Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis, Liberation Theology, and Confidently Saying The Wrong Thing

Yeeps.  Just...yeeps.

God bless the author of this piece.  She's certainly got confidence.  There're just a few things I'd like to comment on.
Jesuits: The Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, are an order of (male) priests condoned by the Vatican that tend to take a missionary and scholarly approach to Catholicism.
"Condoned?"  As in, "barely acceptable yet tolerated?"  Howza about something like "The Jesuits are one of many religious orders within Catholicism"?
Founded by St. Ignatius in 1534, they're now best known as the administrators of several universities (Georgetown is probably the most famous one in the United States).
Okay, so they may be best known as the administrators of several universities, but they are certainly far more than that.  To start with, they have a much bigger educational footprint in the US alone than that rather lukewarm description indicates.
The Jesuits take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to both St. Ignatius and the pope.
And here's where my mouth dropped.  Cause, you know, they really, really don't swear obedience to St. Ignatius.  Their lawful superiors?  Oh, yeah.  The pope?  Look up "fourth vow of the Jesuits."  But while Ignatius has a huge role as founder in the constitution (and constitutions) of their order, he's not someone to whom they swear obedience (however good an idea that may be).
The Daily Beast has a pretty good explainer up on the Jesuits, which you can peruse for more details.
Actually, how about you go to a Catholic source for information on a Catholic religious order?  Or even more radically, how about going to that order itself?
But there's one important moment to flag in the context of Pope Francis's election.
The order ruffled the feathers of Pope John Paul II for their involvement in liberation theology in Latin America (we're getting to that). Partially because of their involvement in the liberally-associated movement, Jesuits have a reputation for being more progressive than the Catholic church's other clergy.
Want to know what John Paul II (and, for that matter, Pope Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) actually thought about liberation theology?  See here and here.  Want to know why Pope John Paul II, a Polish pope at a time when state communism was attempting to subjugate the Polish Catholic Church and render silent its opposition to the totalitarian oppression of Soviet Communism, might have had huge problems with liberation theology?  See here and here.
Liberation Theology: First off, the "liberation theology" we're talking about when we refer to South American Catholicism is distinct from the American "black liberation theology." They trace their roots back to two different commonly-cited foundational texts: James H. Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation, and Gustavo Gutiérrez's A Theology of Liberation, both written in the early '70s. The two theologies definitely share some significant similarities, namely a reading of scripture that puts the emphasis of the Christian concern with sin on social problems, rather than individual ones. In other words, Christians adhering to a liberation theology should orient themselves toward action against oppression. More symbolically, liberation theology argues that God identifies with the oppressed, and that Christianity should take upon itself the lens of the poor. Both theologies are also often derided as "Marxist" by conservatives (remember Rev. Wright?)
Heh.  Here's the thing: liberation theology actually is Marxist.  Don't believe me?  Check out the citations in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one of the most popular and widely used books applying the concepts of the theology of liberation to education.  Look at the citations in Gutiérrez's book.  And the key problem with liberation theology isn't the concern for the poor.  It's the notion that worldly poverty matters more than spiritual poverty, that political power matters more than deification, that the secular is more important than the sacred.

The Church is, has been, and always will be an institution directed by her founder to an ongoing and perennial concern for the poor.  We are commanded explicitly to tend to the needs of the least of these or else go to hell.  But we are also told to seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else shall be added unto it.  That is, put Christ first, put holiness first, and all else will fall into place around the true, transcendent center.

Liberation theology, on the other hand, would say to hell with the Church if it didn't first physically fight oppression (which seems to inherently involve seeking the destruction of all hierarchy, which would, of course, inevitably pit the liberation theologians against the very God they claim they're trying to serve.)
On the surface, this theology would seem to fit with Pope Francis. Here's the New Yorker, summing up his approach to poverty as a Catholic:
"He has made some sharp remarks about the vanity, self-infatuation, careerism, and pursuit of promotions in the Roman Curia. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he apparently preferred to be called Father Jorge, and was known for his preoccupation with the city’s poorest, reportedly washing and kissing the feet of patients suffering from AIDS."
But Francis has opposed liberation theology in Argentina. According to the National Catholic Reporter, this seems to have to do more with keeping Jesuits from becoming politically active or working directly in community groups—which would be a departure from the more traditional role of the order—than it does with rejecting an interpretation of Catholicism that places an emphasis on the poor.
I don't think there's any interpretation of Catholicism accepted within the Church that doesn't place a healthy emphasis on the poor.  No pope has ever rejected care for the poor.  Ever.
So while the emphasis on poverty could very well become a part of Francis's reign (and looks bound to), we know very little of what, if any, reforms he'd want to implement to make the church more effective at alleviating suffering from poverty. Despite his "firsts," there's little evidence so far that the new Pope has radical change in mind for the church.
Radical change?  Yes he does--holiness, with all the impossible transformations that will bring.

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