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Examining Catholicism's Controversial Liberation Theology


The legacy of Oscar Romero is strongly linked to liberation theology, a left-leaning view of the church's role in society. For more on that controversial movement, we spoke to Boston Globe religion editor, John Allen, who traveled to San Salvador for the beatification.

JOHN ALLEN: Liberation theology was a movement in Catholic thought that arose in Latin America in the late '50s, early '60s and was basically born by a group of Catholic thinkers who were looking at the social reality of Latin America, which, at the time, was defined largely by crushing poverty and the domination of both wealth and political power by a very thin veneer of social elites, and who drew the conclusion that that was not the gospel vision of how life ought to work.

And so they began pressing the Catholic Church to stand on the side of the poor. It became a very controversial movement. It also became controversial in the Vatican, where there was concerns that it was overly given to relying on Marxist analysis in that it ended up blessing violence, and so titanic battles were fought. And so the kind of rehabilitation that has been going on under Pope Francis, all of that has been seen widely in the church as healing old wounds.

MONTAGNE: Those old wounds in El Salvador, especially, have to do with Archbishop Romero and his assassination. You have called him a hero of the liberation theology movement. Would you call him a follower of that movement?

ALLEN: No. I think he was someone who tried to transcend the division between the liberation theology crowd and the more traditional, spiritual crowd. However, as the symbol of Romero has played out in the 35 years since his death, I think it is fair to say that Archbishop Romero is seen as a great hero and an icon by the progressive, socially involved wing of the Catholic Church and yet, to this day, is seen with some ambivalence by the more conservative wing of the Church.

MONTAGNE: And what about Pope Francis? He is not, I would say, an advocate of liberation theology exactly, but he has definitely made a turn from his predecessor, Pope Benedict.

ALLEN: You're right to say that Pope Francis is not himself, and nor has he ever been, identified as a liberation theologian. In fact, back in the 1970s when he was the leader of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he was sometimes seen as an enemy of liberation theology. But on the other hand, I think what this beatification, in Pope Francis's mind - what it says is that the main thrust of what Romero stood for and the main thrust of what the liberation theologians stood for, which is the quest of the poor for justice, was right, and he wants it to be the official policy of the Universal Catholic Church in his time.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: John Allen covers the Vatican for the Boston Globe. We spoke with him in San Salvador, where he covered the beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.