Skip to content Skip to footer

Pope Francis, Liberation Theology, and the Politics of Redemption

Article published:
Painting the depicts a woman wearing white surrounded by a group of people

I am part Argentine, and a bit nationalist (particularly around World Cup time), so it’s no wonder I’ve been congratulated many times about the new, Argentine Pope. And, while I think almost anyone would be an improvement on the previous ultra-conservative, Nazi-youth-league member Pope Benedict, I question whether Pope Francis will really move the Catholic Church in a progressive direction. And if he won’t do it, who will?

Father Bergoglio’s legacy in Argentina

Pope Francis, formerly Buenos Aires’ Father Jorge Bergoglio, was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina during the military junta dictatorship in the late 70s. The junta ruled the country with an iron fist during that period, carrying out a systematic campaign of “disappearances” – extrajudicial kidnappings, gruesome torture and killings of upwards of 30,000 people they considered “subversive” due to their work against poverty, their political convictions, or ties to people doing progressive work.

Farther Bergoglio is infamous to the Argentine left, for collaborating with the dictatorship’s “dirty war” against progressives. There have been many accusations against him. They range from him refusing to use his power to protect Jesuit priests who were being hunted down for serving the poor to hiding military generals. He is accused of actively reporting leftist priests to the military and aiding in kidnapping of leftist priests. Conclusive records from that time period are extremely hard to find, given the level of secrecy that marked that period. Bergoglio has invoked “clerical immunity” to avoid testifying regarding human rights abuses, which has strengthened the critique against him.

On another progressive front, Bergoglio and Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, have had strong disagreements. While she has been criticized by the left for her economic policies, she has also been consistently socially progressive – in an officially Catholic country, she has legalized gay marriage, adoption rights for same-sex couples, nationalized healthcare for transgender people, and a host of other progressive social reforms. One of her fiercest opponents? You guessed it: then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, famous for his claim that gay marriage was a plot by the devil.

Your inbox needs more left. Sign up for our newsletter.

I feel the same about a priest who calls an act of love a “plot from the devil” as I do about a priest who sexually abuses children. And I feel the same about a Pope who collaborates in a dirty war as I do about one who covers up sexual abuse. There is no excuse, and there should be no impunity.

It’s not entirely surprising that these injustices would happen in the Catholic Church. As an institution its legacy is inextricably intertwined with colonialism, racism, and genocide. Even in the year 2013, it’s a church entirely controlled by men, claiming that gender oppression is “God’s will,” while women continue to do the majority of the work in every neighborhood church.

And, somehow at the same time, there is also something else going on. I haven’t really prayed in years, but I have been surprised to find myself quietly rooting for redemption: redemption for Pope Francis, for Argentina, for the survivors of abuse in the church, and sometimes even for the Catholic Church, itself.

Liberation theology

I know that another side of Catholicism exists. I was raised in a household deeply influenced by Liberation Theology. I saw the free church-run childcare in the “villa miseria” (the shantytowns in Buenos Aires that are called “villages of misery”). I heard the stories of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero’s fierce criticism of the unequal distribution of wealth. I participated in peer-led bible study groups that asked questions like “what does it mean to love your neighbor if your neighbor is different than you?” and “what would Jesus do if he saw the rich taking land away from the indigenous poor?”

Strongest in Latin America in the 70s and 80s, documented by the Jesuits through their universities, Liberation Theology came from the grassroots. Phillip Berryman described Liberation Theology as “an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor’s suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor.” The majority of the people who called Catholic Churches their spiritual home at that time were poor people of color, in poor countries of color, deeply engaged in survival struggles, national liberation struggles, and struggles to redistribute wealth. Priests in rural areas who were serving indigenous peasant communities found themselves radicalized by the conditions they saw, and by the movement that was emerging in the communities they lived and worked in. Many started to make space for a real dialogue about what the teachings of the faith had to do with the struggles people experienced. This allowed social movements to continue growing despite state repression that banned political meetings, and brought to light profoundly progressive interpretations of the bible. These places where Christian values, left philosophy, the local church, and community organizing came together were called “base communities.” A new tendency came about, and it reached beyond the base communities, into the Church hierarchy. Priests advocated for emphasis on “Catholic social teaching” – a whole doctrine dedicated to the morality of wealth and poverty. In countries with strong social movements, there were visionary and politically committed priests who came from base communities – like Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who declared “Capitalism is a mortal sin,” organized among his own peasant community, and went on to become president after being part of successfully overthrowing the dictatorship. This bottom-up process had impacts all the way to the top of the Catholic hierarchy. Every Pope since then has harshly criticized Capitalism, as the application of Catholic social teaching mandates.

