What Are Jesuits? What About Liberation Theology?

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
March 14 2013 4:05 PM

What Are Jesuits? What About Liberation Theology? A Papal Explainer.

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Pope Francis, Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio, leading a mass at the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on March 14, 2013 a day after his election

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

What's in store for Catholics under Pope Francis?

As Michael B. Dougherty expertly explained yesterday, the Catholic church just placed at its head a man who's previously avoided the spotlight, with no strong associations with any particular theological vision. So all those pieces going up on the first full day of Pope Francis's reign confidently speculating on what his papacy will (or won't) accomplish are relying on a few breadcrumbs to make their point.

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Among those are the new pontiff's "big firsts:" he's the first Jesuit pope, and the first from Latin America, where liberation theology wields a big influence. The big question, it seems, is how either will influence his papacy. Given that Pope Francis has previously distanced himself from the more liberal associations both groups carry, the answer is: probably not very radically. But Pope Francis's verbal commitment to fighting poverty and his very PR-friendly bus love have, at least to some, sold the idea that his approach to Catholic governance will draw heavily on both. (Salon even asked today whether Francis is the "Pope of the 99 percent"). So here's a quick overview on the two terms, which will no doubt keep appearing in the pope analysis down the road.

Jesuits: The Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, are an order of (male) priests condoned by the Vatican that tend to take a missionary and scholarly approach to Catholicism. Founded by St. Ignatius in 1534, they're now best known as the administrators of several universities (Georgetown is probably the most famous one in the United States). The Jesuits take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to both St. Ignatius and the pope. The Daily Beast has a pretty good explainer up on the Jesuits, which you can peruse for more details. But there's one important moment to flag in the context of Pope Francis's election.

The order ruffled the feathers of Pope John Paul II for their involvement in liberation theology in Latin America (we're getting to that). Partially because of their involvement in the liberally-associated movement, Jesuits have a reputation for being more progressive than the Catholic church's other clergy.

Liberation Theology: First off, the "liberation theology" we're talking about when we refer to South American Catholicism is distinct from the American "black liberation theology." They trace their roots back to two different commonly-cited foundational texts: James H. Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation, and Gustavo Gutiérrez's A Theology of Liberation, both written in the early '70s. The two theologies definitely share some significant similarities, namely a reading of scripture that puts the emphasis of the Christian concern with sin on social problems, rather than individual ones. In other words, Christians adhering to a liberation theology should orient themselves toward action against oppression. More symbolically, liberation theology argues that God identifies with the oppressed, and that Christianity should take upon itself the lens of the poor. Both theologies are also often derided as "Marxist" by conservatives (remember Rev. Wright?)

On the surface, this theology would seem to fit with Pope Francis. Here's the New Yorker, summing up his approach to poverty as a Catholic:

"He has made some sharp remarks about the vanity, self-infatuation, careerism, and pursuit of promotions in the Roman Curia. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he apparently preferred to be called Father Jorge, and was known for his preoccupation with the city’s poorest, reportedly washing and kissing the feet of patients suffering from AIDS."

But Francis has opposed liberation theology in Argentina. According to the National Catholic Reporter, this seems to have to do more with keeping Jesuits from becoming politically active or working directly in community groups—which would be a departure from the more traditional role of the order—than it does with rejecting an interpretation of Catholicism that places an emphasis on the poor. So while the emphasis on poverty could very well become a part of Francis's reign (and looks bound to), we know very little of what, if any, reforms he'd want to implement to make the church more effective at alleviating suffering from poverty. Despite his "firsts," there's little evidence so far that the new Pope has radical change in mind for the church.

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Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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