“Vatican readmits leftist thinking,” declared the Times in September, referring to the Vatican’s move under Pope Francis I to rehabilitate Liberation Theology, a neo-Marxist-Christian ideological hybrid that emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and became a major force on the Left and a relentless critic of the Church hierarchy. Signalling the shift, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, devoted a two-page spread to a defence of the movement after it had previously been condemned by John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) from 1981 until 2005, when he followed John Paul II to become Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, before stepping aside in March 2013.
There then followed a series of comments, announcements, and a lengthy interview in which the Pope and the Vatican addressed other major areas of controversy. Soon it appeared that the rehabilitation of Liberation Theology was emblematic of an historic leftward shift by the papacy and complements an apparent softening of its stance in such areas as priestly celibacy, the role of women in the Church, homosexuality, atheism, and even abortion. There was great delight among progressives. As the Washington Post observed, a “major pro-abortion rights group … quickly thanked Pope Francis for his comments … and many pro-choice Americans were giddy” with expectation.
The Church moved to clarify the situation, with Cardinal George Pell, for example, insisting that the Pope’s remarks in these areas may have been taken out of context. Progressives then pounced on this to suggest that Francis had opened up a “whole new universe” that leading churchmen like Pell would struggle to deal with. However, the Pope made it clear in further comments that acceptance of abortion would not be a feature of any such new moral universe, and he affirmed his belief in the sanctity of life and condemned the “throwaway” consumer culture that accepts the elimination of unborn children.
The real target of his remarks, it seems, was the Church’s previous obsession with the lifestyle moral issues of the First World. These had been elevated into a special category of faith-defining concerns that was undermining the unity of Catholic teaching and denying proper attention to other more vital matters, especially in the Third World. These include poverty, unemployment, mass atrocities, inadequate water supplies and healthcare, and many other social justice issues. Francis declared his aim was a new balance for the moral and dogmatic teachings of the Church, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards”.
He then launched a strong attack on the global economic system, even attracting the attention of Al Jazeera America. It reported on the Pope’s visit to the Sardinian capital of Cagliari, where he declared the economic system could no longer be based on a “god called money” and urged the many unemployed workers in Cagliari to fight for work. The welcoming crowd of about 20,000 people chanted what Francis called a prayer for “work, work, work”, and cheered each time he spoke of workers’ rights and the personal devastation caused by unemployment. Later he celebrated Mass for some 300,000 people, telling them, “We don’t want this globalised economic system which does us so much harm. Men and women have to be at the centre [of an economic system] as God wants, not money.”
This evokes core themes of Liberation Theology, whose history is entwined with the early career of the new Pope, as it began in Latin America at the time when Francis was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio and was beginning his career in the Jesuits in Argentina. It rapidly became a major religious and political force as widespread social unrest, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, communist subversion, authoritarian governments, military dictatorships and semi-official death squads were tearing the continent apart. This turmoil was exemplified by the monumentally lethal “Dirty War” that raged in two phases in Argentina from 1973 until 1983. By this time Bergoglio was serving amid growing controversy as the Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina (1973 to 1979), and then as the Rector of the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of San Miguel until 1986 when he was abruptly removed.
His actions or inactions during this period are now being re-examined as he assumes papal power. Referring to the enthusiasm with which he accepted his new role, the New York Times observed that “he was less energetic when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by … the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them.” “History condemns him,” declared a senior Brazilian academic. “It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cosy with the military.” Francis rejected suggestions that he had hard-right sympathies, claiming that it was merely his “authoritarian way of making decisions” while he was head of the Argentinian Jesuits in the 1970s “that created problems” in the past.
Nevertheless, such problems were substantial and the criticism he faces has been emphatic. For example, a presently serving provincial of another Latin American country and one of the most senior figures in the Society of Jesus confided his negative views in an e-mail quoted by Paul Vallely, in his new biography, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (2013):
Yes, I know Bergoglio. He’s a person who’s caused a lot of problems in the Society and is highly controversial in his own country … As Provincial he generated divided loyalties: some groups almost worshipped him, while others would have nothing to do with him … He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed [and] we have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that the man left us … It will be a catastrophe for the Church to have someone like him in the Apostolic See.
As Vallely observes, “this constituted an extraordinary counterblast” to the acclaim that otherwise met the election of Pope Francis, but it was “far from a lone voice” from within the Jesuit order to which Bergoglio had dedicated a major part of his adult life.
