What Do Bill de Blasio and Pope Francis Have in Common?

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RELIGION SEPTEMBER 23, 2013

What Do Bill de Blasio and Pope Francis Have in Common?

Bill de Blasio, the frontrunner for New York City mayor and darling of the city's progressives, was a "youthful leftist," according to a lengthy report in today's New York Times. It's not something the candidate has made a secret of, but the Times' in-depth exploration of his deep sympathy towards and activism on behalf of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolutionaries is surely something his opponent, Joe Lhota, will get a ton of mileage out of while attacking de Blasio from the right and seeking to shore up his own support among Wall Streeters. It's not as if de Blasio has made his interest in combating income inequality a secret; in fact, it's probably what won him the Democratic primary. Tucked inside the larger discussion of his favorite youthful causes was this explanation of the underpinnings of his outlook: "In a recent interview, Mr. de Blasio said his views then — and now — represented a mix of admiration for European social democratic movements, Mr. Roosevelt's New Deal and liberation theology."

Liberation theology, a movement that began in Latin America in the 1950s and '60s in reaction to extreme inequality there, happened to be in the news already, thanks to Pope Francis, who recently met with one of the movement's leaders at the Vatican — something his predecessor would not have done. Pope Francis has made waves for his recent remarks urging the church to back off an obsessive focus on homosexuality, abortion, and birth control, and to instead focus on serving the poor. It's a focus that the South American Catholic Church, out of which Francis comes, has had for years, thanks to the massive influence of liberation theology. Pope Francis has been extremely careful to make it clear that he doesn't ascribe to the more hardline, Marxist version of liberation theology, that of Father Gustavo Gutierrez. He is merely sympathetic to the viewpoint — which means a lot, clearly, in real practical terms about how he organizes the priorities of the Church.

Neither Francis nor de Blasio is calling for a transformation of the property system, as Gutierrez did. Pope Francis' denunciation of the "idolatry of money" can be traced just as easily to a Vatican encylical or the Gospels as it can to the movement that was so influential on many Jesuits of his generation. (Of course, liberation theology draws on the Gospels too.) But I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea that the two current darlings of the American left are so influenced by liberation theology, which even most contemporary American Catholics tend not to know much about. (I certainly didn't until I attended a Jesuit college, where the kids who were deeply into liberation theology had a cool-kid-intellectual cred to them; it occupied a place something like what I imagine Foucault does at Brown.) And while here in New York, de Blasio's affection for it will surely be used to paint a picture of him as a class warrior, it's a philosophy meant to be constructive rather than destructive. Pope Francis has talked about how he has tried to listen, above all else, to what the world needs right now, and concentrate on "reading the signs of the times" in his spiritual discernment. De Blasio's listening might have involved a lot more pollsters and hearing complaints about Michael Bloomberg, but it seems that both God and expensive political consultants are seeing this as a season for preferential treatment of the poor. 

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