Two news items came to my attention this morning that both point to an issue that will doubtlessly stalk the Holy Father’s visit to the United States next month. First, Pope Francis himself spoke in one of his morning sermons against those who turn the Gospel into an ideology. Second, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the pope’s trip to Latin America last month showed the need for a “real liberation theology.”
Some conservative, and uninformed, critics of Pope Francis have stated publicly that they think he is a Marxist, most loudly and obnoxiously Rush Limbaugh. But, better informed critics, such as Samuel Gregg and Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, have questioned the Holy Father’s pronouncements on socio-economic realities also. And, far too many commentators have bought into a lazy narrative that sees Francis’ papacy as a direct contradiction of the papacies of his predecessors, St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the latter two both being involved in the CDF’s statements about certain varieties of liberation theology in the 1980s. It is clear from the pope’s homily and the cardinal’s statements, that they have heard the critics and are beginning to respond.
Let’s start with Cardinal Muller’s call for a “real liberation theology.” In a sense, one of the tests of any theology that seeks to call itself Christian is whether or not it liberates. The liberation at the heart of the Gospel is a liberation from sin and death, and not to be confused with the liberation celebrated in La Marseillaise or the Internationale. Both are great tunes, but Christians do not want anybody’s blood swelling in the gutters, as called for in the former, nor can any Christian sing the words in the second stanza of the latter, “Ni Dieu, ni Cesar, ni tribun,” without misunderstanding the Gospel’s core proclamation that Jesus is God, Savior and King.
A real liberation theology must also be wary of our Anglo-Saxon understanding of liberation, which has many sources, some of them incompatible with Catholic faith. Locke, both in theory and in practice, produced an understanding of human freedom which a Catholic cannot embrace – and which justified the anti-Catholic penal laws of Locke’s own day. John Courtney Murray argued that the American understanding of religious freedom was actually rooted in medieval and Catholic ideas about liberty, but that would have been news to the founders, and it was not truly persuasive 200 years later. In our own day, there are plenty of so-called liberals who would be only too happy to deny the Catholic Church the freedoms it has traditionally enjoyed in our society.
The phrase liberation theology mostly refers to certain theologians in Latin America in the post-conciliar era. That theological school came in many flavors. The heart of the critique was never that liberation theology condemned the impoverishment of the poor nor did the critique ever embrace neo-liberal economics as the cure for what ailed liberation theology. The problem was that some liberation theologians based their writings on a faulty theological anthropology, a misunderstanding of what the Church means when we say the words “human person.” A Christian understanding of the human person does not – and cannot – start with class identity. Nor can it kick the common good to the sidelines in favor of class warfare. Still less can the Gospel accept any view of the human person that is primarily socio-economic. These things matter, but they are not the heart of the matter.
Upon his election, many conservative commentators trumpeted the fact that when he was a Jesuit provincial and later as a bishop, Jorge Maria Bergoglio has opposed those varieties of liberation theology the CDF had condemned. They then made the premature assumption that he must be “one of them.” They failed to recognize that the bishops of Latin America never stopped asking the question: what does it mean to exercise a preferential option for the poor? Indeed, these same conservative critics failed to recognize, and fail still, that their embrace of neo-liberal economic views falters on the very same grounds that certain varieties of liberation theology faltered, a bad anthropology. They, too, displace belief in a Triune God with a different belief in the “laws of the market,” which are to be accepted without question as givens, as veritable laws of nature. They try to wiggle the sin of self-interest into a virtue by touting its creativity, little noticing that whatever material wealth the free market generates tends to be coincident with the generation of a spiritual poverty. As I have said before, the enemy of the Gospel today is not some vague secularist ideology but a more pedestrian consumer materialism. The Marxists thought their ideas would banish religion from the culture. The capitalists have somewhat succeeded in doing so, not so much with their ideas as with all the stuff they sell us, inviting us to create and re-create our identities with the assistance of their products.
The Gospel, and it is Francis’ great gift that he proclaims the Gospel not only in its fullness but in its immediacy, does not view the poor as a victimized class. The Gospel, far more radical than Marx or Adam Smith, views the poor as Christ. Last year, when remembering Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete at the time of his death, I called attention to a discussion he had with Cardinal Sean O’Malley at one of the New York Encounter’s sponsored by Communion and Liberation. The cardinal was telling the audience about his recent visit to Assisi with Pope Francis and how the pope met with people with profound disabilities and illnesses, and said that in their wounds we could, we must, discern the wounds of Jesus Christ. Lorenzo interjected, “But, this is not a metaphor…They are the real Christ. There is no other one. Otherwise, there has been a dis-incarnation.” The Christ whom we encounter in the poor is the same Christ before whom we genuflect in the tabernacle and the same Christ who died on the Cross to wipe away our sins. (In the video, the discussion occurs at minute 39.)
Most people would label me a “social justice Catholic” and it is a description with which I more or less agree. But, the designation can confuse as well as enlighten. We cannot reduce the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a program of social justice. Jesus did not bring a world free from war or poverty. He brought God. The graced encounter with the poor teaches us this, time and time again. For them, God is all they have. They are comforted by their reliance on God, not disturbed by it the way upper-middle class Catholics can be. The poor do not make apologies for the faith, they cling to the Cross. They live the Cross. I am not idealizing the poor. We need them far more than they need us because they disclose to the rest of us, the comfortable and well fed, that we need what Jesus brought, God, more than we need creature comforts.
This is, I think, what pope Francis was getting at when he warned against turning Christianity into an ideology. His warning is deeper than, but certainly subsumes, the concern stated above, that too many, on the left and the right, accept other, false beliefs, rooted in socio-economic analysis, and displace the Gospel’s claim to primacy with those alien, and prior, beliefs, seeking to find ways to baptize them. No, the deeper concern is that Christianity can be conceived as a set of beliefs and practices rather than a fact, an event. In Laudato Si’ the Holy Father said that facts are more important than ideas. He was echoing one of the first observations Pope Benedict made in Deus caritas est:
We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John's Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should ... have eternal life” (3:16).
For Francis, like Benedict, we do not encounter Jesus in theory, we encounter Him in the flesh, the flesh of the poor, the flesh of the Eucharist, the flesh hanging on the Cross. We make an ideology of Christianity when we put our own narratives – my needs for a justification of my lifestyle, my concern with others’ lifestyles, my financial obligations, my theology of marriage – ahead of Jesus’ narrative. The Christian faith makes claims on the entirety of our lives, including our ideas, but when our ideas obscure the life of Christ present in our midst, we have turned Christianity into an ideology. And, when we create different Christs, we “dis’incarnate” Him. There is only one Christ. And, when we see Pope Francis moving through a slum or a prison, the way he comes alive and, even more, the reactions on the faces and in the hearts of those whom he encounters, we gain some of the excitement the disciples must have felt as they watched Jesus feeding the hungry and curing the lame. The question Pope Francis poses to us, the disciples of Jesus today, is whether we will, like the first disciples, find within ourselves the faith to also work miracles.