It is clear that great bitterness enveloped Bergoglio during his time as Provincial Superior, as Vallely’s account reveals. Regarded as a gifted and charismatic young man, Bergoglio had enjoyed a rapid ascent through the ranks to head the order at only thirty-six, just three months after taking his perpetual vows. Under his leadership the province broke up into Bergogliano and anti-Bergogliano factions, driven, Vallely argues, by two polarising forces: Vatican II and Peronism.
Vatican II had led to Bergoglio’s appointment, at the expense of the previous Superior who had vigorously sought to implement liberal reforms within the Church and especially the core promise to exercise a “preferential option for the poor”. This had led many priests to move into the villas miserias or slums, including two Jesuits, Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, whose fate would come to haunt Bergoglio. Progressive Jesuits wanted to abandon the order’s traditional focus on educating and mentoring the elite and instead work in the slums with the poor, setting up “base communities” in accordance with Liberation Theology. The others wanted to adhere to their traditional role and were concerned that working prominently with the poor would make them targets for the death squads that were then appearing.
As vocations fell precipitously the conservatives petitioned the Jesuit Superior General, and Bergoglio, who had previously been Novice Master, swapped places with the incumbent, much to the latter’s great humiliation. Bergoglio then retreated from much of the Vatican II agenda while imposing an authoritarian rule upon the order. In the academic area he fired progressive teachers, including Father Yorio, while books written by Father Jalics were removed from the library and their use forbidden in classes. An arch-conservative military chaplain was brought in to take over the teaching, while “Liberation Theology was actually forbidden”, as a former student and now rector of a Catholic university recalls. As Vallely observes, “the resistance movement to the reforms of Vatican II was being led among the foremost intellectual order in Argentina by Jorge Mario Bergoglio”.
Peronism was the dominant political ideology in Argentina throughout Bergoglio’s formative years. Purportedly based on Catholic principles of social justice, it was founded by Juan Perón, President of Argentina from 1946 to 1955, and attempted to find a “Third Way” between capitalism and communism that was corporatist in approach, rejecting any notion of class struggle, and seeking to assimilate all sectors of society into an integral state. Perón pursued populist policies of accelerated industrialisation, nationalisation and wealth redistribution, backed by the Church, the unions and the military, and protected by the suppression of political opposition and press freedom. Inevitably, economic stagnation, bureaucratic hypertrophy, inflation, falling living standards, and rising unemployment followed, and Perón was overthrown by the military in 1955 and went into exile. He returned in 1973 amid another period of major social and labour unrest to become President once again, before he died in 1974, to be succeeded by his third wife Isabel, who served as President until March 1976 when she was also deposed by the military.
The relentless violence that culminated in the Dirty War was announced on the very day that Perón was to greet three and a half million of his supporters upon his return. In what became known as the Ezeiza massacre, right-wing Peronists took the opportunity to have snipers murder leading left-wing Peronists among the joyous crowd, killing around twenty and wounding hundreds more. Such a showdown was inevitable, given the extremist positions adopted by the two wings. The left-wing forces embraced communism and anti-Catholicism, found inspiration in the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and Maoist theories of guerrilla warfare, and went on to spawn the Monteneros terrorist organisation. In stark contrast, the right-wing forces were fiercely anti-communist, militant supporters of the Church and private property, and found inspiration in such organisations as the Grey Wolves, a Turkish neo-fascist terrorist organisation, and the Iron Guard, a militant Orthodox Christian, anti-communist and ultra-nationalist Romanian organisation that had been liquidated during the Second World War.
In the midst of this violently polarised situation, Bergoglio became the spiritual leader of the Argentinian Iron Guard. Vallely portrays the organisation as “an odd bunch”, who operated as
a secret order characterized by obedience, intellectual rigor and ascetic discipline—the Jesuit virtues—but whose intellectual influences were a mish-mash of Lenin, the mystic Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade and the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci.
Lenin provided the organisational model of a tightly controlled revolutionary elite, while Eliade (who was to become one of the greatest scholars of religion of the twentieth century) advocated an anti-liberal, anti-democratic and anti-modern form of neo-fascism. Above all, he promoted the Iron Guard as a vanguard for a form of spiritualised nationalism, able to lead a Christian revolution and reconcile the nation with God. The Argentinian group was also committed to the Third Way corporatist approach that lay at the core of Peronism and particularly attracted Bergoglio as an alternative to capitalism and communism.
