At the heart of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s work is a challenge, which he began to articulate some five decades ago in his native Peru in response to the everyday scandals of poverty and injustice. “Real, material poverty—this less-than-human situation in which most human beings live today—is a challenge which no Christian is free to overlook,” he said.
A sustained fight against “this less-than-human situation” has been the abiding goal of Gutiérrez’s vastly influential scholarship. In A Theology of Liberation (1971), he wrote of the concept of Christian poverty as an act of loving solidarity with the poor and as a catalyst for effective action against poverty. The book stands as the seminal text of liberation theology, the social, spiritual, and intellectual movement that sees the “preferential option for the poor” as a central tenet of Christian teaching. The book’s impact on theological and political debate was galvanic, and it remains required reading for students of theology, history, and social movements.
On September 20, Elmhurst College will recognize Gustavo Gutiérrez’s work for social justice and personal dignity by conferring upon him its highest honor, the Niebuhr Medal. Established in 1995, the medal is named for Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, each an internationally renowned theologian and alumnus of the College. Past recipients include Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel and Lech Walesa.
“Father Gutiérrez is an exponent of the Niebuhr tradition,” says President S. Alan Ray. “He holds society responsible for the well-being of the least of its members, and he does so from the perspective of a biblical faith. Like prior recipients of the Niebuhr Medal, he has given a lifetime of exemplary service to the world. He challenges the notion that religion has nothing to do with ‘secular’ things like economic and legal systems and the common good. He has helped a generation understand what the Christian Gospels say about our obligation to stand with the poor and to understand and alleviate the causes of poverty.”
Gutiérrez’s focus on the poor is rooted not only in his reading of the Bible but also in his own lived experience. He was born on June 8, 1928, in the Monserrat barrio of Lima, where he knew poverty firsthand. He also suffered from osteomyelitis, which left him bedridden for much of his teenage years. “There certainly were reasons for discouragement,” he said years later. “But also present was the gift of hope that came to me through prayer, reading, family, and friends. Later, my parishioners in Lima would also teach me volumes about hope in the midst of suffering. Hope is precisely for the difficult moments.”
Gutiérrez entered the University of San Marcos in Lima, where he began studies in medicine. After three years, he left the university to prepare for the priesthood. His studies led him to Europe, where he took a master’s degree in philosophy and psychology from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and a second master’s in theology from the Theological Faculty of Lyons in France. Ordained in 1959, he returned to Peru, where he took a teaching position at the Pontifical Catholic University and worked with the poor in Rimac, a slum area of Lima.
The decade that followed brought remarkable changes in the Roman Catholic Church and in the larger society. The Second Vatican Council encouraged greater church engagement with the larger world. At the same time, popular social movements in Latin America sought to address the root causes of economic and social injustice.
The developments deeply informed Gutiérrez’s work. It was in 1968, in a speech delivered in Chimbote, Peru, that the priest first called for a “theology of liberation.” He argued that Christians have a duty to create a just society. “An active concern for the poor is not only an obligation for those who feel a political vocation,” he said. “All Christians must take the Gospel message of justice and equality seriously.”
In A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez challenged the Church to stand with the oppressed and to act for social justice. His ideas took hold in Latin America and brought him international recognition, even as he continued as a parish priest. They also provoked sharp opposition from many who saw liberation theology as an attempt to reduce Christianity to little more than Marxist or left-wing politics.
Church authorities were sometimes discomfited by Gutiérrez’s ideas. 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 that decade, the congregation twice issued official warnings against aspects of liberation theology, including what it called its “insufficiently critical” use of Marxist ideas. At the same time, in a 1986 letter to Brazil’s bishops, Pope John Paul II affirmed liberation theology as “useful and necessary.”
Gutiérrez accepted challenges with equanimity, welcoming the chance to engage in dialogue about his work. He continued speaking and writing, delving into Scripture to better understand a God found amid suffering. In his 1984 book, We Drink from Our Own Wells, he wrote that in grappling with poverty, “we are not dealing simply with a ‘social situation,’ as though it were a state of affairs unrelated to the fundamental demands of the gospel message. Rather we are confronted with a reality contrary to the reign of life that the Lord proclaims.” The John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Father Gutiérrez has lived and worked long enough to see ideas once considered novel or controversial accepted by many as part of the mainstream of the church’s social teaching. Theologians around the world acknowledge a debt to the ideas that emerged from Latin America in the 1960s and found their clearest expression in Gutiérrez’s writing.
“Virtually every social movement today that concerns itself with religion—whether racial, ethnic, feminist, GLBT, Christian or non-Christian—has to reckon with A Theology of Liberation, if only to acknowledge it as a foundational text for what follows,” said President Ray, who encountered Gutiérrez’s writings first as a Catholic seminarian in the 1970s and later as a graduate student in religious studies at Harvard University. “Over a long and productive lifetime, Father Gutiérrez, like the Niebuhrs, has redefined the terms of engagement for theological reflection worldwide. He has turned the conversation from the hereafter to the stakes of the poor in this world.”
Gustavo Gutiérrez calls Christians to an “encounter with God in concrete actions toward others, especially the poor.” Fifty years after he began his ministry, his central challenge remains: “To know God is to do justice.”
By Andrew Santella