Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pope Francis and Liberation Theology: An Interview with Pablo Richard

by José Eduardo Mora (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Biblioteca Amerindia
September 27, 2013

NOTE: This interview was originally published in "Semanario Universidad", Costa Rica, Sept. 25 - Oct. 1, 2013.

After the long years of silence to which it was subjected by the powers of Rome, liberation theology has become a topic again within the Church. What are the first interpretations that can be drawn from this situation?

It's the ability to regain the memory of the past and the possibility of opening a public forum to assess the past 40 years of liberation theology. Pope Francis is opening this space for critical reflection, which also allows us to regain the memory of our martyrs who gave their lives for the Gospel.

To start with, it's important to reconstruct something of the historical memory of the 80's, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document "Libertatis Nuntius" (1984), from which we will quote only two short texts: "Impatience and a desire for results has led certain Christians, despairing of every other method, to turn to what they call 'Marxist analysis.'" (VII, 1). "The 'theologies of liberation', which deserve credit for restoring to a place of honor the great texts of the prophets and of the Gospel in defense of the poor, go on to a disastrous confusion between the 'poor' of the Scripture and the 'proletariat' of Marx." (IX, 10)

These complaints about Marxist influence in liberation theology largely legitimized the persecution of thousands of Christians, laity and priests, many killed for their witness to the Gospel and not for ideological reasons.

An event that would transform the historical memory of those 40 years would be if Pope Francis were to canonize Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the archbishop, prophet, and martyr of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was murdered for proclaiming the Gospel on March 24, 1980.

Are we witnessing a momentous opportunity for liberation theology, in the sense that there may be a resurgence, after this option was "demonized" and fought hard against by the Vatican?

I believe that Pope Francis is giving a great opportunity for liberation theology to come into the limelight to provoke an open discussion about it. Pope Francis' meeting with Father Gustavo Gutierrez, chief inspirer of liberation theology over these 40 years, as well as the meeting with archbishop and theologian Gerhard Müller, now secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are signs of an irreversible change that will allow a resurgence of liberation theology in Latin America.

From John Paul II to Jorge Bergoglio, what are the main changes that have taken place within liberation theology over such a long period?

Liberation theology isn't a doctrine or a dogma, but a new way to do theology. The first thing is a practice of liberation -- theological reflection follows as "act two". The evolution of liberation theology isn't a purely theoretical evolution. What's changing is the practice of liberation, and in every period, a new subject emerges, a new critical awareness, a project, a utopia, a new hope for liberation that guides us where we are to walk. Liberation theology doesn't just hear the "cry of the poor," but also the "cry of the Earth." Liberation theology was a source that is ever new of "spirituality" and a new way of reading and interpreting the Bible. What's new with Pope Francis is that liberation theology will be present again in the "public and secular forum of modernity", and in "open dialogue" with all the economic, social, political and ecological sciences, and will participate in the defense of human rights in the area of forced migration, human trafficking, drugs, even in confronting "international organized violence". With Pope Francis, a new field of action has opened up, one that is more secular and autonomous from the ecclesiastical structures of power that are now becoming unsustainable. The "Gospel" is definitely going down new paths now.

We hope Pope Francis will help us break boundaries. Pope John XXIII, the pope we all want to be canonized as a saint, also taught us that.

ECLAC confirmed that poverty affected 167 million people in Latin America in 2012. One of the cores of liberation theology was that the governing structures of society should change. In that sense, could one argue that liberation theology is as necessary as at its inception?

As long as there's poverty and we are determined to fight against it, there will be liberation theology. "When the poor suffer, prophets are a necessity."

What would be the implications for liberation theology that the Vatican, at least, isn't openly fighting it as it did in the past?

The main problem isn't whether liberation theology is accepted or not by the Vatican. Liberation theology is legitimized in itself because of its liberating gospel strength. If liberation theology enters freely in the public forum of the Church, liberation theology could join all the new liberation currents, which are many. There is a "theology void" in the Church, above all as a result of past persecution.

As a vastly experienced theologian, do you think, from the signs the Pope has shown during his first six months, that Bergoglio has really made his commitment to the poor of the earth his main option?

I'm convinced he has, but a personal option of his is not enough, but rather an option as Bishop of Rome and as the highest authority in the Catholic Church, together with other denominations and faiths. It's not just the Pope's option for the poor, but his ability to reform the whole Church from the preferential option for the poor.

Francis said in the interview with La Civilittá Cattólica that you can't talk about poverty without experiencing it. Does that statement bring him closer to what liberation theology advocated in its time?

Certainly. It's not enough to make an option for the poor, but one has to be with them, give time to them and listen to them.

Moreover, the option for the poor is more and more an option for the "social movements" of the poor, and this requires "always being there." Historically, liberation theology was born in the "shantytowns", among the "marginal populations", in the "slums" and in the poorest and also the most dangerous places in Latin America. We live there, we are there, and we will always be there.

There has been enthusiasm, including from figures such as Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez, for this new pope. As a theologian and scholar, do you think Francis will contribute to significant changes in the Church?

I think so. The pope has put forward powerful signs and radical speeches (which go to the root of the problems). But we know that "papers" fly away, what remains are the "personal testimonies" and "structural changes." Pope Francis has already given many "prophetic testimonies", which are the beginning of more global structural changes in the Church.

For example: the reform of the Vatican Curia and the Vatican State. Some think that this change is so global and transcendent, it's possible that "they'll murder" him. It's possible. But I think something worse could happen to him: that they'll "set a trap for him," that they'll make his life impossible, an invisible and destructive war. There's an "international Catholic right" with ecclesiastical support, capable of anything. They won't allow the "bishop of Rome" to question the global economic and political system. In this "international Catholic right," we could include such powerful institutions as "Opus Dei", the "Legionaries of Christ" (whose founder, Father Maciel, has been the most evil pedophile priest protected by the highest authorities of the Vatican), and also other obscurantist and aggressive movements such as the "Heralds of the Gospel" ( a "military"-type organization recognized in 2001 by Pope John Paul II and that is a new version of the "Tradition, Family and Property" movement, the TFP). I can't imagine anything new.

Could Latin America experience, in the new context that has arisen with the new pope, a resurgence of its grassroots, from the communities that had been historically marginalized?

I think that's a real and possible hope. However, we should stress that the grassroots movements, like the base ecclesial communities and the Pastoral Bible Reading Movements, and many others live with the strength that is their own. The strength of being disciples of Jesus. They have been persecuted, they have decreased, and other conservative Catholic movements have emerged. But the Church isn't a "religious marketplace" where the quality of its "products" is measured by "sales success."

What "sells well" isn't necessarily what's "worth the most." We can't evaluate grassroots movements using "neoliberal" criteria. If in a neighborhood, for example, there are two or three base ecclesial communities and 50 or more Catholic movements, it doesn't mean that the latter are worth more than a few humble base ecclesial communities, which are inserted today in the most "dangerous" places on the continent.

What might liberation theology's contribution be to that Light of Faith that Francis talks about in his first encyclical?

If we're referring to the encyclical Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith), that's possibly a work constructed by the theologian Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. It doesn't represent the most genuine thinking of Pope Francis. It's also an overly long, dense, dogmatic encyclical that very few Catholics will be able to read. We understand that Pope Francis has already announced his own encyclical, "Beati Pauperes".

"Blessed are the poor with Spirit, because the possibility of building the Kingdom of God is in their hands." (Mt. 5:3) .

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