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June 8 Gustavo Gutierrez and Liberation Theology

Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian Dominican priest is seen by many as the father of Latin American Liberation Theology. We look at his early struggles with health, his intellectual formation in Europe, and the application of his theological thought to the context of Post-Vatican 2 Latin America.

A controversial movement because of its use of Marxist analysis, we look at its roots in the second CELAM conference of Medellin. How many theologians were censured during the pontificate of John Paul II - but not Gutierrez.


He would become a Dominican Priest and for many the most influential voice in a school of theology that emerged in Latin America, Liberation Theology. He spent his early years as a priest living and working among the poor in the district of Rimac in the north of downtown Lima. He became famous because of his book A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation. Published in 1971, it was a response to the call from Vatican II for scholarly renewal in theological and biblical study in the context of the local church. Gutierrez responded by examining the concept of God and the scriptures within the Latin American reality of extreme poverty and systemic injustice. It was a time when more than 60% of the population of Latin America lived in a state of poverty, and according to Gutierrez 82% of those find themselves in extreme poverty. For theologians heeding the challenge of Vatican 2 this led to a renewed realization of Christ's presence among the poor and oppressed, especially in their struggle to end poverty and oppression. And this was discussed in the second conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin in 19 after the council ( See pod of May 31 )

Gutierrez had been born to mestizo parentage, being half-Hispanic and half-indigenous. He was afflicted with osteomyelitis as an adolescent and was frequently bed-ridden. This was a rare but serious condition, an infection of the bone, and he had to use a wheelchair from age 12 to 18. This time was for him a formative experience, instilling deep within him the value of hope through prayer and the love of family in friends. As he describes it, this experience had a profound impact on his interest in theology. Initially studying medicine at the National University of San Marcos in Peru he realized he wanted to become a priest and completed his theological studies in the Theology Faculty of Leuven in Belgium and in Lyon in France, where he studied under great minds such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar and Marie Dominique Chenu. He became particularly interested in Dominican and Jesuit thinkers, and was influenced by the work of Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and Johann Baptist Metz.

His studies in Europe, exposed him to other, non-religious thinkers who had a profound impact on his ideology and the eventual formation of Latin American liberation theology. At the Faculty of Theology in Lyons, he studied Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud – but in particular Marx's discussion of class struggle and the material conditions of poverty provided Gutiérrez a framework for understanding socio-economic inequality. Guitierrez is sometimes mistakenly credited with inventing the ‘preferential option for the poor, however this has its source in the earlier encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 (see pod of May 15).

The influence of Marxist thinking on his book A Theology of Liberation brought him into close attention with the Vatican of John Paul II, whose awful experience of communism in his native Poland had made him very suspicious and sensitive to such ideologies. Thus Gutierrez work, as it rose in prominence was reviewed directly by Cardinal Ratzinger and found to contain ideas which, in the view of conservative Catholics, were disturbing. Although Gutiérrez himself was not censured, many other liberation theologians were censured particularly because of the perceived connection between followers of liberation theology and leftist groups in Latin America, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Jesuit, Fernando Cardenal was forced to leave the Society of Jesus, and, together with his brother Ernesto, he had his priesthood suspended directly by Pope John Paul II. He was eventually readmitted as a Jesuit and resumed activities as a priest in 1997. As the pressure grew against liberation theology, in September 1984, a special assembly of Peruvian bishops were summoned to Rome for the express purpose of condemning Gutiérrez, but the bishops held firm and defended him. Alarm was growing in Rome as many liberation-minded priests were killed in Central American countries during the wars and civil conflicts of the 1980s. These martyrs included Archbishop Oscar Romero and six Jesuit scholar-priests at the University of Central America in San Salvador.

Gutierrez’s credibility and stature was underlined when he was invited to be a member of the board of directors of the international journal, Concilium, an academic journal of theology that was established in 1965 and is published five times a year. It aims at promoting theological discussion in the "spirit of Vatican II and is published in six languages: Croatian, English, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The journal was established by Congar, Rahner, de Lubac, von Balthasar, and Schillebeeckx. Although von Balthasar and de Lubac later resigned and founded Communio, which became the rival journal of Concilium. Gutierrez now holds the John Cardinal O’Hara Professorship of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and a visiting professor at many major universities in North America and Europe. He is a member of the Peruvian Academy of Language, and in 1993 he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for his tireless work.


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