The choice of a Latin American pope, despite not hailing from the fastest-growing regions of Africa and Asia, is also an exercise in shoring up the faith in countries that are becoming increasingly secular or susceptible to charismatic / Protestant movements that offer more surface entertainment value. (They keep repeating the statistic that over 40% of Catholics are in Latin America. Among the more outlandish claims, Venezeuelan "leader" Nicolas Maduro suggests this result is down to Hugo Chavez lobbying Jesus upon his recent demise.) Still, I suppose that it's the politically astute choice for these reasons. Notably, while Francis has been an outspoken opponent of unfettered capitalism and the International Monetary Fund after the high neoliberal era of Argentina's crisis at the turn of the millennium, he is not fond of liberation theology either.
I have written about the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America and its application of Marxist ideology to questions of poverty and inequality--both of which remain unfortunately common in the region. From the site of Leonardo Boff, the former priest repeatedly censured by then-Cardinal Ratzinger and future Pope Benedict XVI:
Among the many functions of theology today two are most urgent: how theology collaborates in the liberation of the oppressed, who are today’s “crucified Christs,” and how theology helps to preserve the memory of God so that we do not lose the sentiment and sacredness of human life which is threatened by a culture of superficiality, consumption and entertainment. We should always unite faith with justice, where a perspective of liberation is born, keeping the flame of our sacred lamp burning so that it can feed the hope for a better future for the Earth and all humanity.Well into his tenure as pope, Ratzinger continuously hammered liberation theology's doctrinal unsoundness. While Pope Francis is very much focused on social justice and is famous for interacting with the marginalized and oppressed, he is nevertheless opposed to mixing the inherent godlessness of Marxism with Church teaching:
Though he is averse to liberation theology, which he views as hopelessly tainted with Marxist ideology, Cardinal Bergoglio has emphasized outreach to the impoverished, and as cardinal of Buenos Aires he has overseen increased social services and evangelization in the slums. “I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals,” said Leonardo Boff, a founder of liberation theology. What is more, Mr. Boff said, Cardinal Bergoglio comes from the developing world, “outside the walls of Rome.”Jesuits--of which Francis is one--have at different times been sympathetic to liberation theology. I distinctly recall having to take a required course entitled "Liberation Theology" when I attended college at a Jesuit university. Being younger, I didn't fully understand that it was in bad odour with the leaders of the faith even then. However, the election of a Jesuit who disavows the whole gimmick probably will further marginalize its ideology.
Overall, though, I am satisfied with this result and wish the new pope the best. Contrary to media reports that portray the Catholic Church as being in a state of constant crisis, it remains a growing one in other parts of the world that haven't adopted European-style apathy. It's been there for two decades, and who's to say that its days are numbered or even that its best days are behind it?
And, unsurprisingly, he is no fan of the IMF-style structural adjustment imposed on Argentina and countless other countries which have caused any number of hardships for folks of lesser means:
He became archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 and Pope John Paul II proclaimed him cardinal in 2001. It was reported that he declined to live in the archbishop’s palace, favouring a more frugal lifestyle. As economic problems buffeted Argentina at the turn of the century, Cardinal Bergoglio spoke forcefully for the poor and against neo-Liberalism and the International Monetary Fund. “We cannot permit ourselves to be overcome by inertia, to act as if we were impotent or to be frightened by threats,” he said in a sermon.Both IMF economic fundamentalism and liberation theology's brand of warmed-over Marxism are undesirable; who am I to disagree as we search for a more acceptable middle ground?
UPDATE: Slate has a brief backgrounder on the Jesuits and liberation theology.
UPDATE 4/28: AP has more on how leftist priests are pinning their hopes on Pope Francis