Is the New Pope More Liberal Than the Last Two? Why It's Hard to Tell

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Conservative? Progressive? Liberation theologist? These terms mean different things to Latin Americans than they do to people in the U.S.

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Enrique Garcia Medina/Reuters

We're used to seeing more corrections on breaking news than we were ten years ago. But in the coverage of the election of Pope Francis on Wednesday, there was one question that got reported half-a-dozen different ways. Where does the new pope stand on liberation theology? The Guardian called him a "champion" of it -- and later issued a correction. Other publications, like the New York Times, reported he had opposed liberation theology, and the politicization of the Church more generally.

Why was everyone talking about liberation theology? Because Francis comes from Latin America, the cradle of (one iteration of) the liberation theology movement. The new pope has also made some pretty progressive-sounding statements -- to American ears, anyway -- about neoliberalism, the poor, and Argentina's debt.

But as the story worked its way through the news cycle, an examination of Francis's record showed public attempts to distance himself from liberation theology. And the Argentinian priest who publicly embraced a progressive social justice agenda has been labeled a conservative by many -- in some cases, relabeled by the same media outlets that asked earlier if he was a progressive.

Many of the world's Catholics are primarily looking to Francis to restore faith in a troubled institution. But the pope's stated political views can also teach us something about politics in Latin America. Francis's position relative to liberation theology, and the way English-language outlets reacted to him, says a lot about what Americans and Europeans know -- and don't know -- about the Catholic faith in Latin America. And whether we call him conservative or progressive points to a difference in how those terms are applied in the two regions.

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Of all the reforming currents in Catholicism, liberation theology is one of the most radical. The type of liberation theology that's relevant to Francis has its roots in the work of South American theologians like Leonardo Boff of Brazil and Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru. Liberation theologians base their philosophy and political activity in a reading of Scripture where God prefers the poor and where sin appears in the world in the form of social ills like extreme inequality. Liberation theologians struck at some of the key practices of the Church, criticizing, for instance, its rigid hierarchies.

This led some religious and political critics of liberation theology to characterize it as a warmed-over form of Marxism -- a charge that, to some extent, stuck. The Vatican, which opposed Marxism and communism throughout the 20th century, condemned liberation theology in 1984. It happens that the cardinal who penned the condemnation, which issued from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was Joseph Ratzinger -- later, Pope Benedict XVI.

Francis's populist, humble gestures in his Wednesday speech may have helped to trigger the Guardian's error in calling him a liberation theologian. Francis's stated commitment to the poor and to a humble lifestyle chimes with liberation theology. A number of writers pointed out the colloquial tone of his Wednesday speech. Others made a note of his down-to-earth behavior since the election. All of these qualities are qualities liberation theologians value -- but liberation theologians aren't the only ones who value them.

Just because he's advocated for and ministered to the poor, chastised the IMF for pressing Argentina on its debts, and spoken critically about neoliberalism, doesn't make Francis a liberation theologist. The Washington Post reported that while Francis ministered in the poorest areas of Buenos Aires as a bishop, much like the Argentine liberation theologist Carlos Mugica, he felt uncomfortable with liberation theology's "alliances with armed leftist guerilla movements" in the country in the 1970s. Within the Jesuit order, which he is a part of, Francis sought to keep priests from becoming too deeply involved in community activism -- a hallmark of liberation theology -- during the Argentine junta of the 1970s.

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I was gchatting a liberal, American, former-Catholic friend of mine while we watched the Pope's election on Wednesday. When the new pope's name was announced -- Francis, like Saint Francis of Assisi -- I observed that maybe it indicated a progressive commitment on his part to social justice.

That doesn't mean he won't run the Church as a conservative, my friend noted, citing orthodox Catholic stances on contraception and homosexuality that he finds problematic. And, indeed, the new pope is expected to take a conservative stance on social doctrine.

Yes, obviously you can be conservative on some issues and liberal on others, whether you are a 23-year-old American or the pope. But it's worth taking the opportunity to note that, from a Latin American perspective, Francis's views aren't notably eclectic. In a funny way, the gap between my friend's progressivism and Francis's says something about the difference between the U.S. and the Latin American left.

In the U.S., many of our most vocal, polarizing, and space-consuming public debates have focused recently on social issues like gay marriage and the death penalty. There is a fairly well-defined "left-wing" (and "right-wing") perspective on each of these issues, even if not all Americans who self-identify as progressive (or conservative) hold those views.

A sign of this is that, among younger Americans, who tend to be more progressive than their elders, a large number of under-30s (25 percent, according to a recent poll by Reason) identify as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. To a great extent, the measure of your progressivism is your take on social issues rather than your take on how the economy should be run.

In Latin America, by contrast, it is common to be squarely on the left by anyone in the region's yardstick and still be fairly socially conservative. (In part, that's because an overwhelming number of Latin Americans are Catholic, so social conservatism on issues like gay marriage is more par for the course.) There are pockets of what Americans would call social progressivism, especially in cosmopolitan cities like Mexico City and wealthy countries like Uruguay, and younger Latin Americans are becoming more likely to take an interest in progressive social change -- even if they feel ambivalent about it -- than did an older and more socially conservative generation. (To get a sense of the relative pace of social change, consider, for instance, that women got the vote in Argentina in 1947, and in Mexico in 1954.)

Region-wide, though, the public face of leftism in Latin America has more to do with a particular position on how society should distribute wealth. (See the "left-wing" governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, etc., which have spent a lot of money on uplifting the poor -- and dropped even more rhetoric about it.) Note that this is a somewhat distinct issue from what type of economic system a country uses. Peronism, which was a rightist political movement, relied on government management in the economy. And there are left-leaning governments (as in Brazil) that have paired strong social uplift programs with somewhat liberalized markets.

On this question, Francis has indicated some sympathy with the left -- as might not shock you of a clergyman who, even as bishop of Buenos Aires, took the bus to work and ministered in the city's isolated squatters' settlements. " 'Is the Pope a capitalist?'" asked a columnist for Forbes rhetorically. " 'Probably not,'" he concluded.

To a certain extent that puts Francis in company with his liberation-theologist brothers in Latin America, even if they part ways on political agitation -- and on a lot of the social issues that have come to define conflict within the church.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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