Pope Francis, Democrat de Blasio, and liberation theology
Both Pope Francis, and Democrat Bill de Blasio who is running for mayor in New York City, are cited as champions of liberation theology. However, there are important differences between the two.
Debate about Bill de Blasio, a Democrat running in New York City’s mayoralty race, has stirred the water in the biggest American city due to revelations of his past as a leftist who supported Nicaragua’s Marxist Sandinista movement. In 1989, when he was 26, de Blasio traveled to Nicaragua to distribute food and medicine while the Sandinista government, which was supported by Cuba and international Marxists, was battling the insurgents who relied on support from the United States. His Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, has denounced de Blasio for his Sandinista affiliation.
His idealism was typical for his age at the time. He opposed foreign wars, the Reagan administration’s missile defense system, and South Africa’s apartheid government. According to a report by the New York Times, the width and breadth of his Marxist convictions and political activity was significant but glossed over on his official campaign website. “My work was based on trying to create a more fair and inclusive world,” said de Blasio in a recent interview. “I have an activist’s desire to improve people’s lives.” Both of his parents were political activists. His mother, who worked at the Office of War Information in New York during the Second World War, was accused of being a Communist for attending a concert featuring a Soviet band.
In its report on de Blasio’s halcyon Sandinista days, the New York Times wrote “…a review of hundreds of pages of records and more than two dozen interviews suggest his time as a young activist was more influential in shaping his ideology than previously known, and far more political than typical humanitarian work.”
During the Reagan administration, Cuba joined with the Soviet Union in providing aid and military materiel to the Sandinista government. The Soviet Union provided tanks and helicopters and small arms, while Cuba provided expertise in intelligence and other areas. At the same time, governments in Guatemala and El Salvador were engaged in bloody civil wars that piqued fears within the U.S. national security apparatus of a Marxist takeover of the entire Central American isthmus.
(Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez)
Debate in Congress and the public raged, being rivaled only by the civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s. The Sandinista government was accused of systematic human rights abuses, which was often glossed over by its supporters in the U.S. and Europe. Thousands of supporters of the Sandinistas, such as de Blasio, formed on university campuses and staged sit-ins of Congressional offices and sought to bring an end to U.S. support of the so-called ‘Contras’ who were fighting against the Sandinistas.
In the 1980s, de Blasio helped raise funds for the Sandinista government, which had been denounced as murderous and tyrannical by the U.S. government. He organized the shipment of millions of dollars worth of food to Nicaragua. He subscribed to the Marxist newspaper, Barricada, and in 1990 he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.” This was at a time when thousands of Americans and Europeans went to the Central American nation and earned the sobriquet of “Sandalistas” for their idealism and for what they saw as an effort to create a more just society. Working at a health clinic in Nicaragua, de Blasio saw a map used by doctors to pinpoint the location of every family in the town of Masaya as part of an immunization program. It was in the map that de Blasio said that he saw what a robust government can do. “There was something I took away from that — how hands-on government has to be, how proactive, how connected to the people it must be,” he said.
However, de Blasio now describes himself as a progressive who wants to reduce income inequalities by offering greater assistance to the poor while imposing greater taxes on the wealthy. He has said that his experience with the Marxist Sandinistas brought him to the view that government should protect and enhance the lives of the poor.
De Blasio was unapologetic about the New York Times’ characterizations of his political leanings. He said that voters should realize that he is a “consistent progressive with a very strong activist worldview and someone who wants to make substantial change to this city.” While candidate de Blasio said that he is one part New Deal Democrat, he also partly a European Social Democrat and “very deeply influenced by liberation theology, which I learned a lot about in the years I worked on Latin America.”
De Blasio expressed pride to “I’m very proud to have been deeply involved in a movement that rightfully thought U.S. policy toward Central America was wrong-headed and counter-productive and not in line with our values.”
By 1990, de Blasio had a day job as a low-level employee in the office of New York City Mayor David Dinkins, an advocate of liberalism in governance. In addition, de Blasio spent his nights organizing fundraisers and dances to support the Sandinista cause. In a recent interview, Blasio said that his views have not varied from his youth, and reflect a mix of admiration for European social democratic movements, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and liberation theology.
Liberation theology is the term that has been used to describe a movement within the Catholic Church that began in Latin America in the 1960s. A Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, is largely credited as the founder of the loosely knit movement for having authored the 1971 book ‘A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation.’ The book galvanized Catholic and other Christian activists throughout North and South America, as well as Europe, while a doctrinaire Marxist strain emerged within the liberation theology movement.
Catholic priests and religious, as well as laity often referred to liberation theology as a motivation for their revolutionary activities throughout Latin America that sought to bring down authoritarian governments even through violence.
