When Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, of Buenos Aires was inaugurated as the 266th pope this past March, one of his first acts was to call 85-year-old Father Gustavo Gutiérrez of Lima, Peru, to invite him to Rome for a conversation. The two concelebrated Mass, then ate breakfast and talked. It was a short meeting, but with enormous significance. In 1968, Gutiérrez wrote a paper, “Toward a Theology of Liberation,” whose ideas were embraced by the Latin American bishops at their historic meeting that year in Medellín, Colombia, where they issued a series of documents that became the Magna Carta of one of the most influential theological movements of the twentieth century: liberation theology. At the 1979 conference in Puebla, Mexico, the bishops affirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s “preferential option for the poor,” which had become the leitmotif of the movement, inspiring both laypeople and clergy to wade into the struggle against political and economic injustice. 

The official response to these efforts by Latin American dictatorships and their allies was a violent repression that cost many thousands their lives. Among the victims was Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated by a death squad while saying Mass in 1980, and four North American churchwomen later the same year, including two Maryknoll sisters. Despite the repression, liberation theology lifted the spirits of millions of impoverished Latin Americans, while its message spread to Korea (Minjung theology), India (Dalit theology) and all around the world. Soon Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and evangelical liberation theologies appeared. It was an idea whose time had come. 

But the Vatican was not happy. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, publicly censured liberation theology, disciplined some of its principal advocates and silenced Father Leonardo Boff, the Franciscan editor of Brazil’s principal theological journal. Both pope and prefect stalled the efforts of Catholics to beatify Romero, the first step to sainthood. But now, with croissants and cappuccinos in Rome, the Vatican’s war against liberation theology seems to be over. As if to make that message clear, Pope Francis restarted the process for the beatification of Romero. Is this, then, a second act for liberation theology—which many had dismissed as yesterday’s stale trend—only on a much larger stage? And is Francis its unlikely champion? 

As head of the Jesuits in Argentina and then as a bishop, Francis never joined in the attack on liberation theology—but he was never a forceful defender of it either. As a bishop, he claimed that he favored it, but not in an ideological way. When debates about the movement split both the church and the Jesuits, Francis tried to patch up the divisions. He has subsequently conceded that he often did it with a heavy hand, which he now regrets. After Argentina’s return to civilian rule in 1983, then-Bishop Bergoglio was dogged by rumors that he had done little to oppose the military dictatorship, under which some 30,000 people had been killed. Some even suggested that he had been involved in the arrest and torture of two of his priests, who were putting the message of Medellín into practice by organizing slum dwellers. Subsequent investigations have cleared him of any complicity. The consensus of informed opinion on this affair was best summed up by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the left-wing Argentine writer and activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980: “Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated.” In any case, Bergoglio has told friends that he wishes he had acted differently and will try not to make such a mistake in the future. But now, as the first South American pope, just where does he stand on the most important theological contribution ever made by his continent to Christian theology? 

What Bergoglio has said and done since his selection indicates that the message of Medellín and the example of Romero have indeed shaped him and could inform his papacy. Choosing the name Francis—in honor of the saint who was a friend of the poor and a critic of the wealth and worldly power of the church in the thirteenth century—sent a clear signal. His first trip outside Rome was to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where refugees from hunger and poverty in Africa wade ashore seeking something better in Europe. The pope welcomed some, expressed condolences to the families of several others whose bodies had recently washed up on the beach, and celebrated Mass on an altar shaped like one of the flimsy boats in which these refugees make the dangerous voyage. The principal currency of the church is symbols, and these made a tangible impact. But in addition to rituals, Pope Francis has also made splendid use of words. And whatever his ambivalence about liberation theology in the past, his first Apostolic Exhortation, issued in November, eloquently reveals his thinking today. 

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The first thing to notice about this 50,000-word document is its title, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). To those familiar with church teachings, it calls to mind the most groundbreaking document of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), which reversed centuries of papal rhetoric against modernity by stating, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,” are also those of “the followers of Christ.” John Paul and Benedict, while never openly questioning Vatican II, did little to advance its far-reaching recommendations. Now Francis has revived its spirit and language, but he has also revived the message of Medellín. 

