A story out of the Vatican this morning seems to mark a turning point for the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Pope Francis (or “Papa Francisco” as he is known in the region) has authorized a rapprochement with liberation theology, the reformist movement of a generation ago directed at social justice for the region’s poor.  Liberation theologians were not popular with the past two popes, who actively suppressed the movement and marginalized its leaders.

That has now changed, according to news reports detailing how Gustavo Gutierrez, a prominent liberation theologian, has been invited to the Vatican for a chat.

Some coverage has already demonstrated what will be a too-easy version of this event.  The narrative that the recent marginality of the liberationist movement is a result of the power of the Vatican will predominate.

This ignores important realities on the ground. One is that liberation theology is suffering both from church pressure and from competitive pressures from the surging neo-Pentecostal movement across the region. As one informant said to me in my recent interviews in Brazil, “…the church has stated its preference for the poor, but the poor now prefer Pentcostalism…”    And, there are good reasons for this.  The church’s turn to the poor–such a theme of Francisco’s papacy so far–can be too easily read as a message that “…it is good, even noble, to be poor….”  But, as my informant, a former senior Catholic official, put it to me, “…the poor don’t want to be poor, they want to be rich.”  And the neo-Pentecostal discourse is all about “increase,” meaning health and wealth.

An even more important factor is the media, through which the Pentecostalist symbolic argument about wealth, success, and transcending poverty, is available across the television dial and through magazines, tapes, DVDs, radio, and of course, through the intense and spectacular mega-church services.

So, while the institution of the church may have played an important role in marginalizing the liberationist argument, a parallel institution of material and marketplace religion has placed an even more convincing argument before the people in their daily lives and in their communities.  It is not only about what the church does or aspires to, it is also about what it is up against in the media age.

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