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The frequent references of Pope Francis to the Christian’s preferential option for the poor are being misconstrued as “a significant shift inside the Vatican under the first Latin American pope in the history of the Church,” as Paul Vallely of The Tablet wrote in an article for the International New York Times (INYT) last September 5, 2014. As an economist who has followed the social doctrine of the Church at least for a half of a century, I can attest that there is no shift whatsoever in the teachings of the Church concerning Liberation Theology or the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” The following paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2441) summarizes the unchanging doctrine of the Church: “”The Church’s love for the poor…is a part of her constant tradition. This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus and of his concern for the poor. Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to ‘be able to give to those in need. It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty.”
As a newly-minted Ph.D. from the U.S., I started my teaching career in the mid-1960s. Since one of the subjects I taught was Development Economics that focused on the struggle to eradicate poverty by what were then called the Third World Countries, I had to face squarely the theories of Liberation Theology that were being imported into the Philippines from Latin America, more especially from Peru where a priest named Gustavo Gutierrez was its founding father. I agreed with those proponents of Liberation Theology who maintained that there are “structures of sin” from which the poor and the oppressed have to be liberated. I could sympathize with my students at De La Salle College and the University of the Philippines who became “activists” during the martial law regime of President Marcos when they perceived human rights violations and the creation of monopolistic industries in sugar, coconut and other strategic economic sectors that concentrated wealth in the hands of the few. I saw nothing wrong in the cries, especially of the idealistic youth, for the Catholic Church to “help the poor liberate themselves from unjust economic systems through labor unions, cooperatives and self-help groups,” as Mr. Vallely pointed out in his article for the INYT.
Unfortunately, in my conversations with some of my students, I could perceive a growing influence of Marxist interpretations they were giving to Liberation Theology. They increasingly spoke of class struggle and began to espouse violent means. Bitterness against some of the erring government officials and capitalists turned into hatred. Some of the more vocal leaders started to preach the doctrine that the only way to show preferential option for the poor is to hate the rich. A few of them, encouraged by some erring clerics and even nuns started to go underground and joined the New People Army. To them Liberation Theology was a necessary mix of the Christian preferential option for the poor and the Marxist class struggle. In my personal experience as a teacher and mentor of the youth, I could fully understand the decision of St. John Paul II to crack down on the version of Liberation Theology that was tainted with Marxist ideology. There were enough cases of priests and nuns losing their vocation in their passion to destroy the sinful structures. The Philippines was not spared this unfortunate turn of event. Just remember the story of “Sister Stella L” with Vilma Santos playing the lead role.
We have to thank Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who as the Head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith then, issued two documents in 1984 and 1986, clarifying the true doctrine of Liberation Theology. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made it clear that the most authentic liberation of a human beings is liberation from sin. In fact, when I used to remind some of those young people inflicted with the marxist version of liberation theology, they would angrily reply that they did not believe in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Still referring to themselves as Christians, they were repudiating the primarily spiritual nature of the Christian religion, with its emphasis on prayer, sacrifice and the sacraments. Almost all of them stopped going to Mass and receiving the Holy Eucharist. They converted Christianity into a mere social work or an NGO addressing the problem of material poverty. They even refused to accept that there was an even more serious form of poverty, i.e. spiritual poverty. I even met some nuns, admittedly a small minority, who stopped teaching Catechism to the poor because they sarcastically observed that “the poor cannot eat Catholic doctrine.” There were blatant abuses that justified a hard line taken by the Church hierarchy towards Liberation Theology gone astray.
Thanks to the more than thirty years of St. John Paul the Great and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI teaching the right approaches to Liberation Theology, there is hardly any danger today of the youth being misled by the false prophets of marxism. Also, since 1978 when Deng Xaio Peng dealt a fatal blow to marxist communism, any reasonable Christian can easily understand the clarification made by Cardinal Ratzinger then that the preferential option for the poor should be neither “exclusive nor excluding.” It should not be exclusive in the sense that the concern for the poor cannot be limited to their material necessities. We have to improve the integral human development of the poor, which would include also their spiritual welfare for “man does not live by bread alone” At the same time, this preferential option should not be excluding. One can love the poor preferentially. That does not give anyone the license to “hate the rich.” The rich should also be the concern of every Christian trying to promote social justice. The rich, if converted like Zaccheus in the Gospels, can do much to help the poor. Beside, hatred should not be in the vocabulary of a follower of Christ who said that one has to also love one’s enemy.