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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Francis and Liberation Theology (UPDATE)

This post has been updated to include quotes from a deeplythoughtful interview with “Father Jon Sobrino, the Spanish-born Jesuit who has lived worked, and taught in El Salvador since the late 1960s.” Below the interview is the original post containing key questions to be asked while considering liberation theology and Pope Francis.

During these days, have you spoken with people who know Bergoglio closely?

Yes, I’m not an expert on the life, work, joys, and sufferings of Bergoglio. And so that I don’t fall into any type of irresponsibility, I have tried to connect with persons in Argentina, whom I will not quote, above all those who have had direct contact with him. I expect understanding of the limits of what I am going to say and I apologize for any errors I might commit. Bergoglio is a Jesuit who has held important posts in the [Jesuit] Province of Argentina. He has been professor of theology, superior and provincial. It is not difficult to talk about his external work. But of the more internal, one can speak only delicately and now respectfully and responsibly. Many companions have spoken of him as a person with deep convictions and temperament, a resolute and relentless fighter. If they make him pope, he will clean up the Curia, it has been said with humor.

His austerity has been highlighted.

Also, they remember him for boundless interest to communicate with others his convictions about the Society of Jesus, an interest which could become possessiveness, even to the point of demanding loyalty to his person. Many recall his austerity of life, as Jesuit, archbishop, and cardinal. Examples of this are his residence and his proverbial travelling by bus. When he was bishop, many priests remember how he was close to them and how he offered to stand in for them in their parish work when they needed to go away for rest. His austerity was accompanied by a real interest in the poor, the indigenous, trade union members who were attacked; this led him to firmly defend them in the face of successive governments. Moral issues have been very close to him, certainly abortion, which led him to directly confront the president of his country.

They have recalled his option for the poor.

In all that, one can assess his specific way of making an option for the poor. Not in actively going out and risking oneself in their defense in the time of repression of the criminal military dictatorships. The complicity of the hierarchy with the dictators is known. Bergoglio was superior of the Jesuits in Argentina from 1973 to 1979, in the years of major repression of civil-military genocide.

Are you talking about complicity?

It doesn’t appear just to speak of complicity, but it seems correct to say that in those circumstances Bergoglio distanced himself from the Popular Church which was committed to the poor. We wasn’t a Romero – celebrated for his defense of human rights and assassinated while exercising his pastoral ministry. I don’t have enough knowledge, and I say this with the fear of being mistaken, Bergoglio did not present himself like Bishop Angelleli, Argentinian bishop assassinated by the military in 1976. Very possibly this took place in his heart, but he was not accustomed to make visible in public the living memory of [Bishop] Leonidas Proaño [of Ecuador], Bishop Juan Gerardi [of Guatemala], Bishop Sergio Mendez [of Cuernevaca, Mexico]…

Nevertheless, he also has a pronounced solidarity?

Yes. On the other hand, since 1998, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, in various ways he accompanied the poorly treated sector of that great city – and with concrete deeds. An eye witness speaks of how, on the first anniversary of the tragedy of Cromagnon [when a fire during a rock concert took the lives of 200 young people], Bergoglio was present and forcibly demanded justice for the victims.  At times he used prophetic language. He denounced the evils which grind the flesh of the people and he named them concretely: human trafficking, slave labor, prostitution, drug-trafficking, and much more. For some, the major force to carry forward his present ministry is his openness to dialogue with the marginalized and from their suffering.

The words of Sobrino are very helpful because it is quickly becoming received wisdom and unvarnished truth that Pope Francis was, during his decades in Argentinia, “opposed to liberation theology”, as the New York Times puts it in an article. This characterization is quickly becoming accepted by defenders of Francis on the Right and critics of him on the Left. It is a dismaying sign of the need to box people into tight categories and safely consign them to familiar stereotypes. But does it make sense of the fullness of Bergoglio’s ministry to say, to again quote the Times, that The future pope came down hard on Jesuits in his province who were liberation theology proponents and left it badly divided”? I have been curious what Jesuits themselves think about this and even asked Fr. James Martin on facebook this morning if America magazine, the Jesuit weekly, had any plans for an article on this. Well, sure enough, America’s website is up with a helpful examination of “Pope Francis and Liberation Theology”. The author, Fr. Daniel P. Horan, offers three questions that should be a part of any thoughtful writing on Bergoglio and liberation theology:

First, what do we mean when we use a hegemonic and singular umbrella term like "liberation theology?" Are we referring to the particular texts that arose in the 1960s and 1970s from the academic and professional theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff? Both of whose work, by the way, varies in style, method, and outcome. Do we mean the pastoral legacy of the slain Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero? Do we mean the Jesuits and diocesan priests who took up arms in El Salvador against the will of Romero who, according to the critiques of now-Pope Francis, might also be labeled "opposed to liberation theology" in this context? What exactly do we mean?
Second, how are judgements made about what it means to "support," "oppose," "reject," or "be hostile toward," liberation theology in its manifold iterations? Without a very clearly defined notion of what it is we mean when we talk univocally about a broad (and continually growing) academic and pastoral field of social-justice concerns and contextual theology, it is nearly impossible to make an accurate statement about whether one is for or against this or that.
Third, what does someone's lived experience say about the person we claim is for or against a given theological or pastoral opinion?

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