Bill McKibben, Pope Francis, and Liberation Theology
Religion & Liberty Online

Bill McKibben, Pope Francis, and Liberation Theology

On Tuesday, I dealt with approximately the first third of Bill McKibben’s New York Review of Books’ essay on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si encyclical. Today, I review the middle third, which includes McKibben’s alarming defense of liberation theology and his claim that this discredited ideology is embraced by Pope Francis.

McKibben continues to read into Laudato Si things that simply aren’t there. For example, he depicts oil companies as inherently rapacious when compared to native peoples.

Even more striking, in this regard, is his steadfast defense of “indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed,” because for them land “is a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.” Compare that attitude with, say, the oil companies now destroying aboriginal land in order to mine Canada’s tar sands.

Never mind that the First Nation people who lived in the bituminous-rich area of what is now Alberta, Canada, found plentiful use for the oil sands McKibben disparages. And well before white settlers. Then this:

But the pope is just as radical, given current reality, when he insists on beauty over ugliness.

When he demands the protection from development of “those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of ‘feeling at home’ within a city which includes us and brings us together,” he is not just celebrating Frederick Law Olmstead—he’s wading into, for instance, the still-simmering Turkish revolt that began with plans to tear down Istanbul’s Gezi Park and replace it with a mall and luxury apartments.

From this, one can picture Pope Francis and McKibben sitting together on a Saturday night, eating popcorn and watching old 1980s films on VHS tapes. Readers are familiar with the cinema of the Reagan era as being distinctly anti-Reagan and therefore quite unfriendly to business. Every public commons in these films has a cute, Earth mother character protecting it while a charming but obtuse male character seeks to bulldoze the children’s playground to build condominiums for yuppies. After high-fiving the pontiff when the charming, obtuse businessman sees the errors of his ways, thus winning the heart of the cute Earth mother, McKibben continues to laud Pope Francis:

He also insists on giving “priority to public transportation” over private cars. This was the precise phrase used by Jaime Lerner, the visionary mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, when a generation ago he launched the world’s best transit system. His vision of Bus Rapid Transit is now spreading around the world, and it works best precisely where it most inconveniences autos, by insisting on dedicated bus lanes and the like. It makes getting around as easy for the poor as for the rich; every BRT lane is a concrete demonstration of what the Latin American liberation theologians, scorned and hounded by previous popes, once called “the preferential option for the poor.”

There’s a reason Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI “scorned and hounded” liberation theologians, Mr. McKibben, and Michael Novak explains precisely why in Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology (Paulist Press, New York, 1986):

Pope John Paul II lived his entire adult life in the bosom of “Marxist analysis,” far more rigorously and cynically applied than anything Latin Americans have yet experienced (except in Cuba and Nicaragua). No Marxist thinker in Latin America has attained the stature, say, of the Pope’s Polish compatriot, the Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. Cardinal Ratzinger [who would become Pope Benedict XVI], too, has experienced in Germany bitter ideological struggles among Stalinists, Trostkyites, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Such men know well the sociology of the “slippery slope”: principles which one generation accepts provisionally, in the context of other cultural commitments, soon harden into icy dogmas for a generation brought up on nothing else. The Pope sees clearly enough that whoever accepts “Marxist analysis” sooner or later authorizes the bold and ruthless to draw consequences for action. Marxist analysis is aimed at action. Those who employ it without drawing its inexorable consequences won the contempt of the young Marx of the Manifesto: “Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.” [p. 27]

Keep in mind Novak published Will It Liberate? after Cardinal Ratzinger called out Brazilian then-priest and prominent liberation theologian Leonardo Boff as a Marxist and officially silenced him for a year after publishing Church: Charism and Power in 1985. Cardinal Ratzinger threatened to silence him again when learning of Boff’s plan to participate in the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. As an epigraph, Novak quotes “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published by the Vatican in 1984, and continuing the defense of Roman Catholicism against Marxist thought begun vociferously by Pope Paul VI:

By the same token, the overthrow by means of revolutionary violence of structures which generate violence is not ipso facto the beginning of a just regime. A major fact of our time ought to evoke the reflection of all those who would sincerely work for the true liberation of their brothers: millions of our own contemporaries legitimately yearn to recover those basic freedoms of which they were deprived by totalitarian and atheistic regimes which came to power by violent and revolutionary means, precisely in the name of the liberation of the people. This shame of our time cannot be ignored: while claiming to bring them freedom, these regimes keep whole nations in conditions of servitude which are unworthy of mankind. Those who, perhaps inadvertently, make themselves accomplices of similar enslavements betray the very poor they mean to help.

To which I’ll add from the same document:

A radical politicization of faith’s affirmations and of theological judgments follows inevitably from this new conception. The question no longer has to do with simply drawing attention to the consequences and political implications of the truths of faith, which are respected beforehand for their transcendent value. In this new system, every affirmation of faith or of theology is subordinated to a political criterion, which in turn depends on the class struggle, the driving force of history.

And this:

But the “theologies of liberation”, which reserve credit for restoring to a place of honor the great texts of the prophets and of the Gospel in defense of the poor, go on to a disastrous confusion between the ‘poor’ of the Scripture and the ‘proletariat’ of Marx. In this way they pervert the Christian meaning of the poor, and they transform the fight for the rights of the poor into a class fight within the ideological perspective of the class struggle. For them the ‘Church of the poor’ signifies the Church of the class which has become aware of the requirements of the revolutionary struggle as a step toward liberation and which celebrates this liberation in its liturgy.

If NYROB readers haven’t realized McKibben has gone off the rails by this point in his essay, he affirms such suspicions here:

The pope is at his most rigorous when he insists that we must prefer the common good to individual advancement, for of course the world we currently inhabit really began with Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on the opposite.

Considering it was the triad of Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II that did so much to bring down the Soviet Bloc, freeing hundreds of millions of people from Communist oppression, I’d have to say McKibben is not only off the rails, but has parked his choo-choo a mile or so off the tracks:

Think of the limitations that really believing that would place on our current activities. And think too what it would mean if we kept not only “the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting.” We literally would have to stop doing much of what we’re currently doing; with poor people living on the margins firmly in mind, and weighing the interests of dozens of future generations, would someone like to write a brief favoring, say, this summer’s expansion by Shell (with permission from President Obama) of oil drilling into the newly melted waters of the Arctic? Again the only applicable word is “radical.”

Yikes! I don’t know what poor people did to anger McKibben so much, but it must’ve been something awful to prompt him to condemn them to endless poverty regardless whether there’s a net loss of planetary ice or not. Poor people want to eradicate hunger and disease today, Mr. McKibben, not in some utopian future of wind turbines and solar panels.

But it seems as if we’ve already identified McKibben’s real political agenda – and climate-change is a convenient Trojan horse.


Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.