The next Pope, social change and liberation theology

By Simon Barrow
March 11, 2013

It is widely assumed that the next pope, whoever it is, will be of a highly conservative disposition, because both Benedict XVI and John Paul II ensured that the College of Cardinals that now exists was shaped firmly in that direction.

Certainly in terms of the issues that have preoccupied the Western media, this is so. On family, sexuality, the ethics of reproductive issues, priestly celibacy and the centralised authority of the Vatican, there is little chance of substantial change -- though a candidate better able to dialogue with the wider world and more capable of managing the Curia (which Benedict was not) is more of a possibility.

On the issue of responses to HIV-AIDS there could be some movement, at least underneath the official rhetoric. A Jesuitical-style reformation of the ban on contraception to make exceptions in terms of the transmission of deadly disease has been talked about in senior Catholic circles, though everyone seems to fear being the first to make a practical change that will need to be spun in terms of no underlying doctrinal change.

A similar case might be made in terms of a gradual relaxing of enforced celibacy (which has already become a reality in one tiny part of the Church with the acceptance of married ex-Anglican priests into the fold). However, there will remain a determination not to be seen to be conceding to pressure from the laity or (worse) from the wider world, and immediate reform remains unlikely.

Social and political issues are a different matter, however. The favoured media dualism of 'conservative' versus 'liberal' (which is connected to the equally simplistic 'traditionalist' versus 'reformist' frame which I have already commented on) obscures the point that it is perfectly possible for Catholic leaders to be radical in some areas while deeply reactionary in others. People's dispositions are embedded in institutions and habits of mind which, even if resistant to change, remain frequently paradoxical and capable of absorbing newness in the guise of development.

Take the matter of liberation theology -- the movement within the Church originating in post-colonial struggles of the 1960s, especially in Latin America and then parts of Asia, which oriented grassroots Catholics towards the struggles of the poor against militaristic capitalism, and which concomitantly led many theologians to perceive a deep antagonism between the Gospel of Christ and the structures of oppression within society.

In an interesting if slightly loosely argued article in Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, entitled Will the Next Pope Embrace Liberation Theology?, commentator Mark Engler points out that although Rome was alarmed at theologians who employed Marxist categories to critique capitalism and who allied a 'popular church' with leftist movements -- even more so when their critique of human rights abuses in society was directed at the hierarchy of the Church itself -- this remains only part of the story. In fact, many liberationist ideas and ideals were absorbed in relation to the body of thinking known as Catholic Social Teaching.

Engler writes: "[A]t the same time, [the Church] 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 honour 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 favourably to his books.

[SB comment: it is important to recall, however, that Boff's work, notably Church, Charism and Power and Ecclesiogenesis was forthrightly condemned by the CDF, as was the argument of Gutiérrez's The Power of the Poor in History.]

"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.

That said, as Engler points out, Hummes remains very much an outsider in the Conclave stakes. Cardinal Turkson of Ghana, who may also be open to more radical social theology and to reform within Rome, has likewise proved a loose cannon in terms of extreme, unguarded remarks on sexuality and AIDS (ones which have embarrassed even the more conservative within the Vatican, it is said). Equally, there is a strand of thinking which says that an Italian pope, conservative in almost all areas, will be favoured by being seen to have a clearer grasp of how to go about dealing with the considerable problems that exist within the Curia.

Nevertheless, it is rarely wise to predict what one will get in terms of a pope. It is likely to remain and mixed and cloudy picture after the white smoke emerges, set strongly within the trajectory established by the last two incumbents (and the nearby presence of what Hans Küng has called a 'shadow pope' at Castel Gandolfo), but with some unexpected surprises, perhaps especially in the arena of social engagement.

See also:

* Another church is possible: the example of Bishop Raúl Vera:

* Will Cardinal Martini's '200 years out of date' comments echo in the Conclave?

* Engaging church crises - how 'traditionalism' betrays a truthful tradition:

* Cardinal O'Brien and beyond: the crisis in the Catholic Church:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church with strong Anabaptist/Mennonite leanings, he has worked at a Catholic university college in the past, as well as within the ecumenical movement. He has a long-standing interest in, and appreciation for, Catholic spirituality and liturgy, alongside the peace and justice traditions of the Catholic Church.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.