In August 1974 the Iron Guard scored a major coup when Bergoglio gave control of the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires to the group, appointing a leader of the Iron Guard as the university’s rector and other prominent members to senior university positions. Although this followed a decision by the Jesuits to implement Vatican II reforms by transferring such assets to the laity, it nevertheless enraged many Jesuits that the institution had been handed to the far-right extremist group. They were further incensed when the university subsequently awarded an honorary degree to Admiral Emilio Massera, a leading member of the military junta that deposed Isabel Perón, and then served as mastermind of the Dirty War and the junta’s torturer-in-chief. He was later tried for human rights violations and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The founder of the Iron Guard, Alejandro Alvarez, subsequently forged ties with Comunione e Liberazione, an Italian lay ecclesial movement that promoted an integralist and anti-communist ideology and lay spirituality, initially for Catholic students and young people. The organisation expanded significantly during the pontificate of John Paul II and now has a presence in some eighty countries. Many Catholic leaders have been members, including Bergoglio. This led the Guardian to bemoan his association “with the scandal-tainted conservative lay organization”, while the disaffected former Dominican and prominent eco-theologian, Matthew Fox, alleged in Tikkun that “the Pope’s allegiance is not to the principles of justice enunciated by Vatican II … but to Comunione e Liberazione … a neo-fascist movement [that] is all about obedience, all about hierarchy, [and] all about centralizing power in the Pope”.
A more nuanced assessment would focus on the Integralist themes that run through these various movements. As a corporatist “Third Way” between capitalism and communism, Integralism begins with the conviction that nation-states (or other forms of mass human collectivity such as religions or churches) flourish best if they operate as organic unities rooted in their own specific history, culture and tradition. It also defends social differentiation and hierarchy while promoting co-operation between classes and the mediation of social and economic conflict through trade unions, guilds, and close co-ordination between industry and the state. Above all, it provides for a prominent role for the Church. The ideology was first articulated by the French journalist Charles Maurras, and has been prominent at different times in France, Italy, Spain, Romania and throughout Latin America. It is often disparaged as a form of proto- or neo-fascism.
One of the most persistent allegations against Bergoglio from the Dirty War period concerns the kidnapping, interrogation and torture of two Jesuit priests by the military in May 1976, about which a human rights lawyer filed criminal charges (later dismissed) against Bergoglio in 2005, accusing him of involvement in the abduction. The priests were Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, both of whom had previously fallen foul of Bergoglio. Fortunately, they survived their ordeal, with Yorio accusing Bergoglio of exposing them to the death squads by refusing to endorse their work with the poor that led to their arrest. Yorio never retreated from his accusations, left the Jesuits, and declared in a 1999 interview that Bergoglio did nothing “to free us, in fact just the opposite”.
Jalics, however, kept silent and remained in seclusion until he emerged two days after the election of Pope Francis to issue a statement blaming their betrayal on a former lay colleague who had become a guerrilla but was captured and who named Yorio and Jalics under interrogation. In a second statement he declared emphatically, “Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio.”
Others defended the Pope, including the President of the Argentine Supreme Court, who declared Bergoglio “completely innocent” of the accusations. Other endorsements were less emphatic. A Nobel Prize-winning peace activist conceded that, “perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship”. A former Argentine judge claims that Bergoglio helped people flee the regime. She also recalled his anguish when she urged him to speak out, and his reply that “he couldn’t. That it wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
Such anguish at the violence and reticence when called upon to take a stand, along with the other events described above, need to be seen in the context of the extreme tensions that existed at the peak of the Cold War. Vallely and the many critics of Francis fail to adequately represent the extent to which terrorist and counter-terrorist violence spiralled out of control in this period. In fact, Bergoglio assumed his position as Provincial Superior at a time when much of the Church and most of the military forces in Latin America had become convinced that they were on the front line at the start of the Third World War.
Nor were these fears groundless. As Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin make clear in The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (2005), at the root of this anxiety was the decision taken in 1961 by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to identify “the liberation struggles of oppressed peoples” as one of “the mainstream tendencies of social progress”, and to promote “the use of national liberation movements and the forces of anti-imperialism in an aggressive new grand strategy against America in the Third World”. Consequently, in 1964 the Soviets increased funding for international terrorism ten-fold, while communist bloc intelligence services began recruiting spies, infiltrating left-wing terrorist movements, and setting up special training schools for terrorists from around the world.
