Peruvian theologian Father Gustavo Gutierrez received an honorary doctorate Nov. 7 from Saint Paul University. Fr. Gutierrez recently had eye surgery, so wore the dark glasses to protect his eyes from bright light

Saint Paul University honours father of liberation theology

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  • November 10, 2014

OTTAWA - Though liberation theology developed many streams, many shrouded in controvery, its principal founder said it remains anchored in the commitment to the poor in the Gospel.

“Theology is a hermeneutic of hope,” Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez told faculty, students and friends of Saint Paul University Nov. 7 as he received an honorary doctorate from the Ottawa university. 

“Theology touches on the motive, the story of our Lord in history. Theology is a letter of love to God,” the Peruvian theologian said. 

This love letter began when he engaged the question of poverty. 

“How do you say to the poor God loves you?” the Dominican priest asked the audience. “Theology is not a perfect response to that question, but an effort to respond,” he said, noting the immense suffering and mystery of poverty.

In the nearly 50 years since liberation theology was born, its reputation has suffered from time to time through associations with Marxism, utopian thinking and even armed struggle. But in an interview, Gutierrez said the news media is responsible for this reputation, pointing out liberation theology has never been condemned by the Pope. 

When Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Latin American bishops at Aparecida in 2007, Benedict said, “The preferential option for the poor is the link to our faith in Jesus Christ,” Gutierrez said. “This question is central: the preferential option of the poor.” The Aparecida document also contains many “affirmations in line with liberation theology,” he added.

Ninety per cent of liberation theology is linked to Jesus Christ, he said. Many points or ideas of liberation theology were not accepted, it is true, though many bishops did accept it. But today, with Pope Francis’ coming from Latin America and his shared experience of the continent, liberation theology is getting re-examined.

“Liberation theology is a theology recalling the relevance of the poor for the Christian message, but it is not creating this.” he said. 

Liberation theology cannot be divorced from the Gospel, he said. In one manner, it is a theology of salvation. 

“At the same time we must pay attention to the moment. ‘Liberation’ was a very important word in Latin America at that time.” From words that are known and accepted, we say “this is our question, to speak from the liberation from sin, to forgive and so on,” he said. 

“A theology cannot create another message,” he said. “Theology is a reflection about the message (of the Gospel)."

Born in Lima, Peru, in 1928, Gutierrez originally studied to become a doctor, but questioned whether he could serve people better as a doctor or as a priest. He chose the latter.

Gutierrez came from a poor family and during his teen years was confined to a wheelchair with osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone marrow. Then as a young priest, in pastoral work in a poor parish, he saw severe poverty as “the most strong challenge to the announcement of the love of God.”

In Latin America, a Catholic continent, half of the population at the time was scandalously poor and the love for these poor people was not present, he said. 

While Pope John XXIII had spoken of the preferential option for the poor, there was an absence of attention to the issue of poverty in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, he said. This absence invited further reflection.

In 1967, Gutierrez was invited to Montreal to teach on the Church and poverty. While teaching this course, he began to pull together his thoughts on the relationship of poverty to the Gospel, and liberation theology was born. Poverty was not only a social question, but also a theological question, he said. 

Liberation can also mean salvation and redemption, or freedom, as in Galatian 5:1, where St. Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” 

Gutierrez said poverty destroys faith and destroys the person and "is always an evil; it is never a good.” 

He dismissed romantic ideas of poverty, calling it always an evil. In the Bible, however, there are two senses of poverty — material poverty and spiritual poverty as represented by the first Beatitude. Spiritual poverty leads to a detachment from temporal life so as to do the will of God, he said. That detachment may lead to voluntary poverty, but that choice is out of solidarity with the poor, not solidarity with poverty.

Liberation theology reveals how the fight against poverty must be a priority, but poverty is not the only question in Christ’s revelation, he said. But the fact the poor die before their time must be addressed.

Gutierrez also spoke of Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who came to Peru in 1988 as a priest theologian to attend a four-day seminar on liberation theology, along with other theologians and professors from Germany and other European countries.

At the end of the seminar, then Father Mueller told him ‘we are all professors, that is to say theoretical persons, and we have been speaking on the central question for the Christian and Christian practice and what it is possible for us to do. After several talks, Mueller decided to regularly come to Peru to teach theology to seminarians from poor, indigenous backgrounds without a good training in theology and to do pastoral work in poor parishes. He did this for 15 years, until he was named a bishop, “instead of taking a vacation or writing another article.”

Though Gutierrez said he and Mueller have differences, he had to recognize the cardinal’s “honesty and sincerity,” that led him to know better “many points about poverty and liberation theology.”

In a difficult moment, he took the side of liberation theology “and above all the side of the poor,” Gutierrez said.

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