The Pope and the Poor
by Joshua Connor
Thursday |  April 25 2013

In an article that appeared in The Guardian a few days after the March 13, 2013, election of Francis, the first Pope from South America, the British environmental activist, George Monbiot, railed against depictions of the new Pope as a defender of the poor. Monbiot testified to his personal experience of working with Catholic priests in Brazil in the 1980s. Inspired by liberation theology, the priests resisted the oligarchs’ efforts to drive the poor off their land. Eventually, however, the priests were forced to stand down by the oligarchs' hired guns and by their own Church hierarchy. According to Monbiot, Pope Francis, the then-Cardinal Bergoglio, supported the Church's reprimand of liberation theology, placing him on the wrong side of a “great fissure” between defenders of the poor and the Vatican.
By contrast, much of the news coverage following the Argentinian Pope’s election consisted of stories about his work in the slums of Buenos Aires and about his personal lifestyle: washing and kissing the feet of AIDS patients, turning down the Bishop’s palace for a modest apartment, nearly giving the operator of a Buenos Aires kiosk a heart attack by placing a personal call after his election to cancel his newspaper subscription (“Seriously, it’s Jorge Bergoglio.”).

With his usual disarming candor, the Pope spoke freely with the press about his unprecedented choice of Francis as his Papal name; as the votes were tallied during the papal conclave and it became clear that he was headed for the Room of Tears, the Pope’s old friend, Cardinal Hummes, clasped him and admonished him not to forget the poor. It was then, he said, that his thoughts turned toward Francis of Assisi, that “man of poverty,” and toward a desire for a Church that is “poor and that is for the poor.”
Somewhere between these dueling snapshots lies the complicated history of liberation theology in Latin America, and what the new Pope means “by and for the poor.”
The “preferential option for the poor” – the principle, broadly defined, that Christians must demonstrate a special concern for the welfare of the poor, the marginal and the weak – is a core commitment of both liberation theology and official Catholic social teaching.
The 1968 Latin American Bishops' Conference held in Medellín, Columbia, a founding moment for liberation theology, first referred to a “preference for the poorest and most needy,” framing this preference in light of the “deafening cry that pours from the throats of millions” afflicted by institutionalized violence and structural inequities. The Bishops also explored merging traditional hierarchical models of the church with so-called “ecclesial base communities,” grassroots Christian communities that had sprung up among the poor and were suspected of Marxist associations. It was, however, the Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s landmark, A Theology of Liberation (1971), that minted the preferential option and offered a new theology from the standpoint of the oppressed, one that demanded revolutionary and prophetic protest against social structures that perpetuate deadening forms of material and spiritual poverty.
The row between the Vatican and liberation theology crested in the mid-1980’s, with rounds of inquiries into the work of Gutiérrez and others, and the official silencing of figures like the Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff. The 1984 “Instruction on certain aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’” issued by the Vatican condemned what it saw as dangerous deviations in liberation theology, most notably, the reduction of the Gospel’s message of liberation from personal sin through Christ’s death into a Marxist message of earthly liberation from poverty through class struggle.
Still, if the 1984 "Instruction" seemed to condemn liberation theology en bloc, and far too readily, the preferential option for the poor was, from the start, embraced by Pope John Paul II. Articulating the preferential option in the language of human dignity and universal rights, John Paul II's opening address to the 1979 Latin American Bishops' Conference in Puebla, Mexico, decried “mechanisms that...produce on the international level rich people ever more rich at the expense of poor people ever more poor" while also insisting that only moral and spiritual liberation could truly relieve material poverty.
Monbiot’s Manicheanism oversimplifies the fissure between the poor and the Vatican, though his protest is an important reminder that the work of solidarity with the poor and of social justice demands real risk. It remains to be seen how Pope Francis will live out the name of a man who washed lepers and slept on the hard earth.
George Monbiot, "In the war on the poor, Francis is on the wrong side," The Guardian, March 18, 2013. 

John Paul II. Address to the Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate. January 28, 1979.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Instruction of Certain Aspects of the "Theology of Liberation". August 6, 1984.
Hennelly, Alfred T., S.J., ed. Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990.

Author Joshua Connor is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently at work on a dissertation on neuroscience and the concept of the soul.

Editor Myriam Renaud is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.

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