In the spirit of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis has garnered a reputation as a voice for the poor and the environment, leaning into the radical social teachings in the Catholic tradition. The pontiff made headlines most recently with another address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, an initiative of the Vatican in partnership with several major grassroots organizations around the world. Proclaiming what America called nine “commandments,” Francis lambasted weapons manufacturers, called for releasing vaccine patents, and urged the end of blockades and sanctions against all countries, among other demands. Extolling a shorter work week and universal basic income, he also returned to the parable of the Good Samaritan, an organizing parable for his most recent encyclical on fraternity, Fratelli Tutti, naming the protests erupting after the murder of George Floyd a “Collective Samaritan,” refusing to “pass by on the other side of the road when it saw the injury to human dignity caused by an abuse of power.”
The address is the latest prophetic word of solidarity in what has become an expectation rather than an exception for the papacy under Francis, for whom “popular movements” are a privileged political category. The World Meeting of Popular Movements itself is focused on “land, work, and housing,” or the “Three-T’s” in Spanish, as Francis calls them: Tierra, Trabajo, y Techo. And those categories are not arbitrary. In the global South, land is a constant site of struggle for subsistence farmers and Indigenous peoples, work is scarce, workers are hyper exploited, and hundreds of millions of people live in slums.
The Three-T’s are unsurprising themes for the first pope from Latin America, the birthplace of Catholic liberation theology. Speaking with an Argentine accent, amplifying the voice of the poor, indicting the rich, and betting it all on grassroots movements, we might even ask, do we finally have a liberation theologian in St. Peter’s chair?
Well, yes and no.
Emerging in the latter half of the 20th century, liberation theology in Latin America began as a response to profound political and theological shifts in the region. Brazilian Marxist Michael Löwy finds the origins of liberation theology in two revolutions: the 1959 ousting of dictator Fulgencio Batista in the Cuban Revolution, and the Second Vatican Council announced by Pope John XXIII the same year. That timeline is perhaps a bit crude, but not entirely wrong as both events were premised on a new role for “the people” in history.
Vatican II took on a unique significance in Latin America as the bishops tried to apply the council’s reforms and call for a more engaged church in a context fraught with poverty, stagnation, and violence. In 1968, the Latin American bishops’ conference (CELAM) met in Medellín, Colombia, and formally endorsed building a grassroots church based in a preference for the poor.
In the following years, what came to be known as liberation theology made incredible strides, helping to organize unions, peasant associations, and even revolutions, like in Nicaragua, where four priests earned prominent positions in the socialist government led by the Sandinistas. Many associated with the movement were harassed or killed. As a young Jesuit, Francis saw his order, too, wrestling with liberation theology, producing some of its most powerful voices, including martyrs.
Yet despite its importance in struggles for justice, the formal relationship between the Vatican and liberation theology was tense. In her book, People of God, journalist Penny Lernoux chronicled how prominent liberation theologians were often scrutinized and heavily disciplined. These tensions were not arcane duels between adventurous academic priests and stuffy cardinals, but between the people and the Vatican, summarized well in a scene from Pope John Paul II’s tumultuous visit to post-revolutionary Niacaragua in 1983, where a crowd of hundreds of thousands chanted in protest at the pontiff during Mass in the nation’s capital of Managua.
From the curia (the administrative apparatus responsible for managing the Catholic Church in the name and authority of the pope), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler,” led the charge against liberation theology as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The son of a police officer, Ratzinger became something of the top cop at the Vatican, leading investigations into liberation theologians and calling them to stand trial. When he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, liberation theology seemed pretty well defeated.
Succeeding Benedict in 2013, Francis inherited this long conflict. Commentators have been quick to see Francis’s papacy as the vindication of liberation theology and to see Francis himself as a liberation theologian. The story, however, is not so simple.
Francis was not part of the rising tide of liberation theology. As someone born in 1936 who was part of a religious order that became known for social justice, this was not for lack of opportunity. His social conscience is informed more by the “Theology of the People,” a movement that paralleled liberation theology and prioritized the poor, but one that is unique to Argentina, drawing less on sociological analysis and Marxist literature. Controversially, as the provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina during the country’s brutal “dirty war,” Francis did not strike the costly stance of total resistance assumed by liberation theologians elsewhere. And by the time Francis became a bishop and later archbishop, CELAM, the conference of bishops, had considerably toned down the radicality of its 1968 vision for the church. In brief, Francis could have been a liberation theologian. He chose not to be.
At the same time, as pope, Francis has clearly put the Vatican on a different path with respect to liberation theology.
Since 2013, Francis has rehabilitated and reconciled with several liberation theologians once cast out as pariahs by his predecessors. He lifted the canonical sanctions on two of the four Sandinista priests disciplined by John Paul II, Miguel D’Escoto Brockman in 2014 and Ernesto Cardenal in 2019 (as for the other two other disciplined priests, Edgar Parrales left the priesthood and Fernando Cardenal — Ernesto’s brother — reconciled with the church in the ’90s). Along with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then head of the CDF, Francis celebrated Mass with Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, who spent much of his career under heavy investigation by the CDF. In one of the most symbolic turnabouts, Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ demands that we hear “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor." In using that phrase, which Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff popularized in a 1995 book with that title, Francis amplified a voice the Vatican had officially silenced in 1985.
“Today we old people laugh about how worried we were about liberation theology,” Francis told a group of Jesuits in 2019. “If anybody had said back then that the prefect of the CDF would have brought Gutiérrez to concelebrate with the pope, they would have taken him for a drunk.”
Pope Francis is a master diplomat. His image of simplicity can easily mask his ability to carefully navigate the minefield of interests that surrounds the Holy See. When it comes to liberation theology and otherwise, Francis’s papacy might be best summarized as following the advice Jesus gave to his followers in Matthew 10:16: Be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
In his book Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi, Boff says that speculating about Pope Francis’s relationship to liberation theology is irrelevant. “The important thing is not to be for liberation theology but for the liberation of the oppressed, the poor, and the victims of injustice, and that [Pope Francis] is without question,” Boff writes.
So, Pope Francis may not be a liberation theologian. But he is clearly trying to be a liberating theologian, developing a theology of popular movements and social change capable of confronting systems he is willing to name, like neoliberalism, neocolonialism, and capitalist globalization. As the poor are plunged even further into poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic while billionaires clumsily try to go to space, may we hear the words of the first pope from Latin America:
“This system, with its relentless logic of profit, is escaping all human control. It is time to slow the locomotive down, an out-of-control locomotive hurtling towards the abyss. There is still time.”
Editor's note: This article was updated on Oct. 27, 2021 at 10:30 EST to note that Edgar Parrales had left the priesthood; due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly said he had reconciled with the church.