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Liberation theology, once reviled by church, now embraced by pope

Pope’s emphasis on justice, not charity, reflects evolution of his thinking on radical social change for the poor

Is Pope Francis some kind of communist? Is he anti-American? Why is he so down on the wealth-creating engine that is global capitalism? The answer to all those questions is to be found in an understanding of his relationship to liberation theology, a movement that blossomed in Latin America in the 1960s and ’70s, when the man who was to become Pope Francis was being formed.

Liberation theology calls for the Catholic Church to involve itself in the political and economic as well as spiritual liberation of the poor. The rise of this movement split many Latin American Catholics in the late 1960s, including the Jesuits in Argentina. Some priests wanted to embrace this new political work among the poor, while others wanted to continue with a more conservative spirituality as the educators of the children of the rich elite.

Francis, who was then the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became the leader of the Jesuits in Argentina in 1973 in the middle of this fractious debate. Conservatives in the Jesuit order appointed him to clamp down on liberation theology, which they feared would be a Trojan horse through which communism might gain ground in Latin America.

He did that throughout his 15 years in various leadership positions in the Jesuit order but later admitted that he “made hundreds of errors” in those years. In his first interview as pope, for a consortium of Jesuit newspapers around the globe, Francis admitted that he was high-handed and authoritarian and alienated many of his colleagues, who saw him as an ultraconservative. “My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults,” he said.

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After a change in the Jesuit leadership, Bergoglio was sent into exile more than 400 miles away, in Córdoba, Argentina, to prevent him from constantly contradicting his successors. There he was not allowed to say Mass in public and was permitted only to hear confessions. One of his longtime aides, the Rev. Guillermo Marcó, told me that this exile was for Bergoglio “a place of humility and humiliation.” Francis revealed in his first interview as pope, “I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Córdoba.”

Soon afterward, the man who is now pope began a slow but radical rethinking of his position on liberation theology.

After two years of punishment and penance in Cordoba, he was named an assistant bishop in his hometown, Buenos Aires. When he returned from his wilderness years, his leadership style had been utterly transformed. Before he was a rigid, severe, dutiful, disciplinarian authoritarian who rarely smiled. Now he was gentler, more forgiving and more open to moves to empower the poor. And he spoke about forgiveness and mercy in a riveting way, one that clearly sprang from some dramatic personal experience of both. 

Bergoglio always cared about the poor. Even during his years working to suppress liberation theology, he ran soup kitchens and distributed medicine and blankets to the needy. But he saw the poor as people who required charity. Mario Aguilar, the editor of “Handbook of Liberation Theologies,” said that in those days, Bergoglio’s care for the poor was “enormous, warm and empathetic” but “his theology was traditional and conservative.” He did not see the poor in the context of a larger, unjust social order. In fact, he barred his priests from working with political organizations, unions, cooperatives and even independent Catholic organizations working in the slums.

Instead, he adhered to a diluted Argentine version of liberation theology called teología del pueblo, an idea developed by the Rev. Juan Carlos Scannone, a Jesuit theologian. Other liberation theologians saw teología del pueblo as incapable of fostering real change or even an obstacle to it. It focused on the struggles of the poor but shunned politics in favor of the piety of the common people — the shrines, statues, processions, medals and all the other trappings that intellectuals dismissed as superstitious but that Bergoglio valued. He learned to love them from his Italian immigrant grandmother.

After his return to Buenos Aires, he deepened his understanding of poverty. He spent so much time among the poorest of the poor in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires that he became known as the bishop of the slums. He learned about the impact of drugs and prostitution on poor people and eventually began to see them as more than just victims. “Experiencing the life values of the poor transformed his heart,” said the Rev. José María di Paola, whom Bergoglio named vicar of the slums. 

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio quadrupled the number of priests serving in the slums. He became concerned not just with holy water but also with water pressure in the municipal pipes, one of those priests told me. He backed self-help groups, cooperatives and unions, exactly the kind of work he tried to kill off 20 years before.

A changing world changed him even more. Argentina’s military dictatorship was overthrown, and democracy returned in 1983. With the collapse of communism in Europe several years later, the Catholic Church lessened its hostility to liberation theology. That antipathy was once so strong that it cooperated with the CIA, which supplied information about hundreds of radical priests and nuns, many of whom were later killed, to Latin America’s military dictatorships.

Against the background of those changes, Bergoglio began to see the underlying economic structures — like the corrupt financial systems that keep people poor — as what liberation theology calls structures of sin. He shifted from seeing the world through the lens of charity to one of social justice. He began to adopt the vocabulary of liberation theology.

When Argentina underwent the biggest debt default in world banking history, in 2001, half the population was plunged below the poverty line. Austerity measures intended to solve the country’s macroeconomic problems made life for the poor intolerable, and he spoke about the crisis in the language of a fully committed liberation theologian. “No one can accept the precepts of neoliberalism and consider themselves Christian,” he wrote.

Bergoglio wrote critically about communism in the past but now he set out to question the unchallenged dominance of capitalism. He led a meeting of Latin American bishops in Brazil in 2007, where they produced a new approach merging some of the key principles of liberation theology with the popular piety he so valued.

Just six months after he became pope in 2012, he welcomed the founding father of liberation theology, the Rev. Gustavo Gutiérrez, once viewed with suspicion by the church, as a guest at the Vatican. Summing up the change, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the chief doctrinal watchdog in the Catholic Church, announced that liberation theology should “be included among the most important currents in 20th century Catholic theology.”

All this sets the background for the pope’s recent anti-capitalist pronouncements. In his papal manifesto, “Evangelii Gaudium,” he wrote that trickle-down economics have done little for the poor and that “worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money.”

In his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si’,” he specifically criticized rich countries for exploiting the resources of the poor. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise, he told his aides the day the document was published, explaining that the rich world’s exploitation of the environment is rooted in the same worldview as its callousness toward the poor. Both, he said, are symptoms of a greater ill: the pursuit of short-term economic profit at the expense of people and the planet. “This economy kills,” “Laudato si’” concluded bluntly.

During a trip to Bolivia this summer, Francis delivered his most ferocious denunciation to date. Behind all the “pain, death and destruction” wrought by unrestrained global capitalism, there lurks “the stench of the dung of the devil,” he said. “Let us not be afraid to say it,” he told a gathering of activists. “We want change, real change, structural change. This system is now intolerable.”

When the pope speaks to politicians in the richest nation on earth Tuesday, he will not leave all this behind. Perhaps his rhetoric will be less fierce. But as one shantytown resident told me, wherever in the world Francis goes, “he takes the mud of the slums with him on his shoes.”

Paul Vallely is the author of “Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.”

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