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With all that said, what are some useful ways to understand this pope in the American context? With a figure as complicated as Francis, it’s impossible to answer that question fully with anything but a book or 12. But here are a few aspects of his history and pastoral priorities that can serve as a guide to his words and actions while he’s in the U.S.
The Pope’s Latin American Past
When he was elected in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first-ever pope from the Americas—or from the Southern Hemisphere. The Argentine came of age during the rule of Juan and Eva Peron and was a young priest during the violent, politically unstable decades that followed. Insofar as this pope is a political figure, he was shaped by the push-and-pull between the Church and communism during his decades in Argentina.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a movement known as liberation theology gained traction among Church leaders in Latin America. The bishops there had their own leadership council, known as the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano, or CELAM. In 1968, that group met in Medellín to affirm that the Church has a “preferential option for the poor”—in other words, that the poor should be at the center of Catholic teaching and ministry. Their main conclusion at this meeting, said Miller, was that “Latin America is being exploited by first-world economies as a source for the raw materials for first-world affluence.”
Fifty years later, this idea would become the center of Pope Francis’s first solo encyclical on the topic of climate change, Laudato Si. Francis speaks of this issue in the context of the entire global south, but “that concern about justice—that in order to preach the gospel, you have to confront the injustices of the large structures of the world—that’s a fundamentally Latin American insight,” Miller said.
In the years following this meeting in Medellín, certain strains of liberation theology became more politicized, and some Vatican leaders came to view it as overly Marxist. This was particularly true during the papacy of John Paul II, who came from communist Poland and saw firsthand the destructive effects of Marxist politics. In the early ’80s, he asked one of his cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, to issue an “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’”—Church-speak for a theological smack-down. As Ratzinger wrote, there were “risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living … brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought." Ratzinger, of course, later became Pope Benedict XVI.
Bergoglio, meanwhile, was helping to chart something of a middle path in Argentina. He was involved with the preparations for a 1979 CELAM meeting in Puebla, Mexico, which “affirmed the option for the poor while definitively rejecting the Marxist-influenced version of liberation theology,” writes the church historian Austen Ivereigh in his book on Francis, The Great Reformer. In a way, it was an attempt to make liberation theology more moral and less political—and indeed, around this time, certain Jesuits accused Bergoglio of being “too concerned with feeding the poor and not enough with asking why they were poor,” Ivereigh writes. But this idea—that the Church should be a Church for the poor—was key to his formation. It’s why, as the head of the Society of Jesus in Argentina in the 1970s, he sent priests into the poor barrios, or slums, to do outreach. And it’s why, many years later as pope, he constantly talks about the poor.