As Pope Francis visits the United States, liberation theology is again in the public debate — and for good reason. Commentators have noted — some with elation, others with alarm — that the pope’s essential message bears striking resemblances to this interpretation of Christian faith that emerged in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s.
Its reappearance may be challenging for many in the United States, for liberation theology was often linked to the various revolutionary movements then fighting against U.S.-supported governments throughout Central America. At the same time, the Catholic hierarchy under Pope John Paul II, a strong anticommunist, issued stern notifications to church members who cited liberation theology as a justification for social reform because of its perceived ties to Marxism and violent revolution.
Indeed, liberation theology emerged at a time when nearly all Latin America was dominated by right-wing oligarchies and repressive military dictatorships. Moreover, many Latin American bishops and other church leaders in that era had close ties with the oligarchies, ties that proponents of liberation theology were quick to expose and challenge.
As a social movement inspired by Christian faith, however, liberation theology does not seek to foment violence. Rather, it aims to uproot the most pernicious forms of violence, which includes institutionalized poverty, corruption and repression, and to recover the original meaning of “church” as “followers of Jesus dedicated to the reign of God.”
The phrase “liberation theology” has a double meaning. It is used to describe a broad social movement based on grass-roots church organizations that seek to better the life of the poor. It also refers to a different way of thinking about Christian faith — “theology” — that gives special emphasis to the experience of the poor. The difference this makes is dramatic.
Like other, more traditional theologies, liberation theology reflects on the Christian promise of salvation. But it removes any misunderstanding that salvation occurs behind our backs or only after we die. The call of Jesus to deliver all people from slavery and suffering begins now — in this life. “Liberation” is another word for that deliverance.
All Christian theologies promote almsgiving and charity to poor people and those in need. But liberation theology goes further. It asks: Why are these people poor in the first place? It seeks to understand poverty and to change the social and political systems that cause it. It also seeks to learn from poor people. It wants those in need to have a voice in their own deliverance. It is a theology of empowerment.
One sees clear resonances of this view in the preaching of Martin Luther King Jr. and the prophetic genius of Mahatma Gandhi. You can find echoes of it as well in movements like Black Lives Matter and in efforts to combat human trafficking. Liberation theology embraces the concerns of all who suffer violence and, as Pope Francis insists, this includes the Earth herself.
As an interpretation of Christian faith that takes seriously the suffering of all God’s creation, liberation theology counters attempts to use the Gospel to justify anything from racism to homophobia, from unbridled capitalism to wanton exploitation of the Earth. It also criticizes abstract religious piety that ignores the desperate pleas of refugees, rationalizes the wounds inflicted by global poverty or turns a blind eye to those rejected as “losers.”
The scandal of oppressive poverty and widespread misery is not the product of “nature,” according to liberation theology, much less God’s will. It is the product of human choices and human sinfulness, especially as these appear in the social, cultural, political and economic structures that shape the way we live in the world. Precisely for this reason — and in concert with both Pope John Paul II as well as Pope Francis — liberation theology makes a preferential option for the poor. It takes to heart the words of Jesus: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours … but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
Creating a real option for the poor changes where we stand, who we meet and how we act. It transforms both the interpretation and practice of Christian faith.
Here, then, is the real connection between Pope Francis and liberation theology. Francis did not take courses in liberation theology, but he learned to read the harsh reality of Argentina under the junta and, ultimately, of the world. He is not an academic theologian, but a pastor whose heart is moved with pity for his people, who are “like sheep without a shepherd.” He is not an ideologue, but his love for the poor unnerves those who are. This is one reason why the pope has proved a puzzle for so many who seek to classify him.
From the beginning of his tenure, many sensed “something different” about Pope Francis. He appeared before the pilgrims at St. Peter’s in Rome to humbly request their prayers before bestowing the traditional papal blessing. He ritually washed the feet of juvenile prison inmates, young men and women, Christian and Muslim. He unself-consciously embraced a profoundly disabled child and kissed a man suffering from severe facial disfigurement. He traveled to the tragedy-riven island of Lampedusa, celebrated mass on an altar crafted from the hull of a refugee boat and called for a “poor church for the poor” that resists “the globalization of indifference.”
Francis’ symbolic gestures and pronouncements have pointed to a shift in the Catholic imagination regarding sacrament and authority, mission and church, faith and holiness. Even what it means to live a Christian life. Above all, Francis has labored mightily to lift the poor and the wretched into visibility.
If we have learned one thing about Pope Francis in his first 30 months as the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, it is this: He enacts symbolic gestures with the grace of a poet and the power of a dramatic genius.
So it is with liberation theology. Where his predecessors feared and warned of the dangers of this movement, Francis gladly met with the man known as its founder, Father Gustavo Gutiérrez. Francis’s recent predecessors had subtly blocked efforts to canonize as a saint Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop associated with liberation theology who was martyred while celebrating mass in 1980. Pope Francis quickly removed the barriers to the canonization process. Romero was beautified at a mass in San Salvador on May 23, attended by more than 250,000 people.
These actions have stirred up right-wing pundits, both in the political and the ecclesial spheres, who mock liberation theology as “Marxism with salsa.” They dismiss it as discredited and dead in one moment, and in the next feverishly whisper, “Frances just might be a liberation theologian. Look, he went to Cuba before the United States.”
Though it is a mistake to uncritically equate Francis’s vision of the Catholic Church with liberation theology, he and liberation theologians like Gutiérrez clearly share one key point: At the center of their lives is an indestructible love for Christ poor. And that love changes everything.
Kevin F. Burke, S.J., a Jesuit priest and theologian, is professor of systematic theology and director of doctoral studies at Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California. He is author/editor of seven books, four of which deal directly with liberation theology, including The Ground beneath the Cross and A Grammar of Justice.