Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez Merino, O.P., who is regarded as the father of liberation theology. Photo courtesy of Notre Dame/Matt Cashore
Vatican City, May 8, 2015 / 01:41 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Attention to the poor was the point of departure for liberation theology claimed Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez Merino, widely acknowledged as the founder of the movement, in a May 8 article in the Vatican‘s newspaper.
Fr. Gutierrez underscored that this attention to the poor came from what liberation theologians experienced in their own lives and lands.
“We referred to the poor as non-persons, but not in philosophical sense, because it is obvious that each human being is a person, rather in a sociological sense; the poor, that is, are not accepted as persons in our society. They are invisible and have not rights, their dignity is not recognized,” the Peruvian theologian wrote.
The publication of the article may be considered a sort of response to the assertions of Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former general in communist Romania’s secret police during the Cold War who defected to the West in the 1970s. In an interview with Catholic News Agency, Pacepa said the KGB created liberation theology and helped to foster it in Latin America, a claim which garnered attention within the Vatican’s walls.
The article published in L’Osservatore Romano is in fact an excerpt from one of Fr. Gutierrez’ books. It begins by saying there are two schools of thought about poverty, and both come from the Gospel: the first is focused on Christ’s sensitivity toward the poor and their suffering, and the second, that Christ himself “had lived a life of poverty, and so Christians, from their origin, understood that in order to be his disciples they also had to live a life of poverty.”
“Both of these schools are true,” he said, but “we have to interpret these two points of view on the bases of our historical context and of our lives.”
Fr. Gutierrez said the first perspective may be found in Luke’s version of the beatitude of the poor (Blessed are you poor, for the kingdom of God is yours), while the second is reflected in Matthew’s (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven).
“I think both lines of thought – poverty as scandal and poverty of spirit – can be useful, although their meaning must be actualized in our historical period,” reflected Fr. Gutierrez.
He explained that “a new notion of poverty” has emerged in the past century. “Poverty, in Bible and in our times, is not a merely economic issue. Poverty is very much more than this. The economic dimension is important, perhaps primary, but it is is not the only one.”
Noting that we have become more aware of the multiple dimensions of poverty, Fr. Gutierrez said, “poverty was clearly the starting point of liberation theology, though we had not fully understood its complexity or variety.”
The Dominican priest, who will speak at next week’s general assembly of Caritas Internationalis, stressed that liberation theologians referred to the poor in a sociological sense, as persons “who are invisible and and have no rights.”
“We also defined them as the “insignificant.” It is possible to be insignificant for several reasons: if you do not have money, in our society you are insignificant; the colour of your skin may be another reason to be deemed insignificant … what is common among the poor is insignificance, invisibility, and a lack of respect,” Fr. Gutierrez said.
He then added that “these mutual complexities are different from one another” and that “the sense of non-person can be caused by several prejudices,” whether based on race, sex, culture, or economic status.
Fr. Gutierrez provided the example of a black Protestant pastor, who began a 1969 speech with the words: “We must feel that we exist!” “That strong declaration is the shout of the poor,” Fr. Gutierrez said.
The Dominican also provided the example of Peru’s indigenous people, who “are invisible, irrelevant … this is the sad story of an Indian’s daily life: even when he goes to the hospital to be cured, he is ignored,” wrote Fr. Gutierrez.
He then added that “poverty today is a phenomenon of our globalized civilization. For centuries, the poor have been close to us, they lived more or less near us, in the city or in the countryside. However, today we have realized that poverty goes very much beyond our gaze, it is a global phenomenon, if not universal. The majority of human beings in the world live in the condition we call poverty.”
This is a turning point, according to Fr. Gutierrez. He emphasized that in spiritual, moral or liturgical books of the past, writers “merely spoke of how to directly help the poor, who were close to us.” But “today we should be aware that our neighbors are both near and far. We must understand that a relation of ‘neighborhood’ is the result of our commitment.”