Liberation Theology & Catholic social teaching

Somewhat unsurprisingly, I have been thinking about popes lately. Finding out that the latest Holy Father Pope Francis is not only the first Latin American but also the first Jesuit to oversee the See of Peter was quite an exciting moment. I’ll readily confess to being probably too optimistic about him because of his geographical origins & the theological leanings of the Jesuits as an order.

And the dude wears hipster glasses, as if being from don'tcryformeArgentina and being a Jesuit weren't fucking awesome enough.
And the dude wears hipster glasses, as if being from don’tcryformeArgentina and being a Jesuit weren’t fucking awesome enough.

At the same time as all this popelection* has been going on, I’ve been reading encyclical after encyclical of Catholic social teaching, the tradition of which dates back at least to the 1890s when Rerum Novarum was written by Pope Leo XIII. Not for fun, mind you – that would be for the most extreme of theology nerds, a status which I do not claim…yet. This week at LST we were discussing the Vatican’s various responses to Liberation Theology, especially in the light of this social teaching tradition. At least three of the documents that I read-slash-scanned this week were written by the outgoing pope, Benedict XVI (most were written when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger), and one by his predecessor, John Paul II.

The first thing that has struck me during all this reading has been how much of an affront Liberation Theology must have been to the Catholic church given her commitment to regular engagement with the social realm – both in its ‘social teaching’ and in the centuries-old tradition of hospitality/hospice, sanctuary and care for the poorest. I do not think that either of the previous Popes took lightly the need to confront what they viewed as a system that fundamentally devalued people and left the most vulnerable open to exploitation – Marxist socialism. So, when South American liberationists all of a sudden were slinging back cocktails of classical theology & marxist social theory with a dash of revolutionary/romanticist naiveté thrown in, they (the Vatican) probably had every right to feel nervous.

Where the leaders of the Catholic church failed, I think, is in their ability (one might even say their responsibility) to see beyond the immediate effrontery to the clarion call of the Third World (or, as we have it more appropriately and accurately today, the Majority World) to comfortable, Euro-American Christians who were (and to some degree still are) quite happy to beaver away at their theology from positions of comfort. In the mad rush to confront socialism, they look too fondly to capitalism and overlook its oppressive potential.** Because of apprehensions about the undermining of the theological authority of the ‘magisterium’ they condemned any valid contextual insights that the Liberationists propose. It is possible to track a relaxing of the Vatican’s viewpoint towards the experience of ‘base communities’*** as one moves chronologically through the various encyclicals. I found this very encouraging on the one hand and frustrating on the other; it shows that Rome realises that the reality of contextual experience that individuals and communities bring to life, to (in)justice, to biblical interpretation – but that Rome is also committed to a truth via hierarchy, indeed truth as hierarchy.  And that’s something I just can’t get behind – I know, I know, my Protestantism is showing!

Speaking of Protestants, however – I’m not sure our reaction to LT has been much better. As a general rule, Protestants have been just as happy as Catholics in our pietism and in a radical separation between ‘this world’ and ‘the coming Kingdom of God.’ Sure, the teaching has gone, we should be concerned about caring for the least and the lost, but it should be done primarily with a motive of evangelization, for the days of this world are numbered and the more souls that can be saved, the better. In this view, compassion for the poor becomes essentially an add-on for the real ‘meat’ of the faith which is soul-saving & sung worship. Again, many Christians these days have been getting better at pointing out that this disjunction between ‘orthodoxy’ (right belief) and ‘orthopraxy’ (right action) is really nothing more than a lack of belief/action. In the Protestant context, this means that if Protestants practice pietism, they are putting the lie to any professed belief in ‘helping the poor as a means of grace or as an essential component to Christian life.’

Seriously. What is this achieving?
Seriously. What is this achieving?

There are at least two simple proverbs in English that should make clear the continuum between belief and action: ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and ‘you can talk the talk, but you don’t walk the walk.’ Perhaps the latter has been too frequently co-opted by Christians into a nice spiritual reality where one’s ‘walk with Jesus’ is a purely intangible thing. But the former, the one about money and mouths, is an uncomfortable one, not least because it is inherently economic. Protestant Christians sometimes get pretty nervous about making any economic (or social, or political) commentary – unless it has specifically to do with what are deemed ‘the important moral issues’ like abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, etc.

