Let’s just say it: Pope Francis is a liberation theologian. He has insisted that Roman Catholicism be a “poor church for the poor.” He has persistently criticizing global capitalism. He confirmed a devotee of liberation theology, the otherwise conservative Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He has brought Gustavo Gutiérrez, the founder of liberation theology, in from the cold.
Early in his papacy, the conservative commentariat insisted that Francis was, from his time as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, actually an opponent of the radical South American teaching that his two papal predecessors had suppressed. As Sandro Magister, chief Vaticanista for the Italian newspaper L’Espresso, wrote two years ago, “In reality, one of the most severe critics of this theological current has been the present pope.”
To be sure, Francis has warned against “ideological” (read: Marxist) renderings of this current. In his lengthy speech last week’ to the world meeting of social movements in Bolivia, said:
Of the leadership I ask this: be creative and never stop being rooted in local realities, since the father of lies is able to usurp noble words, to promote intellectual fads and to adopt ideological stances. But if you build on solid foundations, on real needs and on the lived experience of your brothers and sisters, of campesinos and natives, of excluded workers and marginalized families, you will surely be on the right path.
It would be hard, however, to find a more thoroughgoing version of the liberationist message than Francis delivered. People do not merely have a right to land, lodging, and labor (the “three L’s”), he declared:
A truly communitarian economy, one might say an economy of Christian inspiration, must ensure peoples’ dignity and their “general, temporal welfare and prosperity.” This includes the three “L’s,” but also access to education, health care, new technologies, artistic and cultural manifestations, communications, sports and recreation.
As America editor-at-large James Martin, S.J. put it on CNN, “In a stunning, nearly revolutionary, speech on Thursday in Bolivia, Pope Francis said that working for justice is not simply a moral obligation. For Christians, it is a commandment.”
As a liberation theologian, Pope Francis’ distinctive contribution has been to expand the message to include the demand that the challenge of climate change be addressed on a global scale. This is not a simple demand, since the exploitation of carbon fuels may at least in theory be used by developing countries to improve the lot of the poor. But as he made clear in Bolivia, the ecological imperative cannot take a back seat to “putting the economy at the service of peoples” and uniting them “on the path of peace and justice.” On the contrary: “The third task, perhaps the most important facing us today, is to defend Mother Earth.”