One year into Francis’s papacy, many observers—both inside and outside the Catholic community—are still holding their breath. He has certainly made a good first impression. Yet it is still very early in the unfolding of Francis’s legacy, and we are only just beginning to understand how his papacy will affect some of the deeper tensions facing the Catholic Church today.
From the beginning, commentators have identified Francis’s relationship to liberation theology as a window into one of those deeper tensions. The Vatican’s critiques of Latin American liberation theology have often been interpreted, fairly or not, as exemplifying a more general mistrust of critical politics. Would the election of a Latin American pope change that posture? Francis might bring with him a sharper awareness of and sensitivity to the realities of poverty and oppression. But early rumors suggested that as Provincial Superior of the Argentinian Jesuits he had been no friend of liberation theology.
It should be said that the relationship between the Vatican and liberation theology has never been as absolutely antagonistic as it is often portrayed. To be sure, church officials have worried—consistently and publicly—about liberation theology’s use of Marxist categories, and about the specific ways that some liberation theologians have integrated solidarity with the poor into their theological method. But with one exception, their interventions have come in the form of “instructions” and “notifications” rather than direct condemnations. And at the same time, magisterial documents have adopted (and adapted) key elements of liberationist language—most importantly, the idea of a “preferential option for the poor,” the idea that, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life” and therefore so should we. (Despite sensationalist declarations to the contrary, Pope Francis is not bringing the preferential option “back,” nor does his Evangelii Gaudium bring it “close to becoming official doctrine.” The preferential option for the poor is already doctrine.) Moreover, liberation theologians themselves draw deep inspiration from the Second Vatican Council and from the tradition of papal social teaching.
Still, Pope Francis clearly has begun to open new doors for liberation theologians. To begin with, in a papacy that puts great stock in symbols and gestures, it is important to acknowledge Francis’s overtures towards founding figures of liberation theology—meeting with Gustavo Gutiérrez, re-opening the canonization process for Oscar Romero, and tapping Leonardo Boff, once silenced, for help with an encyclical on the environment.
But there have also been more substantial rapprochements. Francis not only affirms, like his predecessors, that the poor have a special claim on our love; he also suggests that the poor have a special kind of wisdom and therefore authority within the Christian community. “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium. “They have much to teach us… We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” With many liberation theologians, Francis thus affirms what is sometimes called the hermeneutical dimension of the option for the poor, the idea that seeing God and the world rightly requires seeing from the vantage of the poor. It is precisely this hermeneutical dimension of the preferential option that some have argued is missing from earlier magisterial documents. Francis, by contrast, seems to be making it a pillar of his papacy, just as he has taken visible steps to foreground the voices of Christians outside Europe and North America.
It would be too much, however, to claim total reconciliation. One of the pathbreaking elements of early Latin American liberation theology was its argument for the use of the social sciences in theology. The dependency theory of Andre Gunder Frank and Theodonio dos Santos was particularly influential, along with a more generically Marxist account of the class struggle within capitalism, but their dependence on non-theological social analysis came to be seen as an Achilles’ heel. The main critique, put most polemically perhaps by John Milbank, was that the social sciences depend implicitly on a set of normative and even theological commitments that theologians must examine. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were much more open to the use of social sciences than someone like Milbank, but they still always emphasized the ultimate inadequacy of analytical tools that bracketed transcendence.
Francis’s comments on contemporary politico-economic realities, fiercely perceptive though they often are, have so far relied much more on a kind of ad hoc cultural phenomenology than on any engagement with the social sciences. He thus sidesteps a major concern of liberation theology’s critics, but only by scaling back one of liberation theology’s most important contributions. It will be worth watching whether he continues to shy away from directly engaging the social sciences in his future writings. If he does, what will be the cost?
One crucial consequence may be seen in the way Francis deals with the deceptively simple question of who exactly belongs to “the poor.” More recent liberation theologians—and it is important to be clear that liberation theology has continued to grow and change since the 1960s and ’70s—have critiqued some of the movement’s founders for thinking about “the poor” too monolithically. Latin American reality, they argue, is shaped by various intersecting forms of oppression that require different forms of critical attention. An all-encompassing critique of capitalism is not enough. Pope Francis similarly argues in Evangelii Gaudium that “it is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability,” and calls special attention to refugees and migrants, indigenous peoples, and women, among others. Yet it is not clear whether Francis believes that these “new forms of poverty” require differentiated lines of social analysis. If he keeps his distance from the social sciences, he may oversimplify patterns of power and recognition of which he is less immediately aware.
How, for example, will Francis follow up his own call for “a profound theology of the woman”? The singularity and abstractness of that reference is disconcerting: it suggests that Francis will continue to insist on the essentializing and alienating phenomenology of gender articulated by his predecessors. In keeping with his own hermeneutical option for “the poor,” will Francis let himself be evangelized by women describing their own challenges and their own aspirations? Will he be open to empirical descriptions of the specific vulnerabilities, the specific patterns of violence, that women face across the globe? Such questions are integral to any discussion of Francis’s relationship with liberation theology.
We should avoid treating either magisterial thought or liberation theology as a fixed and exclusive point of reference. Both are complex, and the two are intertwined—now more than ever. Pope Francis is a kind of liberation theologian; it would be hard to argue otherwise. His theology is defined by the question of how to speak good news to the poor. And it is good news for the Catholic world, no doubt, to have a liberation theologian sitting on Peter’s chair. For that matter, it is good news for everyone: Francis will help keep the poor at the center of public discourse. What we need to watch now is how we will work through the difficult questions he brings with him from that tradition.