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Daniel P. HoranMarch 17, 2013

There has been so much in the Catholic and popular (aka: "secular") media coverage about Pope Francis, his past, his thoughts, his writings, his actions, and what the future holds for him, that it can be difficult to untangle the various threads of information (such as why he decided to select the name "Francis" in the hours and days after the election) and misinformation (such as the Cardinal Law banishment rumors of recent days). An interesting story was published today by Laurie Goodstein, the New York Times religion reporter who has a very hot-and-cold history with the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the United States and particularly after the sex-abuse cover up crisis of recent decades (not all her facts have been spot-on and subsequent corrections in the Times often go unannounced in hidden parts of the newspaper afterward).  Nevertheless, her latest piece titled, "New Pope Puts Spotlight on Jesuits, an Influential Yet Self-Effacing Order" is, for the most part, very good.

Goodstein draws on a number of very reliable sources in her presentation of the significance and, let's face it, utter surprise that a Jesuit Cardinal would be selected to be pope. She spoke with a number of insightful European and American Jesuits (including Fr. James Martin, SJ, of America), who offered helpful background on the various factors that led to this surprise election of Pope Francis.

One thing, though, was mentioned at the end of her piece and in passing. It is something that has been repeated without much qualification over the last week in various summary news stories. Namely, that Pope Francis as a then-Jesuit-Provincial-Superior and, later, a Cardinal Archbishop, was hostile or rejected liberation theology. This is a very simplified presentation of a complicated set of conditions and factors. Part of the confusion, it seems to me, is what it means to talk about "rejecting" liberation theology -- it also seems to rely strongly, if unacknowledged, on the interpretation of liberation theology and its reception according to the various commentators.

Here's what Goodstein wrote in the Times:

The selection has thrilled many Jesuits, but dismayed others. Shaped by their experiences with the poor and powerless, many Jesuits lean liberal, politically and theologically, and are more concerned with social and economic justice than with matters of doctrinal purity. Jesuits were in the forefront of the movement known as liberation theology, which encouraged the oppressed to unite along class lines and seek change.

However, Francis, when he was head of the Jesuits in Argentina in the 1970s, was opposed to liberation theology, seeing it as too influenced by Marxist politics. The future pope came down hard on Jesuits in his province who were liberation theology proponents and left it badly divided, according to those who study the order and some members who did not want to be identified because he is now pope.

Goodstein very accurately describes the "mixed feelings" of many who heard these early reports about the new pope's previous engagement with so-called "liberation theology" in Argentina during his tenure as Provincial and then Archbishop. But, I would suggest, this needs a much more nuanced interpretation -- something that cannot be done in a paragraph or two in a major newspaper's article and is impossible in a twenty-second cable-news soundbite.

What I mean by this call for an openness in complex thinking and nuanced approaches to the new pope's relationship to liberation theology involves a few guiding principles.

First, what do we mean when we use a hegemonic and singular umbrella term like "liberation theology?" Are we referring to the particular texts that arose in the 1960s and 1970s from the academic and professional theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff? Both of whose work, by the way, varies in style, method, and outcome. Do we mean the pastoral legacy of the slain Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero? Do we mean the Jesuits and diocesan priests who took up arms in El Salvador against the will of Romero who, according to the critiques of now-Pope Francis, might also be labeled "opposed to liberation theology" in this context? What exactly do we mean?

Second, how are judgements made about what it means to "support," "oppose," "reject," or "be hostile toward," liberation theology in its manifold iterations? Without a very clearly defined notion of what it is we mean when we talk univocally about a broad (and continually growing) academic and pastoral field of social-justice concerns and contextual theology, it is nearly impossible to make an accurate statement about whether one is for or against this or that.

Third, what does someone's lived experience say about the person we claim is for or against a given theological or pastoral opinion? I am reminded of the Gospel parable of the two sons who are told by their father to go into the field to labor.