Central to this strategy were two organisations. The Tricontinental Conference was held in Havana in January 1966 with Soviet sponsorship and under the direction of the KGB. It was attended by 513 delegates (including forty from the USSR) representing eighty-three socialist, communist, nationalist and other radical groups from Third World nations, together with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Its main initiative was to form the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL), whose aims included overthrowing globalisation, imperialism and neo-liberalism; providing aid and other types of support for national liberation movements and “freedom fighters” (that is, insurgents, guerrillas and terrorists); and intensifying all armed struggles on all three continents.
The leading figure of OSPAAAL was the revolutionary activist and KGB operative Mehdi Ben Barka, who observed that the conference had taken the epoch-defining step of combining “the two currents of the world revolution … the current born with the October Revolution [namely, Marxism-Leninism] and the national liberation revolutions’ currents”. By 1976 the CIA estimated that over 140 terrorist groups from some fifty nations were connected in an international network, engaged in terrorist operations, contract murders, kidnappings, robberies, arms smuggling, identity theft, money-laundering, training, safe-housing and associated illegal activities.
In Latin America the response to this co-ordinated campaign of communist subversion and insurgency was initially piecemeal until the authoritarian governments and military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru collaborated on Operation Condor. This was a systematic campaign of co-ordinated counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism measures that operated with clandestine American support from 1975 until the early 1980s. The principal targets were revolutionary and terrorist groups, including the Revolutionary Left Movement in Chile, the Montoneros and People’s Revolutionary Army in Argentina, and the Tupamaros in Uruguay, whose membership ran into the tens of thousands. As political violence intensified, many other groups and individuals were targeted, and it has been estimated that some 60,000 people died as the combatants fought it out across Latin America.
Bergoglio witnessed all of this conflict from Argentina, where left-wing terrorists executed innumerable devastating attacks on government and corporate targets, leading President Isabel Peron in 1975 to issue decrees granting the military and security forces the power to “annihilate” leftist subversion. Thus began the notorious practice of “disappearing” suspected terrorists and guerrillas, political activists, trade unionists, students, journalists, intellectuals, priests, nuns and sympathisers. Paramilitary death squads abducted suspects, tortured and interrogated them, frequently raped them, drugged them, and then dumped them into the ocean from aircraft. It is estimated that between 12,000 to 30,000 people died in this conflict, which raged until the military junta was deposed after the country’s defeat in the Falklands War in 1983.
Bergoglio also witnessed the emergence of one of the most important theological movements of the twentieth century, one that was also thoroughly embroiled in the surge of leftist revolutionary activity sponsored by the communist bloc. Liberation Theology, like most leftist ideologies, relies on an unsophisticated Marxist form of political economy and, in particular, on the very influential dependency theory developed by Andre Gunder Frank in Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (1967) and Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution (1969). According to this theory, the global economic system is a zero-sum game in which Western imperialism plunders the world. Wealth flows from underdeveloped countries on the periphery of the global economy to the developed states at the core, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. Liberation Theology therefore focuses on the “structures of sin” that characterise capitalist societies and implicate all who live within them in a collective guilt for the exploitation and oppression that produce the wealth they enjoy.
On the other hand, Liberation Theology insists, this process leaves the wealthy spiritually impoverished because the locus of true spirituality lies amongst the poor and oppressed, and can only be realised through solidarity with them and participation in their daily struggles against oppression. Consequently, to realise its mission the Church must exercise the “preferential option for the poor” in all matters of doctrine, faith and church practice. In particular, it must engage in “praxis” to promote the transformation of existing social and economic institutions to achieve social justice. This Marxist notion became a core belief within Liberation Theology, according to which
God is disclosed in the historical “praxis” of liberation. It is the situation, and our passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed …
as Richard McBrien explains in Catholicism (1995).
