Pope Francis’ ‘option for the poor’ means living and thinking with the people
Various models have been proposed for interpreting the roadmap of Pope Francis. The English-speaking world has tended to appraise the pontificate of Francis in terms of a pastoral aggiornamento inspired by the traditional principles of the church’s social doctrine, even while pointing out the more radical aspects of the pope’s assessment of current economic and political models. Other analysts emphasize the pope’s promotion of a process of renewal by means of reforms that will change the church’s modes of operation, whether these reforms are the fruits of radical Christian thought or a long series of decisions based on radical realism.
All these interpretative models make use of socio-cultural paradigms and criteria of discernment that are foreign to the pope’s hermeneutics of popular culture. From a Latin American perspective, it is surprising the way some analysts brand Francis as populist, socialist or demagogue without ever comprehending the universe of meanings that inspire his vision of society, of church and of God.
See, Judge, Act
Although Francis, like his predecessors, makes good use of the church’s social doctrine, this traditional teaching should not be confused with the broader horizon to be found in his theological-pastoral option. This option took shape in the midst of the people’s movements and ecclesial communities of the 1960s, and above all as a result of the theological-pastoral debates concerning the reception of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the Latin American context. Francis does not practice the “discernment focused on social morality” that is characteristic of Catholic social doctrine (“Libertatis Conscientia,” No. 72; “Solicitudo Rei Socialis,” No. 41). Instead, he proposes to interpret and understand culture in a prophetic rather than in a doctrinaire or cultic way, and he establishes the praxis of Jesus as the principal norm for all theological-pastoral thought and practice.
In his writings and discourses, the pope has made it clear that his theological-pastoral option revolves around the preferential option for “a poor church committed to the poor.” To understand this we must examine the socio-historical debate of Latin American liberation theology and how it was received in Argentina and the rest of the continent. Of special interest is the role then-Cardinal Bergoglio played in shaping the final document of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin American and the Caribbean, which took place in Aparecida in 2007.
Influenced by the Argentine theologians Fr. Lucio Gera and Fr. Rafael Tello, Francis understands that pastoral ministry and theology must form a unity that makes the center of its reflection the culture of the poor. Faithful to Latin American theological method, the pope understands that praxis always comes first and that theological reflection follows as a second step. It is for this reason that his teaching style uses the method of “see, judge and act,” placing the stress on the first moment of confronting the listener with the brute facts of the crude socio-economic reality of our world, a reality that can in no way be justified.
Before issuing any judgment, whether theological or magisterial, Francis confronts us with the reality of a situation, as demonstrated in “Laudato Si'”:
Theological and philosophical reflections on the situation of humanity and the world can sound tiresome and abstract unless they are grounded in a fresh analysis of our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity” (No. 17).
Such an encounter with reality will prevent us from falling into what he calls “abstract spiritualism” and give birth in us to a consciousness of pain. Our experience of pain has the effect of helping us “dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (No. 19).
Popular, Not Populist
We should say first of all that the theological perspective that appears in the teaching of Francis is not a populist one; rather, it responds to the world of “popular” reality, that is, the lived experience of the (poor) people, el pueblo. In agreement with Latin American theologies of liberation, he understands that “the option for the poor is primarily a theological category” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 198). The option for the poor is a sine qua non for Christian life because the Kingdom of God, as proposed by Jesus, is not about having a private, intimate relation with God but about creating a society where there are fraternity, peace, justice and dignity for all.
The option for the poor is not just an option for each poor individual that we find on the roadside. Rather, it is an option that is both structural—involving socio-economic change—and structuring—demanding a change in our way of thinking. It is an option that undertakes the defense of the planet from the position of those most vulnerable to and most affected by its destruction. It is an option found on the principle that “people in every nation can enhance the social dimension of their lives by acting as committed and responsible citizens, not as a mob swayed by the powers that be” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 220). God redeems each and every person but only along with and in relation to the people among whom they live. What does this word “people” (pueblo) mean to Francis?
Certain types of liberation theology explained the notion of “people” in terms of economic poverty and nationality, thus emphasizing a class dialectic that required political action as a way of transforming the “people as poor” (a class entity) into a “people as nation” (a political entity). Some theological currents understood this as the best path for overcoming social exclusion. The liberation theology developed in Argentina, however, interpreted the term “people” so as to include a broader dynamic of liberation, one that went beyond the interests of any social class or the ideological projects of any nation. In the words of the Argentine Jesuit Fr. Juan Carlos Scannone, the “people” are “those who share a way of life and a political project, both of which are sustained by an ethics aimed at seeking the common good.”
