If you were to search online for the most important Latin American theologians, Gustavo Gutierrez would be at the top of the list. A Catholic priest and part-time theologian, Gustavo’s insights challenge Catholic doctrine, spark vigorous debate regarding the nature of the Church, and ask questions that require careful consideration.
There is not room in this post to discuss Gustavo’s entire theological framework or to even explore the most famous contribution of Liberation Theology (Gustavo’s “school”), the preferential option for the poor. Instead, I offer a brief biographical introduction to Gustavo that will allow me to, at a later time, discuss some areas of his thought.
Who is Gustavo Gutierrez?
Gustavo Gutierrez was born June 8, 1928 in the Montserrat barrio of Lima, Peru.(1) A mestizo by birth, he identified with his oppressed Peruvian and Native kinsmen. His own experience of suffering may have also heightened his concern for the oppressed.
At th age of twelve, Gustavo was bedridden by illness and did not recover until he was eighteen. However, he had already fostered a love for reading and took advantage of his time in bed to enter into intellectual conversation and developed his mind while his body struggled to cope. He was left with a limp and a mind thirsty for knowledge.
The illness created in him a curiosity for medicine and when he was able to enroll in college he chose to pursue a degree in medical studies with the hope of a career in psychology. He began the process of writing a master’s thesis in his chosen field but, under the influence of two of his teachers, he decided to abandon his studies for a career in the ministry. He enrolled at the seminary in Santiago de Chile before following the Latin American trend of training for the priesthood in Europe.
During his time studying in Lyon, France, Gustavo was introduced to theologians who were attempting to relate their theological studies to the crises of post-World War II Europe. This had a great impact on him, but when he arrived back in his home of Lima, Peru, he quickly realized that the work of those European theologians had very little impact on the Latin American situation. The crises and injustices were of such a different stripe that they required different theological methodologies and answers.
So, Gustavo took some of the tools he had received in Europe, such as interaction with contemporary non-Christian thought and the application of theology to current social climates, and refashioned them to better fit his context. This meant “unlearning much of his hard-won education, rereading the history of his own continent, rereading the Bible, rereading theology, and discovering that rereading meant a remaking of the situation of the poor and oppressed.”(2) Through this process, Gustavo became a voice for socio-theological change.
He always considered his theological work to be secondary to his pastoral. He has labored throughout his career in small ecclesial communities, pastoring the poor as they seek to be disciples of Christ even in their mean estate. “Theology is for my free time,” Gustavo remarked in a 1983 interview. “Here at home my work is, above all, pastoral. I live in a parish and I work with Christian communities.”(3)
Gustavo was especially impacted by the deaths of the Latin American martyrs. The murders of poor farm workers, women who devoted themselves to works of charity, and parish priests whose crime was speaking against these injustices, led credence to the famous axiom, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Gustavo had ministered to many of the dead, worked alongside his martyred brothers, and served those in the crosshairs of powerful, military-backed corporate interests.
It was through his work with the poor in these ecclesial communities that Gustavo began to crystallize the thoughts swirling around him into what is commonly called the “preferential option for the poor”. His writings on theology and the Christian life were built upon this foundation and took systematic shape, a system called “Liberation Theology”.
Why Gustavo Matters
I’m struck by the work of Gustavo for a couple different reasons.
First, Gustavo emphasizes the special love that God has for the poor in a way I’ve never seen before. Throughout my theological training, the ethical demands of the Gospel were always left unsaid and assumed. However, the American church is guilty of producing more prosperity preachers than Mother Teresas.
This is not to indict the entirety of the American church. There are many faithful churches that take seriously the call to minister to the poor and outcast.
But many churches talk about such social impact as a good and necessary consequence of the Gospel message rather than a central plank of Christ’s mission while on Earth. Jesus spent most of his time not with the rich and powerful but with the poor and forgotten. Which leads to my second observation.
Much of the theology I have studied begins in the theoretical and then has practical implications. Gustavo flips this on his head. Instead, Gustavo’s theology is born in the streets of Latin America. It is first practical and then leads to theoretical implications.
I’d never considered that this is how the New Testament is actually structured. The practical life and work of Jesus Christ is presented first, accompanied with theoretical truth, yes, and then the theoretical explanations and implications of the practical follow behind.
One cannot have the practical without the theoretical. But this is not the problem I’ve observed in academic theological formulation. The problem is that the practical is ignored for the sake of the theoretical and theology finds itself bound in ivory towers.
Theology is to be lived more than contemplated. Gustavo’s approach “from below,” while periodically leading to conclusions my Reformed convictions don’t allow me to embrace, is a refreshing rejoinder to the approach I was trained in.
Finally, I am impressed by Gustavo’s humility. He refuses to take credit for the impact of Liberation Theology on the Catholic Church. He considers himself a Pastor of the people before a great Christian thinker. He even asked to be called “Gustavo” rather than “Mr” or “Father.” Writers don’t even refer to him formally by his last name.
This is a quiet rebuke. I am in the process of becoming a pastor myself. And yet, perhaps because of my training and the current emphasis on “Pastor-Theologians” and “Pastor-Scholars,” I unconsciously minimize the importance of the local pastor. Pastoring is not to be seen as an “day job” so that I can pursue other, more worthy pursuits elsewhere. The pull toward celebrity for today’s pastors is strong and seductive.
But, if approached with the wrong perspective, these other pursuits can be deadly to a pastor. We must never forget: to shepherd Christ’s flock is the highest calling and greatest responsibility God entrusts to people. All other pursuits are for our “free time.”