December 13th, 2011

Benedict XVI wind

Theological Notebook: Allen on "The Lonely Liberation Theology of Benedict XVI"

I thought that this was an interesting reading of some of Benedict's thinking with regard to his comments in Benin last month, and his thoughts toward "liberation theology," broadly understood.
The Lonely Liberation Theology of Benedict XVI
by John L Allen Jr on Nov. 20, 2011 NCR Today

Cotonou, Benin -- 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.”

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.”

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.

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