Liberation theologian GutiÈrrez says hope takes work

Conference marks 40 years of 'preferential option for the poor'


Hope isn’t synonymous with just sitting around waiting for something good to happen, the widely acknowledged father of Latin American liberation theology said this morning. Instead, it implies concrete effort in daily life to generate reasons for that hope.

“Hope is a gift, but you don’t receive that gift if you’re not creating resources for it,” Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez said this morning in Chicago. “Reasons for hope don’t just drop from the sky. They come from below, from what people are doing or not doing.”

Gutiérrez, a Peruvian, spoke this morning at a conference titled “Transformed by Hope: Building a Catholic Social Theology for the Americas,” sponsored by the Catholic Theological Union and DePaul University.

The conference marks the 40th anniversary of the famous meeting of the Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, which gave rise to the Catholic church’s “preferential option for the poor” -- a social commitment recently reaffirmed during the 2007 conference of the Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil. Coincidentally, 2008 also marks 35 years since the first translation of Gutiérrez’s famous book, A Theology of Liberation, into English.

(NOTE: Read more about the "Transformed by Hope: Building a Catholic Social Theology for the Americas" conference in John Allen's Friday column: Pastors, scholars look to Latin America to 'reboot' the church and the faith.)

For the record, Gutiérrez, now 80, expressed discomfort with the label of being the “father” of liberation theology, widely seen as the most important theological current in the developing world during the second half of the 20th century. Instead, Gutiérrez said, he sees himself as a “nephew” of liberation theology -- a movement which seeks to align the church with the poor in struggles for social change.

The “preferential option for the poor,” Gutiérrez said this morning, isn’t just a spiritual disposition. It necessarily requires effort to transform unjust structures.

“Our commitment to persons suffering from poverty implies a rejection of the situations which create that suffering,” Gutiérrez said. He stressed that this is hardly an insight unique to liberation theology, citing the French writer Paul Ricoeur in the 1930s that “we are not really with the poor if we are not against poverty.”

“You don’t need a complicated theology to realize this,” Gutiérrez said. “It’s enough to read the Bible.”

Gutiérrez joked that one can idealize the spiritual benefits of material poverty “maybe for a week’s vacation, to get some pictures for the family … but to be materially poor for one’s whole life is inhuman, and thus un-Christian.”

Reviewing the body of social teaching developed in Latin America from Medellín to Aparecida, Gutiérrez said the cumulative effect has been to clearly root that the “preferential option for the poor” in the church’s faith in Christ, who himself became poor. It’s a “theocentric” teaching, he said, not merely a matter of social analysis.

The challenge now, he said, is to live that teaching. In that regard, Gutiérrez recalled an episode from the life of the prophet Jeremiah, in a period in which ancient Israel had been devastated by a war between Egypt and Babylon. One day a relative arrived to inform Jeremiah that an uncle had died, and he was first in line to buy the uncle’s land. Jeremiah’s initial response, Gutiérrez said, was to think that buying land in a destroyed nation would be “crazy.” In the end, however, Jeremiah decided to do it, because it was a concrete sign of hope in a better future.

“My friends, try to buy some land,” Gutiérrez said. “This is the future, not waiting for beautiful reasons to hope, but to try to do something to create that hope.”

Gutiérrez said two broad currents shaped the breakthrough 40 years ago at Medellín: social ferment in Latin America in the 1960s, fueled by escalating tension between authoritarian regimes and the “eruption of the poor” as a political force; and the ferment within the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

In the four decades between Medellín and Aparecida, Gutiérrez said, a couple of things have become clearer.

First, he said, the “preferential option for the poor” has come to be understood not just in socio-political terms, but as a theological commitment deeply rooted in the church’s Christology, meaning its doctrine about Christ -- especially the understanding of God as incarnate in history, which Gutiérrez called God as “Emmanuel.”

This point was clear, the Peruvian theologian said, in Pope Benedict XVI’s opening address to the Aparecida gathering of the Latin American bishops: “The preferential option for the poor is implicit in the Christological faith in the God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty,” Benedict said.

Second, Gutiérrez said, the complexity of poverty is better grasped today, meaning not just its material expression, but also forms of poverty based on culture, race and gender.

Gutiérrez noted that many observers were surprised by the fairly ringing endorsement of liberation theology and the “preferential option for the poor” at Aparecida, given the reservations expressed over the years by the Vatican and the lukewarm climate during the 1992 meeting of Latin American bishops at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

“For someone is far from the daily life of the church in Latin America, who knows it only by reading about its problems in the newspapers, then perhaps Aparecida was a surprise,” Gutiérrez said. “But for those who know the reality, it was not a surprise.”

Among other things, Gutiérrez noted that the bishops at Aparecida made efforts to reach out to several typically excluded groups, including indigenous persons, Afro-Americans in Latin America and the Caribbean, and women.

He cited three concrete examples from the Aparecida documents that, he said, reflect this contact with daily reality:

  • The “recuperation” of the “see/judge/act” method for assessing social reality, which had been adopted at Medellín but softened at Santo Domingo;

  • The “preferential option for the poor” was clearly understood as an expression of Christological faith;

  • Work for justice was seen as part of evangelization – not just an expression of it, or a consequence of it, but an internal part of what it means to evangelize.

When it came time for Q&A, an audience member hit Gutiérrez with what some jokingly termed a classic Anglo-Saxon question: What’s the meaning of “preferential” in the phrase “preferential option for the poor”? Isn’t the term redundant, since one either has an option or not?

In fact, Gutiérrez said, the term “preferential” is important, because it expresses the idea of universality. In this regard, he cited Pope John XXII, who said that the Catholic church is “the church of everyone, and especially the church of the poor.”

Without the modifier “preferential,” Gutiérrez said, the “option for the poor” could seem exclusive. The full phrase, he said, “expresses the complexity -- or, rather, the richness -- of God’s love.”

As a footnote, Gutiérrez added that the word “option” is probably the weakest term in the phrase when rendered into English. In Spanish, he said, it’s more forceful, expressing not a consumer preference but a firm commitment of heart and mind.

The night before Gutiérrez spoke, two leading prelates in North America both paid tribute to the lasting influence of Medellín and liberation theology.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told a crowd at CTU that while “aspects of liberation theology dependent upon theories of class conflict” have been rejected by the church, the “valid intuitions and fundamental truth” of the preferential option for the poor have been recognized.

George said that one contribution of Aparecida in that regard is that rather than starting for an analysis of the socio-political situation, it began “from the kerygma,” meaning the church’s proclamation of Christ.

Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that concern for the poor has permeated official church teaching in the four decades since Medellín. He cited a statistic from researchers at the Canadian bishops’ conference, to the effect that in the last 20 years, “poverty” is the second most frequent keyword in official church documents in Latin America and the eighth most frequent term in official documents in North America.

“The church is called to stand with humanity’s most vulnerable members and to be an advocate of justice and truth,” Weisgerber said.

(John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

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