Pope Francis: Liberation Theologian? Not So Fast

I have been shocked by the recent positive media coverage of the Catholic Church. The stories are all about Pope Francis and his striking example of humility, together with his tireless call to care for the poor. For instance, NPR featured “Pope Francis Puts the Poor Front and Center”, while the New York Times published “Francis’ Humility and Emphasis on the Poor Strike a New Tone at the Vatican”

And while I have been refreshed by the positive coverage about all things Pope Francis, I have also found myself thinking that the media still doesn’t quite get it right.

In their reporting about Pope Francis, the New York Times, NPR, the AP and other mainstream news outlets have all written articles linking his call to care for the poor to liberation theology.

What is liberation theology? It’s a spirituality that developed out of particular historical circumstances. People who were suffering due to poverty and violent oppression in Latin America in the latter half of the twentieth century situated the gospel message in their lived reality. Their spirituality was not primarily about the interior life—it was about taking action to ensure that the values of society reflected the values of the gospel. This heavy emphasis on action drew scrutiny, as liberation theology emerged when communism threatened religious and political leaders alike. Church leaders feared that liberation theology’s emphasis on action would lead to political revolution. The call to action was also criticized for excessively stressing the role that people played in their own liberation so that it seemed like they worked to attain their own salvation, instead of recognizing that they had already been saved and freed by Christ.  A final critique was over some liberation theologians’ use of Marxist concepts, including class conflict, to interpret scripture.

Francis’ message of radical humility, service to the poor, and the call to work for justice is not a theology rooted in a particular historical context or an alternative approach to scripture—it’s at the core of the Gospels and Church teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church details the Church’s teaching on the call to work for justice.  The Catholic Social Teaching Scripture guide from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops outlines where the principles of Catholic Social Teaching can be found in Scripture. If you go to the online version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and type in “social justice” you’ll find that social justice is even infused into our catechesis. His teachings are not on the fringes of Catholic theology; they are at the center.

One likely reason for the media’s inclination to tie Pope Francis to liberation theology is that he is doing and saying things that (while connected to our Gospel call to live social justice) are completely outside of the journalists’ typical experiences of the institutional Catholic Church. If one has not understood care for the poor or working for social justice as absolutely central to what it means to be Catholic, then Pope Francis’ continuous emphasis on these could seem like the expression of a particular, alternative spirituality rather than something that all Catholics are called to embrace. Likewise, some of his recent decisions, like not living in the papal apartment or kicking off his predecessor’s fancy slippers in favor of more simple shoes, make him seem like an outlier.

When media outlets so commonly conflate “social justice” and “liberation theology,” I have to stop and think about what we have failed to do as a Church. I have to reflect on how the American Church is perceived by society and to consider my own vocation as a member of the Church to witness to the call to care for the poor and act for justice in all areas of my life.

Only when we the Church come together and live out this witness will the media describe Francis’ words and actions with more fitting headlines like, “Francis Calls for Social Justice: Just Another Catholic.”