Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Put Social Justice Back in the Social Contract by Tiziana Dearing: “We desperately need problem-solving rooted in the principles of human dignity and ‘right relationships’ today. And we need to teach people that using social justice in our policies should not be something special. It should be baseline.”

Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings John Tierney: “Dupes fork over their hard-earned money for the rankings to see how their kid (and, thus, they themselves!) stack up against the kid down the street. Ha! Sweetie, did you see that Bowdoin is ranked 20 spots higher than Oberlin?! Ah, the smug satisfaction and inner glow that come from having bested the Joneses. No matter how ludicrous that ‘besting’ is.”

Liberation theology finds new welcome in Pope Francis’ Vatican by RNS: “Francis, who has called for ‘a poor church for the poor,’ will meet in the next few days with the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and scholar who is considered the founder of liberation theology.”

Congolese bishop says he hopes international pressure helps his country by Francis Njuguna, Catholic News Service: “A bishop from eastern Congo said people in the area continue to suffer from an ongoing government-rebel conflict, and he hoped pressure from the international community would help relieve the situation.”

Mindlessly Gutting Food Stamps by NY Times: “Instead of providing aid for the hungry, House Republicans want to reduce the food stamp program — the most basic part of the social safety net — with $40 billion in cuts across the next decade.”

The Paradoxical Commandments by Paul Brian Campbell, SJ: “A version of the commandments below became famous because they were on the wall of one of Mother Teresa’s homes in Calcutta, but the original — part of a booklet for student leaders — was composed by Kent M. Keith in 1968. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway…”

Pursuing the Dream by John Carr: “Pope Francis’ new leadership and example offer a way forward. He calls us to get out of ourselves and our ecclesial corners and into ‘the streets.’ Pope Francis also has a dream, ‘a church which is poor and for the poor.’ If we truly pursue Francis’ dream, it will help realize Dr. King’s dream as well.”

No Child Should Die Of Things We Can Prevent by Caryl Stern: “More than two decades ago, UNICEF had a crazy idea: Focus on simple solutions, and you’ll save millions of children. Immunize them, so they don’t get diseases we know how to prevent. Encourage their mothers to breastfeed. Monitor their growth, so we know if they’re malnourished. Get them insecticide-treated mosquito nets, so they don’t get malaria. If they get diarrhea, give them an inexpensive solution of salts and sugars that will prevent them from dying of dehydration. It worked. Since 1990, 90 million children have survived because they had access to such simple, life-saving solutions, according to a new report released today by UNICEF…Those are heartening numbers, but they’re clearly not enough.”

Hannah Arendt, Augustinian by Fr. Robert Barron: “The great moral lesson — articulated by both Augustine and Hannah Arendt — is that we must refuse to be beguiled by the glittering banality of wickedness and we must consistently choose the substance over the shadow.”

Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian by Malcolm Moore: “Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Communist leader of the Soviet Union, has acknowledged his Christian faith for the first time, paying a surprise visit to pray at the tomb of St Francis of Assisi.”

Meanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis by Gershom Gorenberg: “Whether or not the United States uses arms in Syria, it needs to use money and visas to relieve suffering.”

Forgetting Ourselves Completely by Matthew Warner, The Radical Life: “So humility is not really thinking less of yourself as much as it’s thinking of yourself less. We live in a culture that celebrates, encourages and applauds shameless selfishness, self-absorption and individualism. The antidote is genuine humility.”

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.”