Putting your money where your mouth is – I retain the second person to keep it as ‘grassroots’ as possible – is a risk. In fact, it’s not just a risk; living authentically and regularly ‘putting your money where you mouth is’ is a whole ethic of risk-taking. It’s having the balls § to shut up about your principles and act on them, and then start talking about your principles again. As Christians – Catholic or Protestant – this doesn’t mean simply reverting to the now-popular slogan, attributed to Francis of Assisi, ‘preach the gospel and use words if necessary.’ That sort of stance is sometimes called for, given the nuances of engaging in the contemporary social and political arenas. But more often, unfortunately, Christians are just supposed to be annoyingly persistent – not stopping preaching, not stopping working. Not stopping calling each other out on when our preaching and our working don’t line up.

One of my colleagues today expressed it in terms of ecclesiology, that is, how Christians ‘do church.’ What do we say to the world about how we, as ordinary people, get together and do this Christian thing? What is our church-ness about, after all? To what end our liturgy – whether charismatic worship, BCP-based prayer, lighting of candles, hearing of testimonies, genuflecting, speaking in tongues?

I am increasingly convinced of two things: one, that the symbolic nature of our liturgy is important. Our symbols aren’t empty and we should teach regularly on what they mean and why we do them. Otherwise we are either salving our guilty consciences or going to a social club, not worshipping.

Secondly I am convinced that a faith that never extends beyond the church building – or beyond a Sunday – is sterile, impotent, barren. It can bear no fruit.  We can put a hell of a lot of effort into perfecting a Sunday service – or a mid-week cafe-based emergent fresh expression decidedly-non-service – but if that (non)service serves us, rather than challenges us to open up to, to speak into, and to listen to those beyond us, we are not living according to the teaching of that Jesus dude. Which means, we’re not Christian.

This is where the circle comes back around to Catholic social teaching. The Catholic idea of presence, of sacrament, of salvation being worked out by virtue of living one’s whole life in the presence of the church – to that idea, engagement with the poorest is essential. It not essential because of ‘works righteousness’ or earning our salvation by doing good stuff for people. It’s essential because those poorest are, frankly, those in our world who most obviously wear Jesus’ face a la Matthew 25 – ‘Lord, when were you poor, or needy or sick or in prison and we did not come to your aid?’ It’s essential because the church is not a Country Club for Saints but a broken brother-and-sister-hood of being-saved-sinners.§§ And we’re being saved through the sacraments – a big word that means nothing more than concrete things that mediate the presence of Christ to us. So what the hell did Jesus mean when he talked about ‘what you have done for the least of these, you have done for me’? Is that not the presence of Christ, to be sought at great price?

I was going to conclude this post with a short apology for getting all soapbox-y, but I don’t think I can. Tune back in later, chiquitito/as, for a bit more of a critical look at liberation theology – which was the original point of this post. Maybe we can even make some plans §§§ on how to break church out of the church building – or look at good examples of people who are already doing it.


* Coined! It just looks better as one word than as ‘pope election.’ Maybe just get ride of the ‘e’ altogether and have ‘poplection’?

**This oppressive potential is something that they (Catholics) and other Christians are getting much better at pointing out.

***Gustavo Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation, published in Spanish in 1970 and English in 1971, popularised this idea of ‘base’ or ‘grassroots’ communities as the keys sites of struggle and scriptural interpretation, rather than funnelling all interpretation back through the central point of the Vatican.

§ Or, as my lovely feminist friends remind me, having the ovaries to do so. Also see Sharon Welch’s excellent & far too short book, ‘A Feminist Ethic of Risk.’ Might its length be a sign of what’s needed – putting the gloves on and getting to work?

§§ Laugh all you want at the overuse of hyphens. They get the point across.

§§§ I’ve got a plan, and it’s as hot as my pants! (Just go to the link. Trust me. And then watch all of Blackadder.)


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