Sunday, November 20, 2011

John Allen On Pope Benedict's Lonely Liberation Theology.

Oh my.  Pope Benedict in the middle of girls dancing to drums.  What will the traditionalists think of this?

John Allen has a new post over at NCR on the Pope's just completed trip to Benin. In this article Allen attempts to explain that in his heart Benedict is truly a 'liberation theologian'.  Pope Benedict may be a liberation theologian in his heart, but he has ruled, as both head of the CDF and Pope, from his head, and that head had little heart for the major tenants of liberation theology.

The lonely liberation theology of Benedict XVI

John Allen - National Catholic Reporter - 11/20/2011
Anyone just tuning in now to Pope Benedict XVI, who doesn’t know much about him but somehow caught wind of his Nov. 18-20 trip to Benin, could be forgiven a bit of confusion about exactly what the pope came here to say about the political role of Catholicism in Africa.

Understanding that a unique form of ‘liberation theology’ circulates in the pope’s intellectual and spiritual bloodstream can, perhaps, help make sense of things.

(“Liberation theology” usually refers to a progressive theological movement pioneered in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s, which put the church on the side of the poor in their political struggles, and which drew both praise and rebuke from the future pope while he was the Vatican’s doctrinal czar.)

On the one hand, Benedict repeatedly cried out in defense of the poor. During an open-air Mass this morning in a soccer stadium in Benin’s capital, before some 40,000 wildly enthusiastic, dancing and singing locals (with another 40,000 outside) he said “Jesus wanted to identify himself with the poor” and the poor deserve respect because “through them, God shows us the way to Heaven.” (Jesus didn't quite phrase things this way.  He identified Himself directly with the poor.  In serving the poor and marginalized we serve Him. We see His face. That is vastly different from implying God uses the poor to show us the way to heaven. The poor are not utilitarian tools we use for the benefit of our own salvation.)

Yesterday, in a highly anticipated speech at Benin’s Presidential Palace, Benedict sounded at times like a populist reformer.
“There are too many scandals and injustices, too much corruption and greed, too many errors and lies, too much violence which leads to misery and death,” he said.

In his major document on the faith in Africa, Africae Munus, or “Africa’s Commitment,” Benedict called the church to act as a “sentinel,” denouncing situations of injustice.

The pontiff also took yet another swipe at neo-con ideologies. In his opening speech of the trip, he warned Africans that an “unconditional surrender to the laws of the market and of finance” is among the pathologies of modernity they would do well to avoid.

Yet Benedict XVI also issued a clear warning to stay out of politics, which could seem at odds with his biting social commentary. While he rejected “withdrawal” and “escape from concrete historical responsibility,” he explicitly instructed clergy to steer clear of “immediate engagement with politics.” (I assume Benedict is referencing individual clerics running for political office.  It's still OK to badger, bully, lobby and otherwise be a major political player--that is, for Roman Catholic Inc. and it's subsidiaries like the USCCB.)

The pope likewise stressed that “the church’s mission is not political in nature.” At another point, he added that, “Christ does not propose a revolution of a social or political kind.”

So, what’s going on? When Benedict talks about defense of the poor, is he engaging in pious rhetoric without any real-world bite? Is this just papal double-talk, tossing a bone to the church’s progressive constituency in one breath and its more traditional following in another?

In fact, the tension can be resolved with this insight: Benedict XVI has a distinctive form of liberation theology, and his various speeches and texts in Africa amount to vintage expressions of it.
This “Benedictine” form of liberation theology is rooted in three basic convictions.
  • The supernatural realm is the deepest and most “real” level of existence. Material forms of reality, including economic and political structures, are fundamentally conditioned by the quality of humanity’s relationship with God.
  • Individual transformation must precede social transformation. Systems and structures cannot be liberated if the individual human heart doesn’t change first.
  • Attempts by the church to dictate political solutions end in disaster, among other things performing a disservice to the poor by reducing the social appetite for God. Preoccupied with secularism as he is, Benedict XVI knows well that rejection of religious faith in the West is , at least in part, a reaction against centuries of theocracy and clerical privilege.
Add it up, and what you get is this: Benedict XVI is genuinely scandalized by poverty and injustice, and he wants the church to be a change agent. In terms of how the church promotes transformation, however, it’s not by lobbying or electoral strategy, but by inviting people into relationship with Christ – the Christ whose “preferential love for the poor” Benedict has repeatedly confirmed. (I'll believe this one when Benedict reigns in the USCCB like he and JPII did with AB Oscar Romero.)

Nurture love for Christ in the hearts of women and men, the pope believes, and the revolution will come. Trying to start with the revolution first, he believes, is a recipe for heartache, which the tragic history of the 20th century eloquently illustrates.

