The election of Pope Francis and his subsequent writings and statements to the media have led some observers to speculate that more liberal forms of Catholicism, namely liberation theology, may be revived under his papacy. The Tablet (September 21), a British Catholic magazine, editorializes that under Pope Francis, “liberation theology is experiencing something of a revival,” tracing its rehabilitation back to Pope Benedict XVI’s appointment of Archbishop Gerhard Müller to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Müller is a close friend of Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, and has declared his theology as being sound— “which is more than Pope Benedict ever managed to do.” While Pope Francis was said to be cool to liberation theology when he was elected, he has since appeared increasingly friendly to it. He is now in regular contact with Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian who was disciplined for his liberationist writings under the previous pope when he was head of the CDF.
The Tablet’s editorial continues that as the more Marxist elements of liberation theology “have fallen away” in recent years, it is easier for church officials such as Francis to be friendlier to the theology. However, liberation theology’s claim that the poor “have spiritual insights into the Gospel message that others may lack” is bound to make
middle-class Catholics uncomfortable. The most recent reports of rapprochement between the Vatican and proponents of liberation theology have been triggered by an expected meeting between Gutierrez and the pope, as well as an expected move toward sainthood for Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by the military regime in 1980 and already a patron saint of the Catholic left.
In an article in the Huffington Post (Sept. 24), historian Andrew Chesnut acknowledges that Pope Francis has adopted “liberationist discourse.” These statements include decrying an exploitative global economic system that worships “the God of money” and reverting to Vatican II terminology calling the church the “people of God.” But the media is missing the equally strong charismatic dimension of the pope’s program. He regularly praises the Catholic charismatic movement (although he was once a critic of the movement) and recently spoke of the importance of such “gifts of the spirit” as discernment—a word he used 21 times in his much-cited recent interview with the magazine America.
Francis’ frequent call for evangelization and his call for the church to be a “field hospital after battle” are adopted from charismatics and Protestant Pentecostals “who go so far in some churches in Latin America as to have ushers dressed in white nurses uniforms and pastors in doctors’ smocks!” Chesnut concludes in his Huffington Post article that the pope is “developing a powerful synthesis of what has been the two competing theological tendencies in Latin America.”
(The Tablet, 1 King Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0QZ, UK.)