The Pope’s “program for rescuing humankind from its present distress”

January 22, 2016

The pope’s trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay in July 2015 marked an important development in our understanding of his pontificate. There Francis outlined his program for rescuing humankind from its present distress:

a) avoiding “abstract spiritualism”—that is, thinking that we can have faith apart from our social context;

b) rejecting “methodical functionalism”—that is, justifying the use of any means to attain a determined end, like remaining in power;

c) applying a critical hermeneutic to the “abstract ideologies” that reduce the Gospel and Christian praxis to empty principles; and

d) dismantling “ecclesial clericalism and careerism,” which are signs of an immature faith that fails to measure up to the Gospel.

In this vision for the church, we are beginning to see more clearly the connection between the theological and pastoral content of the pope’s discourses and what is known as “theology of the people” (or sometimes called “theology of culture”). The pope’s use of this branch of theology, which arose within the context of the assimilation and application of the Second Vatican Council by the Latin American church, makes it clear that he is proposing something more than a mere change of focus in the church’s pastoral work. He is interested in doing more than refreshing the church’s language or updating existing religious forms and practices. Pope Francis’ aim is to establish a whole new way of being church, one that recognizes the serious effects of the present structural crisis and returns to the path traced out by the Second Vatican Council.

This new way of being church takes on a prophetic quality inspired by the theology of the people, which understands pastoral action in relation to the church’s insertion in the reality of the poor and her appreciation of the values that emerge from the popular sectors. This new way of being church arises from a preferential option for those living on the margins and from a desire to make use of their ability to generate processes of conversion in all of us who belong to the church and the larger society.

This theological approach avoids the tendency to separate and isolate aspects of church life, with faith and scholarship on one side and social and pastoral involvement on the other. Such separation provokes a dysfunctional relationship between the academic world and the reality of the poor, as Pope Francis wrote in “Laudato Si’”:

Many professionals, opinion makers, communications media, and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact…can lead to a numbing of conscience (No. 49).

Conceiving the identity and the action of the church in this way is a consequence of Latin America’s embrace of Vatican II, especially as interpreted by the bishops’ conference at Medellín in 1968. While in Europe the council gave birth to the political theology of Johann Baptist Metz and Hans Küng, in Latin America it inspired the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino. In Argentina, however, still another understanding of the council emerged, and it was spelled out in the concluding document of the extraordinary assembly of the Argentine bishops at San Miguel in 1969.

The documents of Medellín and San Miguel were inspired, in part, by the proposals of St. John XXIII’s “Mater et Magistra” (1961) and Blessed Paul VI’s “Populorum Progressio” (1967). Both pontiffs were already calling for what St. John described as “a church of the poor” (his words in a September 1962 radio broadcast) and for recognition of “the face of Christ in every poor person, as his sacrament” (as Pope Paul VI said during his 1968 visit to Bogotá). Now comes Francis, who wants “a poor church for the poor,” drawing his inspiration from the so-called Pact of the Catacombs that was signed by 40 bishops, including Dom Hélder Câmara, at the conclusion of Vatican II in 1965. In the pact the bishops declared the need to return again to the ways of the historical Jesus by being “a poor servant church” that would be distinguished for its practice of “fraternity, justice, and compassion.” This is the context in which the theological-pastoral option of Pope Francis developed.

Of the People

The theology of the people as a form of Latin American liberation theology was first elaborated as such by two priest-theologians, Lucio Gera and Rafael Tello, and then adopted by the Argentine bishops’ conference in 1969. Its origins, however, can be traced back to 1966, when the bishops’ pastoral commission defined “the people” in terms of “the existence of a common culture rooted in a common history and committed to the common good.”

The theology of the people was given formal shape by Father Gera in his paper “The Meaning of the Christian Message in the Context of Poverty and Oppression.” For him this theology does not advocate changing social and political structures just for the sake of change; rather, it seeks to discern the mission and identity of the church on the basis of its option of the poor. Such an option fosters sociopolitical dialogue and promotes pastoral ministry inspired by the ideal of social justice to be found concretely in the “faithful people.”

