BY HIS emphasis on the Catholic Church being “of and for the poor” Pope Francis has adopted a perspective of the Latin American theology of liberation. That theology makes a radical challenge to many of the comfortable presuppositions of bourgeois Western Catholicism. The challenge goes far deeper than asking, for instance, whether there are circumstances where divorced and remarried Catholics may receive Holy Communion. It calls into question the whole idea of sin as something purely private and personal, and makes it largely social and political.

In a neglected section of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis redefines one of the most familiar principles of everyday Catholic life: that Catholics who unworthily eat and drink the Body and Blood of Our Lord “eat and drink judgment on themselves”. It comes from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 11: 17-34: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord”.

Generations of Catholics have been taught that this “unworthiness” refers to sins of the flesh, adultery, fornication and so on. It was given as the reason why divorced Catholics in second marriages – living in a state which could objectively equate to adultery – should not receive Communion. This is not the interpretation Pope Francis gives it.

In Amoris Laetitia paragraphs 185 and 186 he writes: “We do well to take seriously a biblical text usually interpreted outside of its context or in a generic sense, with the risk of overlooking its immediate and direct meaning, which is … social”. St Paul was addressing a scandalous situation among wealthy Corinthian Christians, he explains, who were excluding the poor from their tables. They were failing to “discern” that in the Body of Christ, the Church, there was no distinction between rich and poor.

“We must not forget that the ‘mysticism’ of the sacrament has a social character”, Pope Francis writes. “When those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily”. On the other hand, he goes on, families who are properly disposed and receive the Eucharist regularly, reinforce their desire for fraternity, and their commitment to those in need.

In the theology of liberation sin is primarily about the powerful and wealthy dominating and oppressing the poor and weak. This departs from a theology of sin going back to Augustine and Aquinas, which is mainly concerned with what sin does to the sinner. Liberation theology, in contrast, is attentive to what sin does to its victims. The sins in question are social and economic; and often they are structural.

There is no mention of sins of the flesh in the passage from 1 Corinthians. Pope Francis does not condone them. But he does not see them as the acid test of Christianity. That lies elsewhere – in the more difficult challenge to love one’s neighbor as oneself. What makes a Christian life?


(For your comment, email: