Pope Francis, the Environment, and Liberation Theology

UnknownIn listening to Pope Francis’s speech to the United Nations (September 25, 2015), his sentiment towards the environment and man’s place in it was strikingly familiar, one we had heard for many years. Man was a part of nature and our interrelationship was an intimate symbiotic reality. Clearly, so many ideas from the environmental movement, those ideas of ordinary people working of necessity to better the world, came together in one remarkable moment, in the form of a humble man lending his power to world enlightenment.

In an earlier post (Teach Your Children Well (Part 1) Man’s Place in Nature), I had written: 

Part of the task in teaching environmentalism, was to help children understand the natural world and their place in it. Coming out of the sixties, many of us understood on a visceral level the oneness of all things. We knew we were only a tiny part of creation, that the universe coursed through us, and that we could use and direct mind energy into creating a world that was safe, sane, and aware…Man, our children learned, was only one small part of creation, and our existence was intimately bound to all other life.

These ideas were not mine alone, but ideas belonging to a human movement. Standing before the people of the world in the United Nations, Pope Francis agreed:

“First, it must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man…possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”

At the same time, I was reminded of the liberation theology that had grown in the Church in Latin America in the seventies, a Latin American Church with which Jorge Bergoglio would have been intimately familiar.

Born of Vatican II, Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest, returned to South America after the ecumenical council with the mandate of Pope John XXIII to study the social systems around him. As he observed, he began to see the possibilities of a mature church. At that time, Pope John had asked that Catholics adopt a more humble role in the world, appreciating the humility and material poverty of Christ. Gutierrez found that national leaders were indeed working to better their nations by development, but Gutierrez also began speaking of ‘liberation’, rather than development. Development was a system that merely came from dependence on First World countries and capitalism. Development was not raising the standard of living for anyone but the elite. The real problem, Gutierrez decided, was the oppression of the poor by governments who were sponsored by First World nations.

Gutierrez gave his observations, and a movement, a name with his book A Theology of Liberation (1971).

Very simply, liberation theology believes that a Christian’s duty is to create a world of peace. Christ told Peter to put down his sword. If a man is to know the fruitfulness of peace, he must have justice, for one cannot exist without the other.

Not simply legal justice, but justice that encompasses all the activities of life. When whole populations lack basic necessities, when they are forced to live in dependency on systems and institutions that take from them the very initiative and responsibility authority is supposed to promote, when the marginalized are denied participation in the social and political life of a nation, then we may consider those systems institutional violence.

At the United Nations, Pope Francis also said:

“The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged…economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offence against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offences…”

The reaction to liberation theology by conservatives is to cast the ideology as Christian Marxism, but Pope Francis reminded us that theology does not reduce faith to politics. Nor does it search for power. Rather, it searches for ways to aid the efforts of humans to discover their capacity. Society is no longer the servant of the Church. Instead, the Church becomes the servant of society. The system keeping the marginalized in place is modified to one of government and Church working together to enact social change. To teach correctness and consciousness raising. To narrow the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

From the United Nations address:

“…we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.

To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny. Integral human development and the full exercise of human dignity cannot be imposed. They must be built up and allowed to unfold for each individual, for every family, in communion with others, and in a right relationship with all those areas in which human social life develops – friends, communities, towns and cities, schools, businesses and unions, provinces, nations…”

Liberation theology implies a thoughtful understanding of the relationship between God and man—a rethinking in the meaning of a Christian life. It proposes that if we are to work in the spirit of Christ and eliminate institutional violence, then we must rethink poverty. Not only material poverty, but the poverty of spirit. Transformation of society also means a transformation of self. Of discovering God’s concrete will for us. Only then do we find the very essence of God in what we do and what we become.

“Such understanding and respect call for a higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful élite, and recognises that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good (UN address, 2015).”

Although Pope Francis has not proposed that liberation theology is a part of his personal ideology, he does claim that aspects of it are certainly reasonable. What he does oppose is armed violence to overthrow oppression.

“War is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment. If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples (UN address, 2015).”

While Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict VXI, denounced liberation theology, Pope Francis invited Gutierrez to his Vatican residence (2013), met with Arturo Paoli, liberation theologist from Argentina (2014), and lifted the suspension from Miguel d’Escoto, Maryknoll priest in Nicaragua working with the Sandanista government (2014).

“The option for the poor, Francis has said, comes from the first centuries of Christianity. It’s the Gospel itself. If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the Church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Maoist or Trotskyist. The Church has always had the honor of this preferential option for the poor (Pope Francis, 2010).”