Pope Francis grabbed headlines recently when he announced that Rome had lifted the block on sainthood for Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador, who was shot dead while saying Mass in 1980. But much less attention was given to another of the pope’s actions, one that underscores a significant shift inside the Vatican under the first Latin American pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
Archbishop Romero was assassinated after speaking out in favor of the poor during an era when right-wing death squads stalked El Salvador under an American-backed, military-led government in the 1970s and ’80s. For three decades Rome blocked his path to sainthood for fear that it would give succor to the proponents of liberation theology, the revolutionary movement that insists that the Catholic Church should work to bring economic and social — as well as spiritual — liberation to the poor.
Under Pope Francis that obstacle has been removed. The pope now says it is important that Archbishop Romero’s beatification — the precursor to becoming a saint — “be done quickly.” Conservative Catholics have tried to minimize the political significance of the pope’s stance by asserting that the archbishop, though a champion of the poor, never fully embraced liberation theology.
But another move by Pope Francis undermines such revisionism. This month he also lifted a ban from saying Mass imposed nearly 30 years ago upon Rev. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, who had been suspended as a priest for serving as foreign minister in Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government in the same era. There is no ambiguity about the position on liberation theology of Father d’Escoto, who once called President Ronald Reagan a “butcher” and an “international outlaw.” Later, as president of the United Nations General Assembly, Father d’Escoto condemned American “acts of aggression” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there is more to the pope’s action than kindness to an 81-year-old man. In a remarkable turnaround, liberation theology is being brought in from the cold. During the Cold War, the idea that the Catholic Church should give “a preferential option for the poor” was seen by many in Rome as thinly disguised Marxism. Pope John Paul II, who had been brought up under Soviet bloc totalitarianism, was determined to crack down on it. On a visit to Nicaragua, he famously wagged a finger at Father d’Escoto’s fellow priest and cabinet minister, Ernesto Cardinal. The Vatican also silenced key exponents of liberation theology, and its founding father, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, was placed under investigation by the Vatican’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or C.D.F.
Washington shared the Polish pope’s fears that the new theology could open another door to Communist infiltration of Latin America. The C.I.A. created a special unit that informed on hundreds of radical priests and nuns, many of whom became victims of the region’s military dictatorships.
Pope Benedict XVI took a more sophisticated approach than his predecessor. As head of the C.D.F., before becoming pope, he had issued official critiques of liberation theology in 1984 and 1986. These endorsed its advocacy for the poor but denounced “serious ideological deviations” by radicals who embraced Marxist economic determinism and class struggle. But most liberation theologians were not saying the poor should take up guns. They were saying the Catholic Church should help the poor liberate themselves from unjust economic systems through labor unions, cooperatives and self-help groups.
After the Cold War ended, Pope Benedict encouraged bishops in Latin America to find new ways of expressing the church’s “bias to the poor.” He attended their seminal meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, at which they refined the message of liberation theology. The priest the bishops elected to draft the document was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, who six years later was elected Pope Francis, and announced that he wanted “a poor church, for the poor.”
The pope has gone through his own revolution on liberation theology. He was named leader of the Jesuits in Argentina in 1973, in part to crack down on the movement. But 15 years later, after undergoing what he has called a “great interior crisis,” he became “Bishop of the Slums” in Buenos Aires and revised his views. Over the following decades he rehabilitated key figures in liberation theology in Argentina and supported the kind of bottom-up initiatives that the Vatican, with its top-down authoritarian model of governance, had so feared.
When Argentina underwent the biggest debt default in banking history in 2001 — which plunged half the population below the poverty line — Father Bergoglio began to condemn what he called “corrupt” economic structures. He attacked “unbridled capitalism” for fragmenting economic and social life and said the “unjust distribution of goods” creates “a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven.”
This is the language of liberation theology subsumed into Catholic social teaching. Previous popes had made similar critiques of capitalism, but the language of Pope Francis has been more vehement and indignant.
Last year the pope invited Father Gutiérrez, whose 1971 book “A Theology of Liberation” had been for years under investigation by the C.D.F., to meet him in the Vatican. L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, marked the event by proclaiming that liberation theology can no longer “remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years, at least in Europe.” Moreover, Father Gutiérrez has recently co-authored a new book with Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the current head of the C.D.F., who was appointed to the post by Benedict XVI. Archbishop Müller now describes liberation theology as one of the “most significant currents of Catholic theology of the 20th century.”
The perspectives of the West, which have for so long dominated the thinking of the Vatican, are being augmented by those of Latin America. A new historical moment has arrived. Pope Francis is taking a risk. Conservatives, who are already muttering about other changes in this new Franciscan era, are not happy. But at a time when the economic gap between the rich and the poor is widening, the pope’s rehabilitation of liberation theology is timely and most welcome.
Paul Vallely is a director of The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly, and the author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.