Pope Francis returns to Rome from his South American tour as a bona fide partisan of Liberation Theology. While he did embrace elements of the controversial Latin American theology back in Argentina, he was also quick to distance himself from fellow Jesuits who opposed the brutal military dictatorship (1976-83) on the basis of the radical Catholic theology. Just as I was about to write the obituary for the theology, first developed by Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, it has gained a new lease on life, thanks to the first Latin American pontiff.
From the early 1970s to the late 1980s the novel theology found fertile soil among thousands of Catholic clerics, especially in Brazil, Chile and Central America. Inspired by both Vatican II (1962-65) and the Medellin Conference of Latin American Bishops of 1968, Liberation Theology posited a radical re-orientation of the Church. For four centuries the institutional Church had adopted a preferential option for the Latin American privileged. In fact to this day the Jesuits run some of the most elite universities in the region, not to mention Georgetown University in Washington, DC. At the Medellin Conference bishops called for the Church to completely reverse course and adopt a preferential option for the poor, the great majority of parishioners whom had been largely neglected since the Iberian Conquest.
But it wasn't solely religious conviction that led the bishops to an unprecedented pastoral focus on the disprivileged. By the late 1960s, it was already clear that Pentecostalism was mushrooming throughout the most Catholic region on earth, primarily among the masses of poor Catholics whom the Church had ignored for so long. Thus, the preferential option for the poor and the Liberationist ideal of building the Kingdom of Heaven on Latin American soil also had its strategic component in the context of massive losses of working class Catholics. The irony in Pope Francis embracing the controversial theology is that it never became the mass movement that it aspired to be in Latin America.
Its main pastoral expression were the Base Christian Communities, which in their most fertile soil of Brazil never attracted more than 4 percent of all Catholics. When I was doing doctoral research on Pentecostalism in Brazil in the early 1990s, the great majority of Catholics I met had never even heard of the small Catholic communities that would meet on a weekly basis. Liberation Theology was attacked both by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) who through the myopic lens of the Cold War saw it as Marxist-inspired. However it was also a cerebral-oriented theology that had little patience for the predominant folk Catholicism of the region centered on the saints, Virgin Mary and popular shrines.
As Liberationist Catholicism floundered, a contemporaneous ecclesial movement flourished. Today the Charismatic Renewal, the Catholic version of Pentecostalism, claims 40 percent of all Latin American Catholics after just four decades of being exported from the United States. In Brazil, home to the world's largest Catholic population, over 60 percent of parishioners are Charismatic! While it doesn't draw much media attention, Pope Francis has been influenced by the movement, having performed a public exorcism at the Vatican and making frequent references to the devil, most recently calling capitalist greed "the devil's dung" in Bolivia. In fact shortly before departing from Rome for Ecuador, Pope Francis met with the international Charismatic organization and admonished them not be too proud, like "peacocks." Charismatics are often criticized for vanity and pride since they (justifiably) feel like they have resurrected the Church in Latin America and throughout the Global South.
So as radical as Pope Francis appeared on his South American tour, condemning global capitalist exploitation and callous politicians while meeting with inmates in notorious prisons, his mission of a preferential option for the poor is really just Liberation Theology resurrected some two decades after its demise. For in the ensuing four decades since its advent, Pentecostal growth has continued unabated to the point that several Central American nations, Uruguay and Cuba are no longer Catholic-majority countries. Above all, Pope Francis was elected pope to reverse monumental Catholic decline in a region that is home to 40 percent of the world's Catholics. The only way to do this is to target those sectors of the population who have most defected to the Pentecostal competition, the poor, Indigenous peoples, youth, women and prisoners. Whether or not the overwhelming popular enthusiasm shown for the Argentine pope in the three South American nations will translate into more parishioners in Latin American pews remains an open question.