It will soon be a year since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope “from the ends of the earth”, the first Latin American and the first Jesuit, and took the name of Francis signaling an affinity with the saint from Assisi whose order had always placed itself in the ranks of the poor. Of course I was surprised like everyone else. I was impressed by what seemed to be a genuinely warm human personality; of course one can never be sure with public personas, which are constructed in a complicated interaction between the media and public opinion. Yet the information available on Francis suggested that the image of personal warmth had an empirical base in what the man really is and is not just the fabrication of a clever media campaign.
At the same time I suspected (and said so at the time) that the expectation (in hope or in fear) that Francis would initiate a program of radical reform in the Church was very likely unrealistic. This man was not a revolutionary. Given Francis’ Argentine roots the issue of Liberation Theology was almost immediately raised. I think enough information was available to encourage skepticism about the notion that this Pontificate would see a triumphal return of Liberation Theology. We know that during the Argentine phase of his biography Francis had shown no great sympathy for this school of political theology. Indeed, he had been accused of not affording adequate protection to activist priests pursued by the military regime: These accusations have been rejected by just this type of activist clergy, and I would conclude that they are unfounded. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires Francis refused to be drawn into active resistance to the regime—the Church was not to be a revolutionary movement (as many Liberation Theologians thought it should be)—at the same time the Church was to advocate for human rights and for the interests of the poor.
I have not been motivated to revise my positive impression of the man (though I must admit that I am not attracted by the ostentatious humility that is ever on the lookout for unattractive feet to be washed by the Pope). I do admit that I have become more skeptical on Francis’ political proclivities. I have been particularly troubled by Francis’ connections with Gustavo Gutierrez, the still very active Peruvian Dominican who is justly deemed one of the founders of Liberation Theology. One particular connection shows that Vatican politics is always more complicated than it first seemed. It seems that Gutierrez wrote two chapters in a book by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Poor for the Poor: The Mission of the Church; Francis (surprise!) wrote the preface to the book. Now here is something truly odd: Mueller is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the theological and moral watchdog agency of the Vatican—not so long ago its name was the Holy Office of the Inquisition—and it pursued the alleged heresies of Liberation Theology over several decades. Mueller, one of Francis’ close advisors, is an unrelenting conservative on a number of issues agitating Catholics particularly in Germany, such as whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion (Mueller: “Over my dead body”, or words to that effect).
I have not read Mueller’s book. But it is not difficult to figure out how an endorsement of the famous doctrine of the”preferential option for the poor” can go hand in hand with a conservative, even punitive approach to matters of personal morality. That possibility is not new: Ever since the “preferential option for the poor” was officially proclaimed in Medellin 1968 by the Conference of Latin American Bishops, it was interpreted in very different ways. The Catholic Left of course understood (and practiced) it as a call to socialist revolution, and the Church, including its Holy Office, never endorsed this interpretation. On the other hand the phrase has entered Catholic social teaching in a much more general way: Just as Jesus identified with poor and marginal people, so must the Church—this is not an exclusive endorsement of socialism or any other economic system. Some of the statements made over the past year by Pope Francis could be undersood in this moderate way. However, more recently Francis has indulged in much shriller criticisms of what he called “unfettered capitalism”, with the implication that the Church should endorse some sort of alternative. I wonder what Francis had in mind here: The only “unfettered” capitalism I know of is… in China! No irksome “fetters” there—like the welfare state, labor unions, or the interferences of democratic politics! The Pope’s comments reveal an unusual degree of simplistic thinking about the nature of economic institutions.
On Wednesday, February 26, the Associated Press reported on a gala event in Rome—the launch of Mueller’s book. Gutierrez was the surprise speaker. He received a round of applause when the Vatican spokesman, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, noted his presence, and another round of applause as he came to the podium (he spoke about the Parable of the Good Samaritan). In an institution given to symbolic ritual, this launch has to be understood as a quite solemn endorsement of Gutierrez and the ideas for which he has stood. The official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, certainly had it right: “With the first Latin American Pope, Liberation Theology can no longer remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for several years, at least in Europe”.
Just what is going on here? Bergoglio coming out of the closet as Che Guevara? Not very likely. Somewhat more likely: A case of Pontifical “Bidenism”—the Pope, like the current Vice-President of the United States, has a history of saying things without having given them much thought. But this matter is clearly very close to the direction which the Pope envisages for the Church. I don’t think this matter can be seen apart from the political options with which Francis is confronted.
There is the intra-ecclesial issue that confronts Francis. But then there is the much wider question of how the Church is to position itself in this moment of history. The Church is always intent on preserving its unity or on restoring it where it has been ruptured. Just recall the extraordinary lengths to which Pope Benedict XVI has gone to lure back into the fold the small community of the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who would deep-down like to revoke every decision of the Second Vatican Council (to the point, for some of them, of declaring the Papal See to be vacant because of all these years of heresy). Negotiations with the so-called Society of St. Pius X are still going on, though supposedly they are soon to be brought to an end by Pope Francis. Could a campaign to reconcile with Liberation Theology be a Left equivalent of the effort to bring in the errant children from the Right? Maybe so. But I don’t think this explanation will do either: Whatever one may think of these individuals, Gustavo Gutierrez can hardly be put in the same box as that member of the Society of St. Pius X who was given years to retract or reformulate his denial of the Holocaust.
I think there is a simpler, more broadly political issue here. (And I am making the assumption that Pope Francis, however uncomfortable he may be with the pomp and circumstance of official Rome, is sophisticated enough to understand its real political dynamics.)
A plausible argument can be made to the effect that we are living through a Left moment. The recent global recession, and the financial crises in the US and Europe, have shaken confidence in the institutions commonly called “the Washington consensus”. At the same time, there are now a number of non-democratic examples of “state-capitalism” or “market socialism” (the terminologies are vague and overlap), which seem to be more efficient than the creaky institutional machinery set up under American leadership after World War II. In any discussion of this, China is obviously the elephant in the Living Room. Even if the more horrific aspects of the Chinese system are not swept under the rug, there is indeed the very powerful point that, human rights or not, the powerful engine of a capitalism (unfettered indeed), with a red flag fluttering over it, has pulled many millions of people from degrading poverty to a decent level of material life. Could this be a possible alternative model for other countries to look at? And what, if anything, can Catholic social teaching say about this?
Once the position is taken that there is today a Left moment, one can ask whether this is also a moment that the Catholic Church might seize. I would be surprised if Pope Francis has not asked himself that question. And discussed it with Gutierrez, Mueller and others. If so, it seems to me that there are two options before him. He might conclude that the old Liberation Theology, with some modifications, could perform the old legitimating function. The mantra of the Old Left would apply then: “We must march again, my darlings!” Or, he might choose to employ the more moderate version of the “preferential option for the poor”—the interests of the poor coming first. But then the questions arise, “What is really good for the poor? And who decides?” This brings into the middle of the discussion the issue of democracy. The social teachings of Vatican II are helpful in this sort of discussion. Option 1: Francis as Che Guevara Redivivus. Option 2: Francis as helping to formulate an open-minded, non-ideological approach to the institutions best suited to combat poverty under a decent regime of human rights. I will not further develop the shape of these institutions. Except to propose that they will bear little resemblance to the Chinese system of “unfettered capitalism”. Which is why we must all hope that Pope Francis, if he chooses to act in the economic area at all, goes for option 2.