At the New York Times, Timothy Egan writes:
“Though Francis of Assisi is the most popular saint in a long history of tortured bodies and souls, the fact that no pope until Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would take his name says a lot about the timeless shadow from the 12th century to the 21st. The legacy of the first Francis is almost too much to bear.”
And, at the National Review, the editors engage in what John Holbo at Crooked Timber terms “preemptive damage control,” anxious to inform their readers that the new Roman pontiff’s understanding “of poverty as a social ill should not be misconstrued as sympathy for statist solutions to it or, indeed, as support for any determinate political program.”
In light of the above, we might consider the fate of Liberation Theology and theologians like Leonardo Boff in the recent history of the Church. Boff, author of a biography of St. Francis (1981, in English, 1982), was of course one of those responsible for Liberation Theology and praxis of the sort Ratzinger was instrumental in silencing in his former role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Boff writes of the saint’s life and faith as linked
to “leaving imperialism” and the “integral liberation of the oppressed.” Boff tells Catholics that “Poverty is not only a problem of moral conscience; it is fundamentally a political problem.” He reminds them that “Today’s dominant classes, successors to the slave owners as well as the slave traders (English, Portuguese, Dutch, and North American), have inherited a profound scorn for the poor. They consider them to be socially disqualified [think of the reaction of actual and aspiring neo-liberal elites to the Bolivarian revolution]; they avoid contact with them, going around them, insensitive to their misery.” The Church has often had a difficult time understanding with Francis that “being poor” means no only the “voluntary” sort motivated by vicarious identity and solidarity, but rather the poor experienced by the poor themselves, which is the bitter “fruit of impoverishing and exploitative mechanisms. To accept poverty in solidarity with the poor implies opting for social justice, committing oneself to the poor in the integral liberation of all for a more just and fraternal society.”
Catholics and their Church are often blinded to the fact that “we are living in a society of classes with antagonistic interests. Objectively, the poor are poor because the way society is organized, since they have the strength to work but not the capital, they are placed on the margin.” Boff explains to his readers the categorical need for the “structural change of society” [hard to imagine that without State direction or support or sans any ‘determinate political program’]. For Boff, the Church must come out in full support of “movements that are born of the base–free unions, people’s associations” that defend those without power, which includes their culture and rights. Many Catholics and their Church are loath to admit freedom for the poor involves struggle, what Boff understood as nonviolent revolution, not trickle-down reform, and such “Freedom is never freely granted; it must be attained in an arduous process of freedom.” As Boff writes, “Everything in Francis invites practice: exire de saeculo, leaving the imperial system in an alternative act that makes more real devotion toward others, more gentleness with the poor, and greater respect for nature.” The “spirit and way of life” of Francis of Assisi is no mere “formula, idea, or ideal,” but made manifest in social and political practice, individually and collectively.
Read too the works of the late Penny Lernoux (1940–1989) to see why there has never been a pope to take the name of Francis of Assisi. And take a look at the comparative significance of The Catholic Worker movement in Catholicism generally to begin to see why the faith of Francis has been and remains a considerable distance from the Church.
 See, for example, Phillip Berryman’s classic introduction, Liberation Theology… (Pantheon Books, 1987). Liberation theology and praxis was able to critically absorb analytical insights from the Marxist tradition, as well as ideas and methods from such individuals as the philosopher Enrique Dussel, and Paulo Freire, a philosopher of education.
- Barbé, Dominique. Grace and Power: Base Communities and Nonviolence in Brazil. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987.
- Barbé, Dominique. A Theology of Conflict and Other Writings on Nonviolence. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989.
- Berrigan, Daniel. The Steadfastness of the Saints: A Journey of Peace and War in Central and North America. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985.
- Boff, Leonardo. St. Francis: A Model for Human Liberation. New York: Crossroad, 1984.
- Boff, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff. Introducing Liberation Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Oribis Books, 1987.
- Brown, Robert McAfee. Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.
- Coles, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
- Coles, Robert. A Spectacle Unto the World: The Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Viking, 1973.
- Coy, Patrick, ed. A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1988.
- Douglass, James W. The Nonviolent Cross: A Theology of Revolution and Peace. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
- Douglass, James W. Resistance and Contemplation: The Way of Liberation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.
- Dussel, Enrique. A History of the Church in Latin America: Colonialism to Liberation (1492-1979). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981.
- Ellis, Marc. A Year at the Catholic Worker. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.
- Ellis, Marc. Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.
- Ellsberg, Robert, ed. By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
- Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.
- Gutiérrez, Gustavo (Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, tr.). A Theory of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973.
- Lernoux, Penny. The Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America—The Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
- Míguez Bonino, José. Toward a Christian Political Ethics. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983.
- Musto, Ronald G. The Catholic Peace Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986.
- O’Connor, June E. The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective. New York: Crossroad, 1991.
- Roberts, Nancy L. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.
- Rowland, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Smith, Christian. The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Addendum: For the Church’s position on the indispensable and urgent role of the State with regard to the poor and vulnerable, please see here. As is noted there, “when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. [....] The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation. [....] The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; the production to meet social needs over production for military purposes. [....] The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation.” The Democrats for some time now have given rhetorical (in campaigns) and strategic priority (in public policy) to appeals to the middle class and their interests, rarely giving voice to the needs of the poor, a lamentable development for a party that once was conspicuous for its role as a defender of the downtrodden. This is yet further evidence of how the spectrum of political discourse has clearly foreshortened in deference to the Right’s ideology.