Fr.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.