Last year saw citizens of the US and Europe respond to globalism with disdain and contempt. 2015, the year of the COP21 climate accords, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, gave way to 2016, the year of Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, and a general loss of faith in institutions. There is reason to believe that the same variety of anti-globalism could have political weight in Latin America as well. In recent decades, the region has experienced the worst side effects of both national isolation and global interconnectedness. In the Eighties, states involved themselves too heavily in their national economies and instituted too many import barriers, which led to an inflation crisis that ruined entire markets in the region. Latin American historians often refer to the era as the “Lost Decade.” Openness to international markets and institutions, on the other hand, can also be dangerous. Argentina had the biggest sovereign debt default in history in 2001 after relying almost solely on foreign capital and the IMF.
What can assuage the looming anxiety Latin Americans feel towards globalism? Populism and protectionism have been one cathartic political response in other regions of the globe. But politics is not the only solution.
One group of Catholics claims to have the answer. In February, Spanish-speaking Catholic theologians met in Boston to discuss the church’s approach to globalization and structures of exclusion. At the inaugural Ibero-American Conference of Theology, Catholic thinkers discussed issues from ranging from populism and acculturation, to the environment. Among those present was Juan Carlos Scannone, a previous teacher of the current pope, and Carlos María Gallí, one of the pope’s close friends and advisors. These Catholic thinkers argued that their particular reading of Christianity could address contemporary problems faced by all people, across political spectrums and throughout the globe. Their approach to Catholicism is called Liberation Theology – made renowned by Gustavo Gutiérrez in his 1973 book, A Theology of Liberation. Gutiérrez himself attended the conference, a gesture that seemed to give credence to the contemporary supporters of his theology. Although liberation theology once enjoyed considerable sway in Latin America, its influence has waned in the past few decades. In this political moment, however, liberation theologians are gaining momentum, hoping to return to mainstream political and cultural conversations in the Americas.
Liberation theology, according to its proponents, is a reading of Christian teaching that focuses on helping the poor and excluded to overcome exclusionary institutions like governments and multinational corporations. It has often been characterized as a leftist sociopolitical movement. Some strands of liberation theology take on a deterministic, Marxist interpretation of material well-being, encouraging the working class to struggle against these exploitative or extractive institutions, and to struggle violently, when necessary. The summary declaration from the Ibero-American Conference of Theology, however, takes on a gentler tone. The declaration calls for a reinvigorated approach to theology that pays special attention to “the reality of social conflicts,” aspiring to overcome vast inequalities of wealth, resources, and opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region could use it, too: inequality plagues Latin America from Buenos Aires to Bogotá, although it has been modestly improving in the past few years. To impoverished rural parishioners, a materialistic understanding of religion is more descriptive of their reality than the messages of vacuous Vatican elites, who are more concerned with debating abortion and gay marriage.
The “preference for the poor” espoused by liberation theologians is not unique to their movement. Pope Francis, though he does not specifically endorse Liberation Theology, has gone to great lengths to bring the church’s attention more to its people, especially its poorest. When he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the pontiff-to-be made it a priority to improve the church’s relations with the villas miserias – “miserable neighborhoods”– where poverty and crime were often deadly. He condemned international institutions and unchecked capitalism for exacerbating the suffering of Argentines after the 2001 default. As pope, he has sought to improve Vatican relations with liberation theologians. In 2015, Francis invited Gustavo Gutiérrez to speak at the Vatican as a welcome guest. Perhaps more notable was when the pope ordered the beatification of Archbishop Óscar Romero, a divisive liberation theologian who was shot at the altar during the reign of El Salvador’s oppressive military dictatorship in 1980. The pope’s latent support for liberation theology has given the movement the nearly official legitimacy it has lacked since its founding.
Although Pope Francis has conditioned the church to consider the tamer calls of liberation theology, Gutiérrez and his entourage may still not be fully capitalizing on their chance to influence political events in Latin America. Elections in the Americas are seeing center-right administrations rise up under the likes of Argentina’s Mauricio Macri and Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. While the source of this retreat from the Left may be based as much on disdain for the corruption of current leftist governments as it is on a rejection of leftism itself, the political landscape is becoming less amenable to some of the basic ideological premises of liberation theology. To make matters worse, Latin America is becoming decidedly less Catholic, with studies indicating that Catholic identity has decreased by more than 20% since the 20th century.
Despite these challenges, liberation theologians continue to have an immense asset at their disposal: Catholicism itself. Issues like globalization, migration, and poverty are transnational by nature. Transnational issues are also notoriously difficult to approach by any sort of international political effort. They aren’t necessarily the product of sovereign states, and it is nearly impossible for loose coalitions of independent countries to agree on how to solve them. The church, on the other hand, has the characteristics of a transnational movement. It relies on more than a billion individuals, who regularly choosing to reaffirm it. The Church does not need borders or laws to maintain influence. Furthermore, the Catholic Church has extensive bureaucratic capacity and ideological authority in the Vatican. The pope can influence Catholics with inspiration and religiosity, without imposing laws or inciting partisanship. Pope Francis has the power to open the minds of nearly 1.2 billion people, to ideas of social and political activism, to urge them to resist oppressive institutions. At the very least, he can make Catholics more receptive to religious leftism.
Catholicism (from the greek word katholikismos, or “universal doctrine”) can be a powerful solution to the fears that transcend national boundaries. Emboldened by a friendly Vatican and renewed organizational capacity, it seems that liberation theologians will attempt to strengthen their base in Latin America, and perhaps enter the cultural mainstream within the next few years. It will be a slow process. Gutierrez and his colleagues will likely take advantage of Pope Francis’ frequent visits to the region in the next decade, using his liberal Catholicism to further legitimize their endeavors. Time will tell if their message really takes root.