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A Catholic view on old heresies in the news

Category: Liberation Theology

Stephen Fry: Liberation Theologian

Stephen Fry makes two points here.  First, about moral relativism, and second, what is the point of the Church if she doesn’t condemn institutions.

Moral relativism is a great danger, and not at all for thinking people.  This is because a thinking person (I would hope) would be appalled by female genital mutilation in Africa, or by the Ephebophilia of the ancient Greeks.  A moral relativist would say these things are okay, because they are seen as okay within those cultures and contexts.  An 8 year old girl who was married to a man 5 times her age is acceptable because in that culture it is acceptable.  Moral relativism is therefore quite dangerous and not a benign belief.  The Church, by offering constant teaching, allows us to judge other cultures and therefore protest such horrors as committed by Pashtun men on boys.

The other issue Mr. Fry makes is about the Church and slavery.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the Church rarely condemns institutions.  This is in part because any institution might be made innocent if the hearts of people are properly ordered, and any institution might be made corrupt if the hearts of people are disordered.

For instance, if the hearts of people are disordered, communism can turn into totalitarianism.  Or if the hearts of people are disordered, capitalism can turn into wage slavery.  Both systems can become corrupted or can be pure.  Slavery is a similar system.  St. Paul wrote to Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as a brother.  If he were treated truly as a brother, then the system of slavery would be elevated into a good thing.  It is from our hearts that systems are good or bad.

That said, Mr. Fry also simply doesn’t know his history.  It was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine that initially did away with slavery because it was incompatible with Christian belief.  The barbarians who set up camp after the empire collapsed didn’t frequently practice slavery, so it wasn’t an issue for many years.  Eventually, when the issue popped up again, the Popes responded.  Eugene IV wrote Sicut Dudum in 1435, condemning the slavery of Christians, before the new world was even discovered.  Other encyclicals were written by other popes also condemning slavery as an institution.  While admittedly the Bishops in America didn’t do much to encourage people to respect the papal writings, that doesn’t imply the Church didn’t speak out against slavery.  It simply means the Bishops failed to live up to their responsibility.  Given that Bishops are people too, this is understandable — especially with the severe anti-Catholicism that was happening at the time.

Anti-Catholic Political Cartoon

Anti-Catholic Political Cartoon.

Another Anti-Catholic Cartoon.

Another Anti-Catholic Cartoon.

All together this is an issue of Liberation Theology.  Mr. Fry condemns the Church for not attacking the structures of oppression and instead focusing on the hearts of people.  While attacking structures is a good thing, the use of arms isn’t.  In the deep south slavery would need to be overthrown by arms (the civil war), so the only option of the Church had open to her was to effect hearts.  Otherwise she would have fallen into the heresy of Liberation Theology — that oppressors may legitimately be killed rather than converted.  The Church has historically jumped at opportunities to condemn slavery without resort to arms, and has always (even from the Bible) strove to soften how slaves were treated in societies were slavery couldn’t be ended.

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The Good, the Bad, the Liberation Theology

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/liberation-theology-finds-new-welcome-in-pope-francis-vatican/2013/09/09/5265002e-198a-11e3-80ac-96205cacb45a_story.html

Liberation theology is starting to gain traction in the news — but just what is it?

Liberation Theology at a glance.

Liberation Theology at a glance.

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.