Pope Francis: Spiritual, Liberating Theology

EDITORIAL, 22 Jun 2015

#381 | Johan Galtung, 22 Jun 2015 - TRANSCEND Media Service

What a gift to humanity, this Pope! To choose global climate change as a major theme of his papacy is in the spirit of the times. What is revolutionary, and he uses that word often, is the focus on the poor. Climate change–including the long trend global warming over and above some lulls and local variations–has a clear class address, goes beyond making him the spiritual world leader.

The Pope talks about filth covering the earth, and about greed stimulated by corporate capitalism and consumerism as major causes underlying the technicality of CO2 release. The Pope also mentions the freshness of the gospels, including the unambiguous stand of Jesus for the poor in Matt 6:24–God vs Mammon–Matt 13:12–our economic system, and Matt 19:20-24 about giving one’s riches to the poor.

Pope Francis follows in his footsteps. Simply beautiful.

But there is more to it: a general theological discourse from the same continent as this non-Italian Pope: Liberation Theology. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Miguel d’Escoto–Peruvian, Brazilian, Nicaraguan, from the major parts of the Latin Americas–now in their 80s have been rehabilitated. D’Escoto was foreign minister of the Sandinista government and one-year president of the UN General Assembly.

However, the rehabilitation has moved on, into the Caribbean, to the Latin American country that made world history, Cuba, and to the two Castros. President Raul Castro called on the Pope after he had been to Moscow to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism and found “Pope Francis so impressive I might return to the church (“I always studied at Jesuit schools”), pointing out that the Communist Party now permitted believers among its members.

Pope Francis was instrumental in brokering the opening of diplomatic relations and was thanked publicly by Raul Castro: “I am very impressed by his wisdom, his modesty, and all his virtue”.

Liberation Theology was stigmatized by anti-Communist Polish Pope St John Paul II and by his successor, guardian of the faith Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. He had been professor at the University of Tübingen where a very strong and Marxist student revolt against the invasion of US colored his academic pursuits. He continued that struggle as cardinal and pope, saw Marxism where others saw exactly the freshness of the gospels.

In 2009 Ratzinger declared that Liberation Theology had led to rebellion, division, dissent, offense and anarchy”. There was something to it; there was violence in its name. An argument that impressed this non-believer was that the focus on class made it difficult for all to be together in the same church. Well, so did the focus on race; can be overcome.

Pope Francis now revives Liberation Theology his way, including through the focus on the poor in the climate Encyclical.

We in peace studies, believers or not, can feel at home in the Liberation Theology now evolving. Let us recall some major points.

Positive peace is based on equity and empathy. What Pope Francis does everywhere is to restore to dignity people and countries that have been marginalized, not above others, but as their equals. Thus, the Vatican has recognized multi-faith Palestine, not above Israel, but as its equal. To do so he understands the marginalized from the inside as they understand themselves; not blind to their shortcomings but seeing them as generally being on line with God’s creation of human beings as equals under God.

To be a good Christian is like working for peace: it is not a question of reciting dogmas but of consciousness about what is required, and then working for its realization. Salvation, like peace and health, do not come by itself; hard work/good deeds are needed. Faith is not enough–the Pope is for Catholicism, not Protestantism –and is universal, not for one’s own flock only, like Judaism.

There may be some kind of equality of opportunity idea at work.

Economically this means that misery and abject inequality are a scandal against God’s creation. He created us equal, what right do we have to sink millions into the sufferings described in the Sermon on the Mount? Our task is to follow Jesus in setting it right.

Nevertheless, what if inequality and misery are deeply embedded in structures highly resistant to change? Jesus had miracle at his disposal; we ordinary humans do not have that. Consequently, those structures are against God’s creation of a humanity equal under God. Consequently, structures of misery are a scandal.

This key word in Liberation Theology sent shock waves through the church–no stranger to inequity, benefiting from it–an old theme in the history of religions. Institutions transport value upward; a reason that some insist on monastic life, spiritual, not material.

Pope Francis expands this to political inequality in the cases mentioned and not only to protect his own flock but also for atheist Cubans and Muslim and secular Palestinians. Revolution, yes, but nonviolent–like peace studies insist on revolutionary change toward more equitable structures without direct violence, nonviolently.

