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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Headshot

Is Pope Francis a Liberation Theologian?

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Since Pope Francis issued his "apostolic exhortation," Evangelii Gaudium, he is being roundly accused, by some American conservatives, of being a "liberation theologian" and a Marxist.

BrietbartNews characterized the document as "attacking capitalism and embracing Latin American 'liberation theology.'"

Rush Limbaugh sputtered, "This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope." Limbaugh seemed particularly exercised by the Pope's criticism of the "culture of prosperity," which the Pontiff called a "mere spectacle" for the many people who can't afford to participate.

Despite these conservative fulminations, however, with the publication of this document there is a real question whether Pope Francis is a Liberation Theologian, or not.

In my textbook on teaching Liberation Theology, Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, I list five characteristics of these theologies. They are: contextual, concrete, communal, prophetic and constructive.

Pope Francis specifically brings up our contemporary context, and describes it as one of "dehumanization." The Pope says the response to such a context is a resounding "no" to the economic conditions that create dehumanizing conditions. "[T]oday we have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills." Because of such an economy, "masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized."

The Pope is exceptionally concrete in rejecting free market economics and dismissing its defenders. "In this context, some people continue to defend 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." The Pope sharply critiques such theories "which have never been confirmed by facts," and which express "a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

In other words, say goodbye to "God is the invisible hand of the market."
"No to the idolatry of money," the Pope continues and brings up the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-35).

These are all strong themes in liberation theology and the Pope's exhortation shares them.

When it comes to a systemic critique, however, the Pope stays within the prevailing political and religious institutions.

True, there are compelling statements about how the Catholic Church must suffer for its advocacy for the poor such as "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security." And it is true that the Pope denies his critique is simple populism, calling for action "beyond a simple welfare mentality."

But at the end of the day, Pope Francis stays within these systems, praying "I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor."

But what is communal and prophetic about Liberation Theology is the recognition that change will not come from within the prevailing structures of religion or economies or politics. Change will come from the people who are grievously hurting from these systems coming together to create change from the bottom up. Oppressive economic systems create structured conflict, what the wealthy and their apologists sometimes call "class warfare." As I have written, "It's not class warfare, it's Christianity". As the Gospels show, the struggle of the poor was central to Jesus' life and ministry, and then to the early churches.

In Liberation Theology, in addition, struggle today must include the secular as well as the religious. Pope Francis, however, provides a strong critique of secularism, not an affirmation of secularism as a possible partner in the economic transformation of global capitalism into an system that does not prey on the poor, systematically impoverish the working and middle classes, and destroy the environment.

This is why the subtitle of Lift Every Voice is "from the underside." This communal critique "from the underside" should change church theology and thus be constructive. The Pope does not reconstruct prevailing Catholic teaching.

So, no. On balance, Evangelii Gaudium is not Liberation Theology.

I wonder, however, if the rejection of Pope Francis's message continues to be so strident, whether the Pope himself will seek communal partners outside the institutions that are the mainstays of predatory capitalism.

We shall see.