Rehabilitation of Liberation Theology


Christmas has just gone by, and we’ll soon be ringing in the New Year, a time when a “profound feeling of consolation and peace” overwhelms the faithful.  But the buzz, created by Pope Francis’ “apostolic exhortation”, Evangelii Gaudium (EG, translated as “The Joy of the Gospel”), issued in late November, and the subsequent clarificatory interview by La Stampa and Vatican Insider in response to criticism from Right-conservative quarters, has yet to subside.  There are 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, and so what Francis says makes a difference, and this is what has upset the Right.

The EG is categorical in its critique of capitalism: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.  Such an economy kills.”  Francis goes on to exhort his followers to say “no to the new idolatry of money”, not to “accept its domination over ourselves and our societies”.  His is a severe indictment of capitalism: “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits.  In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.”

Predictably, there have been allegations (as if it is a crime!) that Francis is a Marxist, to which he has replied, in his La Stampa interview: “Marxist ideology is wrong.  But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”  He however reiterates his critique of trickle-down theory: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor.  But what happens, instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger and nothing ever comes out for the poor.”

There is a lot more about Francis that makes a difference, for instance, his now well-known statement about gay priests: “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”  With this Francis has certainly done a lot in “persuading hearts and minds in opening to LGBT people . . . globally”, as The Advocate, the oldest gay rights magazine in the United States, put it when it named him its “person of the year”.  But as regards ordaining women to the priesthood and on the question of abortion, progressive change is still far, far away.  On abortion, Francis reiterates the Church’s “concern for unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us”, though he does acknowledge the “profound anguish” of women when “the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty.  Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?”

As regards the role of women in the Church, all Francis reiterates (in the interview) is that they “must be valued, not ‘clericalised'”.  But as one of Latin America’s most prominent liberation theologists, Leonardo Boff, puts it, “how important the feminine voice is for a non-patriarchal and therefore more complete conception of God and of the Spirit that flows through all of life and the universe”.  To put it rhetorically, was Mother Teresa unfit to be a priest?  After all, women priests will think of faith from a woman’s perspective and this will surely enrich the Church.

The EG is more than 50,000 words long, and we only read it in parts, but after putting it down we were reminded of what Einstein once said: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind [humankind] is to survive and move to higher levels”.  This in the context of the Church would also encompass reinterpretations of the Bible.  For instance, in the New Testament, the words of Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity”.  But charity in the vision of Saint Paul and the liberation theologists does not mean just giving alms.  It means acting in accordance with one’s conscience taking full account of the fate of one’s fellow beings.  It is not a question of merely people as a whole, every individual matters.1  Francis refers to politics as “one of the highest forms of charity, in as much as it serves the common good”.  And here he comes back to economics, and how the Church needs to work to “bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society”.  Does this sound very much like the Hungarian socialist and economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi?

So what is Pope Francis doing?  Jorge Mario Bergoglio seems to have overcome his rigid authoritarian approach, the one he was known for during the years in which Argentine went through its most horrible times, and with this change of heart and mind, he has overcome his irrational suspicion of liberation theology.  It surely must have required a lot of humility to accept that the path blazed by the liberation theologists is the one the Church ought to take.  The Church has to put itself on the side of the people, come to the people’s defence, as Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, assassinated on March 24, 1980, would have said.  Is this not the very path which is linked with the tradition of Jesus and the Apostles?


1  See Dirk J Struik, “People Are Important: A Mathematician’s Faith”, Monthly Review, January 1998, pp 48-52.

Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.  An earlier version of this piece first appeared as an editorial in the EPW in its issue of December 28, 2013.

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