This theological-pastoral option does not rely on the Marxist analysis of social and economic conditions that was found in other kinds of liberation theology. Father Gera held that its starting point should be direct connection with the people and serious study of the people’s common culture and ethos. Such an effort makes it possible to discover what is actually obstructing the people’s socioeconomic, political and religious development and it helps to preserve the people’s positive identity against external influences that attempt to impose an alien ideology.

For, as Pope Francis said in Bolivia, “a people that forgets its past and its historical roots has no future”; that is why “the church makes an option to watch over those who are today discarded and to preserve their precious culture.” Accordingly, the theology of the people is a type of liberation theology that pays special attention to evangelizing the culture by means of social, political and religious transformation. The people’s transformation comes about through integral development of the human person, promotion of sociopolitical dialogue and the practice of social justice.

Already in the 1970s Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., had a clear vision of what the political stance of Christians and the pastoral action of the church should be. In a discourse addressed to a Jesuit assembly in 1974, he explained that Christian practice—both religious and political—should be centered on fraternity, solidarity, social justice and the common good rather than on notions like homeland, revolution and the opposition between conservatives and liberals. He criticized “the fruitless confrontations with the hierarchy and the draining conflicts between ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ wings within the church, which end up giving more importance to the parts than to the whole.”

Justice in Action

To counter institutional polarization and ideological division in today’s church, Pope Francis has proposed some principles of discernment that are partly inspired by Juan Manuel de Rosas, who was governor of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century. The principles are “unity over conflict” in the face of polarized institutional realities and “realities over ideas” in the face of attempts to make the Gospel message into ideology (see “The Joy of the Gospel,” Nos. 217–37).

Speaking in Paraguay in July, the pope declared that the principal priorities of the Christian community should be “becoming inserted and incarnated in the experience of the common people and discerning the shape of the church’s liberating, salvific action from the perspective of the people and their concerns.” Otherwise, he stated, the ideologies will gain ground, as has been the case recently in South America, “and they will be no help at all because the ideologies, since they do not start with the people, have an incomplete, unhealthy, or harmful relationship with the people.”

One year into his pontificate, Francis was asked about the slum priests who had been members of the Priests Movement for the Third World; one of them was the Rev. Carlos Mugica, who was killed in 1974. His response was: “They were not Communists. They were priests fighting for social justice.” Indeed, social justice is one of the most important themes in the pope’s theological-pastoral option. The world can be rehumanized and the common good secured only by uniting social justice, theology and pastoral action. As the pope declared in his discourse to the popular movements in Santa Cruz, “the dominant system continues to deny billions of our sisters and brothers the most elemental economic, social, and cultural rights. This system is an assault on the project of Jesus.”

Francis summons Catholics to live a prophetic Christianity that is able to discern the ethical validity and moral truth of the social and religious forces at work in society. Such discernment will determine the change of orientation needed both in a country’s political life and in ecclesial forms so that the church will recover credibility in the world of today. The pope describes the church’s obligation to contribute to these processes of change in “Evangelii Gaudium”:

Together with the various sectors of society, she supports those programs which best respond to the dignity of each person and the common good. In doing this, she proposes in a clear way the fundamental values of human life and convictions which can then find expression in political activity” (No. 241).

In a homily in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, Pope Francis challenged us to think in terms of a church that is called “to opt for the poor people” and “to resist the temptations of one-sided proposals that tend toward ideology, despotism, and sectarianism.” He called for a church that distances itself from elitism and engages directly with reality.” As he stated in 2001, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires:

The principle anti-value of today, in my judgment, is the marketing of persons, that is, making people into merchandise. Men and women are converted into just another commodity for projects that come to us from somewhere else, that install themselves in our society and that diminish our human dignity. That is anti-value: the human person as merchandise in the dominant political, economic and social systems.

Rafael Luciani is a Venezuelan lay theologian who has studied in Latin America, Italy and Germany. He has been director of the School of Theology at the Jesuits’ Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, where he is full professor, and he currently holds a position as Visiting Professor at Boston College. Félix Palazzi is a Venezuelan lay theologian who has studied in Latin America, Italy and Germany. He has been director of the Graduate Program in Theology at the Jesuits’ Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, where he is associate professor, and he currently holds a position as visiting professor at Boston College.  Cross-posted from