Half an hour before start time, the Heights Room was packed with students and outside guests to hear Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, the renowned Peruvian theologian most commonly known for his foundational work in liberation theology. Gutierrez, hosted by The Church in the 21st Century Center (C21) came to Boston College on Tuesday, November 16th to receive the President’s Medal for Excellence, BC’s most prestigious award.
Thomas Groome, director of C21 and theology professor at BC, introduced Gutierrez, calling him “the father of liberation theology.” Liberation theology – which is all about following Jesus by liberating the poor from unjust systems of oppression – grew out of Latin America in the 1960s, and Groome noted how influential it had been in Pope Francis’ formation and now in his papacy. Thanking Gutierrez for launching this theology, a “shining light to the Church and the whole world,” he gave Gutierrez the floor.
Like any good liberation theologian, Gutierrez began his talk with the poor. “The presence of the poor [was] very strong in the middle of the twentieth century,” he said. Gutierrez explained that normally the poor are absent from the annals of history, but in the 1950s and 1960s, people were beginning to mobilize, and there was “an eruption of the poor.”
The birth of liberation theology began in simple conversations, between himself and other Catholic and evangelical theologians and clergy, who met “not to create a new theology but to talk” about the reality of the times. “I remember those meetings very well,” he said; “suffering was present.” They met to talk about the poor, what it meant to be poor, and they decided they needed to offer a new conception of poverty.
Gutierrez tried to stress two new points about poverty. First, he stressed that it is a complex question: “For many people today it’s a question of money. This is not the case in the Bible, it is not the case for Christians, and it is not the case for liberation theology… it’s not only a question of economics, it’s also a question of culture, for example.” Gutierrez also named race, gender, and sexual orientation as examples of how someone can be poor.
His second central point about poverty was that “poverty is the result of human causes…We have made poverty.” Gutierrez said that many people have difficulty accepting this claim because they do not want to accept their own responsibility for the poor in the world: “People say, ‘no, I am a good person’…that’s good, but good is not enough.” We must also act, he said, to change the structures that perpetuate poverty.
Gutierrez also said that “without Vatican II, we have no liberation theology.” Vatican II stated that the Church is for everyone, but it is “especially the Church of the poor.” This put the poor first in the Church, and led to the central concept of liberation theology, which is now adopted by the universal Church: the preferential option for the poor.
Finally, Gutierrez came down hard on theology divorced from real-life practice, saying, “the abstraction in some theologies, even today, well, is terrible. If we take seriously the Church of the poor, for the poor…to be Christian is to be in the service of these persons.” Speaking of theology and practice, Gutierrez said the goal is “trying to glue these together.”
Gutierrez ended his talk by exhorting all to have hope, and when he finished speaking the crowd rose in a standing ovation which lasted several minutes. Fr. Leahy walked to the stage and presented Gutierrez with the President’s Medal for Excellence, and again the crowd met Gutierrez with vigorous applause. A testament to his character, after the ceremony had ended Gutierrez remained on the stage for several minutes, shaking the hands of all who crowded to the front, hoping to meet him and speak to him.