Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez
Each year the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences announces the incorporation of new members. This year’s list of honorary fellows includes the world-renowned Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., who is best known for hisbook A Theology of Liberation (Span. 1971, Eng. 1973).
Father Gutiérrez has written over a dozen books and hundreds of articles concerning the church’s role in creating socialstructures of solidarity. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has been instrumental in helping the Christian community to read and live the Gospel from the perspective of the poor.
The following interview took place at the University of Notre Dame, where Father Gutiérrez has held the John Cardinal O’Hara chair in theology since 2001. The interviewer is Daniel Hartnett, S.J., a professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago.
You have received numerous awards and dozens of honorary doctorates in the course of your fruitful ministry as theologian and priest. What is the significance to you of this particular award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences?
To tell you the truth, the news of this award took me totally by surprise. I was not even aware that my name was being considered. It is certainly an honor for me to be included in such a group of distinguished scholars, scientists and public leaders. I am very grateful for being named to this academy and for the opportunity to bring the Gospel into a fuller and more fruitful dialogue with a broader range of disciplines and with civil society.
Speaking of incorporations, you have been a member of the Dominican Order for only about five years. Tell us about your decision to enter.
My relationship with the Order of Preachers goes back to my studies in France, where I had personal contact with the scholarly work of Fathers Congar, Chenu and Schillebeeckx, all Dominican theologians. I was attracted to their profound understanding of the intimate relationship that should exist between theology, spirituality and the actual preaching of the Gospel. Liberation theology shares that same conviction. My subsequent research into the life of Bartolomé de Las Casas and his ardent defense of the poor of his time (the indigenous people and black slaves) also played an important role in my decision. My long friendship with many Dominicans, as well as other circumstances, finally brought me to this step. I am grateful for the warm welcome that the Dominican family gave me.
You have always placed the concerns of the poor in the forefront of your theological reflection. Must every theologian come to grips with the reality of social suffering in the world, or is this only incumbent, say, on those who work directly within a context of poverty?
I am firmly convinced that poverty—this sub-human condition in which the majority of humanity lives today—is more than a social issue. Poverty poses a major challenge to every Christian conscience and therefore to theology as well.
People today often talk about contextual theologies but, in point of fact, theology has always been contextual. Some theologies, it is true, may be more conscious of and explicit about their contextuality, but all theological investigation is necessarily carried out within a specific historical context. When Augustine wrote The City of God, he was reflecting on what it meant for him and for his contemporaries to live the Gospel within a specific context of serious historical transformations.
Our context today is characterized by a glaring disparity between the rich and the poor. No serious Christian can quietly ignore this situation. It is no longer possible for someone to say, “Well, I didn’t know” about the suffering of the poor. Poverty has a visibility today that it did not have in the past. The faces of the poor must now be confronted. And we also understand the causes of poverty and the conditions that perpetuate it. There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.
Of course, there always remains the practical question: what must we do in order to abolish poverty? Theology does not pretend to have all the technical solutions to poverty, but it reminds us never to forget the poor and also that God is at stake in our response to poverty. An active concern for the poor is not only an obligation for those who feel a political vocation; all Christians must take the Gospel message of justice and equality seriously. Christians cannot forgo their responsibility to say a prophetic word about unjust economic conditions. Pope John Paul II’s approach to the phenomenon of globalization is a good example. He constantly asks: “How is this going to affect the poor? Does it promote justice?”
Do you think the “preferential option for the poor” has become an integral part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching? And where did that term come from?
Yes, I do believe that the option for the poor has become part of the Catholic social teaching. The phrase comes from the experience of the Latin American church. The precise term was born sometime between the Latin American bishops’ conferences in Medellín (1968) and in Puebla (1979). In Medellín, the three words (option, preference, poor) are all present, but it was only in the years immediately following Medellín that we brought these words into a complete phrase. It would be accurate to say that the term “preferential option for the poor” comes from the Latin American church, but the content, the underlying intuition, is entirely biblical. Liberation theology tries to deepen our understanding of this core biblical conviction.
The preferential option for the poor has gradually become a central tenet of the church’s teaching. Perhaps we can briefly explain the meaning of each term:
• The term poverty refers to the real poor. This is not a preferential option for the spiritually poor. After all, such an option would be very easy, if for no other reason that there are so few of them! The spiritually poor are the saints! The poverty to which the option refers is material poverty. Material poverty means premature and unjust death. The poor person is someone who is treated as a non-person, someone who is considered insignificant from an economic, political and cultural point of view. The poor count as statistics; they are the nameless. But even though the poor remain insignificant within society, they are never insignificant before God.