Francis uses the word “people” with three interrelated meanings: people-as-poor (socio-economic), people-as-nation (political) and people-as-faithful (religious). The people as poor are those who are marginalized and excluded from the main channels of social, economic and political participation. In the Argentina of the 1970s the term referred to “the workers and the destitute.” People in this category today have no real possibility of development; their lives are marked by misery and exclusion. They are the ones most affected by the present system of global development, and they make up the majority of humankind.
‘The Faithful People’
When understood in this way, the “people” is the key concept for interpreting culture. What is more, the people constitute the sacred place where God makes himself present. The notion of “people” acquires a theological status because “just as we listen to our Father, so also we listen to the faithful People of God” (Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9, 2015). Both academic and pastoral theologians must therefore become inculturated in their respective peoples (pueblos) in order to live and think as their people do. Making this option for the people-as-poor is what allows for the construction of the true common good. Moreover, it is what impels the movement toward a higher, national unity that enables the people to resist the influx of alien ideologies—Marxist, liberal, socialist or capitalist—that seek only to destroy the people’s memory and identity.
What is important for the theology of the people, however, is not analysis of the people’s realities in terms of sociological dynamics. On a daily basis the people-as-poor suffer a type of low-level depression as a consequence of the exclusion and impotence imposed on them, but for them the exclusion and impotence are not just sources of frustration and violence; rather, they are religious experiences with deeper meaning. They understand and experience themselves above all as a faithful people because it is their religious experience that endows them with the strength and the wisdom they need to continue their countercultural struggle.
As Fr. Gera explains, in this theology the privileged place for really knowing the poor is not the political realm, since this is also a product of the culture. Rather, the people are best known by the ways in which they relate among themselves and by the values and beliefs they possess as the faithful people of God. As Francis declared:
The faithful people know how to express their faith with their own language. They manifest their deepest sentiments of pain, doubt, joy, failure, and gratitude through diverse devotional forms, through processions, candles, flowers, and hymns which are transformed into a beautiful expression of their confidence in the Lord and their love for his Mother, who is also our Mother (Quito, July 8, 2015).
A Missionary Discipleship
This popular and relational vision of salvation that Francis embraces requires what Fr. Gera calls “pastoral conversion” and a “change of mentality” on the part of all those who inhabit the ecclesial structures. If the church wants to make poor people the key locus for interpreting theological reality, then she must cease the dangerous practice of being “institutionally self-referential” and must understand herself in terms of discipleship and mission.
The pope draws new inspiration here from the contributions of Latin American theology. He takes what Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P., calls “prophetic pastoral ministry” and reinterprets it in light of the 2007 Aparecida conference of Latin American bishops. As Francis said when he met with the bishops’ conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, “The missionary discipleship that Aparecida proposed to the churches of Latin America and the Caribbean is the path that God wants us to follow today.”
This pastoral approach is born of a theology of historical salvation that holds that the condition for salvation is not being Christian but being human, because Christian praxis is first and foremost being neighborly. Such a pastoral approach has “rediscovered the essence of Christianity, the way of salvation for all persons, Christians and non-Christians.” It embodies a mystical fraternity that requires of us an ethical connection with reality and an intimate contact “with the homes and the lives of the people” lest our theology, and so the life of the church, end up “depersonalized” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 75).
The popular hermeneutics of Francis seeks to return to the path of encounter as the way to rehumanize our relationships. He employs the paradigm of the poor-people’s culture (cultura del pueblo pobre) where it still exists, for that is where human interdependence is still preserved:
What allows us to obey the commandment of love is that rootedness in the barrio, in the land, in the trade, in the guild; it is that recognition of oneself in the face of the other, that nearness to everyday existence with all its misfortunes and its daily acts of heroism. Our faith is founded not on ideas or concepts but on genuine encounter among persons (Bolivia, July 9, 2015).
This is the path and the model for overcoming the exaggerated individualism propounded by the globalization of indifference that is having such a ferocious effect on the poorest and most vulnerable countries.
The theological-pastoral option of Pope Francis presents us with a great challenge, that of “inserting ourselves into God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present day” while also avoiding the dangers he pointed out to the bishops in Rio in 2013: myopic activism, functionalism and clericalism. But all this requires the change of mentality that will come about only when we make an option for God’s poor-people.