The various rumors and sightings and reports and postings about “leftist priests” encouraged by the election of Pope Francis took on solid shape the other day, when the Associated Press ran a major feature story with reporting from four cities in the Americas. With the midterm elections looming, I could not help but read the story with the May 13 vote—and specifically with Risa Hontiveros, the senatorial candidate who to me most embodies Catholic social teaching—in mind.
“A new pope from Latin America known for ministering to the poor in his country’s slums is raising the hopes of advocates of liberation theology, whose leftist social activism had alarmed previous pontiffs,” the AP feature began. “Prominent liberation theologian Leonardo Boff said Pope Francis has what it takes to fix a church ‘in ruins’ and shares his movement’s commitment to building a church for the world’s poor.”
With the Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez, the Brazilian Boff is often identified as among the founders of the theology of liberation. I like the way the English version of Boff’s website describes his role. “He was present in the first reflections that sought to articulate indignance toward misery and marginalization with discourse, which later generated the Christian faith known as Liberation Theology. He has always been an ardent of the Human Rights cause, helping to formulate a new, Latin American perspective on Human Rights with, ‘Rights to Life and the ways to maintain them with dignity.’”
There is a blurring of interpretive horizons in all works of translation that can be inadvertently, even charmingly, revealing. (This is the reason why I prefer Apolinario Mabini’s strained English translation of his own account of the Philippine revolution over the polished version of Leon Ma. Guerrero.)
But win some, lose some. The modesty in the first clause of the first sentence is thoroughly disarming: Boff was “present in the first reflections” that led to the theology of liberation. The inaccuracy in the second clause, however, is dangerous; to the inattentive or hostile reader, it would suggest that liberation theology is a religion in itself, when in fact it is only a spirituality, a way of approach that emphasizes one or more aspects of the same Christian, Catholic faith.
I think this reality at the root of religious practice is insufficiently understood. Carmelites, Dominicans, Jesuits (the list goes on) follow and are formed by different spiritualities; they are all Catholic, but anyone can see that—to choose only one example—Discalced Carmelites differ from Jesuits in their emphases and thus in their “way of proceeding.” The former trace part of their order’s DNA to the religious experience of the great reformers John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. (Now there’s a modern-day saint for us: sassy, rebellious, eminently practical, utterly and recognizably holy.) The latter trace their DNA to Ignatius of Loyola and the first, fearsomely educated, immensely disciplined Jesuits: the SWAT team of the Counter-Reformation.
I see liberation theology as a spirituality too, a way of proceeding that puts special (to some Catholics, inordinate) emphasis on the “misery and marginalization” of the poor. I needed to take the required course (Theology 141, to use the course catalogue), under the remarkable Asandas Balchand, SJ, to understand the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”—but Risa did not need to do so. Even then, she was already “an ardent” of the cause.
Of the eight or nine candidates I will vote for (the subject of my next column, a necessary exercise in transparency), it is Risa who strikes me as the true child of Vatican II. She was, of course, and controversially, among those who led the fight for the Reproductive Health Law; what many of her Catholic critics fail to see is that it was precisely her Catholic conscience, schooled in the gritty reality of Philippine society, that moved her to join the fight.
A group that calls itself Catholics for Risa Hontiveros has circulated a statement online endorsing her as a Catholic candidate. (A few of the signatories are my friends, some I know only by reputation; many of them, like me, have known Risa since the last years of the Marcos dictatorship, in the 1980s.)
To a greater or lesser degree, the signatories see themselves as Catholics in Risa’s vein. They share her joys and hopes, of a committed Christian who has struggled mightily to live a good life and to raise children as good citizens of (to borrow Archbishop Soc Villegas’ phrase) both heaven and earth. They share her griefs and anxieties too, of a Catholic politician frustrated by the lack of charity in some of her (Catholic) critics.
Their statement begins thus: “We believe in God and in the Roman Catholic Church. We also believe in Risa Hontiveros. We believe she will bring Catholic social teaching—with its love of preference for the poor—into the politics of our nation.”
That is exactly how I see it.
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Writing a couple of days after the election of Pope Francis, Boff wrote something astonishing: a bold prophecy. (I am using the English translation as found in Iglesia Descalza, or Barefoot Church, a blog by “Rebel Girl.”):
“Francis isn’t a name; it’s a plan for a Church that is poor, simple, gospel-centered, and devoid of all power. It’s a Church that walks the way together with the least and last, that creates the first communities of brothers and sisters who recite the breviary under the trees with the birds.”
I cannot quite imagine Risa reciting the breviary under the trees—but bringing a politics of “the least and last” into the Senate is prayer enough.
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