of what someone actually believes. Francis of Assisi is often attributed as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” He never said that. But he did say in the First Rule of the Friars Minor: “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds” (Regula non bullata, XVII:3).

Pope Francis may have acted in ways that, due to the complexities of his role in leadership and the decisions of those in his care, might not have pleased some who understood “liberation theology” in a particular way. However, I think that taking all three of these points into consideration allows us to look at the life, the actions, the example, and the intentions of a man whose heart was imbued with the evangelical poverty that Francis of Assisi always strove to preach: in word and deed.

Pope Francis’s explanation about his choice of the name “Francis” to the world media this week highlights this truth most succinctly and illustrates how the pope sees social justice, solidarity with the poor, and the work of liberation from injustice at the heart of his ministry and at the core of the church.

And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!

It is too early for people to make bold claims that need more qualifications than most are willing to allow. To say that Pope Francis “opposes liberation theology” is to oversimplify a reality that is preached in action and deed. Let’s look at the whole picture.

This post was also published concurrently on the America Magazine website.

Photo: Wire


  1. Thank you for your wonderful thoughts. We need people to give us a more nuance view of these complex movements. For myself, I believe that we find the Christ in the poor, that has been might experience. Deacon Bill Coffey

  2. Thanks for this informative and nuanced post! I hope to learn more about our new Pope in the months and years to come. He evidently had a reluctance to do interviews, but I’d be thrilled if he did an extended one-on-one interview like Ratzinger/Benedict did. Perhaps the biography of Cdl. Bergoglio will be translated soon (or I’ll learn Spanish!).

    In the “nuance” area, I’d also like to learn more about how he acted as a religious superior. How would the release of priests for “liberation theology” have affected his province’s other commitments. Also, the Jesuit General Congregation 32 was in 1975, just before the “dirty war” period. How did he respond to it (was he one of the participants?) and implement it?

  3. Thanks for a needed clarification. Further, I think we could use more attention to nuances of the C.D.F position. We keep hearing simply that Liberation Theology has been codemned. The actual C.D. F. documents seemed less sweeping to me,as did the more recent comments of Muller. I was saddened at the critique of Sobrino. Yet though I haven’t had time to re-read the documents , I don’t recall a condemnation as total as so many recent blogs simply assume and repeat.

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