The Exhortation touches on a wide range of topics. But the thing that may be most striking to non-Catholics is the upbeat evangelical tone of the document. Francis is a master at bringing individual spirituality and social justice together, something the earlier liberation theologians rarely did well. Like a Baptist preacher, he invites people to a “renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” and he says that God “never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy…. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.” This conviction “enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.” After these lines, I can picture a blue-robed black Pentecostal choir singing a loud “Amen!” 

The pope returns time and again to his central motif of joy. But he also uses this theme to ask why so many people today are not joyful, but rather limited by “nervousness and self-absorption.” This allows him to make a transition to the heart of the Exhortation, a stinging critique of consumerism and of what he calls “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” His Holiness begs to differ. “This opinion,” he says, “expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting…and a globalization of indifference has developed.” Further, “the culture of prosperity deadens us,” and the spiritual price we pay is that “we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor,” which undercuts our capacity for God-given joy. In a sentence that has already gone viral, Francis asks, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” 

Francis calls on leaders to guarantee “dignified work, education and healthcare” to their citizens and criticizes the “idolatry of money.” In a direct reproof to capitalism, he writes: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” The liberation theologians often found themselves in hot water for insisting that a preferential option for the poor requires not just charity but systemic change. On this point, Francis speaks with unequivocal frankness: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.” Might Francis have visited Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to pray with the activists of Occupy Wall Street? 

This is strong medicine for those who have cast the Catholic Church as the defender of market capitalism. Did the cardinals who selected Bergoglio know what they were getting? The answer is yes and no. Clearly, his selection was not without an element of self-interest, both for the cardinals and for the church. They knew who he was: Bergoglio had already been the runner-up to Ratzinger in the last conclave, and he was widely respected among the cardinals of the Global South, who thought that after centuries of European popes, it was now their turn. They also did not want a pope drawn from the Vatican Curia, which many of the cardinals had come to dislike for arrogating so much power to itself. Both John Paul II and Benedict preferred the Curia’s Rome-centered view and a highly centralized church; but already, Pope Francis has identified himself as favoring decentralization. “Excessive centralization,” he writes, “rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life.” To jump-start the process, he has appointed eight cardinals from around the world as a kind of cabinet and buffer between himself and the Curia. Benedict distrusted the regional councils of bishops that had emerged after Vatican II as a possible threat to papal power. But Francis expressly favors these councils and quotes from them, in particular the Brazilian one in his recent Exhortation.

The cardinals were also painfully aware of the hemorrhaging of Catholics out of their church and into evangelical and Pentecostal congregations all over the Global South—but particularly in Latin America, and especially among youth. Bergoglio’s selection was in part an effort to stanch the bleeding. Notice that the new pope’s first trip outside Europe was to Brazil, still the largest Catholic country in the world but with a swiftly multiplying Protestant population. Pope Francis presided over a youth festival there that drew some 3 million to Copacabana Beach. Whether this exercise in global ecclesial politics will be successful in slowing the spread of Pentecostalism—which already accounts for more than 500 million people, or one-fourth of all Christians—remains to be seen. 

In his Exhortation, Pope Francis has clearly set for himself a daunting agenda. He wants to make governance of the church more representative. He wants to take the lid off the Vatican Bank. He even says he wants to reform the papacy and asks for suggestions on how to go about it. Above all, he wants to change the whole direction of the church, to steer it away from what he has called its obsession with abortion and contraception and toward its ministry of social justice, especially for the forgotten and marginalized. Let us call it what it is: a “preferential option for the poor.” But can he succeed? 

Francis now commands perhaps the bulliest of all bully pulpits. His words and actions resound not just within his own church, but around the world. Still, he faces enormous obstacles. First, a major right-wing opposition, both within and outside the church, is already gathering steam and will not go away. If curial prelates do not like what he is doing (and many will not), they can find hundreds of ways to delay and impede. Second, too many people have excessively high expectations of what Francis can do. A feisty older woman with a Catholic Worker background complained to me that the pope should have given priests the right to marry “on his first day in office.” That will not happen right away, although it’s not out of the question that Francis will make clerical celibacy optional. On the other hand, he will not permit women to be ordained and will not alter the church’s position on abortion, which he considers a human rights issue. Finally, Francis is also a human being, and the kind of adulation now being poured out on him, and a small but growing cult of personality, could render him less effective. 

When I met him in Rome in October, Francis closed our conversation by asking me to pray for him. I promised him that I would. He will need it.