A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. (Matt 21:29-31)

Just because someone "talks the talk" (in this case, perhaps, the ecclesiastical "party line" about liberation theology in general following the two CDF documents on the subject) doesn't mean that someone "walks the walk." Actions speak louder than words and are more indicative of what someone actually believes. Francis of Assisi is often credited with saying, "Preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words." He never said that. But he did say in the First Rule of the Friars Minor: "Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds" (Regula non bullata, XVII:3).

Pope Francis may have acted in ways that, due to the complexities of his role in leadership and the personal and political decisions of those in his care, might not have pleased some who understood "liberation theology" in a particular way. However, I think that taking all three of these points into consideration allows us to look at the life, the actions, the example, and the intentions of a man whose heart was imbued with the evangelical poverty that Francis of Assisi always strove to preach: in word and deed.

Pope Francis's explanation about his choice of the name "Francis" to the world media this week highlights this truth most succinctly and illustrates how the pope sees social justice, solidarity with the poor, and the work of liberation from injustice at the heart of his ministry and at the core of the church.

And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!

It is too early for people to make bold claims that need more qualifications than most are willing to allow. To say that Pope Francis "opposes liberation theology" is to oversimplify a reality that is preached in action and deed. Let's look at the whole picture.

This post was also published concurrently in Fr. Horan's personal blog DatingGod.org

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Bill Mazzella
10 years 11 months ago
One of the problems with being critical of the hierarchy is that one can start believing in his or her divinity as if, simply because we are for the poor, we are always right. How does one justify taking up arms to support the poor? And sometimes in the heat of a conflict whether verbal or physical it is difficult to determine who or what is right. All of us have seen priest who have let others astray with their own delusions. Certainly some critics were/are right in their opposition. Yet to separate completely from the structure may be counter-productive. It is to Hans Kung's everlasting credit that he did not initiate or lead a schism movement. He rightly said: "It didn't work for Luther."
Michael Iafrate
10 years 11 months ago
This very issue has been on my mind since I read the initial reports of Francis' election, the way the media (both "religious" and "secular") have parroted the line that he opposed liberation theology. Thank you for writing about this, Fr. Horan. As with many other facets of his papacy and past ministry, this claim about his view of liberation theology is far far more complex than many people assume.
Vince Killoran
10 years 11 months ago
Without a very clearly defined notion of what it is we mean when we talk univocally about a broad (and continually growing) academic and pastoral field of social-justice concerns and contextual theology, it is nearly impossible to make an accurate statement about whether one is for or against this or that." Talk about pulling your punches. There's nuance and then there's slipperiness. How about this--the people who self-identified as liberation theologians at the time experienced the Pope Francis' opposition to liberation theology? The historical record indicates that he opposed this.
David Smith
10 years 11 months ago
By all means look at the whole picture. If you can. The popular press - of which the NYT is an extremely conspicuous member in this country - thrives on simplification. It seems to me that the Times used to do better, when their articles were much longer and there was less of an attempt to please a provincial crowd, but my memory may be faulty on that. Perhaps they, along with the rest of the popular media, have always been eager to be pithy and catchy at the expense of objectivity. Now that the internet, in it's abundance, is available, perhaps at least serious bloggers can give the popular press a healthy dose of benign neglect and dig more deeply into more serious sources. If by liberation theology is meant an active courting of Marxist revolutionaries, I can't understand why any mature Catholic cleric or religious would even consider having active truck with it, but I understand both that not all clerics and religious are mature by any reasonably high standard and that sometimes it must seem to people living in the midst of awfulness on the ground that the Devil is simply everywhere you turn. Yes, by all means, try for the whole picture, even if painting it is beyond any writer's skill or any reader's patience. But at least, please don't fall into deliberate bias while trying to counter another deliberate bias. It's easy to write partisan stuff, but unless you're certain that no one but your own crowd is reading you, it's just wrong.
John Donaghy
10 years 11 months ago
Thoughtful article, but I have one question for clarification. There were some diocesan priests in El Salvador who joined the guerrillas (some just acting as chaplains), but I am not sure of any Jesuit priests who joined them. There may have been some Jesuit seminarians but I don't recall any specific Jesuits.

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