By advancing the campaign for Archbishop Oscar Romero’s sainthood, which Vatican critics of liberation theology helped stall, Pope Francis is signaling the allegiance of his church is to the poor.

Share story

VATICAN CITY — Six months after becoming the first Latin American pontiff, Pope Francis invited an octogenarian priest from Peru for a chat at his Vatican residence. News of the September 2013 meeting with the priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez, quickly leaked — and was just as quickly interpreted as a defining shift in the Roman Catholic Church.

Gutiérrez is a founder of liberation theology, the Latin American movement embracing the poor and calling for social change, which conservatives once scorned as overtly Marxist and the Vatican treated with hostility.

Now, Gutiérrez is a respected Vatican visitor, and his writings have been praised in the official Vatican newspaper. Francis has brought other Latin American priests back into favor and often uses language about the poor that has echoes of liberation theology.

On Saturday, throngs packed San Salvador for the beatification ceremony of murdered Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, leaving him one step from sainthood.

Francis has placed the poor at the center of his papacy. In doing so, he is engaging with a theological movement that once divided Catholics and was distrusted by his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Even Francis, as a young Jesuit leader in Argentina, had qualms. Now, he speaks of creating “a poor church for the poor” and is seeking to position Catholicism closer to the masses, a mission that comes as he is also trying to revive the church in Latin America, where it has steadily lost ground to evangelical congregations.

Defining period

For years, Vatican critics of liberation theology and conservative Latin American bishops helped stall the canonization process for Romero, even though many Catholics in the region regard him as a towering moral figure: He became an outspoken critic of social injustice and political repression who was assassinated during Mass in 1980. Francis broke the stalemate.

“It is very important,” Gutiérrez said. “Somebody who is assassinated for this commitment to his people will illuminate many things in Latin America.”

The beatification is the prelude to what is likely to be a defining period of Francis’ papacy, with trips to South America, Cuba and the United States; the release of an encyclical on environmental degradation and the poor; and a meeting in Rome to determine whether and how the church will change its approach to issues such as homosexuality, contraception and divorce.

By advancing the campaign for Romero’s sainthood, Francis is sending a signal that the allegiance of his church is to the poor, who once saw some bishops as more aligned with discredited governments, many analysts say.

“It is not liberation theology that is being rehabilitated,” said Michael Lee, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University who has written extensively about liberation theology. “It is the church that is being rehabilitated.”

Liberation theory includes a critique of the structural causes of poverty and a call for the church and the poor to organize for social change. Lee said it was a broad school of thought: Movements differed in different countries, with some more political and others less so.

The broader movement emerged after a meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968 and was rooted in the belief that the plight of the poor should be central to interpreting the Bible and to the Christian mission.

But with the Cold War in full force, some critics denounced liberation theology as Marxist, and a conservative backlash followed. At the Vatican, John Paul II, the Polish pope who would later be credited for helping topple the Soviet Union, became suspicious of the political elements of the new Latin American movements.

John Paul’s view

John Paul reacted by appointing conservative bishops in Latin America and by supporting conservative Catholic groups such as Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ, which opposed liberation theology.

In the 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — later to become Pope Benedict XVI, but then the Vatican’s enforcer of doctrine — issued two statements on liberation theology. The first was very critical, but the second was milder, leading some analysts to wonder if the Vatican was easing up.

From his 1973 appointment as head of the Jesuits in Argentina, Francis, then 36 and known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was viewed as deeply concerned with the poor. But religious figures who knew him then say Francis, like much of Argentina’s Catholic establishment, thought liberation theology was too political. Critics also blamed him for failing to prevent the kidnapping and torture of two priests sympathetic to liberation theology.

In Argentina, some critics are unconvinced the pope’s talk about the poor represents an embrace of liberation theology. “He never took the reins of liberation theology because it’s radical,” said Rubén Rufino Dri, who worked in the late 1960s and 1970s with a group of priests active in the slums of Buenos Aires.

To him, Francis’ decision to expedite Romero’s beatification was a political one, part of what Rufino Dri views as a “superficial transformation” of the Catholic Church as it competes in Latin America with secularism and other branches of Christianity. “It’s a populist maneuver by a great politician,” he said.

Others offered a more nuanced view. José María di Paola, 53, a priest who is close to Francis and once worked with him among the poor of Buenos Aires, said the beatification reflected a broader push by Francis to reduce the Vatican’s focus on Europe. “It’s part of a process to bring an end to the church’s Eurocentric interpretation of the world and have a more Latin American viewpoint,” he said.