In 1962, the Second Vatican Council met to discuss the direction of the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII insisted that Christians shift back towards elements of liberation theology, pursuing the “preferential option for the poor.” Christianity, in its founding, was a pacifist religion that represented the poor and the suffering, which is why it was persecuted. In the second century, Constantine made an important decision- he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Centuries of religious exploitation turned what was once a religion of the poor and the persecuted into a religion for the rich and the powerful.
Pope John XXIII decided that it was time to return to the original religious doctrine, the message of the gospels, speaking out against inequality and elitism that was plaguing the world in the 1960s. In the United States, multinational corporations had begun to dominate politics, and initiatives to secure human rights- primarily in Central America- were labeled as pro-communist and therefore a threat to US security.
Advocating for the “preferential option for the poor” meant advocating for many of the socialist policies that were gaining traction in Nicaragua and El Salvador. To the directive of US foreign policy, this was unacceptable. Social advancements in many Central American countries also meant nationalization of commodities that were, until then, privatized by US companies. These socialist programs, aimed at reducing inequality, meant decreased US foreign involvement, and therefore decreased profits for multinational corporations.
Something else in the US happened in 1962. President Kennedy changed the official policy directive in Latin America from “hemispheric defense” to “internal security.” The culminating result of religious war and American intervention was neo-Nazi-style governments in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. By the 1980s, this reached Central America. On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero, a leading liberal theologian, was murdered by a US-backed death squad while delivering mass in El Salvador. Oscar Romero challenged state-sanction oppression, supported the nationalization of banks, and was critical of los imperialistos (meaning the United States). This set off a vicious decade of violence, leaving more than 200,000 dead in the region, that ended with the murder of six leading intellectual Jesuit priests in El Salvador one week after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. By 1989, liberation theology had been delivered its final blow.
For two decades, liberation theology had been successfully silenced. Income inequality was growing, poverty exacerbating, and global repression mounting. In 2007, leading Latin American bishops met, and one man stood out: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He said that, despite economic growth, poverty was plaguing the continent, and a better income distribution was needed. Two years later, at a conference organized by the Argentina City Postgraduate School, Bergoglio said that “extreme poverty and unjust economic structures that cause great inequalities” are gross violations of human rights. He said that liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor was a long-lasting tradition in Christianity rooted in the gospels.
Four years after that conference, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the 266th Pope. Choosing the name Francis, Pope Francis immediately began using the papacy as a platform to speak out against injustice and inequality. This became no more apparent than during the 2016 presidential election in the United States, where Bernie Sanders, after invigorating a progressive populism largely based on ending income and wealth inequality, placed economic injustice in the spotlight.
Having a shared vision of an economy that is, in the words of Pope Francis, “not...a mechanism for accumulating goods, but rather the proper administration of our common home,” elements of liberation theology began to appear in the mainstream of American political discourse. The problem, Pope Francis argues, is “a system which, in addition to irresponsibly accelerating the pace of production...continues to deny many millions of our brothers and sisters their most elementary economic, social, and cultural rights.” His proposal to forge solutions to this broken system? “Along this path, popular movements play an essential role, not only by making demands and lodging protests, but even more basically by being creative.”
On July 9, 2015, Pope Francis explained in Bolivia how the world can come together in the quest for peace and justice:
“It must be acknowledged that none of the grave problems of humanity can be resolved without interaction between states and peoples at the international level. Every significant action carried out in one part of the planet has universal, ecological, social and cultural repercussions. Even crime and violence have become globalized. Consequently, no government can act independently of a common responsibility. If we truly desire positive change, we have to humbly accept our interdependence, that is to say, our healthy interdependence. Interaction, however, is not the same as imposition; it is not the subordination of some to serve the interests of others. Colonialism, both old and new, which reduces poor countries to mere providers of raw material and cheap labor, engenders violence, poverty, forced migrations and all the evils which go hand in hand with these, precisely because, by placing the periphery at the service of the center, it denies those countries the right to an integral development. That is inequality, brothers and sisters, and inequality generates a violence which no police, military, or intelligence resources can control.”
The message that Pope Francis is sending to Christians is that injustice needs to be confronted, and the way to do it is through making demands, protesting, and engaging in dialogue. A surface analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the LGBT rights movement, and many others, reveals that all oppressed groups who confront injustice do so in the precise prescription of the leading figure in the Catholic Church. Yet, time and time again, these forms of confronting injustice are routinely condemned and brushed aside by the conservative right.
What about social justice? The fight for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and religious freedom can at times conflict directly with the teachings of the Bible. Yet in this, too, Pope Francis and liberation theology can find a space for Christianity. Pope Francis describes nonbelievers who pursue justice as “our valued allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in safeguarding and caring for creation.” To recognize that the fight for equality and justice transcends religious beliefs is to follow the word of the Pope, equating these struggles for equality as struggles for human dignity. The central tenets of pre-Constantine Christianity suggest that disagreeing with someone’s preferences or decisions is not equivalent to disagreeing with someone’s humanity and deservingness of equal treatment.
There is a striking parallel between the rhetoric of social conservatism today and the rhetoric against liberation theology forty years ago. Social movements, like the ones augmented by (but by no means attributable to) the Bernie Sanders campaign, are frequently labeled Marxist, socialist, or communist. This “red scare” tactic has been used for decades, and, as eloquently explained by Noam Chomsky, has no merit in traditional Marxism and socialism.
Setting the Marxism and socialism myth aside, an analysis of the intersections of capitalism and religion reveals the status of elitism and hypocrisy in the Church. While there are countless churches and religious affiliates that prepare mission trips, volunteer, and help the poor, there is also a strong force of insidious capitalism and powerful elitism. As Chris Lehman describes in “The Money Cult,” religion has deep roots in capitalism, and this is prominently portrayed today in megachurches, like the one run by Joel Osteen. These megachurches, funded by parishioner donations, take in money that liberation theology would argue needs to go to the poor and the suffering. An anecdotal example of this elitism is found in Kentucky, where more than $100 million was spent building a replica of Noah’s ark. A follower of liberation theology would ask, “How will this replica help shelter the poor? Feed the hungry? Cure the sick?” A lot of the money being used by the Church has been used to favor the rich and the elite — a Constantine-esque version of Christianity.
Fighting for universal healthcare, ending discrimination, and recognizing the totality of human rights follows from the teachings of the gospels and the foundation of Christianity. For Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders, and the grassroots populist movement that seeks to address social and economic inequality, there is an urgent need for a Christian presence in the fight for social and economic justice.