Acceptance is assured for the controversial Liberation Theology born from reflection on the gospel in light of the poverty and oppression of many communities in Latin America in the 1960s after one of its key architects spoke in the Vatican in February.
Pope Francis received Gustavo Gutierrez last September but the welcome was formalised when the 85-year-old Dominican priest from Peru spoke at the launch of his friend Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s book, Poor for the Poor: The Mission of the Church.
The book, for which Fr Gutierrez wrote two chapters and Pope Francis wrote a foreword, seeks to explain and sometimes defend Liberation Theology which the fervently anti-Communist Polish Pope St John Paul II criticised as Marxist.
In 1968 Fr Gutierrez’s analysis of what was happening in the region in the 1950s and ’60s informed the Latin American Bishops Conference at Medellín in Colombia and in 1971 he published a book, A Theology of Liberation. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigated his writings over many years.
Speaking at the launch, Fr Gutierrez reflected on the parable of the Good Samaritan saying the church needed to move ‘outside of itself’ to make neighbours and serve the poor.
‘A Samaritan church is an open church, … attentive to human needs.’
In an address to the Fabian Society in Wellington in March, Mgr Gerard Burns has shown that there are links to Liberation Theology in Evangelii Gaudium, the pope’s apostolic exhortation, the Joy of the Gospel.
The bishops at Medellín reflected on the poverty and oppression of their people living under often corrupt governments of Latin American countries and the concept of Liberation Theology began to flourish.
But the principles behind Liberation Theology can be found in such scriptures as the burning bush where God says to Moses, ‘The cry of the Israelites has now come to me, I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt’ (Ex 3:9-10).
The prophets in scripture challenged both the kings and the priests saying that in the promised land, we must stay faithful to the call of God and one of the key ways to do that is to look after the people. ‘This is the fast that pleases me, to break unjust fetters … to let the oppressed go free … is it not sharing your food with the hungry and sheltering the homeless poor?’ [Isaiah 58:6ff].
In Luke Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads from Isaiah ‘He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ [Lk 4:16ff].
The various meanings of the poor in the scriptures were interpreted by those who saw manifestations of poverty in such countries as Brazil. Because of the material needs of people, these were the first to be addressed.
Historically the seeds of Liberation Theology can be found in the early 16th century, when the Dominicans in Santo Domingo who preached against slavery refused absolution to any colonisers who still kept slaves.
In the 1920s Young Christian Worker followers of Cardinal Cardijn formulated his see-judge-act method of reflecting on poverty and injustice in light of the gospel call to work for justice. They learned how to look at the reality of life around them through the eyes of God and discern the action for justice that might follow.
In the 1940s some French priests decided that they should go to where the workers were – since they did not come to church – and they started taking jobs in factories.
Some of those worker priests then went to Latin America, particularly Brazil where the movement fomented because of the size of the country.
In the late 1950s, Brazilian teacher Paolo Freire’s revolutionary Pedagogy of the Oppressed became an important text for teachers.
‘In Brazil, to vote for the president,’ Mgr Burns said, ‘you had to be able to read and write. But Freire complained that the teaching materials were hopeless for people working in the countryside because they were all about the rich. He called it a tranquilising education that helps keep them asleep. So he devised a liberating education using a method known as conscientisation.’
Pope Francis echoes this move in Evangelii Gaudium where he discusses a perceived solution to inequality which leads to violence which a ‘recourse to arms’ can never resolve. ‘Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalisations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilise them, making them tame and harmless.’ [EG #60].
The second Vatican Council, 1962-65, led people to think differently about how the church should operate.
In 1967 Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Populorum Progressio [on the progress of peoples] which discussed the relationship between poorer countries and rich countries. The following year, the Medellín conference agreed that most of the work the church did was for the benefit of those in the cities but did not reach the poor who had come from the rural areas to lodge on the cities’ outskirts. So they decided on a ‘preferential option for the poor’. The bishops formed base Christian communities in which they would teach the poor how to read using the Bible with the aim of liberating them from the institutionalised violence of poverty. This move was influenced by Freire, Fr Camilo Terres and Bartolome de Las Casas and enabled the poor to object to the oppression to which they had been subjected in previous centuries (Wikipedia).
As it developed through the 1960s, theology of liberation drew much opposition, particularly from conservative elements in the church who labelled it ‘Marxist’ and from the wealthy who benefited from the status quo. It was a threatening option for anyone in power and in poorer areas this included some of the bishops.
Pope Francis talks about the option for the poor as a theological category. One of the greatest abandonments is that the poor don’t have anyone to accompany them on a spiritual basis as well. Because God is present among those people, they have much to teach us. We need to let ourselves be evangelised by them.
In today’s economy, Pope Francis says, many people find themselves excluded and marginalised. ‘Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality … those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers” [EG #53].
And he also has strong words for those who espouse the trickle-down theories ‘which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system.’ [EG #54].
To work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty means looking at ‘the big issues, the big questions, as well as small daily acts of solidarity, Mgr Burns says.
‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor,’ Pope Francis says, quoting St John Crysostom, ‘is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs. When you give something to the poor, don’t think you are giving them a gift. You are giving them what belongs to them’ [EG #57].