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?