With the recent election of a new Catholic Pope, who has taken the name Francis, there is a renewed interest in a Catholic movement that was popular in the 1960s and ’70s called “liberation theology.”
Liberation theology arose as a Catholic response to the leftist movements that fought Latin America’s military dictatorships. It criticized the church’s close relationships, including often overt support, for the often repressive regimes.
Liberation theology proposed that, rather than just focusing on seeking salvation in the afterlife, Catholics should act in the present against unjust conditions that breed poverty and need.
In his seminal book A Theology of Liberation, Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and scholar who is considered the founder of liberation theology, argued that the church should have a “preferential option for the poor.” That the church should follow the example of Christ and choose to live more closely with the poor.
Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has taken up the mantel of highlighting the needs of the marginalized. He has called for “a poor church for the poor” and recently met with Rev. Gutierrez. This is a major about-face for a church that at one time tried to stamp out the movement.
So why should Mormons have an interest in liberation theology?
Most of the LDS Church’s recent growth has come south of the Equator. Soon over half of the Church’s members will be in developing countries. And the new converts look nothing like the Church’s ruling body and most of the members in the USA, Canada, and Western Europe.
Additionally, Christ’s church was one of caring for the poor and marginalized. That is the crowd that he hung out with, and they were the ones he cared for most.
According to Mormon Jeremiah Stoddard’s call to action,
The modern American Mormon has constructed for himself a self-serving theology. Apart from the occasional, mostly symbolic, “service project,” worship of God has been relegated to a handful of rituals dealing with the afterlife. Serve others, sure. Help out Brother Joe who’s moving in, or donate a can of food at Christmas. But don’t bother trying to make any significant impact in the world.
The LDS Church appears to be headed in the right direction. In 2009, it added “care for the poor and needy” to its long-standing “threefold mission” (now four-fold mission). And LDS Humanitarian Services seems to be taking a more proactive approach.
But this is not nearly enough. The LDS Church needs to take a much more radical and pronounced approach to the problems of the poor, wherever they are. We need a “liberation theology” if we are going to be really Christ-like.