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

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

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.


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

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