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In the pantheon of influential intellectuals, Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez is bound to be glossed over. The European story dominates college courses and so with it were the intellectuals who explained what on earth happened in World War II and the Cold War - Francis Fukiyama, Robert Nisbet, Hannah Arednt, George Orwell, even Ayn Rand or Aldous Huxley. Latin America is largely a backdrop. Outside of Latin America, Gutierrez is hardly mentioned outside of seminaries or Catholic universities - however, like the above, his impact on the world has been consistent for the past few decades.
And yet Gutierrez has been a theologian of great consequence, earning his keep as a political theorist and intellectual. His seminal work A Theology Of Liberation created the framework of "liberation theology," a marriage of Marxism and Catholicism that helped leaders throughout Latin America to embrace and tolerate religion while also advancing populist economics. It also found an audience in North America, amongst intellectuals like Cornel West.
Liberation theology did not have a warm reception in the Vatican and was rejected and excommunicated by the church for decades until the Francis papacy. Francis personally invited Gutierrez to the Vatican, though the visit was labeled "strictly private" and no big public show was made of it. Gutierrez has praised the new "atmosphere" of Pope Francis several times. Acceptance eventually came to Gutierrez in other forms as well - he enjoys a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame while humanitarian activist Paul Farmer has applied the ideas of Gutierrez to his great foundation, Partners in Health (providing a "preferential option for the poor" literally is their mission statement).
In understanding liberation theology, one has to look at the environment that it was set in. Modern Latin America is reportedly one of the most optimistic parts of the world and hosts a number of world leaders that are extremely popular at home and abroad. During the 1960s - 80s, however, this was not the case - the region hosted a number of brutal authoritarian regimes. Gutierrez himself hailed from Peru, which was ruled by a succession of differing military regimes during the 1970s.
Liberation theology's most pressing premise is a "preferential option for the poor," a phrase which has become standard within progressive and radical Catholic circles. Gustavo Gutierrez emphasizes that, while charity shouldn't be discouraged and does help, people must get to know "the reality of the poor." Poverty is created by structures - you can almost feel a different structure in place when you visit developing countries. According to Gutierrez, poverty is "a way of living, of thinking, of loving, of praying, of believing and waiting, of spending free time, of fighting for life." He emphasizes the preferential option along a three level axis:
- The announcement and testimony of the reign of God denounces poverty.
- The intelligence of faith reveals essential aspects of God and provides a perspective for theological work.
- Walking in the footsteps of Jesus, otherwise known as spirituality, is, on the deepest level, which everything else rests.
Gustavo Gutierrez's emphasis of liberation theology as a gospel for the "despised and rejected" mirrors Tikkun Olam (a key part of which is "insuring a safeguard to those who may be at a disadvantage") greatly. In his book The Power of the Poor in History, Gutierrez speaks very well of the Jewish people and the introduction even wonders aloud whether pursuing liberation theology in a more progressive institution than the Catholic Church would have been a better idea. His theology has also inspired work in different elements - some exceptionally strong feminist work has been done with liberation theology as backbone, notably Sexism and God Talk by Rosemary Ruether.
Aside from possibly Thomas Merton, it is hard to imagine theologians at the micro scale who have had as much influence as Gutierrez. Unlike Merton or the like of Karl Marx, he is a thinker who got to see his ideas blossom in his own lifetime both in the political and intellectual worlds. I encourage Jews, Christians and all sorts to read his message.
Additional Sources: https://www.ncronline.org/news/theology/pope-meets-liberation-theology-pioneer