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We are writing a mini-series to give high level overviews of some contemporary theologians, providing arguments for and against their positions. Part 2 discusses Gustavo Gutiérrez, an 89 year old Peruvian man.
How do you say to the poor that God loves you? Liberation Theology offers an answer.
A Summary and Explanation of Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., Liberation Theology
Gustavo Gutiérrez is the John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to being a priest, a member of the Dominican Order, and a professor of theology, Gutiérrez is widely known as “The Father of Liberation Theology.” His seminal work A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation has been a cornerstone of 20th century theological thought.
Gutiérrez’s chief contribution to theology is his development and explanation of Liberation Theology (or more specifically, Latin American Liberation Theology). Gutiérrez’s Liberation Theology is driven largely by an attempt to answer the question: “How do you say to the poor that God loves you?” Poverty and injustice, Gutiérrez contends, “seem to embody the negation of the love of God.” Liberation Theology, then, “seeks a language to speak about God, a prophetic language that affirms the link between God and the poor. Prophetic language involves not only preaching, but our deeds, what we do. To believe in Jesus Christ means to be committed to the poor.” Liberation Theology is concerned chiefly with expressing the love of God to the least of these—the poor and the marginalized. This love requires action, not simply meditation and well-wishes.
A key component of Gutiérrez’s thought is his assertion that following Jesus necessarily requires a “preferential option for the poor.” In his own words,
“The free and demanding love of God is expressed in the commandment of Jesus to “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). This implies a universal love that excludes no one, and at the same time a priority for the least ones of history, the oppressed and the insignificant.”
To be a follower of Jesus is necessarily to love others, and especially those who are oppressed and marginalized.
In seeking to side with the poor, Gutiérrez’s Liberation Theology engages with historical, social, political, and economic factors that have caused the current crisis of poverty. This requires a consideration of the systematic structures and issues that continue to promote and enable the rise of poverty. However, both the overarching and systematic, and the immediate and personal, must be kept in view. Gutiérrez states that “It is good to specify that the preferential option for the poor, if it aims at the promotion of justice, equally implies friendship with the poor and among the poor.” Loving and caring for the poor is more than (but includes) fighting against systems of oppression. Loving and caring for the poor requires friendship.
Gutiérrez’s Liberation Theology moves beyond the frequently esoteric world of theology and challenges people to be disciples of Jesus by obeying His command to love others—especially the poor.
A Criticism of (Latin American) Liberation Theology
Whereas in our last article on contemporary theology where we considered several different critiques, here only one critique will be considered. This is for two reasons: (1) the critique discussed here is one of the most common critiques of Liberation Theology, and (2) because it comes from within the Roman Catholic church itself (Gutiérrez is Catholic). Liberation Theology, particular in its Latin American form (the form we’ve discussed in this article), found major critics within the walls of the church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the group within Roman Catholicism that is concerned with defending the doctrines of Catholic faith, issued an article (“Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’”, henceforth ICATL) that refutes Liberation Theology. Notably, ICATL was overseen by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.
ICATL’s critique focuses upon Liberation Theology’s dependence upon Marxism. ICATL argues that fundamental to Marxist thought are ideas “which are not compatible with the Christian conception of humanity and society.” Specifically, Marxism begins from a standpoint of atheism. Thus, for Christians to utilize an atheistic worldview as a means to interpret society “is to involve oneself in terrible contradictions.”
The key issue set forth in ICATL is the problem of ‘marxist analysis.’ – the usage of Marxism to understand and describe society. ICATL argues that a central tenet of Marxism, which is then adopted by Liberation Theology, is understanding society through the lens of class struggle: that is to say, to see society as a struggle between different social classes, the wealthy vs. the poor. Moreover, the distinctions in social class pervade every aspect of reality—“religious, ethical, cultural, and institutional.” ICATL relates that according to Marxist philosophy, the only way to move forward in this struggle is through violence.
ICATL states that this view is problematic because it makes love of neighbor—a key teaching of Jesus and a central tenet of Christian belief—something to be done in the future, after the poor have risen up in revolution and overthrown the rich. Love of neighbor becomes a futuristic ideal, rather than an immediate action.
Moreover, ICATL contends viewing the world through the lens of class lends itself to a divisive understanding of the world, and it leads to reading Scripture in a reductionist manner, such that liberation is the sole message and focus of the biblical text. This leads, ICATL argues, to reading the biblical text in a way that “misunderstand[s] the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ… and thus the specific character of the salvation he gave us, that is above all liberation from sin, which is the source of all evils.” Ultimately, then, a key problem with Liberation Theology is that it fails to properly understand the salvific work of Jesus Christ, because it focuses on social revolution and liberation, rather than freedom from sin.
In summary, ICATL concludes that Liberation Theology—as a result of it’s Marxist social analysis—gives “[a]n exclusively political interpretation… to the death of Christ. In this way, its value for salvation and the whole economy of redemption is denied.” By viewing Christ’s death as a political statement about liberation from oppression, Liberation Theology, according to ICATL, fails to understand that Christ’s death is ultimately significant because it frees humanity from sin.
Liberation Theology raises a question worth considering: “How do you say to the poor that God loves you?” At the same time, any answer offered must be carefully scrutinized.
Regardless of how one feels about Gutiérrez and Liberation Theology, his work and its significance cannot be understated. Gutiérrez and Liberation Theology have shaped and influenced theological dialogue since the twentieth-century. That being said, Gutiérrez has continued to think and write since the initial publication of his A Theology of Liberation. Thus, it would be best to read deeper into the depths of Gutiérrez’s writing before forming a final opinion on the subject of Liberation Theology. For those interested in diving deeper into Liberation Theology, we recommend you check out some recommendations below.
What are your initial thoughts about Gutiérrez and Liberation Theology? Leave a comment below!
Recommendations for Further Reading:
Works of Gustavo Gutiérrez
- “The Option for the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ,” Theological Studies, 70 (2009), pp. 317-326
- “Gustavo Gutierrez: with the poor,” Christianity and Crisis, 47 no 5 (Apr 6, 1987), pp. 113-115
- “Notes for a Theology of Liberation,” Theological Studies, 31 no 2 (Jun 1970), pp. 243-261
- A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation
Critics of Gustavo Gutiérrez and/or Liberation Theology
- “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation,” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1984), <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19840806_theology-liberation_en.html>.
- “The Case Against Liberation Theology,” The New York Times, Oct. 21, 1984, <https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/21/magazine/the-case-against-liberation-theology.html?pagewanted=all>. Accessed March 13, 2018.
- “The Errors of Liberation Theology,” First Things, July 27, 2015, <https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/07/the-errors-of-liberation-theology>. Accessed March 13, 2018.
 “Gustavo Gutierrez: with the poor,” Christianity and Crisis, 47 no 5 (Apr 6, 1987), p. 113.
 “The Option for the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ,” Theological Studies, 70 (2009), p. 319. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid, 325.
 ICATL., Section 7.8.
 ICATL., Section 7.9.
 ICATL, esp. Section 7. <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19840806_theology-liberation_en.html>
 ICATL, Section 8.8
 ICATL, Section 8.6.
 Ibid., Section 9, esp. 9.7.
 Ibid., Section 10.5.
 Ibid., Section 10.7.
 Ibid., Section 10.12.