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Is liberation theology making a comeback in the Church?

Pope encourages ideology that Vatican previously criticized

Is liberation theology making a comeback in the Church?

Óscar Romero, champion of the ideology and former Archbishop of San Salvador. The pope has urged his beatification to be processed quickly.(Picture: Erasmus/Getty) 

Erasmus/The Economist International

August 21, 2014

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IS LIBERATION theology—an ideological movement that emerged in Latin America in the 1970s and sought to combine Catholicism with revolutionary socialism—making a comeback? Pope Francis has made at least two gestures this month which may lead people to exactly that conclusion. On the flight back from South Korea, the pontiff expressed his admiration for a left-wing martyr: Óscar Romero (pictured), a former Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered while saying mass in 1980. Francis confirmed that the process of elevating the slain bishop to the status of "blessed", which had been bureaucratically blocked till a year ago because of the cleric's suspected Marxist leanings, should now proceed swiftly. The pope said:

"For me Romero is a man of God...there are no doctrinal problems and it is very important that the beatification [elevation to blessed status] be done quickly."

Two weeks ago the pope rehabilitated a (still living) figure from the era of liberation theology who is in some ways even more controversial. Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann was foreign minister in Nicaragua's revolutionary government from 1979 to 1990. In 2007 he was asked by the Qaddafi regime in Libya to be its representative at the United Nations; and a year later, he became president of the UN General Assembly and sharply criticised Western thinking about "humanitarian intervention".

Inevitably he was caught up in the ideological warfare that was raging in the Catholic church, and in the wider world, during the final stage of the cold war. In 1984 Pope John Paul II suspended him from carrying out his priestly duties because he refused to give up his ministerial post. This month Pope Francis agreed to lift the ban, and the 81-year-old priest, who is reportedly deaf and infirm, was able to say mass again.

So where does this leave liberation? Thanks to the arresting gestures he has made in favour of the poor and marginalised, and his often sharp critique of the rich, powerful and trigger-happy, Francis has already become the most popular pope on the religious left since Pope John XXIII died in 1963.

But for several reasons, the d'Escoto phenomenon—in other words, priests who combine their sacerdotal duties with an active role in revolutionary politics—is unlikely to recur. Latin America still has its revolutionary socialists, and the church still has its outspoken clergy, but the idea of combining both roles is probably a thing of the past, says Austen Ivereigh, a British Catholic writer and Latin America specialist whose biography of Pope Francis is due to appear in November.

For one thing, the only recent example of a cleric turned radical worldly leader—President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, a former bishop—came to a disastrous end in 2012 when he was impeached. For another, Pope Francis talks a strong view of the special calling and sanctity of the priesthood, so he is unlikely to approve mixing that vocation with other roles.

More significantly, Pope Francis has himself been responsible for developing a refined version of liberation theology, as the author of a key document issued at a bishops' conference in Aparacida, Brazil in 2007. The statement put enormous emphasis on helping the poor but stopped short of endorsing Marxism or any kind of revolutionary violence. "We pledge to work harder so that our Latin American and Caribbean church may continue to accompany our poorest brothers on their journey, even to martyrdom," it said.

As Mr Ivereigh puts it, this new thinking shuns the economic determinism of Marxist thought, and it tends to idealise "the people", understood as the poor majority, as a section of mankind whose interests must be defended against an often oppressive capitalist North. Such ideas sound nationalist at times, but they are different from doctrinaire socialism.

So in restoring Father d'Escoto to the full exercise of the priesthood, Pope Francis was not endorsing the Nicaraguan cleric's political and personal stance; he was merely making a humanitarian gesture to an elderly man who said he longed to celebrate Mass again before he died. At 77, Francis understands such imperatives; he startled many people this week by saying he might only have two or three more years of active—and possibly worldly—life ahead of him.

Full Story: A new sort of religious radical

Source: Erasmus/The Economist


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