The Good, the Bad, the Liberation Theology
Liberation theology is starting to gain traction in the news — but just what is it?
It is a sort of Christianized Marxism which seeks to better the world today and not just have pie in the sky when you die. It attempts to do this through a bottom up change in the systems that oppress people. It doesn’t divide the world into sinners and saints so much as systems and saints. This can have the effect of gutting the importance of personal conversion and personal betterment. It becomes the systems fault that that I own slaves and treat them poorly (to keep up with competitors), not my own. It becomes the systems fault that I’m so poor my only solace is liquor. As an individual I can be excused from my bad actions.
The traditional approach of the church is to effect hearts instead of systems. Paul told Philemon to love Onesimus like a brother, but not to set him free from slavery. Systems often don’t need to change if the proper interpersonal relationship is present. There would be no need to correct Capitalism if capitalists loved their workers enough to pay them a wage the workers could live on. However, changing hearts is a very slow process. It took until Constantine to finally rid the Roman world of slavery, and when the system again revived in the 1500’s it again took a long while to rid the world of slavery a second time (not that slavery is done away with today, rather it is no longer institutionalized). The focus of the Church was always on the hearts of people, which is why there are only a few condemnations of the system itself and why the Church in America failed so abysmally to heed them.
So what is new today that Pope Francis is said to be on board with Liberation Theology while his predecessors weren’t? Nothing. The last pope was just as on board with the good aspects of Liberation Theology and he was just as opposed to the bad parts. System change for a more just society is a good thing and in the 20th century sociologists have shown us how to make our systems better. As soon as this sort of research was vetted, Popes have supported changes to make more just societies. However, it is still rejected that system change has to take place through the Marxist concept of an armed revolution of the proletariat. Owners of the means of production are just as much people as actual producers, so we shouldn’t love them any less than we love the poor. It’s also still rejected that the system we live under can be an excuse for our sins. Philemon had no excuse for the way he was treating Onesimus, and Paul wasn’t tolerant of it.
As a society we need to work together, the 1 percent with the 99, to create a more equitable system because the current distribution is ridiculous:
While we remain in an inequitable system, those with resources who do not provide for the poor are personally guilty of robbing from the poor. As St. Gregory the Great scribed, “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” System change is a way of paying that debt of justice, but it isn’t an excuse to take up arms against the rich.
Our current Pope’s preferential option for the poor doesn’t negate the negative parts of Liberation Theology. Rather, it fits well within the history of Catholic social teaching. There is no “about-face” of theology, but rather the same things popes have always said.