One of the unexpected gifts of the new pope to the church is this: after having been under a shadow during the last two papacies, after having been attacked and suppressed, the liberation theology movement is now front and center in Catholic conversations. I find this resurrection of a movement many Catholics (and powerful political and economic interest groups outside the church) had believed safely dead and buried something like a miracle.
To understand why the fate of liberation theology has a deeply personal significance for me--an autobiographical one--you'll have to keep in mind that I began studying theology at the graduate level just as this movement arrived on the Catholic theological scene. Gustavo Gutiérrez published his ground-breaking Theology of Liberation in 1971.
The following year, I finished my undergraduate studies and began several years of graduate theological courses as a part-time student while I was living and working (with Steve and others just out of college) in a lay Catholic community in New Orleans providing food, clothes, furniture, and money to people on the very margins of society. We did this work in collaboration with the chaplaincy office at Loyola University, which was the alma mater for several members of the lay community, and while we were living in an economically marginal neighborhood that was almost completely African-American, and subsisting on a wage that allowed us only enough money to buy food and pay our monthly bills as we lived very simple lives.
I say this to note that my study of theology, and Steve's, since he took graduate theological courses along with me in these years, had everything to do with our own spiritual quest to understand a life of connection to those on the socioeconomic margins to which we felt a strong calling, and for which we were seeking a theological foundation. And so it's natural that we began reading everything written by liberation theologians that we could get our hands on as we took courses in the first part of the 1970s as lay students at the Catholic seminary in New Orleans, and then when we transferred to the theology program of the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto, a program we had chosen precisely because a theologian whose work we found very important, Gregory Baum, was on the faculty there and had been disseminating the work of liberation theology in the English-speaking Catholic world.
We were graduate theological students, this is to say, during the period in which the promising foundational works of liberation theology were being written, and those works are woven into our own autobiographies as theologians, because they're part of the spiritual journey that spurred our interest in studying theology in the first place. During our years of graduate study, we had the opportunity to work with major theologians who were closely connected to the liberation theology movement, and who brought important liberation theologians from the developing world to teach seminars and give lectures to students at the Toronto School of Theology interested in this movement.
And so when Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II began their attack on liberation theology just as we were finishing our graduate studies and searching for jobs teaching theology in Catholic universities, we felt that attack keenly at a personal level. It impacted our own lives. Showing any interest in or even support for the liberation theology movement was a death sentence on the faculties of many Catholic universities in the U.S. in this period. Even liberal theological faculties--especially theological faculties dominated by liberal theologians--were intensely hostile to the liberationist movement, and strongly inclined to reject any young candidate for a job whose résumé showed that she had read liberation theology, written about it, and had ties to mentors with liberationist leanings.
The voice of liberation theology was effectively silenced for much of American Catholic theology by the combined efforts of the two anti-liberationist popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and by liberal Catholic theologians and journalists in the U.S., who control the Catholic academic and journalistic conversation, and have long been determined to collaborate with these two popes in marginalizing liberation theology with its critique of the collusion of many Catholic thinkers with the rapacious and unbridled capitalism of the latter half of the 20th century.
And now along comes Pope Francis, from a part of the world where it has been impossible to ignore this voice, and--to my surprise and growing joy--among his strongest defenders after his election to the papacy have been liberation theologians. They've been people I've long been inclined to view as theological trailblazers, and, in some cases, as saints.
A case in point: at her Iglesia Descalza site, Rebel Girl has just published another interview with someone who has strong ties to the liberationist movement in Latin America, who predicts that Pope Francis will make the church "look and go in a different direction," because this pope has been "intensely" transformed by his contact with the poor, who will, in the end, "convert him completely."
These are the predictions of Father Antonio Puigjané, a left-wing Argentinian Capuchin who spent 10 years in prison, from the time he was 60 up to his 70th birthday, due to trumped-up charges targeting his work on behalf of human rights. Puigjané notes that though Jorge Maria Bergoglio is by nature "a rather right-wing man, a conservative," the two are close friends. And as a friend, he has watched Bergoglio change ineluctably on the spiritual journey on which he has been involved in Argentina, in which the poor have been his teachers--and have begun converting him and are, in this way, now affecting the course of a major world religion.
I find this testimony hopeful. I find it powerful, in fact. Because I have valued the testimony of liberation theologians for years now, I find it impossible to ignore the testimony of liberation theologians who are defending the new pope and seeking to explain to the media what sets him apart from his immediate predecessors--to explain the special stamp he appears already to be giving to the papacy.
I am touched that Father Puigjané gently corrects his interviewer Gabriel Giubellino when Giubellino refers to Bergoglio's opposition to same-sex marriage. Puigjané replies, "Marriage equality." Though he's well aware that Bergoglio crossed swords with Argentinan president Cristina Kirchner over this issue of marriage equality, his friendship with the new pope does not cause him to scorn Kirchner: rather the opposite, since he tells Giubellino, "I like her because of what she's doing. She's doing everything she can to get us to be a country of brothers and sisters."
I'm touched that theologians of the various liberation theology movements that began in the 1970s, from Latin American liberationism to black liberation theology, have been willing to listen to the experience of women and then gay and lesbian human beings, and incorporate these perspectives in a movement that was initially rather impervious to women's or gay folks' perspectives, and was, in fact, dominated by the machismo and heterosexism of the cultures in which it first arose.
