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Liberation Theology Should Frighten

By Michael L. Smith

Newsweek International, December 10, 1984, 56


Smith: In your latest book, you call these times "Káiros" -- a propitious moment. Isn't that an unusual way of describing a Latin America troubled by political violence, economic depression and social unrest?

Gutierrez: I feel that the past 20 years in Latin America have given interesting an enriching experiences to the church, but that does not mean that they have been easy or comfortable. Among the common people, an awareness of human rights has grown enormously since Vatican II (1962-1965). The church's presence here is perhaps stronger than ever before.

Q. What are these time propitious for?

A. For hearing the voice of the poor. Those who predicted early in this century that the church would wither away as an institution would have to be surprised today, because the church as more vitality today than ever before.

Q. You have also written that God is present in history. How does he manifest himself?

A. As Christians, we define ourselves before God through our conduct in history, by what we do for the poor and what we do no do, just as Jesus said in the Gospels. Jesus identified himself with the poor.

Q. Why has theology suddenly become an issue?

A. It's been ages since there has been a public debate about theology. The only way to explain this sudden interest is the church's new role and image in Latin America. The discussion about liberation theology has to be seen within the framework of a church that has a stronger, more active presence in Latin America, especially among the most impoverished of the continent.

Q. Is there an element of fear that is underlying the current public debate?

A. [Liberation theology] should frighten. It is based on the church's doctrines, which insist on the preferential -- not exclusive -- option for the poor and which call on the whole church to commit itself to these forgotten people. Those tied to an economic order that marginalizes the poor are not going to be happy with the church's commitment.

Q. How do you evaluate your own participation in this debate?

A. I think I have come out of it gaining a great deal. I never felt that I was being "persecuted," though some tried to portray me that way. I have lived the experience as a member of the church, a priest and a theologian. Frankly, constructive criticisms have contributed to my work.

Q. Why didn't you play a more vocal role in the public discussion on liberation theology?

A. I wanted to live this experience within the church. It was no a discussion about individuals or personal opinion, but about church positions. My writings are not so original or unique within the church that they should have become the focus of the debate.

Q. Does ever limited use of Marxist analysis disqualify a theological work, as some critics charge?

A. We need to apply social sciences to understand our social reality, and there are Marxist elements in the social sciences. The strength of liberation theology is not its social analysis but its faith before the world's problems. It's not intellectually serious to say that elements of Marxist methodology disqualifies a work. Today, to speak of "alienation" and other Marxist concepts is part of the contemporary culture. It's as if I used the concept of the "subconscious" and were then discredited as a Freudian.

Q. Doesn't the church get involved in unnecessary controversy when it steps into the political arena?

A. It's not an easy step to enter that concrete, practical terrain, where one meets difficulties, challenges and resistance. But the insistence of the Latin American church has been coherence between what it preaches and what it does. If Monsignor Romero [the outspoken archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980] had only preached, he would not have been dangerous for the dominant classes. His [involvement] made him ... dangerous.

Q. Is the church "dangerous" for some political groups?

A. Just count the number of peasants, lay workers and clergy killed in Latin America and you will have to realize that someone must have considered them dangerous. Otherwise, they would not have been killed.

Q. Some church lay workers in Peru have been criticized because they have joined with Marxist politicians to work in municipal government. Is this alliance a violation of their Catholic faith?

A. It is the free choice of any citizen. I don't believe that one can deduce a predetermined political option from a set of Christian principles or the Scriptures. That's part of social and political analysis. As Christians, we have a political responsibility. We cannot withdraw from social institutions just because one party or another is in power. It's up to each layman to decide which party will establish just8ice with moral integrity in the country.

Q. What inspires your theological work?

A. Naturally, my Christian faith and my pastoral work. My basic work is with the people of my parish and a permanent contact with the world of the poor. I must reflect theologically on that experience. I have never been even a half-time professor of theology. Another element is Latin American culture. I try to confront myself with novelists and poets, both Christian and non-believers, because theology is always a dialogue with the culture of its times.

© 1984 Newsweek International. All rights reserved