Monday, March 25, 2013

Pope should take a new look at liberation theology

By Denis Murphy

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Soon after the papal election was over, there were two images on my mind. One was of Pope Francis on the balcony of St. Peter’s in his white soutana, seemingly frail in the wet and chilly Roman night.

The other was of a lovely, gracious Muslim woman lying dead in her car after being shot by masked men for helping the poor of Karachi. We received news of her murder that same day.

Unlike most Catholics, I could not rejoice at the sight of the new Pope. I had two problems. One was the suggestion in the media and from Jesuit friends that as Fr. Jorge Bergoglio, he may have acted poorly in matters involving human rights and Christian loyalty during the military junta years (1976-1983) in Argentina. He may have allowed the torture of two of his fellow Jesuits, the reports said. I asked myself, couldn’t the cardinals in the conclave have found someone more heroic? Someone perhaps like Perween Rahman, the Muslim woman killed because she refused to leave the poor? Courage is also a Christian virtue.

The story of the two Jesuits began when Bergoglio, then the Jesuit superior, learned that the two men working in an urban poor area would be arrested, which in those days often led to torture and death. He ordered them to leave the area. They refused, and he dismissed them from the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). They were arrested and badly tortured and later dumped on piles of garbage. Sometime during the night of their arrest, Bergoglio reached the military and they were not killed. Much later, the two were offered reentry into the Jesuits, and one refused.

What else could Bergoglio have done? He could have gone himself to stay with his men. He could have asked other Jesuits to go with him. Possibly their large number may have given the military pause. I think this is what Fathers Horacio de la Costa and Benigno Mayo might have done. Our urban poor people do it: If an area is threatened with eviction, the residents of other areas come to help. What would Archbishop Oscar Romero have done?

We have, I believe, a right to expect a degree of heroism from the man who heads the Holy Catholic Church we profess in the Creed. Heroism is not as rare as we may think.

The second hesitation I have is not with the new Pope himself, but about many conservative Church officials. They simply do not deal kindly with people who disagree with them. They are harsh and display a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. I don’t sense any interest among them to understand the roots of the nonconservative disagreement, though nonconservatives are a huge part of the Church, maybe the majority.

I hope the Pope will throw a line of hope to them that things can change. Perhaps he can begin by reopening some topics for discussion, such as the role of women in the Church. The women who want to be priests are not the enemy. No one believes more firmly in the Gospel than they do.

Thousands in Karachi mourn Parween. She was an architect by training, but instead of becoming rich designing homes for the well-off, she chose to spend her life with the poor, helping them gain land-tenure security and improve their houses and communities. In the poor areas she struggled with the racketeers who robbed the poor of their land, and even their drinking water. The racketeers cut the water mains, take control of the water, and then sell it. Some of the poor have no decent drinking water.

When the social fabric of Karachi fell apart in recent years, Parween redoubled her efforts. She said the following at a meeting of housing people in Bangkok in 2011: “The situation in Pakistan is indeed very bad—the Taliban, the bombs, violence, the disasters. Yet everywhere we look we see signs of hope. We look on these with eyes of respect and try to support them, and make them strong. The links we make with each other are a powerful way to do that.”

It is not pleasant to feel alienated in some important way from the Pope. A Catholic hopes to find at the heart of his or her Church a totally concerned, totally dedicated, compassionate human being. It is easier to see the Pope erring in matters of doctrine than in loyalty.

In the days that followed, however, I began to question my first reactions. Knowledgeable people denied that the Pope had ever compromised human rights during the military junta years. I heard voices: “The Almighty said to Job, who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?” Could that be me? I wondered. “Were you there when I laid the cornerstone [of the earth] while the morning birds sang in chorus? Have the gates of death been shown to you?” (Job 38:1-2, 4, 7,17)

Perhaps the new Pope sought God’s forgiveness long ago, and has been forgiven. Jesus can say of him as He does of the sinful woman: “Much has been forgiven because she has loved much.” (Luke 7:36-50)

I hope the Pope takes another look at the theology of liberation. It is true, as he said in a Mass with the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, that we don’t want the Church to be just another “compassionate NGO,” but we don’t want it to be ineffectual in its efforts to end hunger, illiteracy and powerlessness. The theology of liberation provides a Christian framework for the people’s efforts to organize themselves, analyze their problems, choose their solutions, and take appropriate action. It isn’t perfect, but it is the only theology that fits comfortably with the poor who struggle in an organized, democratic and nonviolent way for their human and God-given rights. Also, the development of poor people is a science. The Gospel can and must inspire the process in a Christian context, but it can’t substitute for the science needed.

Hopefully, with the new Pope we are closer to becoming the Church of the poor.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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