• Some people feel, wrongly I believe, that the word preferential waters down or softens the option for the poor, but this is not true. God’s love has two dimensions, the universal and the particular; and while there is a tension between the two, there is no contradiction. God’s love excludes no one. Nevertheless, God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life. The word preference recalls the other dimension of the gratuitous love of God—the universality.
• In some ways, option is perhaps the weakest word in the sentence. In English, the word merely connotes a choice between two things. In Spanish, however, it evokes the sense of commitment. The option for the poor is not optional, but is incumbent upon every Christian. It is not something that a Christian can either take or leave. As understood by Medellín, the option for the poor is twofold: it involves standing in solidarity with the poor, but it also entails a stance against inhumane poverty.
The preferential option for the poor is ultimately a question of friendship. Without friendship, an option for the poor can easily become commitment to an abstraction (to a social class, a race, a culture, an idea). Aristotle emphasized the important place of friendship for the moral life, but we also find this clearly stated in John’s Gospel. Christ says, “I do not call you servants, but friends.” As Christians, we are called to reproduce this quality of friendship in our relationships with others. When we become friends with the poor, their presence leaves an indelible imprint on our lives, and we are much more likely to remain committed.
Some people say that liberation theology made an important contribution, but that it is now in decline. Do you agree? What is your prognosis for the future of liberation theology?
Any new insight within a particular field of knowledge initially receives a lot of attention, but then it slowly gets incorporated or assimilated into the normal ways of doing things. This principle applies to many of the key insights found in liberation theology.
Like any other way of doing theology, liberation theology is linked to a particular historical moment. Now we can ask ourselves: have the historical circumstances changed? Certainly, it is true that many important events have taken place over the past decades and that the political climate is very different from that of the 60’s and 70’s. But the situation of the poor has not changed fundamentally. As long as there is a group of Christians trying to be faithful in these circumstances, a group trying to follow Christ among the poor, we will find something like liberation theology.
Even though it is common to refer to liberation theology in the singular, we are witnessing several new expressions of this theology in different contexts and continents—North America, Central and South America, Africa and Asia. Each of these theologies has a particular point of view, but they also have much in common, particularly a concern for the poor and excluded. Liberation theology revolves around this attention to the plight of the poor.
What would a liberation theology in the United States look like? What do we most need to be liberated from? Consumerism, ethnocentrism? And if you were to work in this country, how would you do theology?
We have known for a long time the many ways that poverty can destroy or debilitate persons and nations, but perhaps we need to think more about the ways that riches or abundance can weaken our commitment to Christ. Each country or context has its temptations and its opportunities for spreading the good news. In poor nations, one is continuously reminded of the problem of poverty; in a rich and powerful nation, the challenge is to remember the poor and not succumb to ethnocentrism. Witnessing to a culture will sometimes involve prophetic critique; at other times it will mean drawing out from that culture its noblest qualities.
The Catholic Church has had a long history in the United States of being close to the struggling poor. Catholics have built up networks of primary and high schools, hospitals and colleges for first-generation immigrants. As Catholics moved up the social ladder, however, they began to adapt more and more to the prevailing culture of consumerism. But Pope John Paul II constantly reminds us to remember the poor. I should mention that there are significant groups of theologians in this country trying to develop a contextual theology, one that is attuned to the social and cultural challenges of living the faith in this milieu. A good contextual theology, though, will also deal with global issues, because Christian responsibility does not stop at the border. The ministry of solidarity has international dimensions.
How do you sustain the virtues of joy and hope during difficult times or in the midst of criticism?
Christian joy is not tied to a particular object, but to the experience of God’s unconditional love for us. Christian joy comes from knowing God and from trying to follow God’s will. Joy means rejoicing in God. But we can see from the Magnificat that, when Mary rejoices in God, she is also celebrating the liberating action of God in history. Mary rejoices in a God who is faithful to the poor. Our service of others must be wrapped in this joy. Only work embraced with joy truly transforms.
And we must also engage in our work hopefully. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism merely reflects the desire that external circumstances may one day improve. There is nothing wrong with optimism, but we may not always have reasons for it. The theological virtue of hope is much more than optimism. Hope is based on the conviction that God is at work in our lives and in the world. Hope is ultimately a gift from God given to sustain us during difficult times. Charles Péguy described hope as the “little sister” that walks between the “taller sisters” of faith and charity; when the taller sisters grow tired, the little one instills new life and energy into the other two. Hope never allows our faith to grow weak or our love to falter.
I learned a lot about hope and joy when I was young. From the age of 12 to 18 I had osteomyelitis and was confined to bed. There certainly were reasons for discouragement, but also very 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, and this is when I decided to write a book about Job. Hope is precisely for the difficult moments.