Liberation Theology can argue that for God’s light to inspire, it has to shine equally on us all, not leaving vast groups of humanity in economic and political shadows struggling for sheer survival against exploitation and repression. Peace studies argue that, for traumas to be reconciled and conflicts to be solved, the parties cannot be too unequal. Inequality, particularly when built into structures as inequity, will color the outcome. Those on top economically and-or politically are already higher on Jacob’s ladder to salvation; those at the bottom are lost in the struggles in this life. Moreover, the same for peace: agreements will tend to tilt in favor of the top.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for your focus–structural violence.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He has published 164 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

Tags: , , ,

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Jun 2015.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Pope Francis: Spiritual, Liberating Theology, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

9 Responses to “Pope Francis: Spiritual, Liberating Theology”

  1. Zeki Ergas says:

    I am still reading the Laudato Si’Encyclical. But the first thought that came to me when I started reading was Liberation Theology. There is a very close and undeniable affinity between the two. Global warming is one of the two major threats to humanity’s and the planet’s survival. The other one is nuclear weapons. It’s clear that we live with a Domocles’ Sword dangerously dangling over our heads. Several times already we have come close to the rope holding it to break and it would be a major catastrophe, possibly the end of civilization as we know it. Worse, Nature would be destroyed. Nature that represents beauty and truth on earth, and God’s presence. As Einstein has said the Fourth World War will be fought with stones. I will add something else that he said: I don’t know if the Universe is infinite or not, but human stupidity is, no doubt about that. It is astonishing: all this scientific and technologial intelligence that has generated enormous progress; but, at the same time, it has produced the threat of terrible annihiliation. So what is wrong? Human beings are partly good, partly bad, and unfortunately the latter have practically all the power, and money rules. The powers that be, economic, political, cultural, social, serve the interests of big money. That is, that of the large multinational corporations running after short-term big profits, not long term happiness and harmony. Ultimately what humanity lacks is wisdom, and intelligence without wisdom is destructive, and can be lethal. Maybe we are on the road of understanding this. Ultimately, the people have the power, let us not forget that.

  2. rosemerry says:

    Thank you, Pope Francis, Johan Galtung and TMS. Although I am no longer a believer, I was brought up in and fully respect the Catholic church. This revival of interest in the people and other living beings on the earth (which I have worked for all my life) is heartening, and shows up the alleged Christians in the US leadership stakes. Let us hope the influence of this encyclical spreads widely.

  3. […] Pope Francis: Spiritual, Liberating Theology […]

  4. Andy Hoffman says:

    Laudato Si should not be read simply as call to remedy our environmental crises or a recalling of liberation theology although it contains both. Nor is it simply a religious text. It is a profound work of philosophy which reflects upon mankind’s relationship with his fellow man, the earth, the cosmos, and the whole of creation. Francis unites science and religion and calls for a “civilization of love.” By the way the first draft was written by a Ghanaian cardinal, Peter Turkson. And there is a good Wikipedia article about its initial effects and responses: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laudato_si

  5. Andy Hoffman says:

    Si Laudato should not be read simply as a call to remedy our environmental crises or a calling to liberation theology although it is both. Rather it is a profound work of philosophy which reflects upon mankind’s relationship with itself, the earth, and all of creation. Francis unites science and religion, but one need not be a believer to hope for the the “civilization of love” he wishes for the world.

  6. Andy Hoffman says:

    If the Pope had been my Sunday school teacher (unlikely since I was raised Jewish and am now more of a Buddhist than anything else) I might well have become a Catholic. I have never read a work of philosophy that got so many things so right even though I am not a Christian.

  7. satoshi says:

    Some 50 years have passed since the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 – 1965, initiated by Pope John XXIII. The openness of the Church was emphasized then, which led to the encouragement of ecumenical dialogues. The opened Church was to work in the field where the majority of people were/are living; many of whom were/are poor. The Liberation theology was born around that time.

    At least, two main background factors should be considered in discussions on the Liberation Theology:

    First: The Second Vatican Council.
    The period, from that time, the late 1960s, until the early 1980s, was what might be called a “golden era of the Liberation Theology”. Gustavo Gutiérrez’s “A Theology of Liberation”, one of the main primary books of the Liberation Theology, was published in 1971. Other books on the Liberation Theology were also published during this golden era of the Liberation Theology. The phrase, the “preferential option of the poor”, became popular then. (And now, half a century later, Pope Francis seems to be practicing it.)

    Second: Social and political situations of Latin America.
    It may not be wrong to claim that the birth place of the Liberation Theology was Latin America (or, in the broader sense, developing countries outside Europe) where the majority of the population is/was either in the extreme poverty or quasi-extreme poverty.