That’s the liberation theology of Benedict XVI. It is, in some ways, a fairly lonely position, satisfying neither the zeal for concrete political advocacy of the Catholic left nor the laissez-faire instincts of at least part of the Catholic right.

It’s also not clear how Benedict’s version of liberation theology will play in Africa itself, where religious leaders are accustomed to playing a robustly political role because the churches are often the only zones of life where civil society can take shape – the only safe environments in which dissent can be expressed, and where the power of the state doesn’t (at least, doesn’t always) reach.

Ironically, Benin itself is a good example of the point. This is a country where one former Archbishop of Cotonou, Isidore de Sousa, received special permission from the John Paul II to act as the effective leader of the country in the early 1990s, leading it through a transition from Marxism to democracy. (The implication in this sentence is that the Vatican of JPII/Benedict still considers itself a de facto ruler in global politics.)

In an interview yesterday with NCR, Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, called the tension between emphasizing a spiritual or a political mission as a “false dilemma.”

“It’s not as if you can’t be politically relevant if you don’t enter politics,” Onaiyekan said.

However Benedict’s liberation theology takes shape in Africa or other parts of the world, bringing it into focus at least has the virtue of rendering his various messages throughout this three-day journey consistent: Defend the poor, yes, but using the spiritual arsenal of the church.  (Which is what exactly?)


John Allen is very good at squeezing some lemonade out of lemons. Unfortunately even he cannot hide the fact that the current Vatican regime as articulated by Pope Benedict is really asking us to meekly accept their total control while calling it liberation.  The Vatican defines what it means by individual conversion, and has no problems exerting it's authority when Catholics don't convert in the exact Vatican way.  This Vatican will also talk endlessly about clergy staying out of politics until it finds a clergyman who is willing to rule a country in the way the Vatican wants a country ruled.  Then it's OK for a clergyman to be overtly political.  

Benedict's Vatican will talk about a preferential option for the poor, but his hierarchy is perfectly willing to leave that preferential option up to the vagaries of individual conversion and conscience.  This is one of the few places we Catholics are free to exercise individual conscience. Of course this kind of exercising does keep the Calvinistic wealthy Catholic fully in the fold and donating to a given Bishop's latest cathedral building project.  Sometimes the preferential option for the poor means building a massive church in which the poor can vicariously feel the riches in heaven which await them in exchange for their temporal suffering.  This kind of thing is precisely why Allen writes that Benedict insists the supernatural realm is the deepest and most 'real' level of existence.  Not to mention it's also the one for which we have no 'real' evidence and is there for ripe for authority to define for us--and keep external to us, when Jesus repeatedly said that realm was inside us.

That 'inside us' thing sure does seem to be the one concept Jesus taught that our leadership likes to ignore.  Of course if the kingdom is inside us, we don't have much use for the external kingdom that calls for Vatican elucidation or clerical mediation.  Can't be havin' that.  

In the end John Allen has it right, this 'lonely liberation theology' is mostly double speak no matter how much he spins and spins and spins it to be that which it isn't.


  1. Liberation? Really?

    Benin was the center of the west African slave trade presided over by the Portuguese with the blessing of Popes for over 200 years. Think that might have something to do with the rejection of religious faith?

    Archbishop de Sousa isn't the only President of Benin with his surname. He is very likely the descendent of Francisco Felix "Cha Cha" de Sousa one of the last Brazilian slavers. The Cha cha was so notorious that Bruce Chatwin memorialized him in his 1980 fiction "The Viceroy of Ouidah".

    This "liberation theology" comes a bit too late.

    I hope I can contact a close personal friend of our family, a priest from Benin, to get his impressions. Based upon our previous discussions I doubt very much that his perception will be the same as John Allen's.


  2. I would be very interested in hearing from your close personal friend. Africa according to John Allen is some sort of Vatican Catholic utopia. I read things from African bishops and I don't get that same understanding.

    Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, is not your average Western AB, no matter how John Allen wishes to portray him. AB Onaiyekan is his own man with his own approach. I will be writing about him tomorrow.

    PS, I don't know what is going on with your problems with Blogger. I haven't gotten any updates or warnings that things have changed or gotten hacked. I do know that their spam filter is not very generous and things can get sent to spam if they contain a hot link.

  3. One of the first books I read on politics was a sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein titled 'Revolt in 2100'. I was about 13 the first time I read it so it made perhaps a larger impact on me than it should have. Every once in a while I go back and re-read it - just because it is a fun way to learn some political concepts. I don't very often read John Allen's columns. Every time I do, it takes me back to that book. There was a passage in the book about the proper application of propaganda to particular audiences. Clearly what he writes is propaganda and it aimed at a particular audience. But outside that particular audience, it does far more harm to the Vatican cause than help inside it I suspect.

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