With a bit of breathless excitement (“a progressive theological current“), there is news in Rome that Pope Francis is welcoming liberation theology back into the Vatican. On Sunday, Sept. 8, the Vatican announced a meeting between the pope and Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Mueller has co-authored a book with Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian who is considered the founder of liberation theology, and the two will present the book to Pope Francis.
Liberation theology came out of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, emphasizing a preferential option for the poor, but with strong ties to Marxist ideals as well. In 1984, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) noted that liberation theology began with the premise that all other theologies were no longer sufficient, and a new “spiritual orientation” was needed. Further, Cardinal Ratzinger said of this theology,
The idea of a turning to the world, of responsibility for the world, frequently deteriorated into a naive belief in science which accepted the human sciences as a new gospel without wanting to see their limitations and endemic problems. Psychology, sociology and the marxist interpretation of history seemed to be scientifically established and hence to become unquestionable arbiters of Christian thought.
Neither Ratzinger nor his predecessor, Bl. John Paul II, were “fans” of liberation theology, as they were particularly concerned with its socialist and Marxist roots.
So, is Pope Francis a fan? Is he welcoming liberation theology back into the Church after Benedict and John Paul swept it out the doors? Despite the reports of the meeting between Francis, Mueller and Gutierrez, don’t be fooled. Sandro Magister, a reporter in Rome who follows developments in the Catholic church, has this to say:
Jorge Mario Bergoglio [now Pope Francis] has never concealed his disagreement with essential aspects of this theology.
His theologians of reference have never been Gutiérrez, nor Leonardo Boff, nor Jon Sobrino, but the Argentine Juan Carlos Scannone, who had elaborated a theology not of liberation but “of the people,” focused on the culture and religious sensibility of the common people, of the poor in the first place, with their traditional spirituality and their sensitivity to justice.
In 2005 – when the book by Müller and Gutiérrez had already been released in Germany – the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires [Bergoglio] wrote:
“After the collapse of the totalitarian empire of ‘real socialism,’ these currents of thought were thrown into disarray. Incapable of either radical reformulation or new creativity, they survived by inertia, even if there are still some today who anachronistically would like to re-propose it.”
Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, has addressed the question about Francis’ stance on liberation theology in National Review Online. Shortly after Francis’ election, Gregg took on allegations that the new pope was a proponent of this theology. Gregg’s conclusion?
Certainly Bergoglio is a man who has always been concerned about those in genuine material need. But orthodox Christianity didn’t need to wait for liberation theology in order to articulate deep concern for the materially poor and to remind those with power and resources that they have concrete obligations to the less fortunate. From the very beginning, it was a message that pervaded the Gospels and the Church’s subsequent life.
Indeed, in a preface to a 2005 book written by one of Latin America’s most thoughtful Catholic figures, Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, Una apuesta por America Latina (A Commitment to Latin America), for example, Bergoglio had this to say about liberation theology:
“After the collapse of ‘real socialism,’ these currents of thought were plunged into confusion. Incapable of either radical reformulation or new creativity, they survived by inertia, even if there are still some today who, anachronistically, would like to propose it again.”
Pope Francis has proved to be anything but predictable, so it remains to be seen how he will treat this meeting with Gutierrez and Mueller. We must also keep in mind that it’s been announced that Francis has plans to write an encyclical regarding poverty:
Cardinal Grech, co-founder of the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome, believes that an encyclical would help to “define our stance on poverty.”
While it’s been very clear that Francis has a heart for the poor, going so far as to say “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”, he’s also distanced himself from liberation theology because of its “ideological deviations.” While some may see the meeting between Francis, Gutierrez and Mueller as the rolling out of a welcome mat for liberation theology, it is far more likely that it will be a discussion between three men who have deep desires to help the poor, but also have intense theological differences.