The unexpected papacy of Jorge Bergoglio has reinvigorated the Catholic Church. The past five years have seen the pope grace the pages of major newspapers and magazines (including People!), deliver a TED Talk and generally become a media sensation not seen since the early years of the pontificate of John Paul II.
As the church, and the rest of the world, come to grips with the down-to-earth style and post-Vatican II substance of Francis’ pontificate, scholars have begun to explore both the theological influences on the present pope and as well as the ecclesial ramifications of this papacy.
For readers interested in learning more about the theology that informs Francis’ ministry, Rafael Luciani’s deep-dive into Bergoglio’s South American context serves as an excellent resource. The book centers on the “theology of the people,” a style of theology popularized in Argentina by the theologians Juan Carlos Scannone, Rafael Tello and Lucio Gera, all of whom figure prominently in the book.
Luciani introduces these figures through their understandings of the relationship between theology and culture, with chapters exploring the connection between theology and peoples, the signs of the times, pastoral ministry and geopolitics, culminating in an exploration of Francis’ theology of encounter.
The book’s key insight builds on the preferential option for the poor, which was first elaborated by Latin American liberation theologians such as the Peruvian Dominican Father Gustavo Gutierrez and the late Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara. In the Argentinian context, this preferential option for the poor invites the church not merely to regard the poor as a central focus of church activity, but to enter into the daily life of the poor, of those pushed to the periphery, where God is already at work.
This is a decidedly anti-colonial vision of the church. During the period of colonization (and in the continuing colonial mindset), the “Christianization” of the “New World” involved in large part suppressing native cultures, viewing indigenous and slave populations as uncultured savages and forcing Christianity upon these people, which amounted to a Europeanization of them. In this way of thinking, in order to become a real Catholic one also had to become — linguistically, ritually, aesthetically — essentially Spanish or Portuguese.
The “theology of the people” reorients this move, demanding an end to paternalistic understandings of Christianity as fully identified with European culture. Instead, Luciani notes, the option for the poor must regard those on the margins as agents of their own history, as “subjects in a horizontal relationship, treating them equally.”
Francis’ emphasis on creating a culture of encounter provides a perfect example of this shift, and the book examines this aspect of his thought and writings extensively. Thoroughly researched and abounding in citations from Francis’ letters, encyclicals and speeches, this book helps us see behind the superficial media coverage of this pope to the deep theological context that motivates much of his thought.
An additional benefit of the book is that it illuminates for North American readers the variety that exists among the cultures of Latin America. Too often, “Latin American liberation theology” is flattened as if it were a single idea, when the reality is far more complex. Theology in Argentina differs substantially from theology in Peru or Brazil or Guatemala.
In alerting U.S. readers to the rich heritage of Latin American theologies and theologians, Luciani broadens our understanding of the global church in our hemisphere.
As such, the text serves as a good entry-point to the task of reckoning with the many Latin American cultures that make up the church within and outside the United States.
Some readers may find the translation clunky in parts, such as when Luciani uses “popular culture” as shorthand for the ways of life of marginalized communities. Not quite the same as its use in English, where “pop culture” usually refers to movies, TV or music.
Similarly, the methodical march from general topic to Latin American/Argentine contribution to Bergoglio’s take in each chapter can seem repetitive, but these issues do not detract from the value of Luciani’s work.
A more substantive critique would be the complete lack of women’s voices in the text, a fault which might be attributed to the subject matter (a Jesuit pope means two institutions that have been historically devoid of interaction with female scholars).
Still, this lacuna lends weight to critiques that liberation theology remains blind to the reality of women’s scholarly work.
Nevertheless, this text provides crucial insight into the fertile theological ground that gives rise to Francis’s revolutionary papacy, and allows us to view this pontificate not as an anomaly, but as an approach to the Gospel that has been taking root all over Latin America, and bearing fruit there, for decades.
About the Author
is an associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York.