Pope Francis’ own relationship with liberation theology was ambiguous when he was in Argentina, but as Pope he seems to be embracing it more and more, writes The Tablet in an editorial.
Liberation theology has always had an aura of slightly edgy glamour, the equivalent in words to images of Che Guevara on posters. The Vatican was opposed to it and denounced some of its advocates; the State Department in Washington was alarmed by it, which added to its kudos on the Left. And people died for it. But the scenery has changed and the tyrannical juntas of Latin America have given way to systems on the whole more democratic.
Yet the Latin American poor are still poor, and the rich, richer. And liberation theology is experiencing something of a revival. Its time may have come, again. Its rehabilitation can be dated from the appointment by Pope Benedict XVI of Archbishop Gerhard Müller as the new head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Archbishop is a close friend of the founder of liberation theology, Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez; they have studied together and they wrote a book together. He has declared Gutiérrez’s theological views entirely orthodox, which is more than Pope Benedict ever managed to do. When as Cardinal Ratzinger he occupied the same Vatican post as Archbishop Müller, the CDF issued two long denunciations of key aspects of liberation theology. Leonardo Boff, another liberation theologian, was suspended by the CDF and subsequently left the Franciscan order and the priesthood.
Pope Francis’ own relationship with liberation theology was ambiguous when he was in Argentina, but as Pope he seems to be embracing it more and more. He is even said to be in regular contact with Boff. It is easier for Francis to do so now that the more Marxist elements of liberation theology – such as the proposition that there are only two sides to class warfare, and the Catholic Church has to chose which one it is on – have fallen away.
What emerges more strongly is not just a 'preferential option for the poor' as a requirement to prioritise the treatment of the vulnerable, but the recognition that the poor may have spiritual insights into the Gospel message that others may lack.