I have had the social gospel on my mind as of late, perhaps in part because of the recent news on the church, in part because of some reading I have been doing and in connection with my preaching and teaching on campus. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Protestant theologian of the social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, and this week I turn my attention to the southern hemisphere and to the liberation theology found there.
I begin with a reflection on the letter of James, which was the subject of a study and discussion with my Chapel Assistants recently. A practical epistle, James focuses more on the practical and material elements of the emerging Christian faith, rather than on the dogmatic or theological formulations for which the apostle Paul is so well known. That down-to-earth writing is captured in one verse at the end of the first chapter, which reads simply, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
It was this ideal, of practical, material concern for others, that informed the Protestant social gospel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seeking not only to do good works for the socially disadvantaged but also to change the systems that caused social dislocation or disenfranchisement. This ideal, particularly the care for the poor, has also characterized the Roman Catholic movement that emerged in Latin and South America in the second half of the twentieth century.
The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s sought to bring the Catholic Church into the modern era, and into better interaction with the world. The bishops of Latin and South America, pushing for the church to offer a “preferential option to the poor,” were disappointed in the limited scope of the Council’s final results and so, not abandoning the idea of social justice and the care of the poor, the bishops met in Medellin, Colombia in 1968 and once again spoke to the church’s “preferential option for the poor.” In putting these words into practice, encouragement was given to the growth of base ecclesial communities, small communities for study, discussion, and empowerment of people through literacy, leadership development, and fostering agendas for social change. Linked to socialist and even communist political forms in many minds, these base ecclesial communities gave political purpose and direction to some of the poorest in both rural and urban areas of Latin America.
The practice of these communities gave rise to a theology of their purpose, referred to as liberation theology, which often used a Marxist social analysis in its critique of injustice. This Latin social gospel, liberation theology, urges the priority or distributive justice with social equality and community as regulative principles. In part because of its Marxist analysis and socialist tendencies, when the next pope, Pope John Paul II, spoke to the bishops at their conference in Mexico in 1979, he spoke in sharp tones that began the official quashing of liberation theology as an idea and as a movement that was described as a “singular heresy.”
The current pope, Pope Francis I, grew up in Argentina and served as a priest and “Bishop of the Slums” in Buenos Aires during the formative years of the idea of liberation theology. It seems the doors are once more opening to the “preferential option for the poor”; the signs are present of a Vatican leader who embraces not only the poor, but the ideals of a practical, social gospel that not only cares for the poor individually, but which seeks systemic and wholesale change to eliminate the causes of poverty.
The signs are significant. Last year, the Pope invited the author of one of the seminal theologies of liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez, to meet him in Rome. In September this year, Pope Francis announced that Rome had lifted the block on sainthood for Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador and a nearly 30-year old ban upon Rev. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, who had been suspended as a priest for serving as foreign minister in Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government in the same era.
It seems that in the post-Cold War era, liberation theology is being brought in from the cold at a time when the economic gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow; the Pope is opening the door to challenge that disparity. In the document Evangelii Gaudium, he says, “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by the happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies that defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”
The moral voice of the Catholic Church, in defense of the poor and disempowered, is being heard once more. The pope’s resurrection of the Latin American and Catholic social gospel is refreshing and the voiceless are once more being given a voice. The Vatican, at last, begins to look differently at the world around it, through stained glass.