What Is This Pope About?

With Pope Francis now in Washington promoting, willy-nilly, the agenda of the Democratic Party, time to revisit my Forbes column on “How Is ‘Liberation Theology’ Still a Thing?”  from back in May:

Pope Francis has an odd sense of timing. Last week he led the Vatican in embracing climate change orthodoxy just as it is becoming weaker than ever. But the real eyebrow raiser is the upcoming Vatican appearance of Gustavo Gutierrez, the radical Peruvian theologian who was a big celebrity of the left in the 1970s and 1980s for his “liberation theology.”

I didn’t even know Gutierrez was still alive, and I long ago discarded my copy of his Theology of Liberation, the ur-text of the liberation theology fad. But I suppose if the septuagenarian Rolling Stones can make another world tour, intellectual relics from the Socialist Pop Charts circa 1979 can make an oldies tour, too.

According to the Huffington Post, the Vatican under Pope Francis is engaged in “rehabilitating liberation theology.” This is significant for two reasons. First, both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI (when he was a cardinal) were harsh critics of liberation theology, and argued vigorously against it. John Paul II directly rebuked some of the Sandinista clergy serving in Nicaragua’s government in the 1980s. Second, Pope Francis’s interest in renovating liberation theology reveals the bankruptcy of leftist thought today, and it renews the risk of attempting to make theology “relevant” by jumping on the bandwagon of secular trends—especially secular ideas that are not only outmoded, but were wrongheaded to begin with.

Liberation theology grew out of the misbegotten “Christian-Marxist dialogue” of the 1960s and 1970s, which must seem as quaint and laughable as promoting Esperanto. It was not a coincidence that liberation theology was especially popular in Latin America during the high water mark of Marxist guerilla insurgencies and the final death spasms of socialist utopias such as Nicaragua. Critics who called liberation theology “Marxism with salsa” weren’t far off the mark, and the irony that what Latin America needed to escape “western domination” was an adaptation of European philosophy seemed to be lost on everyone. Apparently not enough Latin American intellectuals learned the lesson from following the previous European political fad (fascism) in the 1930s and 1940s. (A few of the leading Latin American liberation theologians had in fact been fascists in their youth.)

The literature of liberation theology consisted of the usual Marxist cant sprinkled with holy water, with unoriginal references to class struggle, oppression, imperialism, dependence, and especially how Latin America poverty was all the fault of capitalism emanating from the United States and western Europe. “Liberation,” understood in the usual Marxist way (the use of the precious term “praxis” was always a dead giveaway), was now equated with Christian salvation. “It is quite remarkable,” Catholic theologian Michael Novak wrote at the time, “that the list of cities requiring liberation did not include Cracow or Leningrad, Havana or Peking, Hanoi or Prague.”

Today one might put Caracas on such a list. It is telling that virtually no one today except fruitcakes like Sean Penn stands up for Venezuela’s socialist utopian pretensions. Back in the heyday of liberation theology Venezuela could have counted upon a large chorus of vocal supporters in the United States, including perhaps two-dozen Democratic congressmen.

Liberation theology faded along with the other failed socialist states at the end of the Cold War, and those nations that have embraced open markets, private property rights, sensible fiscal policy, and limited government has prospered, while nations that cling to old socialist economic policies are faltering. The real tragedy of liberation theology is that it could have directed itself against the genuinely immoral and corrupt institutions in Latin America and elsewhere that have perpetuated poverty.

Liberation theology likes to describe itself with the slogan that it represents the “preferential option for the poor,” whatever that means. Here’s one concrete application: give poor people the option to own property and start businesses with the security that the state won’t get in their way or steal it from them. Pope Francis is listening to the wrong Peruvian thinker. He should have invited Hernando de Soto instead of Gustavo Gutierrez.