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Pope Francisco and some resonances for ecclesiology and Latin American theological ethics: cautious optimism

“We demand bishops on the side of the poor”!

Ecclesial cheer heard at the funeral of Don Sergio Méndez Arceo, first Mexican bishop committed to popular causes.


In Latin American liberation theology we find that ethics has existed on two levels: the level of commitment, including the option for the poor and their poverty, the ethical commitment against impoverishing social structures and situations of injustice, and the level of theological reflection on the practice or the actual level of theological reflection.

The level of a life committed to the cause of the poor has always preceded theological reflection, indeed, has been the criterion of possibility and authenticity of such reflection, both ethically and strictly theological. Of course, the level of commitment to the cause of the poor did not have the same radical expression in different Latin American countries, nor has it been the same across the various ecclesial, lay, or hierarchical fields. However, it is undeniable the many martyrs that the church of the poor has given to the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. Similarly, although not to extent of the witness of martyrdom, we can find everywhere ecclesial communities committed to the cause of the poor, whose commitment has led them to influence civil society, through solidarity economy, promoting human rights, democracy and political participation, responding to the challenges presented by the growing urban reality and to the Church’s mission, beyond  strictly parochial spaces.

At the level of reflection, it seems that theological ethics has not had the thematic development that was expected, according to the potential afforded by seeing analytically, thinking theologically and acting ethically. However, such theological development is evident in the field of ecclesiology.

Some of the above mentioned dimensions have had a clear impact in some of the words and certain symbolic gestures of Pope Francisco. Being clear that the new Bishop of Rome, as he has calls himself, has not been identified as a supporter of liberation theology, the strong resonance that his acts have had with the level of ethical living above seems surprising. For example, for the Pope to have chosen for himself a name with such strong symbolism as that of St. Francis of Assisi, “the poor man”, the “father of the poor and impoverished among the poor”, the great critic of the consolidating imperial hierarchy of Pope Innocent III, the pope who took the papal power to its highest level among the powerful; that Pope Francisco wants “a poor church of the poor”, that the Pope identifies the true meaning of hierarchical power with “service”, the fact that on Holy Thursday the Pope switched Roman basilicas for a prison and the cardinals, who call themselves “princes” of the apostles, switched for prisoners, including some women and non-Christians. Similarly, there is a resonance in his first appearance Pope when he showed an ascending ecclesiology as he asked that the people pray God’s blessing for the bishop of Rome before he imparted the blessing the people. It also bears real and symbolic weight that the new pope belongs to a religious congregation, the Society of Jesus, which distinguishes itself for its structural commitment to social justice and promoting a critical consciousness, both theological and ecclesial, particularly in the Third World.

Those who know Cardinal Bergoglio are clear that these words and gestures are not improvised. As significant reference it is important to note that last September an International Encounter for Urban Mission gathered in his archdiocese in which his ecclesiological and pastoral perspective became were laid out.

Although there remain a number of outstanding aspects of governance for the new pontificate, both pastorally and structurally, the aforementioned resonances are an incentive to promote commitment and ethical reflection on the Latin American liberation perspective. It is imperative that we go beyond the initial feelings of satisfaction that arise when one thinks that at least on some ecclesial and theological levels perhaps history seems to give us the reason.