There are two prominent churchmen of our era whose lives and words expose the difference between a "preferential option for the poor" and a preferential option for the state.
The first is Archbishop Oscar Romero. When an agent of El Salvador's military regime fired a single bullet into Oscar Romero's chest, the archbishop was in the midst of celebrating Mass. But it seems that before Romero could be laid to rest, he became an unlikely hero to Marxists and liberation theologians in Latin America.
The second is Pope Francis and a similar adoption of the Holy Father is in process before our very eyes. He demonstrates great warmth, informality, and a passionate concern for the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. Despite Pope Francis' repeated insistence that his social and economic preferences are not being driven by ideology, he is too often interpreted as a man of the Left. Francis describes himself as a man of the Church, insisting that his concerns are animated by the values of the Gospel, not politics.
Yet that appears to be a nuance lost on his press pool and activists in search of his blessing.
For whatever form of liberation theology (and there are several) either Romero or Pope Francis represent, it is certainly not the variety most popularly espoused in the Latin America of the 1980s and condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The ascendant form of liberation theology of that era emerged from a Christian encounter with Marxism as seen largely in the work of Gustavo Gutierrez (Peruvian), Leonardo Boff (Brazilian), Juan Luis Segundo (Uruguayan), Jon Sobrino (Spanish), and Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaraguan).
One finds no such references or echoes of them in the writings or homilies of either Pope Francis or Romero. Even Archbishop Romero's former secretary, Msgr. Jesus Delgado, confirmed that Romero "knew nothing about liberation theology, he did not want to know about it. He adhered faithfully to the Catholic Church and to above all to the teachings of the popes." On the contrary, one finds numerous cautions about politicizing the faith in his writing and homilies. Their point of orientation is that of the Gospel, not Marx.
With particular reference to Archbishop Romero, whose cause for canonization now advances, one finds a rather traditional theology is manifestly evident in his esteem for Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. In a letter to Pope Paul VI on July 12, 1975, shortly after the Escriva's death, Romeo recounts his personal encounters with him and discloses that he was personally under spiritual direction by priests of Opus Dei in El Salvador. He closes by asking that the pope open the cause of canonization, which St. John Paul II celebrated in 2002.
The honest part of this kind of misunderstanding comes from not being able to see that when wealth is generated in one part of society, it is not necessarily because another has been impoverished. The glaring disparity might simply exist because poverty is declining (and wealth is rising), as economic studies of the last two centuries demonstrate.
But there is a less honest part of this misunderstanding that has to do with the politicization of the Church.
One needn't dig too deeply to see the way in which the various prudential discussions on policy are frequently described in political categories. If one Catholic pundit favors a minimum wage and other doesn't, this is often described as a Left vs. Right debate, rather than a disagreement over what is for the well-being of lower wage earners.
What is needed in our current discussions on wealth and poverty is a full theological telos to understand that man ought to be free; that it is our nature to desire liberty, and that the social order must be conformed to the measure of man, and not man to the social order.
Many today think they can enjoy the fruits of the tree without tending to the roots. They think they can live off the products of human labor without considering the necessity of human freedom and dignity. Too many think they can build a just society without respecting the autonomy of the family; or that they can embrace an abstraction while forgetting the concrete human person – which is what liberation theology tended to do, along with collectivism in general.
This brings us to our own contemporary situation and which much of Latin American needs to learn anew: command-and-control economies are doomed to fail. But the overall threat throughout the world today does not only come from governments or collectivism alone. It can also come from the very people who practice human creativity but detach that creativity from the principle that makes it possible: freedom.
A temptation may emerge when people become so successful in their various industries and actually become part of the establishment that they begin to be offered and seek political favors, often to narrow competition or inhibit trade that does not benefit themselves. This in turn raises prices on goods and services, and the cycle gets to the point where one no longer knows whether the chicken or the egg came first. This is what is called "crony capitalism," and which many, particularly in Latin America mistake for a free economy.
The solution to this madness is to adhere to principle, even if it will upset some politicians. The solution is to decentralize power and disrupt concentrated political interests. Romero and Pope Francis teach us that the center of the economy is the human person, and freedom means very little if it is not virtuous.
This article originally appeared in RealClearReligion.