The movement took initial inspiration from A Theology of Liberation (1971) by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest, and it quickly acquired a major international profile amid enormous controversy over its ideological and political links to communism. Gutiérrez was part of the generation of theologians (which includes Benedict XVI and Francis I and most prominent Liberation Theologians) that came of age in a period of theological and ideological turmoil, dominated not only by the liberalisation of the Catholic Church under Vatican II, the neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth, and the “religionless Christianity” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but also by the ultra-radical zeitgeist of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. Aside from Marxist political economy, possibly the major intellectual influence on Gutiérrez from this crucial period was the German Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann, whose Theology of Hope (1964) was very much influenced by the account of utopianism offered in The Principle of Hope by the neo-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, and this utopianism found its way into A Theology of Liberation.
Liberation Theology has had a profound influence in clerical and lay circles both inside and outside the Church, and has inspired a wide range of more specific theologies of liberation that give expression to the perceived oppression suffered by a wide variety of self-identified victims’ groups. A recent survey of such theologies, Liberation Theologies in the United States, edited by Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas and Anthony B. Pinn (2010) included contributions on Black, Feminist, Womanist, Latina, Hispanic, Asian-American, Asian-American Feminist, Native Feminist, American Indian, and Gay and Lesbian Theologies. There is also a Disabled Liberation Theology that seeks to unite spiritual practice with an analysis of disability considered as a form of economic oppression.
The theology of all of these groups is based on the conviction that their identity arises from their victimhood, that they are oppressed by the “structures of sin” that characterise society, and that they can lay claim to their own specific form of spirituality through their collective struggle (“praxis”) against this oppression. Notably, as critics have pointed out, such spirituality is immanentist rather than transcendentalist, this-worldly rather than other-worldly, and is orientated around political activism.
In 1984, when the movement was its height, the CDF under Ratzinger issued its Instruction on Certain Aspects of “Theology of Liberation”, which alerted Catholics to the damaging deviations from Catholicism promoted by Liberation Theology. While Ratzinger accepted that the Church had a responsibility to support and defend the poor and oppressed, he systematically exposed the Marxist underpinnings of Liberation Theology. He also rejected its claim that the Church hierarchy collaborated with military dictatorships in the oppression of the poor, and criticised its pose as a “grass roots” movement, pointing out that it was itself an ideological import from elite radical intellectual circles in Europe and could even be seen as a form of cultural imperialism.
Three decades later, the situation has changed. As the article in L’Osservatore Romano observed, “with a Latin American Pope, Liberation Theology could not remain for long in the shadows to which it has been relegated”, and evidence is now being cited that the Pope is sympathetic to the ideals of the movement. This includes the claim that he had applied an Argentine version of the radical theology while he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires; that he is the first pope to take the name of St Francis of Assisi and did so as a gesture of commitment to the poor; that he has explicitly called for “a poor church for the poor”; that he refuses to wear the red papal slippers and other sumptuous regalia associated with his office; that he insisted he live in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the lavish papal apartment; that he is preparing a new encyclical on poverty; that his homily for World Youth Day in Brazil in July 2013 evoked Liberation Theology themes in its appeal to young people to invoke “God’s power to pluck up and break down evil and violence, to destroy and overthrow the barriers of selfishness, intolerance and hatred, so as to build a new world”; and that he is facilitating the canonisation of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating mass after he had condemned violence by the military during the counter-insurgency struggles raging at the time.
Moreover, a former student and long-term friend of Gutiérrez is now the head of the CDF. Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller was appointed to this central position in 2012 by Benedict XVI and has retained the post under Francis. He views Gutiérrez as his mentor and the two have just published an Italian translation of their book, On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation, the book that L’Osservatore Romano featured in its article signalling the rehabilitation of Liberation Theology. Müller has visited Peru every year since 1998 to attend courses run by Gutiérrez, and has taken the opportunity to live for months with local farmers, apparently to engage in praxis and gain a first-hand experience of their lives. In a speech to mark the occasion of his award, he described his relationship with Gutiérrez going back to 1988 and his reasons for supporting key elements of Liberation Theology, while seeking to distance himself from its Marxist dimensions. He declared it orthodox, “because it is orthopractic and it teaches us the correct way of acting in a Christian fashion since it comes from true faith”. He also spent a great deal of his speech condemning the “infamy of our age: neoliberal capitalism” and its baleful consequences.
