The primary architect of liberation theology in the Latin-American and Catholic context is Gustavo Gutiérrez. A Catholic priest who grew up in grinding poverty in Peru, Gutiérrez employed Marx’s critiques of ideology, class, and capitalism as part of his theological analysis of how Christianity should be used to make people’s lives better here and now rather than simply offer them hope of rewards in heaven.
While still early in his career as a priest, Gutiérrez began drawing on both philosophers and theologians in European tradition to develop his own beliefs. The basic principles that remained with him through the changes in his ideology were: love (as a commitment to one’s neighbor), spirituality (focused on an active life in the world), thisworldliness as opposed to otherworldliness, the church as a servant of humanity, and the ability of God to transform society through the works of human beings.
Most who are at all familiar with Liberation Theology may know that it draws upon the ideas of Karl Marx, but Gutiérrez was selective in his use of Marx. He incorporated ideas regarding class struggle, private ownership of the means of production, and critiques of capitalism, but he rejected Marx’s ideas about materialism, economic determinism, and of course atheism.
Gutiérrez’s theology is one that places action first and reflection second, a big change from how theology has traditionally been done. In The Power of the Poor in History, he writes:
- “From the beginning, the theology of liberation posited that the first act is involvement in the liberation process, and that theology comes afterward, as a second act. The theological moment is one of critical reflection from within, and upon, concrete historical praxis, in confrontation with the world of the Lord as lived and accepted in faith.”
Many are less aware of how deeply Liberation Theology draws upon traditions of Catholic social teaching. Gutiérrez was not only influenced by those teachings, but his writings have in turn influenced what has been taught. Many official church documents have made the vast disparities of wealth important themes of church doctrine and argue that the rich should make more of an effort to help the poor of the world.
Within Gutiérrez’s theological system, liberation and salvation become the same thing. The first step toward salvation is the transformation of society: the poor must be freed from economic, political, and social oppression. This will involve both struggle and conflict, but Gutiérrez does not shy away from it. Such a willingness to countenance violent actions is one of the reasons why Gutiérrez’s ideas have not always been warmly received by Catholic leaders in the Vatican.
The second step towards salvation is the transformation of the self: we must begin to exist as active agents rather than passively accepting the conditions of oppression and exploitation that surround us. The third and final step is the transformation of our relationship with God — specifically, the liberation from sin.
Gutiérrez’s ideas may owe as much to traditional Catholic social teaching as they do to Marx, but they had trouble finding much favor among the Catholic hierarchy in the Vatican. Catholicism today is very concerned with the persistence of poverty in a world of plenty, but it does not share Gutiérrez’s characterization of theology as a means for helping the poor rather than for explaining the dogma of the church.
Pope John Paul II in particular expressed strong opposition to “political priests” who become more involved with achieving social justice than ministering to their flocks — a curious criticism, given how much support he provided the political dissidents in Poland while the communists still ruled. Over time, though, his position softened somewhat, possibly because of the implosion of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the communist threat. Today John Paul II is more likely to criticize capitalism than Marxism.