walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 4, 2014
Liberation Theologian?
Pope Francis’ Options are Becoming Clearer

Let us hope that Pope Francis is helping to formulate an open-minded, non-ideological approach to the institutions best suited to combat poverty under a decent regime of human rights.

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.

show comments
  • Pete

    If the Church is so much for the poor, why doers it encourage overpopulation which is a root cause of many of the poor’s problems? I just asking.

    • Marty Keller

      Curious about how “overpopulation” is a “root cause of many of the poor’s problems.” Mr. Berger’s citation of the Chinese experience is just one of a number of possible refutations of that thesis. The Church sees every human being as a precious and beloved Child of God; how could He produce “too many” of His children?

      • Pete

        :The Church sees every human being as a precious and beloved Child of God; how could He produce “too many” of His children?”

        The logic of such a statement means that 1) you see no limit to population growth and 2) people almost have a duty to produce as many children as possible as there can’t be ‘too many’ of God’s children.

        Over population is too many people in an area with too little resources such that they can’t support themselves.

        The fact is that overpopulation leads to wars, unruly migrations, devastation of the environment, depletion of fresh water, and of course, poverty.

        You ask what problems over population causes.

        Much of Africa is starving — or would be — if it were not for all the foreign aid it receives. And the more aid places like Africa receive, the more the population increases. Is that God’s plan??

        Walk through the slums of Rio, Mexico City, or India and see the effects of overpopulation. .

        Egypt can’t feed its all its people, let alone develop them. And Egypt is far from being alone.

        One of the root cause of the Syria civil war is over population. As Tom Friedman noted back in January, the population of the Middle East has twice doubled (that’s a 400% increase) in the last 60 years and that has broken down the ability of the countries to support its populations leading to all sort of stresses — including war.

        • ThomasD

          Frankly, why did you ask the ‘question’ if you a) already knew the answer and b) were not prepared to accept it?

          You posit a reality called overpopulation, in which there are more people than necessary, or (perhaps) merely more than desirable.

          Which actual persons are in excess? (never mind the question of what are they exactly in excess of? Love, compassion, friendship?)

          But if there are persons in excess, then what is your solution?

          • Pete

            “Which actual persons are in excess?”

            Well, for a working definition, let’s start with those that habitually cannot or will not feed or take care of themselves. And before you go off the deep end, realize that I’m speaking of adults here.

            My solution: Maybe stop encouraging people who can’t or won’t support the children they bring into to the world and instead have them shall we say, control their sexual activity.

            “Be fruitful and multiply’ does not mean to fill every square foot of the earth with a person …. or does it, in your mind???

            What’s your solution … assuming that you can even recognize over population as a problem/??

          • ThomasD

            have them shall we say, control their sexual activity.

            The Church teaches something quite like that, it is called Natural Family Planning. Followed correctly it is an effective means for controlling pregnancy, and being responsible couples/parents. Encouraging people to avail themselves of this, as well as all other Church teachings would be a good thing.

            That you avoid the obvious issue with your perception of excess persons, while creating cartoonish straw man -“fill every square foot” to argue against, says more about your position than anything I could offer.

            But yes, I reject your notion of overpopulation. Not merely as ‘a’ problem, but as an ontological fallacy. To be sure, I do not doubt that there exist certain people who cannot, or will not ‘take care of themselves’ by your standards. However that in no way diminishes their essential humanity. They belong here as much as any one else, and on that singular basis cannot be deemed as the ones in excess from the rest of the population. Now maybe you can posit some other standards, but if you pause for a moment I’m sure you’ll quickly see just what sort of road you are heading down when you undertake to carve away certain elements from the rest of essential humanity only because you think humanity’s numbers are to blame. Criminalize (ie. define as contrary to public welfare) any existence based upon mere existence and you indict the whole of humanity.

            That others may deem them as being in need may likewise create a corresponding perception of being burdened, but that problem lies with the one who perceives the need. Being in need may indeed be a curse, but seeing someone in need is an opportunity, and serving someone in need is a blessing.

            The human condition is such that there were people in need from the moment we left the garden (whether you believe this literally, or figuratively, it still holds true.) People were in need a thousand years before Christ, when then there were still greater numbers on the planet. Today, we number in the billions, with a great abundance of material wealth and human industry, yet need still remains. That persistence of need in the face of both massive population growth, and massive productivity growth should tell us that sheer numbers is not the issue.

            There was need when we were but a million, there was need when we were a billion, the notion that by now halting our
            growth at five or six billion would solve the problem is logically inconsistent, and entirely ahistorical. Perhaps, if you dwell on it, you may come to see that sheer number (what you call overpopulation) is really only a concept that serves to hide the true issues, and the better solutions from us.

          • Pete

            Tommy, you’re no doubt good-hearted but you’re delusional none the less.

            Have a good life.

          • Jim__L

            Anyone with any experience with kids knows that toddlers are their own method of birth control.

    • Jim__L

      Frontiers are one possible answer. There are enough resources in the asteroid belt to support a population millions of times larger than Earth’s current population at an American standard of material wealth.

      Population control is a nasty business, and at best it is the product of Despair.

      • Pete

        “There are enough resources in the asteroid belt to support a population millions of times larger than Earth’s current population at an American standard of material wealth.”

        What the hell are you talking about?

        (By the way, out of curiosity, how much water is in your asteroid belt?)

        Theoretically, there is likewise enough latent energy in a few lumps of coal to power a city;

        Question: How do you capture this energy?

        Answer: We can’t. It is way beyond the realm of our science & technology.

        • Jim__L

          Some types of carbonaceous chondrites — and not rare ones — consist of hydrated minerals that are up to 10% water by mass. Extracting this water is simply a matter of setting up a mirror to heat them up, and bagging the resulting gas. The limiting resource out there is actually nitrogen, which could easily be supplied by Earth.

