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Catholic Church: Pope Francis goes back to the future

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In 1958 the College of Cardinals elected an avuncular 76-year old as the new Pope. John XXIII, formerly Archbishop of Venice, was expected to be a do-nothing stop-gap. Instead he initiated a process of “aggiornamento,” bringing the Church in line with the times. He called together a Council—the highest doctrinal body of the Church—comprising all the bishops from across the world, whose last meeting had been the First Vatican Council in 1869-70. The main effect of Vatican II, as it became known, on the daily life of Catholics was to put an end to the obligatory mass in Latin. But the Council also produced several major doctrinal documents, notably Gaudium et Spes about “the Church in the World” which expressed a new spirit of pluralism and of engagement with society.

Although Pope John died before the Council had finished its deliberations, his successor Paul VI continued the trend with major declarations on economic development and social justice. But Paul also switched the agenda in 1968 when, against the advice of an expert theological commission his predecessor had established, he reaffirmed the doctrine that “any action … specifically intended to prevent procreation”—i.e. contraception by artificial means—was “unlawful.” After that, public debate about the Church, especially in Europe and North America, focused more and more on issues of personal morality. It is that focus which Pope Francis, the pontiff elected last Spring, wants to change.

In an interview Pope Francis gave in August, which was published worldwide in Jesuit magazines, the Pope made it clear that it is not necessary to talk “all the time” about “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” and that he was worried by the “ideologization” and “exploitation” of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass—whose celebration has been a rallying cry among the fiercest opponents of Vatican II. He could hardly have given out clearer signals, and he went on to say things which must have infuriated and frightened those who thought they had buried the Council: “Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions… who long for an exaggerated doctrinal security… who stubbornly seek to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.” The interview is a sharp rebuke to those who would make of their religious commitment a work of relentless moralizing about others’ behaviour.

Although he has pushed many of the right buttons for those who wish for a revival of the spirit of Vatican II, the Pope so far has used his political skills to emit feel-good noises without signalling explicit changes of direction—but in religion symbols and gestures are very important. More concretely, however, he has called a two-week Extraordinary Synod with 150 participants to consider issues of marriage in October 2014. If, as is rumoured, the Synod becomes a permanent body, this will signal the beginning of profound structural change.

Pope BenedictRadical change is hardly the way of the Catholic Church, but if we see the present Papacy as retying the strands of Vatican II after they were cut by John Paul and Benedict, then the change which is in the air does not appear so radical. Rather the previous 30 years could look like a rearguard action, an interruption rather than a halt.

Pope Francisco with Brazilian President Dilma RousseffSince his election last year, many in the media have associated Pope Francis’s reformist spirit with a school of thought that rose to prominence in the 1960s in the wake of Vatican II: Liberation Theology. Often incorrectly described as a politicisation of religion, Liberation Theology made its official appearance in a book of that name published by the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez in Spanish in 1967 and in English in 1973. Gutierrez took inspiration from a postwar theology inspired variously by modernist Protestant theologians, notably Jûrgen Moltmann, who had raised theology to its feet after the catastrophes of the Second World War and the Holocaust, and by postwar French activist Catholicism associated for example with Emmanuel Mousnier, founder of the journal Esprit.

Although activism and political commitment were important to these ventures, their deep message and that of Liberation Theology was a redirection of the spiritual towards real life. According to this view, the purpose of religion is not to provide a refuge from the world or a comfort, but to bring the spirit, and with it a “prophetic voice,” into the world. It was a call for a religious renewal which lies at the opposite pole of the evangelical and fundamentalist renewal which today attract so much attention. Liberation Theology also questions the very task of theology itself. In place of excessive academicism, and in spite of the distinguished scholarly credentials of its foremost exponents, it is a call for theology to listen to the voice of the oppressed and speak from their point of view; once again, a theology with its “feet on the ground.”

