The Pope in Brazil: Liberation Theology Revisited

Kudos to the New York Times for trying to tackle theology with Larry Rohter’s story today about the Pope’s visit to Brazil (just a month after a major New York Times Magazine article on Benedict XVI). However, the story is an indication of how hard it is to appreciate the nuance of theological debate in a journalistic venue. To that end, I sent the following letter to the NYT (which, of course, will never see the light of day, alas…)

To the Editor:

While Rohter should be commended for tackling a properly theological debate in relation to Benedict XVI’s visit to Brazil, the account confirms the difficulty of appreciating the nuance of such debates. The story has an air of false dichotomy about it, or at least over-simplification. We have liberation theologians who care about the proletarian poor on the left, and the magisterium allied with capitalist oppressors on the right–as if Ratzinger was just the religious PR voice for the American Enterprise Institute (putting Michael Novak out of a job!).

But such a picture misses the nuance of Benedict’s critique (which is more nuanced than John Paul II’s). It is not a question of whether to be concerned with the poor or the “working class”–a long legacy of papal encyclicals already articulates this. The issue is whether “statecraft” is the proper vehicle for dealing with this injustice. Because liberation theology too easily accepts the logic and machinations of “secular” statecraft, and because the Pope articulates a trenchant critique of secularity, one could suggest that Benedict is critical of liberation theology precisely because it’s critique of oppression is not radical enough.

James K.A. Smith

Required reading here is Daniel Bell, Liberation Theology After the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering.