For half a century, the work of theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has called attention not only to the injustice of poverty, but also to society’s obligation to stand in solidarity with the poor and to understand the systems at the root of their suffering.
It is a message that has helped make Gutiérrez one of the most influential theologians of our time, and for which Elmhurst College bestowed upon him its highest honor, the Niebuhr Medal, on September 20.
"Poverty is not a misfortune. It is an injustice," Gutiérrez told the audience that filled Elmhurst’s Hammerschmidt Chapel for the award ceremony. "Immediate help for the poor is not enough. It is a question of addressing poverty’s human causes and changing social structures to fight this inhuman situation."
The obligation to stand with the poor has been at the heart of the theology that Gutiérrez, a Roman Catholic priest, began articulating in his native Peru in the 1960s. He is widely recognized as the "Father of Liberation Theology," a social and intellectual movement that calls on Christians to change what Gutiérrez has called "the less-than-human situation in which so many human beings live." His seminal work, A Theology of Liberation (1971), had a profound impact on theological and political discourse, and remains required reading for students of theology, history and social movements. He is currently a professor of theology the University of Notre Dame.
Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray praised Gutiérrez as a model of "theological engagement with the world" and a scholar who "has challenged the notion that religion has nothing to do with ‘secular’ things like economic and legal systems and the common good."
Established in 1995, the medal is named for Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, each an internationally renowned theologian and alumnus of Elmhurst. Past recipients include Nobel Laureates Elie Wiesel and Lech Walesa. Ray said the honor was especially fitting because Gutiérrez is "an exponent of the Niebuhr tradition, which means he holds society responsible for the wellbeing of the least of its members, and he does so from the perspective of a Biblical faith."
Gutiérrez’s focus on the poor is rooted not only in his reading of the Bible, but also in his lived experience. He was born on June 8, 1928 in the Monserrat barrio of Lima, where he knew poverty firsthand. After his ordination and graduate studies in Europe, he returned to teach in Peru and to work with the poor in Rimac, a slum area of Lima. A concern for the suffering of the oppressed and relevance to the conditions of everyday life are hallmarks of his work.
"Theology is a language about God, and so we speak about God, but always from the perspective of the situation and aspirations of the poor," he said in an interview before the award ceremony. "How do we say to the poor that, ‘God loves you?’ How do we say this seriously, with respect for their suffering? This is a question that liberation theology tries to answer."
In A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez challenged the Church to stand with the oppressed and to act for social justice. Even as his work proved vastly influential, it also provoked criticism from some who saw liberation theology as an attempt to reduce Christianity to Marxist politics. Church authorities were sometimes discomfited by Gutiérrez’s work. During the 1980s, one of his more tenacious critics was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later became Pope Benedict XVI. In the middle of the decade, the congregation twice issued official warnings against liberation theology’s "insufficiently critical" use of Marxist ideas.
"There was criticism from the military and economic powers in the ‘70s and ‘80s," he said. "But within the Church there was dialogue—dialogue between friends. We made an effort to publish and speak so that our ideas would be understood. And today it is clear that many of these ideas are part of the Church’s teaching. They have been part of the teaching of two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI."
In a 1986 letter to Brazil’s bishops, Pope John Paul II affirmed liberation theology as "useful and necessary." And Benedict XVI has written that a predominant commitment to the poor is "implicit in the Christological faith in the God who became poor for us."
But when asked if he now feels a sense of personal vindication, Gutiérrez offered a modest smile.
"Well, these are not our ideas, after all," he says. "They are from the Bible."
by Andrew Santella