When a new pope is chosen there is typically an exaggerated sense of impending change. Most everyone is aware of some doctrine of the "infallibility of the pope." Few know the purpose of that authority, or its limitations. But perhaps for that reason, whenever a new pope is elected, there is much hope or fear among the half-informed that Catholic doctrine will be significantly changed--for the better or for the worse.
Pope Francis, like his immediate predecessors, has been subject to similar expectations, and like all popes he brings a new set of priorities and personal concerns to the office. And his origins as a South American Jesuit have not surprisingly formed him with a particular concern for the Church's relationship to those whom political and economic oppression have left desperately poor.
This particular issue has long been associated with the something called "liberation theology." It's a term most of us think we know, and popularly it's most closely associated with South American politics, the murder of the Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero, Marxism, and the critical reaction by the CDF during the early pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. Knowing just a little something about all of those, I thought I ought to learn a little more about it, so earlier this year I began reading what many consider the seminal work on the subject, Teología de la Liberación, first published in 1971 by the Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez.
Fr. Gutiérrez, unlike others associated with liberation theology, has never suffered any official censure for his work. It has been severely questioned on some points, something which I find less than alarming (see my third posting back on the dialectic between theology and authority in the Church). But Fr. Gutiérrez has always had champions in the hierarchy, most recently and famously Gerhard Cardinal Müller, whom Pope Benedict put at the head of the CDF.
So, at this point I'm about a quarter of the way through Teología de la Liberación. It begins with a review of what "theology" has meant in the Church, broadly identifying three types of theology: "la teología como sabiduría," "la teología como saber rational," and "la teología como reflexión critíca sobre las praxis." The first is the earliest form, theology as spiritual wisdom, arguably best personified in the Greek Fathers, but a continuing tradition exemplified in the West by works such as The Imitation of Christ. The second type of theology is that which is characterized by rational analysis of the Christian revelation, a good example being the summas of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The third, critical reflection on practice, might seem to be novel, but Gutiérrez insists that it is a long-established form of theology, and points to St. Augustine's De civitate Dei as its most prominent exemplar:
La teología agustiniana de las histora, que encontramos en La ciudad de Dios, parte, por ejemplo, de un verdadero análisis de los signos de los tiemplos y de las exígencias que ellos plantean a la communidad cristiana.
So in this initial analysis we come, in the course of a brief history of social philosophy, to a few pages to the social analysis of Karl Marx. His place here is not surprising; when Teología de la Liberación was written about a third of the world was governed by Marxist principles, and Marxism could look quite hopeful to those suffering under the violent autocracies of South America. Marx was and remains almost unmentionable in North America (a patriotic by-product of the cold war), and from 1978 to 2008 the papacy was held by a man for whom Marxism was itself an oppressive dogma imposed by a foreign and hostile imperial power (on the other hand, he entered the conclave that elected him pope reading Marx). In this early discussion Gutiérrez puts Marx in the context of European social philosophy and the attempts to make history a genuine science. Despite charges and suspicions, there is nothing remotely "Marxist" in Gutiérrez's historical review here.
But as politics comes increasingly to the fore, there is an interesting follow-up to the appeal to St. Augustine noted above for the pedigree of this type of theology in a critique of the notion that the Church and the world co-exist on different planes--in other words there is a challenge to the Augustinian distinction between the City of Man and the City of God, intersecting but essentially distinct. In critically examining the notion of the Church's independence from politics, Gutiérrez notes how, in practice the Church has too often been not only political, but political in the sense of propping up an oppressive status quo.
In some ways this appeal reflects the more hopeful stance of the late sixties and early seventies. There is an appeal to Bonhoeffer's assertion of a mündig gewordnende Welt, a world come of age. For myself, however much I admire Bonhoeffer, this conception takes far too much for granted. The "adulthood" of man has been asserted before (Kant's famous definition of enlightenment, for example, which Gutiérrez in fact cites earlier). Bonhoeffer seems to ground his concept in the notion of the increasing explanatory power of science, a notion that seems naive in a world where the limitation of scientific explanation is increasingly obvious. I've always countered the idea with a joke that was once making the rounds, i.e., that in every generation the civilized world is invaded by barbarians (whom we call children).
However old the world gets, few of us, individually, are going to get much more than our threescore and ten. Each and every one of us starts from scratch. Our elders and betters do their very best to impart the wisdom of the ages, and some of it undoubtedly sticks. There is continuity and inertia in the institutions and foundations set up to last. But we newbies will be afflicted by the same vices that afflicted our forebears, and commit the same mistakes, and succumb to the same temptations. So we may, perhaps, die old and full of years and wisdom, but I'm not sure the world does.
I'll apologize for that lengthy digression, but it's not entirely inapplicable. There a lot of this "New World Coming!" in the early Erasmus. It's noticeably absent in the elder. There seems considerable optimism in these early pages of Teología de la Liberación that the Church's weight can decisively tip the political scale toward the poor. One can indeed still hope and advocate for that, while noting that the social and political weight of the Church has dropped off markedly in the last forty years.
I will try to return with further thoughts as I make may way through.