SAO PAULO, Brazil — Nowhere has the excitement that has greeted the pontificate of Pope Francis been more intense than in Latin America, and not just because he is the first pope to come from the world’s most Catholic region.
In the world’s most unequal corner where the gap between haves and have-nots is still gaping despite a decade of social progress, the pope’s recent declaration that “a Christian who is not a revolutionary today isn't a Christian” carries a special significance.
After all it was in Latin America that the teachings of liberation theology with its “preferential option for the poor” flourished – and placed the region’s churches on a collision course with the Vatican of Popes John Paul II and Benedict.
They worried that the theology’s radical message of social justice was infected with Marxism — a concern reinforced when some Latin American clergy inspired by its teachings joined the region’s leftist guerrilla movements.
Now, observing Pope Francis — whose humble lifestyle embodies his stated desire for “a church that is poor and for the poor” — some liberation theologians who were hounded out of the church by the Vatican during the pontificate of John Paul II sense a historic reconciliation is underway as Francis makes his first foreign trip to Brazil this week.
The new pontificate recently caused the leading Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff to claim Pope Francis for the theology: “It does not matter if Pope Francis uses the expression ‘liberation theology’. What is really important is that he talks and acts in the liberation manner.”
Forthright statements by Francis such as May’s condemnation of the “tyranny” of market ideology which denies “the right of control to states which are themselves charged with providing for the common good” are, believes Boff, signs of a change from Pope Benedict who said little about the financial and social crisis afflicting Europe since 2008.
“[Francis] says the truth as it needs to be said. He does not hide behind pious words, typical of ecclesial authorities who seek to maintain a distance from polemical subjects,” says Boff. “He speaks directly about the problems of the injustices produced by global speculative capital. He denounces the lack of concern in our culture for the poor. What pope would say directly to the thousands of youngsters demonstrating recently in Brazil ‘your demonstrations are just and correspond to the gospel’?”
Hopes of an end to the theological Cold War were reinforced when the German Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller recently said: “The Latin American ecclesial and theological movement known as liberation theology… should in my opinion be included among the most important currents in 20th century Catholic theology.”
The statement is extraordinary considering Müller is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the same position once occupied by Pope Benedict who used its power to silence over 200 theologians, many of them inspired by liberation theology.
But others warn it is too soon to speak of the full rehabilitation of liberation theology. Commenting on Archbishop Müller’s declaration the Colombian theologian Héctor Alfonso Torres Rojas the said the Vatican first needed to make amends with the liberation theologians hounded by the Vatican in recent decades: “[Müller], in consonance with the declaration of Pope Francis about a church for the poor, has the evangelical and ethical obligation to ask pardon from the church of the poor of Latin America.”
But such an immediate prospect is unlikely. As a 2,000-year old institution the Vatican always favors continuity over change. Even as a cardinal in Argentina, familiar with the country’s slums which press up against some of its most exclusive neighborhoods, Pope Francis found much to criticize in liberation theology.
In 2005 he wrote of it: “Incapable of either radical reformulation or new creativity, they [liberation theology currents] survived by inertia, even if there are still some today who, anachronistically, would like to propose it again.”
A strong emphasis on the poor does not in the church automatically mean an embrace of liberation theology. After all, Popes John Paul II and Benedict were also critics of capitalism, though their denunciations were often more cerebral than those of Francis and obscured by the anti-communism of the former and rigidity on sexual doctrine by the latter.
“There is an interesting tension between Francis’ advocacy of the poor and on the other hand his stand vis-à-vis liberation theology which is not one of endorsement,” says Manuel A. Vasquez, author of several books on the Latin American church. “I think the fact that he is a Jesuit and comes from Latin America means people tend to read him more in a liberationist key than I think he is.”
Looking for signals of how this tension might resolve itself will form the ecclesial background to Francis’ visit this month to Brazil, when two million people are expected to attend a mass celebrated in Rio de Janeiro by Latin America’s first pope. It will be a potent reconfirmation of the region’s Catholic identity and could reveal more of Pope Francis’ own vision for the church.
“I think the best definition for Pope Francis is a social Catholic,” says Massimo Faggioli, a historian of the Vatican. “This is not classic liberation theology but instead a complex mix of modern and tradition, of conservative and progressive.”
After this week’s visit to his home continent we could have a better clue as to whether such a leader can heal the breach between Rome and the followers of Latin America’s liberation theology.