ROME — A founding father of Latin America’s controversial liberation theology movement, which seeks to place the Catholic Church on the side of the poor, said there has been no “rehabilitation” under Pope Francis because the movement was never formally rejected in the first place.
That said, Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez nevertheless acknowledged a clear “change in atmosphere” under the Latin American pontiff, who has voiced his dream of a “poor church for the poor.”
“To speak of rehabilitation would be inaccurate,” Gutiérrez said. “It would imply that there was a de-habilitation first.”
Gutiérrez’s remarks came in a Vatican press conference on Tuesday about a general assembly of Caritas Internationalis, a Rome-based federation of Catholic charitable organizations around the world. He will participate in the May 12-17 meeting as guest theologian.
Gutiérrez recognized that the relationship between liberation theology and the Vatican has not always been strong. He stressed, however, that two warnings issued in 1984 and 1986 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, when he was the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, never actually banned liberation theology.
“Liberation theology” can mean many things, but in broad terms it refers to an interpretation of the Christian faith through the perspective of the poor, with the predicament of Latin America’s predominantly poor people as its starting point.
At times, through thinkers such as former Brazilian Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff, it presented a reading of the Bible that opposed all hierarchical structures and institutions, including those of the Catholic Church.
The two documents issued in the 1980s by Ratzinger praised the movement’s concern for the poor and for justice, but condemned a tendency to mix Marxist social analysis and concepts such as “class struggle” with religious commitments to end poverty and injustice.
“I believe that it’s clear now that the key element of Liberation theology is the special care for the poor,” Gutiérrez said on Tuesday.
The theologian said that with Francis it’s easier to push the global church to have a special concern for the poor, “something we find in the scriptures.”
During the press conference, Gutiérrez was asked if in retrospect he would want to change some of his writings. He said his theology was like “a love letter to God, the church and His people,” which through different moments in life can be written in different ways, but “always with the same love and fidelity.”
Gutiérrez also said that even though he was “very happy” to be invited to participate in Caritas’ general assembly, attention shouldn’t be drawn to liberation theology but to “the rehabilitation of the Gospel, the poor and the peripheries.”
The Peruvian thinker said that while he holds a high regard for theology and theologians, at the end of the day “theology … has a modest role. What matters in the life of a Christian is to follow Jesus and to put his teachings into practice.”
“There’s no passage in the Bible that says ‘Go and do theology’,” Gutiérrez said, “but there’s one that says, ‘Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations’.”
Gutiérrez is currently experiencing a comeback, in part because German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar who was appointed by Benedict XVI and a figure who enjoys strong support from most Catholic conservatives, is also a close personal friend of Gutiérrez.