6.2.3 Gustavo Gutiérrez
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To begin this page, read the following brief outline about liberation theology.
Encyclopædia Britannica online: ‘Liberation Theology’
This mentions Gustavo Gutiérrez, who is sometimes called the ‘father of liberation theology’. In order to understand the movement more fully, we now turn to him. All its main themes are expressed in his work.
Gutiérrez is a Peruvian Catholic priest, born in 1928. After initial study of medicine, he studied theology in the 1950s in Lima (Peru’s capital), and then in Belgium, France and Rome. After returning to Peru he lived in a poor part of Lima and “was confronted directly by the problems of underdevelopment and poverty”.1 Along with many in the Church, Gutiérrez became convinced that radical social change was necessary.
In 1964, Gutiérrez first used a phrase that would come to define liberation theology: he described theology as “critical reflection on praxis”.2 We shall look at the meaning of this in a moment. Gutiérrez then articulated his ideas in a paper given in 1968, called simply, ‘Notes for a Theology of Liberation’.3 This can be seen as liberation theology’s manifesto. He developed this into a book, published in Spanish in 1971 and English in 1973, that quickly became famous: A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation.4 Among many later books by Gutiérrez, a revised edition of A Theology of Liberation was published in 1988.
Theology as critical reflection on praxis
Praxis is a Greek word that is usually translated into English as ‘practice’ (and into Gutiérrez’s Spanish as práctica). Like some other writers, including Karl Marx a century earlier and Paulo Freire, Gutiérrez used the Greek word in order to put across that he was employing it in a specific, non-standard sense.
We can understand what he means by it in light of Freire’s educational method. Poor Christians such as those in the district where Gutiérrez lived are already in a struggle, one for survival and to try to improve their lives. They are not each alone in that: in crowded living conditions, inevitably their daily struggle is shared, even if it is also riven by conflict and violence. Moreover, while many in the Church’s leadership are close to social and political elites, its pastoral work and service in Peru, as across Latin America, had long been a part of the communities of the poor. How, in these contexts, can the Church’s message, its theology, make a contribution?
For Gutiérrez, the Church’s committed activity is its praxis – the committed activity of both clergy and laity ‘on the ground’ or (in other words) ‘at the base’. It is this that gives the starting point for Christian people there speaking about God and God’s ways – that is, for ‘doing theology’. For Freire learning involves asking the questions raised by ‘naming’ a social context, while for Gutiérrez doing theology involves critical reflection on the Church’s praxis in a particular social context. How can this praxis become more effective? In particular, how can the Bible and Christian tradition bear on it and inform it?
First comes the commitment to charity, to service. Theology comes “later”. It is second. The Church’s pastoral action is not arrived at as a conclusion from theological premises. Theology does not lead to pastoral activity but is a reflection on it.5
Critical reflection on praxis differs greatly from a more ‘scholastic’ or textbook way of doing theology that does not give attention to local context. This brings in the principal affirmations of Christian doctrine as though from outside and seeks responses of faith and obedience that have little or no relation to the issues that the social context raises.6
In contrast, Gutiérrez argued, priests and people doing theology together in contexts of poverty in Latin America can find great riches in the Bible and in the Christian tradition – for example, about liberation from oppression, the experience of the poor reflected in the Psalms and the prophets, and Christ’s own welcoming of the poor. The Church’s praxis then becomes not only committed but informed practice that leads towards liberation. The ‘base ecclesial communities’ (BECs) were ideally suited as practical contexts for doing theology in this way.
In summary, theology as “critical reflection on praxis” is priests and lay people who are already in a shared struggle against poverty bringing everything they find in Christian faith to bear on what they do and say.
One writer on liberation theology puts it like this:
Praxis is the lived experience of human beings as they confront the challenge of how to live as committed Christians and what such a life implies; it is a committed practice which seeks the liberation of the oppressed, poor and marginalized. Praxis precedes the act of doing theology. Theology as a second moment seeks to understand the action, the liberating practice undertaken by committed Christians.7
Understood in this way, liberation theology can be called a ‘theology of the base’ – it is Christian people who are poor or with the poor taking seriously both their own experiential knowledge and their faith as they address how to overcome the challenges they face. Together the three elements of liberation theology introduced on the last three screens put this across:
* the ‘base ecclesial communities’
* Freire’s method in education, and
* Gutiérrez’s conception of theology as critical reflection on praxis.
If you have experienced poverty, what is your reaction to the idea that the Church in poor communities can help to tackle poverty by critical reflection on its own praxis?
If you have not experienced poverty, how do you react to this approach to overcoming it?
But Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians did not advocate only this way of doing theology at ‘the base’. They also articulated a large-scale vision, one addressing the nature of oppression not just in Latin America but across the world, and what to do to overcome it. The initial outline of liberation theology I gave on 6.2.1 already put this across. We shall now look at the global vision in more detail.
End of 6.2.3
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Paul E. Sigmund, ‘Gustavo Gutiérrez: Commentary’, in John Witte Jr and Frank S. Alexander (eds), The Teachings of Modern Roman Catholicism on Law, Politics and Human Nature (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 288 ↩
For this dating, see Boff and Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, p. 69. ↩
The paper was first given in Chimbote, Peru. Its published version in English is Gustavo Gutiérrez, ‘Notes for a Theology of Liberation’, in Theological Studies 31.2 (1970), pp. 243-261. ↩
Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, ed. and trans. Sr Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (New York: Orbis, 1973). ↩
Gutiérrez, ‘Notes for a Theology of Liberation’, pp. 244-245 ↩
Gutiérrez made such a contrast; see A Theology of Liberation (1973 edition), pp. 8-9. ↩
Ana Maria Pineda, ‘Liberation Theology: Practice of a people hungering for human dignity’, The Way 38.3 (July 1998), pp. 231-239, at p. 231 ↩