Preferential option for the poor

Simon White | Finding the balance between economic growth and achieving pro-poor development outcomes.

The Catholic Church has been the subject of much deserved criticism on issues regarding birth control, sexual abuse and homosexuality in recent times. Amidst these hotly contested issues, it is interesting to see the re-emergence of discussions on Liberation Theology. The founding work on this topic is Gustavo Gutierrez’s, A Theology of Liberation. Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian and scholar.

On 9 September, the Religious News Service (RNE) ran an article entitled, “Liberation theology finds new welcome in Pope Francis’ Vatican”. In it, it was reported that Pope Francis, who has called for “a poor church for the poor,” will meet with Gutierrez. The announcement was made by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, a prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, during the launch of a book he co-authored with Gutierrez.

Gutierrez argues in his book that the church should have a “preferential option for the poor,” following the example of Jesus, who chose to live mostly with poor and marginalised people. During the pontificate of John Paul II, a fierce anti-communist, some of liberation theology’s leading exponents, such as Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff, were accused of espousing Marxist ideas and were censured by the Vatican. In the ’80s, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Benedict XVI) condemned liberation theology for its “serious ideological deviations.”

The RNE article quotes the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano:

Now, with the election of Francis, the first pope from Latin America, liberation theology can no longer “remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years, at least in Europe”.

Peter Berger, in a related piece, asks “Leaving aside later adoptions of Liberation Theology, what about its original focus on poverty in an underdeveloped region of the world? What is good for the poor?” He answers that the last fifty years has shown:

The most effective method of reducing poverty is economic growth. The economic system most likely to generate growth is capitalism. By way of contrast, socialism is ineffective in generating growth, and most likely to produce equality in poverty for most people and wealth for a small elite (the nomenklatura of the Soviet Union and other socialist regimes).

Of course this does not mean that, in addition to avoiding policies that inhibit economic growth, there is nothing else that government can do to get people out of poverty. The welfare state, operating alongside a capitalist economy, is the sum-total of government policies that are intended to help the poor, and often do. This is not the place to discuss the balance between economic growth and social welfare in capitalist democracies. Liberation Theology is no help in realistic moral thinking about this issue.

I am not sure that contemporary liberation theology and Socialism are as closely linked as Berger suggests. However, I agree with the view that “pro-poor” approaches to development are not always what they appear to be. It can be very difficult to find the balance between economic growth on the one hand and achieving pro-poor development outcomes on the other. Not all growth leads to poverty reduction and there are growing examples of how growth and inequality occur hand-in-hand. Too often, growth is cited as being good for the poor, when we know this alone is not enough.