    Both Popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were from Europe. Both suffered from the fear of the atheism in the Communism/Socialism. Both suffered from the fear of the Soviet invasion. John Paul II’s Poland was one of the main satellite countries of the Soviet Union and the Catholic Church in Poland was severely suppressed. Benedict XVI’s “Germanies” were being divided into two political entities. The substantial part of the lives of these two popes was spent to fight against the Communism/Socialism and to protect the Catholic Church from the atheistic of the materialism of the Communism/Socialism through the capitalism politics.

    Capitalism emphasizes individuals’/private prosperity and property (which actually or inevitably pays the price of a certain sacrifice of some portion of the population of the society), while the Communism/Socialism emphasizes the prosperity of the whole society at the price of a certain portion of sacrifice (or almost complete sacrifice) of individuals’/private prosperity and property.

    Because of their background, these two popes chose the capitalism system to save the Church from the atheistic claim of the Communism/Socialism. Even though these two popes did not actively promote the capitalism system, and even though the main reason for their choice of the capitalism system was to defend the Church, not necessarily to defend the capitalism system itself, the result was unfortunate: the overwhelming majority of the poor population in developing countries outside Europe were left either in the extreme poverty or in the quasi-extreme poverty as mentioned above. Even though it was not these two pope’s intention, the Church began to serve (more) for a handful of or a comparatively less amount of people of the wealthy or decent economic class. (Even though the Soviet bloc countries suffered from the poverty during the final couple of decades or so, they enjoyed a certain reasonable living standard before the final decades.)

    So, what happened to the Church? The answer: The departure of the majority of these poor people from the Church. Unlike the two popes from Europe, Jorge Mario Bergoglio witnessed the desperate poverty of many people and the departure of a huge amount of the poor people from the Church in Latin America.

    In Europe, the Church during the Cold War era was the fortress for those who seek for the Catholic/Christian spirituality and that for those who wished to protect their wealth or decent living standard from the communism/socialism. In developing countries outside Europe such as in Latin America, however, the Church hardly became the fortress for the very poor and desperate people. Even though how hard they pray at the church, their families, especially their children, were/are starving at their homes. It was (and still is) said that the unemployment rate and the government approval rate was actually the same.

    Nonetheless, for those who defend the Church from the atheism of the Communism/Socialism, the Liberation Theology was dangerous. Ratzinger, a powerful theologian, worked as the right hand of Pope John Paul II, and criticized (and suppressed) the Liberation Theology.

    Quote (from Wikipedia “Liberation Theology”):
    Gutierrez emphasized practice (or, more technically, “praxis”) over doctrine. Gutierrez clarified his position by advocating a circular relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxis seeing the two as having a symbiotic relationship. Gutierrez’ reading of prophets condemning oppression and injustice against the poor (i.e. Jeremiah 22:13–17) informs his assertion that to know God (orthodoxy) is to do justice (orthopraxis). Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI), however, criticized liberation theology for elevating orthopraxis to the level of orthodoxy.

    John Paul II himself maintained the conservative stance of the Church. It seemed that he was afraid that a liberal pope in the future would drastically change the conservative stance of the Catholic Church. He, therefore, created as many of 231 cardinals (Source: “Cardinals created by John Paul II”, Wikipedia). Needless to say, it was unlikely that the conservative pope created liberal type cardinals.


    The Cold War era was over. The era of the fear of the Communism/Socialism was over (although a new era, it seems, of, what some people called, a “new world order”, oligarchic and authoritarian, by keeping a low profile behind the current chaotic situations, has already begun). Regardless of that, a huge scale of the extreme poverty still exists in this world. Some people wonder what happened to the “UN Millennium Development Goals” to halve the population of the extreme poverty from 1990 to 2015. This year, 2015, is the final year of that objective.

    Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a Jesuit, one of the super-elites of the Catholic Church. But when he was chosen as the new pope, he decided to become a “Francis of Assisi”, meaning that he decided to work primarily for the poor. He served as an elite priest over the decades. He performed a mass for the dictator of his country, who suppressed, oppressed, and/or persecuted many poor people. He, who had been standing for the dictator and other socially powerful people in his country, decided to become a pope who is to stand for the poor. Did he cross the Rubicon? His deeds from now on will prove it. He has served as a “Francis of Assisi” only for two years. And it seems that he has been doing a good job so far from lay people’s view point. However, his words and deeds for the last two years were only the prelude for a “Francis of Assisi”. Let him prove by himself what kind of pope he really is and will be. Let him prove by himself what kind of a “Francis of Assisi” he really is and will be. Eventually, God and/or history will judge him.

  8. […] originale: Pope Francis: Spiritual, Liberating Theology – TRANSCEND Media […]