The “preferential option for the poor,” the once-radical idea that God identifies with the oppressed and impoverished, has been mainstreamed as Catholic theological doctrine.
Published in Dissent, the New Internationalist, Truthout, and Progreso Weekly.
Will the next pope embrace liberation theology? The conventional answer would be: fat chance. However, without going too far out on a limb, one could also answer in the affirmative. In their own ways, both responses will likely be correct.
The chances that a true radical will be selected as Pope are next to nil. That’s because none are in the running. Technically, any baptized male Catholic can be elected to the post. But, in practice, the pope is selected from the church’s cardinals under the age of eighty. At this point, all the eligible cardinals were appointed to their positions either by Pope Benedict XVI or by Pope John Paul II. Both men vigilantly stacked the deck with cardinals whose views range, in the words of one religion professor, from conservative to ultraconservative.
Liberal theologian Hans Küng gives a harsh assessment of Benedict’s selection of Vatican personnel. “Under the German pope, a small, primarily Italian clique of yes-men, people with no sympathy for the calls to reform, were allowed to come into power,” Küng stated. “They are partly responsible for the stagnation that stifles every attempt at modernization of the church system.”
The most brilliant suggestion I’ve seen for a candidate who would decisively break with established traditions (and who would need to come from outside the current pool of cardinals) was penned by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. In a recent column entitled, “The best choice for pope? A nun,” Dionne argued that “An all-male hierarchy adopted policies to cover up the [sex abuse scandal plaguing the church] and seemed far too inclined to put protecting the church’s image ahead of protecting children.” He added, “Throughout history, it’s not uncommon for women to be brought in to put right what men have put wrong.”
Since that’s not going to happen, we can at least hope for a church leader who recognizes and validates the critical social justice work carried out largely by nuns, rather than spending his time reprimanding women religious.
One of the candidates considered to be among the frontrunners in the papal conclave would appear, at first look, to fit that bill: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Not only would Turkson, as an African, break the European stranglehold on the papacy, he would come to the office straight from serving as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In this capacity, Turkson oversaw the release of a 2011 document that gave a fairly stinging critique of the international financial system. It blasted speculative trading, reiterated previous church warnings against “idolatry of the market,” and argued, “No one can in conscience accept the development of some countries to the detriment of others.” This is what has led some commentators to suggest that liberation theology may make a comeback if Turkson becomes pope.
But as Naunihal Singh explains at the New Yorker, Turkson has a strong conservative side. He is notably homophobic, even by church standards, having defended anti-gay legislation in Africa and having linked the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandals to cultures that are permissive of homosexuality (rather than to an internal institutional culture that prizes secrecy, hierarchy, and obedience). Turkson also caused a scandal last year by showing a fear-mongering and discredited anti-Muslim video to a meeting of church officials. The British Independent has dubbed the cardinal “Conservatism’s Cape crusader.”
While they may seem incongruous, Turkson’s seeming contradictions speak to a wider point: in order to understand the Vatican’s response to liberation theology, one must appreciate how individuals such as Turkson can be considered conservatives within the church and nevertheless produce statements strongly critical of neoliberal capitalism.
It is widely noted that, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the office of the Inquisition. There he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler,” leading the effort to silence creative and non-conformist voices within Catholicism. During Ratzinger’s tenure as doctrinal enforcer, the church is said to have officially rejected liberation theology.
But this is only true in part. The Vatican did object to liberation theologians’ use of Marxist sociological analysis, and it rejected their challenges to the centralized authority of Rome. Yet, at the same time, it affirmed many of the central doctrines of liberation theology, especially those relating to poverty, inequality, and economic justice. Most notably, the “preferential option for the poor,” the once-radical idea that God takes sides and identifies with the oppressed and impoverished, has been mainstreamed as Catholic theological doctrine.
To this extent, if not necessarily in the overall orientation of his ministry, the next pope is almost certain to carry forward the liberationist tradition.
Under each of the last two popes, the church has released statements about the global economy that take cues from liberation theology’s teachings. John Paul II condemned “the resurgence of a certain capitalist neoliberalism which subordinates the human person to blind market forces.” And it is worth remembering that Pope Benedict gave Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders and leading lights of liberation theology, a place of honor at an Ash Wednesday mass in 2007. Religion & Politics editor Tiffany Stanley notes that Ratzinger’s current replacement as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, German Archbishop Gerhard Müller, “is said to be sympathetic to liberation theology and even co-authored a book with Gutiérrez.”
Likewise, it’s fascinating to read the reflections of prominent Brazilian liberationist Leonardo Boff, who was famously silenced for a year in 1985 and who ultimately left the priesthood in 1992. Boff is critical of Benedict. But he was also on friendly terms with Ratzinger, and he cites occasions upon which the former cardinal referred favorably to his books.
As for the upcoming conclave, probably the best candidate one can hope for from the perspective of liberation theology is another Brazilian, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the former archbishop of São Paulo. Hummes has shifted towards the center in recent decades and, like Turkson, has taken some controversial and reactionary stances (in his case, opposing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Brazil). That said, he has significant progressive bona fides.
Preaching in working-class areas in and around São Paulo in the 1970s, Hummes supported Worker’s Party dissidents organizing against the country’s military junta. As Anna Flora Anderson of the Dominican School of Theology in São Paulo explained to the BBC in 2005: “The military would quickly shut down any union meeting. So one of the great things Claudio did was to open up the smaller churches [to activists]—so the unions could meet without interference.”
Hummes is a personal friend of former Brazilian president and Worker’s Party leader Lula da Silva. He has defended the land occupations of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra. And he has long been regarded as an ally of the grassroots “base communities” that put liberation theology into practice throughout Brazil. As the Washington Post reports, on his first day on the job as archbishop of São Paulo, in 1998, Hummes “attacked the spread of global capitalism, saying the privatization of state companies and the lowering of tariffs had contributed to the ‘misery and poverty affecting millions around the world.’”
Much more than the many yes-men in the conclave, Hummes would open the door for the revival of social justice ministry in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, you should only put your money on the Brazilian to become the next pope if you like betting on long shots. As of this writing, the odd-makers have him at 50-1.
Photo credit: Ern / Wikimedia Commons.