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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Jesus' Good News Sets Us Free

Is Liberation Theology Wrong?

Q: What is the problem with liberation theology? What has happened to its main authors? What does the Catholic Church say about it?

A: First, let me say that “liberation theology” does not mean the same thing to everyone who uses this term. Probably its most famous exponent is Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest-theologian who is very orthodox in his teaching. He has written Theology of Liberation, We Drink From Our Own Wells, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, God of Life and many other titles.

Robert McAfee Brown has written An Introduction to Liberation Theology (Orbis) about Gutiérrez and the development of the theology of liberation.

In 1984 the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued “On Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation,” a very cautionary document. The same congregation’s 1986 instruction “On Christian Freedom and Liberation” was more positive.

Critics of liberation theology say that it uses Marxist terminology, reduces salvation to freedom from social and economic oppression and pits a “popular Church” against an “institutional Church.”

None of that describes the work of Gutiérrez, whom I once heard lecture. I have reviewed several of his books very positively for St. Anthony Messenger. Many, but not all, liberation theologians hold positions similar to his.

Pope John Paul II has pointed out several potential dangers for this theology, but he has also spoken positively about it.

Like any theology, it can have its blind spots and places where it needs the correction of other perspectives. It is not, however, the enemy of the Catholic Church.

Regarding the popular/institutional Church opposition, if the Church’s leaders favor military dictators and the rich, then poor people may understandably see the Church as promoting systemic injustice.

During the Jubilee Day of Pardon last March, Pope John Paul II prayed: “God, our Father, you always hear the cry of the poor. How many times have Christians themselves not recognized you in the hungry, the thirsty and the naked, in the persecuted, the imprisoned, and in those incapable of defending themselves, especially in the first stages of life.

“For all those who have committed acts of injustice by trusting in wealth and power and showing contempt for the ‘little ones’ who are so dear to you, we ask your forgiveness: Have mercy on us and accept our repentance.”

The Church is the ally of neither the left nor the right. Its mission is to proclaim Jesus’ Good News. Along with all authentically Christian theology, liberation theology can remind us of that.

Feminine Images of God?

Q: Is there a reference to the Holy Spirit as “mother eagle” in the Book of Isaiah? If so, where?

A: You may be thinking of Deuteronomy 32:11 which says, “As an eagle incites its nestlings forth by hovering over its brood, so he [God] spread his wings to receive them and bore them up on his pinions.” In fact, the eagle here is a mother eagle.

That verse is part of a longer hymn (32:1-43) in praise of God. Verse 18 says, “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

The Book of Isaiah has at least three references to God using feminine imagery: God’s anguish for the Israelites is like that of a woman giving birth (42:14); God cherishes them with a mother’s love (49:15); and “As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you” (66:13).

You can find more information about feminine images of God in Women and the Word: The Gender of God in the New Testament and the Spirituality of Women, by Sandra Schneiders (Paulist, 1986).

What Is a Novena?

Q: A Hindu friend has asked me about devotions to Mary, particularly novenas. Isn’t it a rosary prayed for nine days? Is there a more comprehensive definition? How did novenas begin?

A: A novena is usually a nine-day period when a person prays for some special intention. Acts of the Apostles 1:13-14 says that Mary and the apostles spent the time between Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost in prayer. That is nine days if you don’t count Pentecost itself.

No special prayers are required, though prayer books often have recommended prayers for asking saintly intercession or addressing God directly.

A novena could be nine of some day of the week. For example, the nine Tuesdays before the feast of St. Anthony of Padua (June 13) are considered a novena.

Can Animals Go to Heaven?

Q: Can dogs go to heaven? I cannot tell you how much I loved my dog of 11 years, who died last January. I miss him still and want very much to know that I will be with him again some day. Is there any mention in the Bible or in Jesus’ words that animals are worthy of heaven? Can’t severely abused animals know anything better?

A: If all things have been created in and through Christ (Colossians 1:15-16), then I think you could make an argument that heaven will have to include rainbows, butterflies and dogs.

The Christian community’s reluctance to say this earlier may reflect Jesus’ concern that people not think of heaven simply as an extension of this life. Jesus said that at the resurrection those who are saved “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30).

In a way, the traditional teaching about excluding animals from heaven stresses the importance of human decisions. Pets can do things that please or displease, but they cannot be guilty of sin because they cannot choose in the way that humans do.

Once you acknowledge all of that, I think you can still say that if creation comes to perfection in Jesus Christ, then human beings may not be the only part of creation to share in that.

I think St. Francis of Assisi might agree with this answer and with our “Pet Blessing” Web feature this month at

Rosary Beads Needed?

Q: I say the rosary every day and sometimes I say it in the proper order but without the beads. Is this proper and acceptable?

A: What counts is the prayer. Beads are helpful for most people but are optional.

Other Kinds of Worship O.K.?

Q: I am attracted to the Catholic faith because of the sacraments. My reluctance is that I enjoy worshiping the Lord in a more jubilant fashion than what I have seen in the Mass—not to mention that I do not understand much.

I enjoy praise songs. Is there anything wrong with other kinds of worship instead of the Mass?

A: Although there is nothing wrong with other kinds of worship besides Mass, the Eucharist is the greatest type of worship possible. At Vatican Council II, the bishops described it as “the source and summit of Christian life” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #11).

In one sense, the Mass is a divine action in that it is God’s love that is active, God who is being praised, God’s word which we read in Scripture and Christ the priest who offers this sacrifice.

In another sense, the Mass is a human action in that human beings can communicate well or not so well, the singing can be inspirational or dull, etc.

The Church is never more Church than when it celebrates the Eucharist. Every celebration, however, cannot be equally intense, memorable or jubilant. Human beings have highs, lows and many so-so times.

I participate in Mass partly for my own need and partly to support the needs of others. I write this as a priest who has been celebrating the Eucharist for 25 years now. Best wishes as you explore your faith and follow its lead.

How to Join?

Q: How do I become a member of the Third Order of St. Francis? Is there a group near my city?

A: Information about the Secular Franciscan Order (once known as the Third Order) can be obtained through 1-800-FRANCIS or by contacting

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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