And this "different direction" that the church will take under Pope Francis: what will it look like? To this question, liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who was silenced and punished by Cardinal Ratzinger under Pope John Paul II, provides an answer that corresponds precisely to my own thinking.
As I listen to who is now excited that Francis is pope and who remains angry and suspicious, I feel neither here nor there, neither on the right nor on the left, neither securely among Catholics comfortable in the institutional life of the church as that life is currently configured, nor with fierce critics of the church who are often motivated by resistance to the church itself, and not precisely by a concern to see it reformed.
And in this nowhere place I seem long to have occupied at the margins of the church (and of society), I cannot escape the feeling that many people who are now placing great hope in Francis for the renewal of the church--of their church--aren't quite seeing the point. Their church, the church in which they are comfortably ensconced, is dead. It died under the previous two popes. It cannot be resuscitated.
It is dead, in part, because it has harmed, savaged, brutalized, excluded too many of us who are Catholic and who had thought of our church as our family, our locus of community, spirituality, and salvation--but who have been treated so inhumanely by the church of the last two popes that we cannot come back to our church. Not as it has been configured, that is.
The church as it has been configured is dying in Europe and North America, and will continue to die, insofar as it is centered on clerical power and privilege, authoritarian monarchialism, and heteronormative misogyny and homophobia. What is being born in the sector of the Catholic world touched by liberation theology is a quite different way of being Catholic, which breaks the confining mold of those assumptions and structures, and models for the entire Catholic world a new pluralism, a new indigenization, and, above all, a new way of solidarity with those on the margins.
Here's Boff's description of this process:
The election of Pope Francis, who comes «from the end of the world», as he presented himself, from the periphery of Christianity, from the Great South where 60% of Roman Catholics live, will inaugurate the ecclesiastic paradigm of the Third Millennium: the Church as a vast network of Christian communities, rooted in the various cultures, some more ancient than the Western cultures, such as the Chinese, Indian and Japanese, the tribal cultures of Africa and the communities of Latin America. It is also embodied in the modern culture of the technologically advanced countries, with a faith that is also lived out in small communities. All these incarnations have something in common: the urbanization of humanity, where more than the 80% of the population live in huge conglomerates of millions and millions of persons.
In this context, it will be impossible to talk of territorial parishes, but of neighborhood communities, of the buildings, of the streets nearby. In that Christianity, the lay will be protagonists, encouraged by priests who may or may not be married, or by women priests or women bishops, bound more by spirituality than administration. The Churches will have different faces.
And of course I take hope in this description of what Pope Francis may bring to my church. As you may have noticed from my reports this weekend (here, here, and here), I spent the week of my 63rd birthday, the week after Easter Sunday, being reminded yet again by some of my fellow Catholics who claim that they are issuing these reminders out of love for me--an astonishing lie!--that I am human trash.
I'm human refuse. I don't deserve to be treated with human dignity even as a man who has reached the age of 63, who has worked hard to obtain education and graduate degrees, who has written and continues to write books. I do not deserve to be treated with human dignity even (or especially) because my partner and I have managed, through sheer grace and against great odds, to build something of a stable and happy life together after 42 years of shared life and love for each other.
I am the kind of human trash on which the righteous and privileged love to defecate, because being able to defecate on those they consider trash builds their shaky and threatened sense of self-esteem: their humanity, such as it is, is constructed around their "right" to target and demean others that they consider "beneath" them.
When you live this way, when you have to live this way, even in the week that you turn 63, as you compute your tax returns and discover you made all of a whopping annual income short of $500 (and gave away over half of that, because there are folks whose need is greater than your own),* when you have no health insurance as your doctor warns you that you need it as age and illness creep up on you: you need hope. You need to feel there is a reason for going on, for envisaging a better world, if not for yourself as a human being on the latter end of life's trajectory, then for those young folks like you who will come after you, who do not deserve to live this way.
So, yes, I'll admit, I take hope from the example the new pope is setting for my church, as that example is filtered to me through the insights of liberation theologians I've long admired. I want the world of the future to be a much better place for gay and lesbian young folks who will come of age in the future, and I am inspired by the thought of a church that has the possibility of moving beyond the kind of hatred I've seen vented against me as an aging gay man by some fellow Catholics in the past several days.
I remain hopeful that love will someday mean love for members of my Catholic community, even in their connection to their brothers and sisters who happen to have been made gay by God. If Saul's life could be turned completely upside down by the grace of the risen Christ, then it's possible that the stony hearts of Catholic gay-bashers (and perhaps even my own stony heart) can be turned to living water--and that a pope listening to the experiences of those on the margins can point the way to such transformation for the entire church.
*And it absolutely has to be noted that Steve and I have much to be grateful for, since his salary sustains us, even if we do struggle to make ends meet on one salary and can't afford health insurance for me. I am also grateful beyond all measure to several people who have supported this blog work financially, and who are responsible for almost all of my income last tax year.
The graphic, showing Pope Francis sitting at the back of the chapel in his new residence Domus Sanctae Mariae as he prays, is from John Thavis's blog.