Francis had a private audience with Gutiérrez in September, apparently to confirm the papal shift in attitude. He has also become reconciled with another leading Liberation Theologian, as Vallely reveals. Just after his election in March, Francis contacted Leonardo Boff, who was previously “one of the liberation theologians most reviled by Rome”, and one who had been “condemned to ‘obsequious silence’ and suspended from his religious duties” by the CDF in 1985 under Ratzinger for his Marxist inclinations and the radical theological position expressed in Church: Charism and Power (1985). Boff’s view was that Ratzinger was guilty of “religious terrorism”, and after he was subsequently prevented from attending the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which initiated the present wave of eco-apocalypticism, Boff left the Franciscans and the ministry to continue as a prominent radical theologian and vocal critic of the Church.
Boff’s favourite term of opprobrium is “fundamentalist”. He has likened America and Israel to “fundamentalist terrorist states”, condemned the “fundamentalism of neoliberalism and the logic of the world market”, and similarly dismissed the papacy under John Paul II and Ratzinger. In an interview with Comunità Italiana after the September 11 attacks in 2001 he condemned “the terror that the USA and its allies are taking to Afghanistan” and claimed:
The terrorist attacks of September 11 … send a message: we cannot build a new world civilization with the kind of dominating economy symbolized by the World Trade Center, the kind of death machine operated by the Pentagon, and the type of arrogant policy [imposed] by the White House … The system and culture of capital have begun to crumble. They are too destructive. Capitalism exploits the labor force, devastates nations and nature [and will] lead us the way of the dinosaurs.
Francis contacted Boff in connection with Boff’s work on eco-theology, a sub-genre of Liberation Theology that seeks to liberate the earth from the oppressive presence of human beings and their technology. Boff spelt out his views in a 2012 article, “Only a God Can Save Us”, invoking the metaphysical paganism and anti-technological theorising of the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, who believed that humanity took a fatal wrong turn in the pre-Socratic age and embarked on the highway to hell. Consequently, Boff condemns both “our [technological] paradigm and mentality … whose roots already existed in classical Greek metaphysics”, and “the vast scientific-technological apparatus on which our civilization is based”. He is convinced that “the maintenance and acceleration of the technological process … can lead us to eventual self-destruction. The death machine was already built decades ago.”
Aside from the Pope’s interest in his extremist eco-theology, Boff was particularly pleased with the new Pope’s name: “This name is programmatic: Francis of Assisi [symbolises] a church of the poor and oppressed [that takes] responsibility for the environment, and avoids luxury and ostentation.” In an interview published by Der Spiegel in March, he predicted Francis “will surprise many by heading a radical move in the church”, and he pointed out that “a couple of months ago [Francis] expressly approved that a homosexual couple adopt a child”, an event greeted with jubilant incredulity by the Gay Mystics website and others. Boff has become a strong supporter of Francis.
Is it possible to reconcile the new Pope’s prompt action to rehabilitate Liberation Theology and bring about a shift to the Left on vital areas of long-standing controversy, with the conflicting stance he took against the radical ecclesiastical and political forces of the 1970s? One interpretation of this reversal is that Bergoglio and his supporters were simply prepared to be pragmatic or even opportunistic in pursuit of the papacy, building bridges to forces within the Church that he had previously vigorously opposed, and which had sharply criticised and deeply resented him.
Another possibility is to look more closely at Bergoglio’s intellectual and political formation during the period when “Third Way” Integralism was pervasive in Argentina and Latin America generally. For example, the Vatican’s newly appointed Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has tried to distinguish between Marxist Liberation Theology and a “distinctly Argentine perspective” that features a less ideologically burdened commitment to the poor:
On Liberation Theology … things are much clearer now … The church has a preferential option for the poor … But it’s [not] one that excludes anyone. The church must not assume Marxist categories or class struggle …
and focus instead on culture and religion. It is an approach that evokes the Integralism that characterised not only Peronism but also the spiritualised politics of the Iron Guard and Comunione e Liberazione. This interpretation explains how Francis is comfortable condemning aspects of capitalism while firmly disdaining communism, and how he can censure key elements of the progressivist agenda while promoting radical social change in other areas. It also indicates that Francis will strive to develop the Church as an inclusive organic entity.
It is worth recalling the comments of Leonardo Boff after his conversation with Pope Francis: “He is now the Pope and he can do whatever he wants. Many will be surprised with what Francis will do.”
Mervyn F. Bendle wrote on “Erich Fromm and the Age of Anxiety” in the October issue.