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On “Liberation Theology”

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | September 1986

I do not mean (here and now, at least) to get into a discussion of the complexities of so-called liberation theology, not to mention the ongoing struggle with respect to it within the Catholic Church. Rather, I wish to describe certain experi­ences which have come to mind as I have followed that struggle, read pro and con on that “theology” — memories of what I happened to hear and see at one or another time during the recent past.

Most memorable for my oldest son and me was a visit we made to the Vatican several years ago. We happened to become involved with an as­sertive taxi driver who spoke fairly good English. He showed us around Rome, and eventually took us to St. Peter’s Basilica. He was naturally garru­lous, and made more so by my son’s habit of asking question after question. (He was a college fresh­man then.) Soon we were hearing a speech about the “rich Vatican” and the “corrupt Vatican” and the “politicians of the Vatican” — after which this question was hurled at us (while the cab swerved wildly, making its inroads on the chaotic Roman traffic): “I ask you — I ask you — what do you think Jesus would think of this [a wave of the hand in the direction of Vatican City, which loom­ed before us] if He were alive today?”

I didn’t answer the question. My first thought was of the awful papacies that preceded the pres­ent one by centuries — the well-known moral scan­dals of the Renaissance. But the cab driver was in­sistent. He launched into a tirade about the exis­tence of the Vatican Museum — all the precious ob­jects there, worth hundreds of millions of dollars — “while every day people starve.” He pointed in the direction of the Pope’s summer home — and again reminded us how millions of others live, their shan­ties and shacks in the ghettoes, the barrios, the favellas of this world. “It is not fair; it is not right; it is not Christian,” he exclaimed, and then an ex­hausted slump and silence, as he prepared to stop, and collect our fare.

My son wouldn’t let the matter drop with payment of the arranged sum, plus a tip. He kept referring to the cab driver’s remarks as we toured the Vatican, and continued to do so when we got back to America. He reminded me what I knew but now found it harder to forget, in view of what the cab driver had said, and what he, my son, was more than implying — that Jesus lived and died a poor, humble man, mocked and scorned by important people, and that during His lifetime there was no “church,” only a band of quite ordinary and vul­nerable people who spent their time with the sick, the hungry, the lowly, the unpopular, the outcasts.

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