          You should pay more attention to science and technology publications, this has been in the news recently. On this particular subject, I’d recommend the books of Professor John Lewis, such as “Mining the Sky”.

          NASA has got a rather lot of useful technology already for this sort of endeavor, and scaling that up to industrial levels is certainly not beyond human ingenuity. Once set up, there’s no reason it couldn’t be self-sustaining. It could even profitably interact with Earth’s economy, supplying energy, materials difficult or impossible (or too polluting) to manufacture on Earth, and defense against massively destructive asteroid strikes.

          If it’s a choice between making this effort and institutionalized abortion, I suspect that there is a significant constituency willing to give it a try.

    • ThomasD

      Define overpopulation and you might see the circularity of your ‘question.’.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The portrait that is emerging of Pope Francis from Berger’s felicitous description is perhaps more disturbing than one might think. What emerges is a person of possible thin character who is more prone to what Berger called “role alternation” in his book The Precarious Vision. The picture we get is of a pope who is one persona before the Gustavo Gutierrez Liberation Theology wing of his church and another persona before those who embrace the filoque. “Is the pope Catholic?” is a joke that describes the strong role socialization that is expected in a pope. In the case of Pope Francis perhaps the answer is “yes,” but what else is he before the Marxist wing of his church? Being Catholic often means to be “all things to all people.” But can a pope be a pope who wants to be the pastoral role alternator to all?

    In Berger’s The Precarious Vision he undertakes fictional case studies of role alternation. His most notable character is a Christian named Gustav (not Guteirrez!) who after being exposed to Marxism writes several articles on “The Christian Alternative to Communism.” Later, Gustavo flip flopped back and forth from religious Orthodoxy to Marxism. Gustav has what Berger calls a “precarious” moment where he says “I began a day as a Christian and end it as a Marxist.”

    Francis has so many daily “leaps of faith” as a pope that he is all things to all people. The question for Francis is that he began his faith as a Catholic and then became Pope. What will he end it as? Will he end up as a religious clone of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Saint Francis, or a signaler of transcendence?

  • Jim__L

    “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
    – Lev. 19:15

    It seems clear enough. Generosity, charity, and compassion towards the poor are definitely encouraged, but saying that Justice is about leveling is simply not Biblical.

  • Anthony

    Humans do not live by bread alone. We are believing, moralizing beings and the poor and how to address their material deprivations rarely undergird spiritual conviction. Pope Francis – if the position is taken that there is a left moment – exercising a non ideological approach to institutions best suited to combat poverty will execute a preference of taste by which he engages his institution while seeking subtler accommodations to his Papacy (responding to intellectual and social currents – the moment).

  • free_agent

    Dunno… All of Francis’ doings seem consistent with the traditional Catholic position, which is not so much “socialist” as anti-capitalist. Anti-capitalist in the sense that an activity whose deliberate purpose is to make money is intrinsically sinful. (The sin of Greed, in this case.) People are allowed to engage in economic activity, but only if the intenntion is to be a part of the communal system to provide for people’s needs. Similarly, charity is good, not primarily because it raises the incomes of the poor, but because it is an act of virtue on the part of the contributor. Thus, economic development (in the sense used by a capitalist or a Marxist, that is, increasing the total income of society or the median income of individuals) is not a legitimate goal.

    This resembles Mother Theresa’s attitude toward medicine, not really to increase the well-being of the poor, but to provide her nuns with an ability to exercise compassion. If a medical procedure was effective (in the modern sense) but impersonal, it performed no useful purpose…

  • Gary Novak

    While the preferential option for the poor is a reasonable idea, it has little chance of realization if headed by a Pope whose comments reveal “an unusual degree of simplistic thinking about the nature of economic institutions.” What if the Pope has a Joe Biden intellect? Could it be that this Pope’s primary skill is washing feet? Or aligning the Church with historical “moments” to retain some semblamce of relevancy? These possibilities are little more encouraging than a full-throated endorsement of liberation theology.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Go to and search for Frank The Hippie Pope

      From Lutheran Satire online

      • Gary Novak

        Thanks for the link. Enjoyed it. I am not embarrassed to confess that my understanding of Catholic politics is parasitic on Berger’s posts. When one finds a reliable critic, dependency on him is not such a bad thing. I am less polite than Berger, and Lutheran Satire online is less polite than I. It takes all kinds . . .

  • ThomasD

    “And what, if anything, can Catholic social teaching say about this?”

    That there are worse degradations than financial poverty.

    Unless your version of Catholicism is actually dialectical materialism coupled with a Jesus affinity.

  • tteague

    With all due respect, Dr. Berger, and from what I can determine, Pope Francis never wrote or spoke of “unfettered capitalism.” Rather he wrote of “unbridled consumerism.” That, at least, is the language used in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which caused so much uproar among some. Unbridled and unfettered have essentially the same meaning, but capitalism and consumerism are very different words with not only different meanings, but different spiritual import. Unless I am missing some additional document, interview, or homily by the Pope where he does speak of “unfettered capitalism,” it seems to me lot of words have been written since the exhortation’s publication unpacking and critiquing what the Pope meant, or must have meant, by words he never wrote.

    • Gary Novak

      Robert Romano makes the same point here: but I think “unfettered capitalism” is a pretty fair paraphrase of what Francis wrote. And, like Berger, Romano wonders where the Pope sees this unfettered capitalism or “absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” (the Pope’s words). Like Wayne Lusvardi in previous posts, Romano sees the housing collapse, for example, as largely a product of government fetters.

    • Gary Novak

      “Unfettered capitalism” appears to be a paraphrase of the Pope’s reference to the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” Less important than his precious words is his economic simplicity.

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