This week I have been offered an amazing opportunity to sit down with Jesuit Father Juan Carlos Scannone at Boston College, where he will be attending an event titled the “Present and Future of an Ibero-American Theology in Times of Globalization, Interculturality, and Exclusion.” It is an honor for me personally to spend time one on one with a thinker who has dramatically influenced Pope Francis for decades. Father Scannone is a professor in the Jesuit Faculty of Philosophy and Theology of San Miguel, located in Buenos Aires.
Father Scannone, trained in both South America and Germany, is most associated with a branch of theology stemming from the University of Buenos Aires in the 1960s and 1970s which has come to be called “teologia del pueblo,” or the theology of the people — though “pueblo” can have overtones of location and “people in/of a specific place” which do not always translate into English. For an approximation, think for instance of the tonal differences between “We the People” and “all these persons.”
Teologia del pueblo is often misnamed as Argentine liberation theology. While there are genuine intersections between the two — such as employing the “see-judge-act” cycle of interpretation and the preferential option for the poor so common in these areas of discourse — its authors (Scannone, Gera, Tello, Galli) offer an analysis that eschews a prioritization of economic class conflicts prevalent in other branches of liberation theology more heavily indebted to Marx’s analysis. Rather, teologia del pueblo highlights the distinct role of culture and institutional and structural injustice as a betrayal of a people’s unity, best expressed in a concept of anti-pueblo. It traces its intellectual lineage to sources like Gaudium et Spes 53, Paul Tillich’s correlational theology, and the popular piety, especially in Marian devotions, so prevalent in Latin America. It has profoundly influenced church teaching in that part of the world, as for instance in CELAM’s Puebla and Aparecida texts. There is a pastoral component to this approach to theology, which takes seriously the “mysticism of the people,” especially when it is incarnated in the most humble or lowly.
As one delves deeper into the theology of the people, and learns the system and its language, his or her spiritual antennae immediately begin to quiver in detecting its importance to Pope Francis. Themes, phrases and priorities rooted in the movement almost leap off the page and screen in virtually every papal comment, gesture and appearance. “The holy and faithful People of God,” “time is greater than space,” “evangelization as inculturation,” the sensus fidei, mistica popular, and learning church. All of these ubiquitous papal themes can be understood anew when one recognizes them as central tenets of the teologia del pueblo. Non-paternalistic accompaniment of the forgotten and a pilgrim, synodal church “walking together” (“caminando juntos”) remain hermeneutical keys for unlocking the current pontificate and its enormous range of initiatives and agendas. Father Scannone is widely recognized as one of the most important collaborators and intellectual architects of such a vision. His support of a “culture of encounter” is unwavering, and serves as a bulwark against “ennui, disenchantment and individualistic isolation.” Teologia del pueblo instead impels the church forward on a path of missionary discipleship and into an ever-increasing and awe-inspiring dialectic of willingly receiving God’s gift of self and joyfully giving ourselves to others. Here we see an opportunity to read the “signs of the times” distinct to our historical moment, both fraught with its undeniable challenges and pregnant with new opportunities.
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.