These advances by the left in the Catholic Church led to a profound power struggle. Right-wing critics inside and outside the church called Liberation Theology subversive propaganda. The impacts of the struggle between the right and the left cut in both directions. The Catholic leadership carried out a massive purge, ousting leftist priests, and, at the same time, the institution as a whole moved to the left.

Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, and left-wing party leader in Nicaragua embodied this struggle. After his Sandinista party took power, he was appointed Minister of Culture. Outraged, Pope John Paul II made a personal visit to Nicaragua, drawing the world’s attention, to personally demand that Cardenal step down. Ever the poet, Cardenal showed up to his audience with the pope wearing a traditional “guayabera” shirt instead of his priestly robes. It signified his refusal to step down from his post in the Sandinista government, and his allegiance to the social movement. The Pope ousted Cardenal, and thousands like him. The pushing out of leftist priests led to Brazilian Dom Hélder Cámara’s famous retort “When I give food to the poor, they call me saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Redemption from the bottom up

So, in addition to centuries of oppression, there is also another legacy that Pope Francis can draw on. He was on the wrong side of history in the 70s. He now faces a choice once again. He can side with the powerful elites in the church and in the world, or create space for bottom-up transformation.

There are some hopeful signs. Much has been made his vow of poverty, a core component of the Jesuit tradition. In Buenos Aires, he cooked his own meals, rode the metro like everyone else, and even spoke in support of economic justice. In the opulent Vatican, he shocked many an old clerics by complaining that his house is too big for one person. He refused to wear Pope Benedict’s favorite gilded red cape because it’s too ostentatious. One of his first declarations was that his vision is to build “a church for the poor,” an idea at the core of Liberation Theology.

As Pope, he chose the name of one of Catholicism’s most radical Saints, Francis de Assisi. St. Francis was the son of a wealthy family. When he saw the conditions of the workers in his father’s garment-dyeing factory, he declared that we would never wear dyed cloth again. This is why Franciscans still wear brown burlap robes, tied with rope. Francis took a vow of poverty and, at a time when Catholicism was focused only on prayer, went out into the community and made it his spiritual work to serve the poor. Even Catholics out there who have not been exposed to liberation theology may remember St. Francis’ feast day. It’s the one that’s fun for kids because you bring your pet to be blessed by the priest. That tradition has radical roots – when St. Francis renounced his family’s wealth, he lived in the countryside and was thus known to be better friends with the animals than with the rich in his own family.

Given that 70% of Catholics live in poor countries and former colonies, not only is a church for the poor necessary, anything less than that would betray its faithful. The Catholic Church is already a church OF the poor – the question is whether progressives within it can gain enough ground to truly make it a church FOR the poor. As I quietly root for the Pope to have and lead a transformation, I also know that this is not just an issue of his conscience. The fact that he was chosen Pope has everything to do with pressure from the base, although the Vatican would never admit it, they are responding to rightful critiques about how the Church is dominated by western-European men. The Argentine with Italian parents was a convenient choice. And part of what he has to contend with is a base much more progressive than its leadership – Catholics in the United States support gay marriage at higher rates than the general population!

What better way to become a church for the poor than to grapple with the real contradictions of the Church? It would be an incredible example to the world if the Pope initiated a “truth and reconciliation commission” about the dirty war in Argentina. And, how about a commission about the abuse of power and sex crimes against children? Or about gender oppression and homophobia? Catholicism is supposed to be based on the concept of reconciliation. How about a whole Papacy that’s dedicated to collective, politicized reconciliation on behalf of the worlds exploited and oppressed?

But these hopeful visions are not likely to happen on their own. It will take pressure from below. Before being a champion of El Salvador’s movement of the poor, Archbishop Romero was an apologist for that country’s 1%, and for a government that carried out brutal military repression against progressives. But he changed because the base of his church pushed him to change. Romero’s transformation was so profound, so genuine, and so public, that it changed Latin America’s consciousness forever. He did not arrive at that conversion by himself. He was carried there by an impoverished, politicized, organized base that challenged him to decide whose side he was on. Only another upsurge of that magnitude can hold Pope Francis to his own vision of a church for the poor. And it will have to come from the bottom up.


About the Author