The Pope is coming to Britain but for some reason I am not at all excited or pleased. If you read the strap line of my blog you will see that it reads as follows: "Aspire not to have more but to be more." These were the words of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 by the pro-US military junta who then ran El Salvador. Romero was an advocate of what became known as liberation theology, a movement which took root throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s and focused on helping the poor and oppressed, even if that meant confronting political powers. It was a theology that was later to be severely criticised as a "fundamental threat" to the church by one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now better known as Pope Benedict XVI.
Romero spoke out for a theology that preached about the "preferential option for the poor". Ordained priests like Gutiérrez, Sobrino and Boff argued that when the Catholic church failed to speak for the poor and the oppressed, and when it refused to take the side of the persecuted and downtrodden, it did not exercise neutrality. Instead it abandoned, indeed abdicated, its moral responsibility. During the 1960s and 1970s, military dictatorships ruled much of Latin America, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The region's anti-communist rulers often clashed with radical priests, whose confrontational preoccupation with class struggle brought them into conflict with the rich and powerful as well as the Vatican itself. Yet the movement seems to have all but disappeared. Under the present pope – and in fairness the previous one as well - the Catholic Church of 2010 encourages its flock to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's", it advocates the view that politics and faith are separate arenas and that the two cannot, indeed should not, mix. The result of such a narrow-minded stance is that the church is in danger of becoming completely irrelevant to the life of the modern man. By modern man I, of course, mean the "poor man". It is easy to forget that the vast majority of people who inhabit the planet with us live below the poverty line, the vast majority live in poor housing, have no access to proper health care and have a life expectancy that is decades shorter than that of the minority who live in the affluent west. Today there is an even greater need for the voices of liberation to be heard. There is the unjust distribution of goods and services whereby a relative minority of wealthy groups and ruling classes use their power and influence to perpetuate macro-economic and political structures which exploit the labour and lives of the vast majority of the planet's population. The church is, all too often, silent on this issue. Or take the deep and widespread oppression of women, along with the elderly, and children dependent upon women, in all patriarchal societies around the globe where women and their dependents are dehumanised and depersonalised. Is the Catholic church working to further liberate women in these settings, or does it silently support the structures that keep things as they are? So we either need a new liberation theology or we need the church to be liberated. We need a church that offers hope - not a jam-tomorrow kind of hope, rather the hope that the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as the "passion for the possible".
We need a church that can show that it understands that what people need is to believe that things will, and can, be better. In other words, we need the church to renew itself and we need a theology that will actively seek and proclaim the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution - all people, regardless of their faith or their background. The true message of liberation will always result in some people feeling uneasy. To side, as many liberation theologians in the 1960s and 1970s did, against injustice, to commit one's life to the poor is not a political stance but a moral one. The true message of hope, of a promise that the world can be fairer, more just and less divided often results in giving comfort to the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
The present Pope does not apparently share this view; indeed he believes people like me are a “fundamental threat” to the church. So I wish the Pope well on his visit to Britain but I look forward to one day welcoming a Pontiff who will be proud to talk about making a preferential option for the poor and encourage us all to “aspire to be more, not to have more.”