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POPE'S VIEWS OF ECOLOGY AND CAPITALISM MAY BE INFLUENCED BY HIS ROOTS IN THE HOTBED OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Those wondering why the Pope has certain orientations and tendencies must realize that he comes from a part of the world that is steeped in what is known as "liberation theology."

As historian Thomas Bokenkotter summarized it, the view, in that part of the world, is that classical theology seemed removed from day-to-day experience, especially the experiences of the suffering poor. Liberation theology is a call to struggle against the social forces of oppression.

The Pope's inclinations in this regard have been displayed on a nearly daily basis since elevation to the Throne of Peter, intermingling with homeless, building them showers, letting them tour the Sistine Chapel, and even paying for tickets so they could go see the Shroud of Turin. Soon the Vatican will have a hostel for the homeless.

While the Holy Father is not formally a part of the liberation theology movement, which has been accused of socialistic leanings, it is a dominant viewpoint in many theological parts of Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Chile and his native Argentina. In short, it was an organic part of Christianity and Catholicism; it apparently pervades the air; he was surrounded by it.

In many ways, they have reinterpreted the life of Christ in light of their experience of the poverty-stricken.

These influences were on exhibit to an extent with publication of the Pontiff's much-awaited encyclical on the ecology. The simple message -- one hard to argue with, to a degree -- is simple social justice.

But does it go to an extreme?

"They stress the mission of the Church to take part in building the kingdom by being a visible sign of the Presence of the Lord within the struggle," wrote Bokenkotter. "Therefore they insist the Church must again become poor in solidarity with the poor if it is to be an authentic sign."

That mission -- working for Christ through the poor -- is done through social means, which implies an engagement with worldly forces, instead of an otherworldy approach to salvation.

This may explain the Pope's less-than-enthusiastic embrace of claims of apparitions, particularly ones that he may see as Westernized.

His proclamation -- "We are a poor Church" -- came in his very first address to the world as a successor to Saint Peter. Is it liberation theology or, as some point out, simply following the Sermon on the Mount?

John Paul II stated that capitalism and socialism both had their good points but have been misused (as in hyper-capitalism or Marxism) and sharply criticized those extremes. Here is a quote that some called nearly Marxist. It's from -- John Paul II:

"It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness, both individual and collective, are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence."

That Pope never went quite as far, in these criticisms, however, as the current Pontiff, who is not Marxist or socialist but also decidedly is not an Ayn Rand capitalist.

In the view of liberation theology, the critical is favored over the dogmatic, to counteract the tendency of institutions to fossilize.

The Pope has also demonstrated such criticism.

Jesuits have been tied to the movement. Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, strongly opposed it. There are good elements to it, and also worrisome ones. It comes down to a matter of balance.

"How influenced are they by Marxism?" asked Bokenkotter. "No one accuses them of subscribing to Marx's atheistic materialism, but they have been charged with using Marxist analysis as a tool -- exclusively, according to Father Arrupe, the Jesuit General, in a famous letter of 1980." It's a charge that was hotly denied. Anyway: the Pope has never openly endorsed the theology.

But influenced by it?

In South America, words often come out in a blunt and effusive way. And liberation theology itself encourages "dialogue-type sermons" at Mass -- something for which Francis has become famous. As they see it, it is the fulfillment of the direction commanded by Vatican II.

More than anyone since Paul VI, Francis is "the Vatican II Pope." According to the South American-based theology, the Church should have what Latin American bishops -- in a formal statement -- called a "preferential option for the poor."

One major player in liberation theology was a Franciscan named Leonard Boff, who battled with Cardinal Ratzinger and interpreted the theology as wanting to restore respect for the many charisms and gifts Jesus promised His followers and all members of the Church. Yet, said Boekenkotter, liberation theology also saw a Church whose "priests and sisters worked and lived in the slums and peasant villages, with their own religious organizations and speak much less about Fatima and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and much more about the Jesus Who showed special love for the poor."

Pope John Paul II showed sympathy for aspects of the theology and softened Cardinal Ratzinger's rebuke of it. Ironically, Benedict and Pope Francis agree on environmental issues (Benedict was called "the Green Pope," and even installed solar panels on the Vatican roof), and as for other matters, the current Pope has instructed his staff to keep Benedict's direction as far as the liturgy. In many viewpoints, there is no final line of distinction.

Liberation theology considers great landowners and business moguls and wielders of power as the enemy. It envisions a Church whose "essential values" included access to resources by all people and the priority of work over capital (Pope Francis often speaks of this), with special compassion for the aborted, the elderly, the abandoned, and the lonely.

It is right out of the pontifical script of the past two years.

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