In practical terms, more than a call to “do something for the poor” (everyone does that), Liberation Theology is a call to reform the unjust structures of society, but with a strong emphasis on the role of the excluded themselves. It redefines the religious life, shifting the individual’s responsibility with respect to the divine away from personal piety towards a responsibility to change society. For followers of Liberation Theology, the Catholicism represented by Mother Teresa, with her pietism, her self-promotion, her money-raising, her confusion of medical care and religious conversion, and her lack of interest in the causes of poverty was a scandal. Liberation Theologians are not in the business of telling the poor how to live or what divinity to worship—on the contrary they are out to learn from the poor whose untainted innocence they revere.

Liberation theologians also became very influential in several Episcopal Conferences in Latin America, especially in Brazil, so that when, in 1968, the Latin American Bishops met with Pope Paul VI in Medellín, Colombia, they produced a document which denounced imperialism and the concentration of land ownership and committed the Church to defending the poor and promoting major structural reforms. It was a very “1968” kind of document.

This was the high point of the movement, and perhaps it overreached itself. From his election in 1979 Pope John Paul II set about dismantling its influence, using his untrammelled  power of appointment to install his own stalwarts in place of well-known progressive figures like Cardinal Evaristo Arns of São Paulo, replacing their ideas with the by-now familiar and one-dimensional campaigns against the ordination of women, abortion and same-sex marriage. Of course like all the Popes before him he issued routine denunciations of the evils of capitalism, of the free market, of poverty and social injustice, but the thrust of his campaigns was elsewhere. Once the state socialism of Eastern Europe had been disposed of his message was one of hostility to modernity, mistakenly and simplistically identified with the permissive society. Repressing Liberation Theology was the sharp end of John Paul’s campaign to bury Vatican II. His beatification and canonization industry and his promotion of figures such as Mother Teresa were the softer side.

Mural depicting the six Jesuit priests murdered by the army in El Salvador in 1989

Another consequence of John Paul’s administration was the retreat of the Base Christian Communities which had mushroomed in many dioceses in Latin America and in the Philippines, inspired by Liberation Theology. Vatican II’s call for greater lay involvement had inspired many bishops and priests to raise the consciousness and social commitment of parishioners by a combination of Bible study and involvement in social struggles across Latin America. Although enthusiasts overplayed their claim to be a mass movement, and although also some of their leading figures became over-enamoured of politics, notably in their support of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, the Base Communities and Liberation Theologians paid a price. Many were persecuted and not a few died for their efforts during Latin America’s darkest days of dictatorship, especially in El Salvador, where parish priests and Jesuit intellectuals were murdered and the Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed while saying Mass in a hospital chapel.

Symbolically, Pope Francis has signalled his intention to take up the inheritance of Vatican II where John Paul interrupted it, and to rehabilitate some of the Theology of Liberation. He has met with Gustavo Gutierrez and has appointed to the headship of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith (which promotes and safeguards doctrine on faith and morals) someone who has co-edited a book with Gutierrez. He has also reopened the beatification cause of Archbishop Romero.

It has to be remembered how conservative the Church became under John Paul’s powerful leadership. Take, for example, Opus Dei. Opus Dei is a powerful and disciplined force and it transmits its opposition to the social teachings of Vatican II, in the Spanish-speaking world, through its well-endowed schools and universities. The Legionaries of Christ have a similar doctrine and wield influence through the many priests they train in their seminaries. The mass movement of Charismatic Renewal, a Catholic version of Pentecostalism, draws its millions of followers to a self-focused religiosity of effusiveness and speaking in tongues, inspired by the descent of the Holy Spirit. These and other movements go some way to filling the space left by the massive haemorrhage of priests in the last 50 years and if the spirit of Catholicism is to change there will have to be a counterweight to their influence.

These are not only matters for Catholics or even Christians. Open, liberal religions are extremely important for society as a whole. It is a fallacy that the value to society of a religious institution is reflected in the number of its active participants and the intensity of their commitment. There lies the way of sectarianism. Hans Kung, the theologian banned from teaching in Catholic institutions by John Paul, expressed precisely the fear that the Catholic Church was in danger of becoming a sect: we must hope the present Pope will reverse that trend.

David Lehmann is Emeritus Reader in Social Science at Cambridge and author of  Struggle for the Spirit: popular culture and religious transformation in Brazil and Latin America. He is a member of the Council of Management of LAB.