Focus on Poor Revives a Scorned Theology ; Pope Often Uses Words That Echo Latin American Liberation Movement

By Jim Yardley; Simon Romero | International New York Times, May 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

Focus on Poor Revives a Scorned Theology ; Pope Often Uses Words That Echo Latin American Liberation Movement


Jim Yardley; Simon Romero, International New York Times


Pope Francis often uses language that echoes liberation theology, a Latin American movement embracing the poor that conservatives disparage.

Six months after becoming the first Latin American pontiff, Pope Francis invited an octogenarian priest from Peru for a private chat at his Vatican residence. Not listed on the pope's schedule, the September 2013 meeting with the priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, soon became public -- and was just as quickly interpreted as a defining shift in the Roman Catholic Church.

Father Gutierrez is a founder of liberation theology, the Latin American movement embracing the poor and calling for social change, which conservatives once scorned as overtly Marxist and the Vatican treated with hostility. Now, Father Gutierrez is a respected Vatican visitor, and his writings have been praised in the official Vatican newspaper. Francis has brought other Latin American priests back into favor and often uses language about the poor that has echoes of liberation theology.

And then came Saturday, when throngs packed San Salvador for the beatification ceremony of the slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, leaving him one step from sainthood.

The first pope from the developing world, Francis has placed the poor at the center of his papacy. In doing so, he is directly engaging with a theological movement that once sharply divided Catholics and was distrusted by his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Even Francis, as a young Jesuit leader in Argentina, had qualms.

Now, Francis speaks of creating "a poor church for the poor" and is seeking to position Catholicism closer to the masses -- a spiritual mission that comes as he is also trying to revive the church in Latin America, where it has steadily lost ground to evangelical congregations.

For years, Vatican critics of liberation theology and conservative Latin American bishops helped stall the canonization process for Archbishop Romero, even though many Catholics in the region regard him as a towering moral figure: an outspoken critic of social injustice and political repression who was assassinated during Mass in 1980. Francis broke the stalemate.

"It is very important," Father Gutierrez said. "Somebody who is assassinated for this commitment to his people will illuminate many things in Latin America."

The beatification is the prelude to what is likely to be a defining period of Francis' papacy, with trips to South America, Cuba and the United States; the release of a much-awaited encyclical on environmental degradation and the poor; and a meeting in Rome to determine whether and how the church will change its approach to issues like homosexuality, contraception and divorce.

By advancing the campaign for Archbishop Romero's sainthood, Francis is sending a signal that the allegiance of his church is to the poor, who once saw some bishops as more aligned with discredited governments, many analysts say. Indeed, Archbishop Romero was regarded as a popular saint in El Salvador even as the Vatican blocked his canonization process.

"It is not liberation theology that is being rehabilitated," said Michael E. Lee, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University who has written extensively about liberation theology. "It is the church that is being rehabilitated."

Liberation theory includes a critique of the structural causes of poverty and a call for the church and the poor to organize for social change. Mr. Lee said it was a broad school of thought: Movements differed in different countries, with some more political in nature and others less so. The broader movement emerged after a major meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968 and was rooted in the belief that the plight of the poor should be central to interpreting the Bible and to the Christian mission. …

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