Liberation theology and Guttierez are back


Gustavo Gutierrez, Gerhard Ludwig MuellerFr.Gustavo Guttierez is back. The 85 year old theological giant, commonly styled as the father of liberation theology has been officially “rehabilitated” as they used to say in the Kremlin. Instead of being  hailed as the faith-filled lover of the poor, the Peruvian theologian was hounded by John Paul ll and Joseph Ratzinger who failed to understand a theology which grew out of the massive poverty of the southern cone.

Last Tuesday the diminutive Dominican was feted by Cardinal  Gerhard Mueller; one of Francis’ top advisers, and the head of the Holy Office. The occasion was the launch of the cardinal’s book Poor for the Poor: The Mission of the Church. The book, which has a preface from Pope Francis, also has two chapters written by Guttierez in which he defends liberation theology.

Well how times change.

In he mid 80s Ratzinger was riding high as  the bad cop for the Polish pope, neither of whom “got’ liberation theology. Their stereotype of this biblically drenched work was caricatured as Marxist and one which fomented “class war”, that old cold war bugaboo.”Class war” here meant the Latin American bishops wanted Vatican ll lived out—the people of God must be consulted, and listened to. Ratzinger was never comfortable with this,preferring to tell the poor what was good for them. The bishops insistedon listening to the base.

Ratzinger’s language was embarrassing, Guttierez’s work was “heretical,” “a threat to the faith”. The progressive Latin American bishops, giants of that period, Landazuri, the Lorscheiders, Cardinal Arns, Helder Camara totally supported the brilliant Peruvian. When Ratzinger met with the Peruvian hierarchy with what was described as “a coarse and violent” diatribe against liberation theology, he was rebuffed by the bishops. The reason? This theology was the heart of their pastoral work. What Ratzinger was up against was an Andean  pastor who was deeply loved and respected  Cardinal Landazuri. Had  Pope John Paul  ll backed  his enforcer over a much loved pastort there would have been a theological riot. Ratzinger was considered  out of his dept , a stranger to the conditions under which these men laboured.

Liberation theology in the end was not condemned. As Cardinal Landazuri stated, “It is totally orthodox.” Rome had to get over its obsession with a one size fits all theology.that there were not a plurality of ways  for doing theology.

Ratzinger to many was a European snob who thought, given his position that  he could run roughshod over Latin Americans. Many were as smart and theologically sophisticated as he was. They had studied in Europe but lived with massive poverty in Latin America. A middle class German, a lifelong ivory tower theologian had  met his match.

The real conflict was Vatican ll. Ratzinger’s theology was top down, hierarchical and abstract. It never hit the ground, never was filtered through the human. Guttierez phrased  the problem eloquently. In Latin America the issue was not the existence of God but the existence of the human. By 1980 over 800 religious were murdered defending the human, among them the  saint of the Americas,Bishop Oscar Romero also labeled in Rome as a “Marxist” and a “subversive.” It was the new age of the martyrs and the prophets against injustice. Ratzinger was unable to grasp this reality. His abstract theology  separated religion from the secular and life. The real issue was power. Would the poor be given a voice through their bishops who indeed “had the smell of the sheep on them”.

Well, he and JP ll did get their revenge by replacing all the great Vatican ll bishops with second rate Roman toadies who took their marching orders from Rome. In Peru Opus Dei bishops were named. In Haiti the Vatican was the first “nation” to  back the coup against the liberationist ex-priest  and voice of the poor Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Creative theology went underground. Careers were broken, theologians were hounded all in the name of ideology. Guttierez joined the Dominican Order for protection.

Rome went on an ideological crusade banning over 100 theologians. It was an awful period but as Chicago theologian David Tracy predicted “it won’t work.” And it didn’t.

And now with a Vatican ll pope back, so is Guttierez and liberation theology.




  1. 1

    I would like to offer a lengthy reply, but then my post will be censored. So I will keep it short. Cardinal R did not misunderstand Liberation theology. He praised many of its elements. But he did condemn the clear and unambiguous Marxist reductionism that was in it. That reductionism was very dangerous and was rightly condemned. Again, I would like to comment, but Ted censors. Finally, Ted constructs an obvious caricature of Cardinal R. He used to be better at the Narrative fallacy. He’s gotten sloppy in his old age.

  2. 2
    Phil Little Says:

    I had the great fortune to work in Peru for most of the ’70’s, which were the years of the military dictatorship. I had the privilege to audit a course at the Catholic Univ. given by Gustavo, and as well knew him through a priest’s organization that worked to meet the people where they were at and to serve them through the preferential option for the poor. Gustavo for all of those years, even with the demands on his time by the university, continued to be a parish priest in one of the poorest areas of old LIma – the Rimac. Gustavo had the support of his bishops, and wrote the interventions for many of them at episcopal conferences. When subsequent bishops, appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, questioned the orthodoxy of Gustavo’s writings, in dialogue they became his great supporters. Only when JP2 appointed a fascist Opus Dei bishop, known in Peru as the enemy of human rights, Cipriani, was Gustavo really threatened. The links between JP2 and Opus Dei are well documented, with credible suspicion that JP2 was a secret member of Opus Dei who remained closeted only so that his public image could be portrayed as populist. The investigations of the writings of Gustavo were meant to be an effort to cast a cloud over all the work of Latin American theologians who worked out of the spirit of Medellin and Puebla. JP2 had made a deal with Ronald Regan exchanging support for his beloved Polish resistance while he would deal with those church elements that the USA considered dangerous to its hegemonic influence in the Americas. The most crude and cruel example of the betrayal of the church of the Americas is seen in JP2’s withdrawal of support for Archbishop Oscar Romero which led to the bishops assassination orchestrated by right-wing oligarchs and their goons. The opposition to the currents of the Theology of Liberation had very little to do with theology. JP2 and B16 were simply responding to political masters who correctly understood that the renewal in the church of the Americas based on Medellin, Puebla and Aparecida as articulated by the different Theologies of Liberation would bring change to the church and to the suffering and exploited peoples in Latin America.

  3. 3

    Holy Cow, Peter: You need to watch court cases and pay attention to the arguments of prosecutors and defence lawyers in order to distinguish between a sound argument and an unsound argument. No lawyer would survive with the quality of argument that you exhibit above. Your post above is really silly; it is so packed with conjecture that any judge who has spent more than 3 weeks in law school would be shaking his head in utter disbelief. It is scary that your argument is that bad and that you posted it, which means you just can’t see how bad it really is. Way too much trust in the way you see things.

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