For Fr. Gutiérrez, the founder of the theology of liberation, his was a Christian response to the dismal conditions suffered by much of the people of Latin America. For him, the problem of poverty is sin that is manifested in an unjust social structure. Putting an emphasis on the dignity of the poor, which harkens to St Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, Fr. Gutiérrez believes that the theology of liberation arose out of the experience of the “wretched of the earth” with whom Fr. Gutiérrez lived. In his work, Gutiérrez distinguishes two types of poverty: one that he says is a scandal, while the other is spiritual infancy. While the first is abhorrent to God, he believes, the second is valued. These two states of poverty, for Fr. Gutiérrez, subsist side-by-side among Latin American believers. He wrote, "I desire that the hunger for God may remain, that the hunger for bread may be satisfied… Hunger for God, yes; hunger for bread, no."
For Fr. Gutiérrez, poverty is the product of injustice, "Poverty is not fate, it is a condition; it is not a misfortune, it is an injustice. It is the result of social structures and mental and cultural categories, it is linked to the way in which society has been built, in its various manifestations."
Among his controversial statements, Fr. Gutiérrez has also said, “Only a radical break with the present state of things, a profound transformation of the property system, the access to power by the exploited class, a social revolution that breaks up that dependence, will allow a different society, a Socialist society to come to pass.”
“Authentic liberation will be the work of the oppressed themselves, in them the Lord saves history,” Fr. Gutiérrez once wrote, also saying that the “Church must be converted to the world, in which Christ and the Spirit are present and active, and must allow itself to be inhabited and evangelized by it.”
While he has long been lionized by Marxists and Christian activists, Fr. Gutiérrez remains controversial in the Church. Peru’s Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima reacted to Pope Francis’ meeting with Fr. Gutiérrez and said that the Peruvian priest still holds positions that need to be rectified. “The Church does not accept Marxist class warfare,” Cardinal Cipriani said on his weekly radio program. “During the last conversation I had with Gutierrez, before he left Lima…I told him that in his youth he took stances that he should correct now that he is older.”
“If we look carefully at (future Pope Benedict) Ratzinger’s instruction,” Cardinal Cipriani continued, referencing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1984 document “Liberatis Nuntius,” “we can see very clearly that the writings of Gutierrez still need to be corrected.”
It was during the 1960s and 70s that as a priest in Argentina, Pope Francis was serving at a time when political turbulence and authoritarian government reigned. While he was not a vocal firebrand during the time when Argentina’s military government was persecuting its enemies and rounding them up for systematic torture and murder, it has emerged that the former Father Jorge Bergoglio quietly helped priests and activists who had fallen afoul of the Argentine government.
In a recent meeting with the priests of Rome, Pope Francis reportedly expressed disapproval of Archbishop Gerhard Muller – a supporter of Father Gutiérrez. Speaking behind closed doors, said according to Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister, the Pope responded to a direct reference to liberation theology and Archbishop Muller. Concerning the centrality of the poor in pastoral ministry in the view of Archbishop Muller, “upon hearing the name of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Francis didn’t let the priest finish his question and said, ‘That is what Muller thinks, that is what he thinks’,” Magister explained.
This came scarcely a week after a meeting Pope Francis granted to both Archbishop Muller and Father Gutiérrez. One of Pope Francis' former teachers, Fr. Juan Carlos Scannone, an Argentine Jesuit, has said that the current pontiff has never supported a Marxist-based liberation theology. Fr. Scannone said in an interview in the book “Francis Our Brother Our Friend” (Ignatius Press, 2013), “In the Argentinean Liberation Theology, social Marxist analysis is not used, but rather a historical-cultural analysis, not based on class warfare as a determining principle for the interpretation of society and history,” he said, adding that he believes Pope Francis’ pastoral work and attitude toward the poor can be “understood in this context.”
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, a Catholic priest who maintains a blog that is popular with conservative Catholics, wrote “We will have to keep an eye on what sort of Liberation Theology Pope Francis may be interested in or working with. Not all theologies of liberation are bad, of course. You could say that a liberation theology without the Marxism is pretty much just Catholic social teaching. Consider that in one of his books on liturgy, Joseph Card. Ratzinger used some points from Liberation Theology (which he knew inside and out).”
Cautioning his readers to resist coming to a summary judgement about Pope Francis and his statements that have denounced the “idolatry of money” and called for protecting the natural environment, Fr. Zuhlsdorf blogged, “Before some of you have a spittle-flecked nutty and start dashing around screaming that the Pope is a Marxist or that he is trying to sell the Vatican Museums in order to buy plumbing for people in the favelas, I suggest you breathe deeply and think for a while about what this might mean.”
Zuhlsdorf encouraged Christians to become engaged in active evangelization. “[G]et involved in your parishes or in the place where you attend the older form of Mass. Get involved especially in what the parish might have going in regard to spiritual and corporal works of mercy. If that means getting involved in a less-than-perfect RCIA program as a group leader, do it. If that means volunteering to visit the sick, do it. If that means offering to wash altar linens, do it. If that means helping with a food or clothing drive, or even starting them, do it. Do these things, firstly, because they are the right things to do. Do them also because traditional, hard identity Catholics are treated like second-class citizens in the Church. You need to give the lie to the impression which the controlling liberal class has about you. Don’t just go to your Mass and then go home without thinking about the parish again for another 6 days.”
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