In looking through a recent issue of The Way, I saw an article ... God Talk in Latin America - The View from the Margins, ... by Gustavo Gutiérrez, in which he writes about the "preferential option for the poor", an important element of liberation theology. Sadly, the article isn't available online and I'm a two-fingered typist with bad eyes, so I'm not going to try to transcribe it here. But I was able to find an online interview with Gutiérrez at America Magazine that covers some of the same material and I'll post a bit of that below.
First, a few words about Gutiérrez from Wikipedia ...
Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. (born 8 June 1928 Lima) is a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest regarded as the founder of Liberation Theology at the University of Notre Dame .... He has studied medicine and literature (Peru), psychology and philosophy (Louvain), and obtained a doctorate at the Institut Pastoral d'Etudes Religieuses (IPER), Université Catholique in Lyon. The founder of liberation theology, he was born in Peru, and spent much of his life living and working among the poor of Lima ... Gutiérrez's groundbreaking work, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971), explains his notion of Christian poverty as an act of loving solidarity with the poor as well as a liberatory protest against poverty ...
Here are a few of the Q&As from the America article - Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez. (I've not put it in italics, because I'm having trouble reading long stretches of italicized print, but it is directly quoted from the article) ...
You have always placed the concerns of the poor in the forefront of your theological reflection. Must every theologian come to grips with the reality of social suffering in the world, or is this only incumbent, say, on those who work directly within a context of poverty?
I am firmly convinced that poverty—this sub-human condition in which the majority of humanity lives today—is more than a social issue. Poverty poses a major challenge to every Christian conscience and therefore to theology as well.
People today often talk about contextual theologies but, in point of fact, theology has always been contextual. Some theologies, it is true, may be more conscious of and explicit about their contextuality, but all theological investigation is necessarily carried out within a specific historical context. When Augustine wrote The City of God, he was reflecting on what it meant for him and for his contemporaries to live the Gospel within a specific context of serious historical transformations.
Our context today is characterized by a glaring disparity between the rich and the poor. No serious Christian can quietly ignore this situation. It is no longer possible for someone to say, “Well, I didn’t know” about the suffering of the poor. Poverty has a visibility today that it did not have in the past. The faces of the poor must now be confronted. And we also understand the causes of poverty and the conditions that perpetuate it. There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.
Of course, there always remains the practical question: what must we do in order to abolish poverty? Theology does not pretend to have all the technical solutions to poverty, but it reminds us never to forget the poor and also that God is at stake in our response to poverty. An active concern for the poor is not only an obligation for those who feel a political vocation; all Christians must take the Gospel message of justice and equality seriously. Christians cannot forgo their responsibility to say a prophetic word about unjust economic conditions. Pope John Paul II’s approach to the phenomenon of globalization is a good example. He constantly asks: “How is this going to affect the poor? Does it promote justice?”
Do you think the “preferential option for the poor” has become an integral part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching? And where did that term come from?
Yes, I do believe that the option for the poor has become part of the Catholic social teaching. The phrase comes from the experience of the Latin American church. The precise term was born sometime between the Latin American bishops’ conferences in Medellín (1968) and in Puebla (1979). In Medellín, the three words (option, preference, poor) are all present, but it was only in the years immediately following Medellín that we brought these words into a complete phrase. It would be accurate to say that the term “preferential option for the poor” comes from the Latin American church, but the content, the underlying intuition, is entirely biblical. Liberation theology tries to deepen our understanding of this core biblical conviction.
The preferential option for the poor has gradually become a central tenet of the church’s teaching. Perhaps we can briefly explain the meaning of each term:
• The term poverty refers to the real poor. This is not a preferential option for the spiritually poor. After all, such an option would be very easy, if for no other reason that there are so few of them! The spiritually poor are the saints! The poverty to which the option refers is material poverty. Material poverty means premature and unjust death. The poor person is someone who is treated as a non-person, someone who is considered insignificant from an economic, political and cultural point of view. The poor count as statistics; they are the nameless. But even though the poor remain insignificant within society, they are never insignificant before God.
• Some people feel, wrongly I believe, that the word preferential waters down or softens the option for the poor, but this is not true. God’s love has two dimensions, the universal and the particular; and while there is a tension between the two, there is no contradiction. God’s love excludes no one. Nevertheless, God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life. The word preference recalls the other dimension of the gratuitous love of God—the universality.
• In some ways, option is perhaps the weakest word in the sentence. In English, the word merely connotes a choice between two things. In Spanish, however, it evokes the sense of commitment. The option for the poor is not optional, but is incumbent upon every Christian. It is not something that a Christian can either take or leave. As understood by Medellín, the option for the poor is twofold: it involves standing in solidarity with the poor, but it also entails a stance against inhumane poverty.
The preferential option for the poor is ultimately a question of friendship. Without friendship, an option for the poor can easily become commitment to an abstraction (to a social class, a race, a culture, an idea). Aristotle emphasized the important place of friendship for the moral life, but we also find this clearly stated in John’s Gospel. Christ says, “I do not call you servants, but friends.” As Christians, we are called to reproduce this quality of friendship in our relationships with others. When we become friends with the poor, their presence leaves an indelible imprint on our lives, and we are much more likely to remain committed.
Some people say that liberation theology made an important contribution, but that it is now in decline. Do you agree? What is your prognosis for the future of liberation theology?
Any new insight within a particular field of knowledge initially receives a lot of attention, but then it slowly gets incorporated or assimilated into the normal ways of doing things. This principle applies to many of the key insights found in liberation theology.
Like any other way of doing theology, liberation theology is linked to a particular historical moment. Now we can ask ourselves: have the historical circumstances changed? Certainly, it is true that many important events have taken place over the past decades and that the political climate is very different from that of the 60’s and 70’s. But the situation of the poor has not changed fundamentally. As long as there is a group of Christians trying to be faithful in these circumstances, a group trying to follow Christ among the poor, we will find something like liberation theology.
Even though it is common to refer to liberation theology in the singular, we are witnessing several new expressions of this theology in different contexts and continents—North America, Central and South America, Africa and Asia. Each of these theologies has a particular point of view, but they also have much in common, particularly a concern for the poor and excluded. Liberation theology revolves around this attention to the plight of the poor.
Liberation theology is out of style, but I know of a few hardy souls in blogdom who are still interested in it ... enjoy :-)
Nativity mural at Batahola Norte - liberation theology church in Managua