Pope Francis: Spiritual, Liberating Theology

By Johan Galtung

What a gift to humanity, this Pope!

To choose global climate change as a major theme of his papacy is in the spirit of the times. What is revolutionary, and he uses that word often, is the focus on the poor. Climate change–including the long trend global warming over and above some lulls and local variations–has a clear class address, goes beyond making him the spiritual world leader.

The Pope talks about filth covering the earth, and about greed stimulated by corporate capitalism and consumerism as major causes underlying the technicality of CO2 release. The Pope also mentions the freshness of the gospels, including the unambiguous stand of Jesus for the poor in Matt 6:24–God vs Mammon–Matt 13:12–our economic system, and Matt 19:20-24 about giving one’s riches to the poor.

Pope Francis follows in his footsteps. Simply beautiful.

But there is more to it: a general theological discourse from the same continent as this non-Italian Pope: Liberation Theology. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Miguel d’Escoto–Peruvian, Brazilian, Nicaraguan, from the major parts of the Latin Americas–now in their 80s have been rehabilitated. D’Escoto was foreign minister of the Sandinista government and one-year president of the UN General Assembly.

However, the rehabilitation has moved on, into the Caribbean, to the Latin American country that made world history, Cuba, and to the two Castros. President Raul Castro called on the Pope after he had been to Moscow to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism and found “Pope Francis so impressive I might return to the church (“I always studied at Jesuit schools”), pointing out that the Communist Party now permitted believers among its members.

Pope Francis was instrumental in brokering the opening of diplomatic relations and was thanked publicly by Raul Castro: “I am very impressed by his wisdom, his modesty, and all his virtue”.

Liberation Theology was stigmatized by anti-Communist Polish Pope St John Paul II and by his successor, guardian of the faith Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. He had been professor at the University of Tübingen where a very strong and Marxist student revolt against the invasion of US colored his academic pursuits. He continued that struggle as cardinal and pope, saw Marxism where others saw exactly the freshness of the gospels.

In 2009 Ratzinger declared that Liberation Theology had led to rebellion, division, dissent, offense and anarchy. There was something to it; there was violence in its name. An argument that impressed this non-believer was that the focus on class made it difficult for all to be together in the same church. Well, so did the focus on race; can be overcome.

Pope Francis now revives Liberation Theology his way, including through the focus on the poor in the climate Encyclical.

We in peace studies, believers or not, can feel at home in the Liberation Theology now evolving. Let us recall some major points.

Positive peace is based on equity and empathy. What Pope Francis does everywhere is to restore to dignity people and countries that have been marginalized, not above others, but as their equals. Thus, the Vatican has recognized multi-faith Palestine, not above Israel, but as its equal.

To do so he understands the marginalized from the inside as they understand themselves; not blind to their shortcomings but seeing them as generally being on line with God’s creation of human beings as equals under God.

To be a good Christian is like working for peace: it is not a question of reciting dogmas but of consciousness about what is required, and then working for its realization. Salvation, like peace and health, do not come by itself; hard work/good deeds are needed. Faith is not enough–the Pope is for Catholicism, not Protestantism –and is universal, not for one’s own flock only, like Judaism.

There may be some kind of equality of opportunity idea at work.

Economically this means that misery and abject inequality are a scandal against God’s creation. He created us equal, what right do we have to sink millions into the sufferings described in the Sermon on the Mount? Our task is to follow Jesus in setting it right.

Nevertheless, what if inequality and misery are deeply embedded in structures highly resistant to change? Jesus had miracle at his disposal; we ordinary humans do not have that. Consequently, those structures are against God’s creation of a humanity equal under God. Consequently, structures of misery are a scandal.

This key word in Liberation Theology sent shock waves through the church – no stranger to inequity, benefiting from it – an old theme in the history of religions. Institutions transport value upward; a reason that some insist on monastic life, spiritual, not material.

Pope Francis expands this to political inequality in the cases mentioned and not only to protect his own flock but also for atheist Cubans and Muslim and secular Palestinians. Revolution, yes, but nonviolent–like peace studies insist on revolutionary change toward more equitable structures without direct violence, nonviolently.

Liberation Theology can argue that for God’s light to inspire, it has to shine equally on us all, not leaving vast groups of humanity in economic and political shadows struggling for sheer survival against exploitation and repression. Peace studies argue that, for traumas to be reconciled and conflicts to be solved, the parties cannot be too unequal.

Inequality, particularly when built into structures as inequity, will color the outcome. Those on top economically and/or politically are already higher on Jacob’s ladder to salvation; those at the bottom are lost in the struggles in this life. Moreover, the same for peace: agreements will tend to tilt in favor of the top.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for your focus – structural violence.

Originally published at Transcend Media Service here.

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