Insights from an influential theologian


This week I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Father Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the founding voices of liberation theologies (there are many), at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. The Peruvian priest teaches at Notre Dame and has been an influential name in theology for 50 years. His groundbreaking book “A Theology of Liberation” has forever altered discourse in the academy and church. Without Father Gutierrez, feminist, post-colonial and post-conciliar theology would not look the same, and there would almost assuredly be no Pope Francis.

Father Gutierrez prepared an outline to guide his reflections, but the bulk of the two hours was spent with him simply reflecting on a lifetime of service and answering questions. There was obviously more there than could be distilled into a column of this size, but I will present here three of the themes of his almost symphonic presentation, offered with harmonic intellectual allusions, consonances, intermezzos and reprisals.

First, he cited philosopher Hannah Arendt in her insightful analysis that true poverty is today centered on those who don’t have the right to have rights. Along with Leonardo Boff, Father Gutierrez has consistently asserted that the primary theological issues of our day no longer revolve around those who would be considered “non-believers,” but rather around those whom society would deem “non-persons.” The consumerist culture of the global north has led many to become spiritually sclerotic in their ability to respond to those on the margins or peripheries of existence, viewing them as somehow invisible or non-existent.

“All animals are equal,” we read in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” “but some animals are more equal than others.” Degrading and overwhelming poverty obscures the imago dei and human dignity present in those who are afflicted with it. Many of the poor are good people, Gutierrez quipped, but many others are not. This is beside the point of our vocation as Christians to care for all and to work for just systems in our world.

Second, Father Gutierrez returned to a theme that permeates his and Johann Baptist Metz’s writing, that of memory. Re-membering or re-collecting is putting together disparate elements into a unified whole, of making the past present in the present, and this process can often be tinged with “danger.”

How do we remember and reconstruct the past here and now, so it can transform our collective future? How do we “un-forget,” as the anamnesis of liturgical celebrations do in making the past present for the community gathered today? “Do this in memory of me,” said the Lord. But this turning of our metaphorical face to the past, simultaneously looks forward to the horizon of the future as well. It’s the “already-not yet” sense particularly present in Advent.

Lastly, Father Gutierrez made a comment that will likely stay with me for the rest of my life. All theology, he said, is in essence simply a love letter to God. What commentary can you offer to such a simple and profound statement?

My mind was drawn to theologian Karl Rahner who once lamented that it seems God expects too much of us to hear the countless prayers all throughout our life, and never give us so much as an assurance that they have reached his heart. They seem as coins thrown into a well, and we can’t ever even get the satisfaction of hearing them hit the bottom. Isn’t it a sure sign God’s not listening? But after this Job-like dirge, he shifts his perspective, asking “Or, do You rather really listen quite attentively, do You remain so silent precisely because You’re waiting until I am really finished, so that You can then speak Your word to me, the word of Your eternity? Is my entire life really no more than a single short prayer to You?”

An entire life of service, accompaniment, and theological reflection, such as was the gift and duty taken up by Father Gutierrez, is really ultimately no more than the grateful response of an unprofitable servant and recipient of boundless love. All of us, I believe, whether theologians or not, can find something of value in such a sentiment.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.