Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"When it trickles here, it trickles up": An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez

Last week, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. was in Lima to receive the R.P. Jorge Dintilhac Medal of Honor from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. The Dintilhac Medal is awarded to people who are outstanding in Christian, civic and human values, as well as those who have made significant contributions to Peru. On April 9th, David Pereda from the university's journal, PuntoEdu, interviewed the father of liberation theology, who is also an emeritus professor in PUCP's theology department. English translation by Rebel Girl.

Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. (photo above, 3rd from left) started liberation theology, the first great modern theological trend born outside Europe. It establishes a preferential option for the poor and opens a dialogue with other scientific disciplines. Renowned worldwide, he is emeritus professor in the Theology Department of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. On Tuesday, he received the R.P. Jorge Dintilhac Medal of Honor, which our university gives to individuals who are outstanding for their Christian, civic or human values. At the ceremony, he confirmed his critical streak by saying: "Contrary to the law of gravity, when the economy trickles here, it trickles up. I know that we aren't much for respecting laws, but at least we should respect Newton's."

Did you formulate liberation theology while you were teaching at PUCP?

Yes, but not just that. I also did pastoral work. It was the world of the sixties, a lot was boiling. I was thinking theologically about many facts at that time in Latin America. I was very interested in the theme of poverty within theology: how to respond as Christians to poverty. Then came the Bishops Conference of Medellín, which I worked on. I was on the CELAM team. At Medellin, the issue of poverty was very strong. Everything motivated me to put my ideas in order. My deepest conviction is that theology has its roots in Christian spirituality, the following of Jesus. It is a reflection on being a disciple of Jesus, or how to be one. One of the questions that liberation theology attempts to answer, although it can not do so fully, is how to tell the poor that God loves them. The question is very broad and our response is small, but it is an attempt.

Was this emphasis on the poor something that was missing?

The issue of the poor has been with the Church throughout its existence, but the ways in which the problem was posed in the sixties were distinct: understanding poverty by taking into account that it has human causes, that it is an injustice but not inevitable. Then, reading the Bible that talks about the poor, motivated me. In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus says: "When you gave food to a poor person, you gave it to Me." It is a very clear gospel motivation.

Was it solidarity in face of the selfishness of the market?

Certainly. It is a gospel answer on which theology is working. In the sixties, the Second Vatican Council stirred up the environment a lot. John XXIII, one month before the start, spoke especially of the Church of the poor. We were not starting just from the new situation and understanding about poverty, but also from those prophetic words of John XXIII, who is a key person for liberation theology.

Is it going back to the basics of Christianity?

The great renewals in the history of the Church are always returns to the Gospel. The Conference of Aparecida, 2007, believed globalization to be a fact that must be accepted and assessed, but the way it has been used creates deep asymmetries in certain social sectors.

You mentioned the now famous term "trickling", which is going upward.

It is being said that the country is growing, but how are the poor? We should read the country from that perspective. The poor are human beings. To speak of trickling is like saying "crumbs from the table." Additionally, the country is growing because wealth is increasing among those who already had many possessions. The world of the poor has little diminished. At times the poverty rate decreases because population growth is lower. There have been some improvements, undoubtedly, but we continue to have a huge group of poor people.

Appealing to statistics is tricky?

The statistics, according to the methods, may give results that are not contradictory but different, yes. When a crisis such as the latest one comes along, poverty rises again. It happens with natural disasters. Those who suffer most are the poor. They say: "When it rains, it rains on everyone." But it is not the same if it rains on me under a corrugated metal or a cement roof. In the earthquake in Haiti 200 thousand people died and in Chile, 500 so far. I'm not saying that's nothing, a single one shocks me. But it must be noted that there are different structures. Haiti is the poorest country in the continent. There are more factors, but this is also important -- poverty is still there. John Paul II was very clear about the causes of poverty and its elimination. Benedict XVI too. It is an issue that the Church touches on very clearly at the magisterial level.

Does the poverty in Latin America reflect that the message isn't getting through?

It must be said clearly: according to experts, the most unequal continent in the world is Latin America, but the vast majority of the Latin American population is Christian, Catholic and evangelical. The Christian knows that one must love one's neighbor and preferentially, the poorest. The reality does not seem to correspond to that. This is not to play the Pharisee or cast the first stone, it is simply stating a painful fact.

Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino

Place and date of birth: Lima, June 8, 1928
Achievements: In 2003, he received the Premio Príncipe de Asturias de Comunicación y Humanidades. He is also a Knight in the Legion of Honor of France, a member of the Peruvian Academy of Language, and honorary member of the Peruvian College of Psychologists and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States. Publications: among others, A Theology of Liberation (1971), The Power of the Poor in History (1979), Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (1992).

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