The British Catholic journal The Tablet (which I have found to be a reliable and balanced source for what goes on in the Roman world) carried a story in its November 23, 2013, issue by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, its correspondent in Germany. Titled “Mueller vs. Marx: Clash of the Titans”, the story reports on a public disagreement between Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich, president of the European Bishops’ Conference and recent appointee to Pope Francis’ eight-member advisory Council of Cardinals. Whether these two men merit the label “titans” will not be immediately clear to non-Catholics; it will be to those who look to Rome for criteria for what is important: The CDF (which was headed by Benedict XVI before his elevation to the papacy) is the Church’s watchdog for doctrinal orthodoxy; Munich is the largest German diocese.
The disagreement is over the issue of whether divorced Catholics should continue to be barred from receiving communion, as canon law presently mandates. Mueller takes a hardline position on this: Appeals to “mercy” must not override this affirmation of the indissolubility of marriage. Marx, very much in tune with recent remarks by Pope Francis, has said that the issue should not be considered as closed. If there is a list of intra-Catholic issues that outsiders could not care about less, this probably heads the list. I have not thought about it, and I will hardly do so in the future: Catholics should be left alone to decide whom they admit to their sacramental commensality. But something else caught my attention: What Mueller and Marx have in common despite their doctrinal differences: an affinity with the teachings of Gustavo Gutierrez. That is a matter that everyone, Catholic or non-Catholic, with an interest in public policy should care about very much.
Gustavo Gutierrez was born in Lima, Peru, in 1928. A Dominican priest, he ministered to poor people in the slums. He also had higher education in his own country and in Europe, and is still on the faculty of Notre Dame in the US. In 1971 he published his enormously influential book, A Theology of Liberation, which became the founding document for the theological school of that name; Gutierrez is rightly seen as a founder of the school, which became a movement. He also advocated the so-called “preferential option for the poor” (“la opcion preferencial para los pobres”), which proposed that the Church should pay primary attention to the interests of the poor. It became the slogan for the Catholic left in Latin America and beyond, and was solemnly agreed upon at the conference of Latin American bishops (CELAM) in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968. Rome was from the beginning skeptical about the movement, not for its concern for the poor, but for its adoption of a Marxist interpretation of the contemporary world—“unjust social structures” equated with capitalism—and for the advocacy by some of its followers for class struggle and socialist revolution. The CDF, under then Cardinal Ratzinger, criticized Liberation Theology in 1984 and 1986. I don’t know how far Gutierrez himself endorsed the more radical versions of his theology, but he certainly became an idol for those who did.
Strange as this may seem, what the two cardinals in the Tablet story have in common is, precisely, sympathy with the ideas of Gustavo Gutierrez. Mueller met the latter on a visit to Lima, where he was impressed by his encounters with the “poorest of the poor”. He has repeatedly visited Peru and maintained his relationship with Gutierrez. He has not directly embraced Liberation Theology, but he has started the process toward the sanctification of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated by a right-wing death squad in 1980 and has become an object of veneration by the Catholic left. Marx has published a tongue-in-cheek letter to his namesake Karl, saying that the latter’s ideas have been rejected too broadly. He has sharply criticized “neoliberalism” and “turbo-capitalism”. Most interestingly, he has co-authored a book with Gutierrez! [I have not read this book. I spend some time reading things for my blog, but I’m afraid there are limits.] I understand that this book develops the core idea of Liberation Theology—the “solidarity with the poor”. Marx is apparently a folksy character; he enjoys attending the annual Munich Beer Festival, guzzling that beverage to the ear-shattering sound of Bavarian folk music. [Speaking as a Viennese, this doesn’t necessarily endear him to me.]
What emerges here is the possibility of an axis between theological conservatism and political leftism. Is this where the Catholic Church is heading?
A few months ago I wrote a post on this blog, asking whether the pontificate of Francis I heralds a new opening for Liberation Theology. I cautiously suggested that this may not be the case, though the jury is still out. Francis’ identification with the poor is not necessarily linked to leftist ideology. Even the “preferential option”, understood as a general moral rather than specifically political orientation, is hardly surprising in any follower of Jesus of Nazareth.
There is evidence that Francis showed little if any sympathy for Liberation Theology in his native Argentina. Then as now, he showed personal identification with the most marginal people in society—it is not accidental that as pope he chose the name of the saint known as “poverello” (“the little poor one”). So far, so good. So far, I don’t feel compelled to retract my earlier assessment of the present papacy. But I’m getting a bit worried.
Presumably worrisome: In September 2013 Francis received Gustavo Gutierrez in a private audience. A sign of personal favor? Or a move to avoid criticisms by conservatives? Or another attempt to draw back into the Church a constituency on the left with grievances? (After all, there has been a long campaign to reconcile the papacy with the right-wing critics of Vatican II.) Francis continues to talk about his wish for a “poor church”, a “church for the poor”. But lately he has spoken out on “greed” and “inequality”, social maladies due to “neoliberalism” and “unfettered capitalism”. If this is the direction in which he is going, one must worry about his view of the world. How does he understand it? Specifically, has he understood the basic fact: Capitalism has been most successful in producing sustained economic growth. And that it is this growth which has been most effective in greatly reducing poverty? Just where is there “unfettered capitalism” in the world today? It is in China. Since the economic reforms that began in 1979 China has been the clearest example of “unfettered capitalism” (or, if you will, of the “neoliberal Washington Consensus”). It is still “fettered” by the bulky presence of inefficient state-owned enterprises, debris of the socialist past, with privileged access to capital and government favors. Nevertheless the capitalist engine has been roaring on, the private sector of the economy that does not have to worry about the “fetters” imposed on it in Western democratic countries—an expensive welfare state, laws and regulations that inhibit growth, and free labor unions. And it is this capitalist sector of the Chinese economy that has lifted millions of people from degrading poverty to a decent level of material life. The Chinese regime is appalling in many ways, but not because of failure to deal with poverty. Does Francis understand any of this? Greed is a moral flaw that exists in any economic system. And inequality is not of great concern to most people; they are concerned about the quality of their own lives and the prospects for the future of their children, rather than the income or wealth of people across town (that concern is called envy, which, if I recall correctly, is also a sin).
I continue to think that Francis’ view of the world is to the right of the Liberation Theology movement. But the papacy is very much a “bully pulpit”. If the Pope continues to make leftist noises, he will give encouragement to the leftist wave that has (predictably) risen as a result of the economic crises of the last five years. These certainly are cause for reform of the capitalist economy, especially its financial industry, but not for a return to the poverty-enhancing policies of socialist utopianism. As far as I know, the agency called “Iustitia et Pax” (“Justice and Peace”) has been a niche of leftist ideas in the complex bureaucracy of the Vatican. It would be very unfortunate if Francis, wittingly or not, caused this niche to expand.