The Triumph of the People’s Church

Continuing his commitment to a doctrinal vision that prioritizes the lived experiences and insights of ordinary Catholics over the authoritative teachings of the Church, Pope Francis recently affirmed the importance of what he called a “free and responsible” form of Catholic theology—a “creative fidelity”—in the life of the Church. Speaking before a Vatican gathering of 100 members of the Italian Theological Association last month, Pope Francis advised the theologians to remain “anchored” to the teachings of Vatican II, by “proclaiming the Gospel in a new way” to a rapidly changing world.

This is not the first time that Pope Francis has called on theologians to embrace the spirit of Vatican II by announcing the Gospel in a new way, “more consonant with a profoundly different culture and world.” From the first days of his pontificate, Pope Francis has privileged a form of “Popular Catholicism” that prioritizes the insights, the beliefs, and the practices that emerge from the people themselves. The word “popular” does not refer to “prevalent,” rather, it refers to the religious practices and beliefs that emerge from the people themselves—not the priests. Emphasizing the contextual nature of all theological reflection, “Popular Catholicism” maintains that theology must always be cultural and historical. From this perspective, any attempt to de-culturize the theological and religious expressions of a community is dehumanizing because it rejects the authentic experience of the people.

Emerging in Latin America, as a way for Latino Catholics to differentiate themselves from the ways in which Catholicism was practiced in Spain, Popular Catholicism was originally a symbol of freedom—a rejection of the colonial dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain. A leader of this movement has been theologian Orlando Espin, a professor of religious studies at the University of San Diego and director of the Center for the Study of Latino/a Catholicism at the university. In his 1999 edited collection of essays (published by Orbis Books) entitled From the Heart of Our People, Espin emphasizes the “contextual nature” of all theological reflection and maintains that theology is always cultural and historical. Espin maintains that the consequence of this cultural emergence is that elites—or those Espin calls the “hegemonic group and their allies,” have been successful in using the symbols and ideologies of religion to “oppress the marginalized.” Especially critical of those theologians who privilege the ecclesiastical institution as the witness to “true Catholicism,” Espin maintains that “the real daily life religion of most Catholics is regarded as an adulterated version of the institutional norm.”

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Hardly a marginal figure in the Popular Catholicism movement, Espin has been a longtime leader of this movement to reject the religious authority of the hierarchy in favor of the more authentic lived experience of the people. Such a turn requires theologians to use what Pope Francis calls “creative fidelity” to allow the Church to be “rejuvenated by the perennial novelty of the Gospel of Christ.”

Highly respected by left-leaning national and international theologians, Espin was awarded the highest honor last year from the Catholic Theological Society of America—the world’s largest professional society of Catholic theologians. Receiving the John Courtney Murray Award for his “lifetime of distinguished theological achievement,” Espin, a priest of the Orlando diocese who no longer appears to function as a priest, and is currently married to his same-sex partner, thanked his “husband,” Ricardo Gallego, during his acceptance speech.

It is clear that after decades in the shadows, Popular Catholicism is now ascendant under the papacy of Pope Francis. This is in contrast to his predecessors. Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict had spoken harshly about the dangers of a Church that was “born of the people.” Pope St. John Paul II gave a stern rebuke to the Latino theologians in 1983—publishing a letter to the Nicaraguan bishops denouncing the “people’s church” in especially harsh terms. In a speech that was reported on the pages of The New York Times on March 5, 1983, the pontiff predicted that “The Church born of the people is a new invention that is both absurd and of perilous character … only with difficulty, could it avoid being infiltrated by strangely ideological connotations.”

In 1984, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger offered An Instruction On Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation in which he warned about the dangers of the “diverse theological positions,” and the “badly defined doctrinal frontiers” of this movement. Continuing the concerns of his predecessor in 2007 at a private Mass with his former doctoral students, Pope Benedict delivered a talk against theological arrogance by warning against theologians who “only talk in the end about ourselves [and] don’t go beyond ourselves and beyond people.”

As Pope St. John Paul II predicted, Popular Catholicism appears to have already been infiltrated by “strangely ideological connotations.” Many of today’s most highly regarded theologians—like Orlando Espin—draw from the same ideology, and implement the same language and methods of the liberation theologians of the past. In some ways, they are even more radical in their agenda than those of the past because they are now provided with theological cover from Pope Francis himself.

In contrast, many orthodox theologians in the Vatican have been publicly humiliated or removed from their positions. Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, saw Pope Francis replace sympathetic congregation members with critics who oppose his liturgical reforms and publicly rebuked the cardinal for promoting traditional liturgical practices. Pope Francis also refused to allow Cardinal Gerhard Muller serve a second term as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Emeritus Benedict has praised both of them following these actions by Pope Francis. It is clear that Pope Emeritus Benedict continues to support faithful Catholic theologians. In an interview with Cardinal Muller that was excerpted in the Catholic Herald, the cardinal said that Benedict was “disappointed” with the decision by Pope Francis to remove the cardinal from the head of the CDF. Stating that he had “defended the clear traditions of the faith” while in office, Cardinal Muller told the reporter that Pope Francis had dismissed him without explanation: “He did not give a reason, just as he gave no reason for dismissing three highly competent members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a few months earlier.”

These are perilous times for the Church as Popular Catholicism continues to gain ascendancy. It is difficult to predict where all of this will take us. In his recently published book, The Power of Silence, Cardinal Robert Sarah suggests that the Church is in danger of sliding into the same kinds of worldly preoccupations that the Church in Latin America concerned itself with in the 1980s. Cardinal Sarah suggests that we are in danger of moving away from our concern for the salvific mission of the Church. It may be up to the laity to continue that work—along with the remnant of faithful theologians who courageously continue to guide us.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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