Liberation Theology, Leonardo Boff & 'Fixing' Catholicism

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/13/2013 09:58:00 AM
What is the difference between a socially active priest and one who dabbles in leftist politics? The dividing line was much clearer during the Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI eras when the latter was strictly verboten and priests were discouraged from engaging directly--especially in electoral politics. A few weeks ago I discussed the changes that may be in store at the Vatican given that someone from Latin America-- homeland of liberation theology spurred by the world's highest rates of inequality--has become pope. While Pope Francis has disavowed liberation theology in speech, in practice, many alienated (former) Latin Catholics believe that the hardline of the past will be replaced by a more tolerant and receptive outlook.

The highest profile critic of the Catholic Church so far as liberation theology is concerned is of course Leonardo Boff. Yet even he believes that while rhetorical disdain for godless Marxist elements of liberation theology may remain, in practice we may have a more nuanced and socially aware church emerging. Boff is positive, while the many priests killed in Latin America during the liberation theology period may even be regarded positively once more:
"Pope Francis comes with the perspective that many of us in Latin America share. In our churches we do not just discuss theological theories, like in European churches. Our churches work together to support universal causes, causes like human rights, from the perspective of the poor, the destiny of humanity that is suffering, services for people living on the margins."

The liberation theology movement, which seeks to free lives as well as souls, emerged in the 1960s and quickly spread, especially in Latin America. Priests and church laypeople became deeply involved in human rights and social struggles. Some were caught up in clashes between repressive governments and rebels, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

The movement's martyrs include El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose increasing criticism of his country's military-run government provoked his assassination as he was saying Mass in 1980. He was killed by thugs connected to the military hierarchy a day after he preached that "no soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God." His killing presaged a civil war that killed nearly 90,000 over the next 12 years. The case for beatification of Romero languished under popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI due to their opposition to liberation theology, but he was put back on track to becoming a saint days after Francis became pope.
Boff narrates the familiar difference between theory and practice, with the idea that Pope Francis is oriented towards social action in a way his predecessors were not, really, despite lip service supposedly being paid to its features palatable to the Church (i.e., the non-Marxist ones):
While even John Paul embraced the "preferential option for the poor" at the heart of the movement, most church leaders were unhappy to see intellectuals mixing doses of Marxism and class struggle into their analysis of the Gospel. It was a powerfully attractive mixture for idealistic Latin Americans who were raised in Catholic doctrine, educated by the region's army of Marxist-influenced teachers, and outraged by the hunger, inequality and bloody repression all around them.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds of Argentine priests were affiliated with a movement that proclaimed Christian teaching "inescapably obliges us to join in the revolutionary process for urgent radical change of existing structures and to reject formally the capitalistic system we see around us ... We shall go forward in search of a Latin American brand of socialism that will hasten the coming of the new man."
John Paul and his chief theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, drove some of the most ardent and experimental liberation theologians out of the priesthood, castigated some of those who remained, and ensured that the bishops and cardinals they promoted took a wary view of leftist social activism.
Monsignor Chavez of San Salvador may make liberation theology more palatable by saying that there are many varieties of liberation theology (eat your heart out, Hall and Soskice), with Pope Francis being on the least extreme end in terms of Marxist overtones--Catholic social vision instead of Marxist social vision, if you will:
"There are many theologies of liberation," he said. "The pope represents one of these currents, the most pastoral current, the current that combines action with teaching." He described Francis' version as "theologians on foot, who walk with the people and combine reflection with action," and contrasted them with "theologians of the desk, who are from university classrooms."
Then again, even the would-be Pope Francis acknowledged that there are certain leftist overtones one can readily read into the Gospels if one is not careful:
"The option for the poor comes from the first centuries of Christianity. It is the Gospel itself," said then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio during a 2010 deposition in a human rights trial. He said that if he were to repeat "any of the sermons from the first fathers of the church, from the 2nd or 3rd century, about how the poor must be treated, they would say that mine would be Maoist or Trotskyite."
In other words, leftist critics hope that Pope Francis will ask the faithful to do as he does, not as he says.