Sunday, February 7, 2016

Gustavo Gutiérrez assesses the current state of liberation theology and Francis' papacy

by Cristina Fontenele (English translation by Rebel Girl)
February 5, 2016

Considered the father of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez is still admired by generations of theologians. The Dominican priest with a simple and straightforward style gave an exclusive interview to Adital to discuss the current state of liberation theology, who the poor in Latin America are, and how he assesses the political context on the continent. On his meeting with Pope Francis during the Caritas Assembly in 2015, the theologian says he recognizes in the pontiff a brave man who is leading the Church at a time of Kairos which in Greek means a right and opportune moment.

On the power of youth, Gutierrez jokes that being young is not enough to promote change, as a free being can follow various paths. Encouraged, the priest explains to Adital the importance of humor, which can also be a form of communication, as well as helping human beings to age.

Adital: How do you assess the current state of liberation theology? What are its prospects and how do you renew the leaders?

Gustavo Gutierrez: I know it's understood but I would rather be explicit. My first concern as a Christian, a priest, is to do theologies, and this is not the Gospel. Theology is a second act, which reflects precisely on the life of Christians in light of the Gospel message. My biggest concern is this. I have been, throughout life, a pastor, a counselor of movements, and, of course, I liked theology very much, and did theology. I think it's important to be very close to pastoral work. In the case of my country, the pastoral world is very circumscribed. I never taught in a school of theology but now, at 70-odd years, I have begun to teach in a school. A little late. Before, I was developing pastoral work, reflections, I wrote too. I love theology and see it as an understanding of hope. For me, it is a hermeneutics of hope and still is. That means the question of the signs of the times, because every theologian needs to see what times they are living in. Of course, the foundation, the root, is the Christian message, but how to live it out today depends on the conditions.

On the renewal of the leaders, one is not going to find a million people working in theology -- for many reasons -- but neither is it necessary. Deep down, a Christian is always a theologian, because they are thinking about their faith. When I, as a Christian, "think that...", actually I'm already doing theology. This is the theology we're talking about, with the knowledge of the sources, sometimes debated, as in any discipline today.

Adital: Why talk about Vatican II after 50 years?

Gutierrez: Because it's its anniversary, just like when someone has a birthday. It's the same. The 50th anniversary of Vatican II is always impressive and moreover, its message is still current.

Adital: What is practicing the see-judge-act method?

Gutierrez: It's being attentive to history. To see means seeing reality so as not to speculate -- "this would be good ..." -- it's associated with the term "sign of the times." It's necessary to discern the facts, the causes, and why the effects occur, then comes the time to judge. And then the last thing is, basically, the reason for seeing and judging, which is to act. It's not that one should write a book about the problems, but the fact of how I get involved in the face of that. It's something very simple that was born in the 1920's as a method in Belgium and France. It began with the Belgian priest [Joseph] Cardijn, who years later became a cardinal. Judging is interpreting the facts based on the demands of the Gospel. Acting has a more modest tone. It would be the "what can we do?". Some people can do this, while others can do something else. At the same time, there are people who can do something else but not this, people who don't have the ability for this -- or the time, or age or profession. There are a variety of actions. This is reality. The Latin American Bishops' Conferences -- Medellín, Puebla, Santo Domingo, Aparecida -- used the see-judge-act method. It's a methodology.

Adital: You already said that being young isn't enough. What does that mean?

Gutiérrez: I'm convinced of this and I say it rationally. It's true that the power of youth, health, knowledge, changed very important things, but, deep down, they are free people. They can work very badly and they can use their knowledge in another way. That also happens. For example, not all those who are studying medicine will be doctors who are understanding towards the patient. Today, they are almost nonexistent. In the United States, for example, there are impressively impersonal doctors but they know a lot. Classical medicine was much more about personal contact. Dialogue with the patient is very important, taking medicine as an example. So I think this is what happens. Regarding theology, there are many young Latin Americans, if not all, but it's not a profession from which one can live. We, since we are priests, don't have a professional salary that's enough to survive on. So those people who can study something else, who can be a professional with an economic way in, they are sacrificing themselves. Finally, all young people, all people, can start well and not end up well.

Adital: You've already commented on the power of the poor. Who are the poor today, mainly in Latin America?

Gutierrez: I said that based on the scriptures and not social sciences or economics. The poor are those who don't count, who are insignificant, and they are very numerous. There is poverty that is called monetary or economic, and it needs to be studied. The condition of women for example. It's not that every woman is poor, but it suffices to be a woman for there to be rights that aren't present. So it is with the color of one's skin, indigenous people, mestizos (I am mestizo), Japanese, Chinese, some Europeans in the Pacific (much immigration came through there). See, knowledge is power.

Adital: How do you assess Francis' papacy and how was your meeting during the Assembly of Caritas in 2015?

Gutierrez: I think that the Church is in a very interesting movement, rich and with a great freshness of the Gospel. These issues of the Pope -- of "going out", going against corruption, of being open -- it's a time of joy, and he is very brave, because that's not easy. Of course, the people who are with him are also resistant. Pope Francis has created a very different climate, which also has huge support from people who aren't Christians and who see in this man someone speaking to Abraham, who is our neighbor, and has a deeply evangelical sense. That's what I talked about when I met him.

Adital: What reforms do you think are most urgent in the Church?

Gutierrez: The [Pope] has taken up something very strong from John XXIII, which is the poor, and this is an emergency. Really, the number of people in migration, for example, is a scandal. We are in an age with so many resources and those people need to leave their countries running, or else they get killed. This is super urgent. At the same time, there are also, of course, Church issues that were discussed during the Synod of the Family -- the massive rejection of corruption, not wanting corrupt money. Much can be said that is reform -- in part more institutional -- it's also necessary to change the rules of behavior of officials. The climate we are experiencing is something like returning to the beginning. Speaking theologically and biblically, it's also what we call Kairos, a word that means opportune moment. That's the present moment.

Adital: So is it a time of interfaith dialogue? How is it possible in the face of so many conflicts in the world about religion?

Gutierrez: The dialogue has already begun earlier. The conflicts declined sharply relative to the last century when there were wars. Now, there are other wars, such as what is happening with the Muslims. I know there is still much to do, although they've already changed what existed as very violent in the past. There is, for example, fundamentalism, people who believe that this is the way it is and that it's like that for everyone. It's necessary to respect cultural diversity, the stories every people has as human beings, their little stories, they are accustomed to them. Sometimes, there are things that aren't good in any culture so it's necessary to enter into a dialogue to better understand it. Interfaith dialogue is very important, but it's necessary to establish justice, because without it there is no peace. And justice is recognizing the rights of all, and it is precisely what the poor are lacking. I remember a phrase of Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish philosopher, who said that "to be poor is to have no rights, to not have the right to have rights." This must end. It isn't possible for there to be human beings without rights that are respected. This is the law of life, the law of liberty.

Adital: How do you assess the climate in Latin America, what has happened in recent elections, such as in Argentina, Guatemala and Haiti?

Gutierrez: There's a great variety, but one general thing that can be said is that there are elections. I say this because we had, in Latin America, countries with dictatorships. In Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, that is, there was a big change. Now it's true that it wasn't enough. It's not enough to have elections to say we're fine. We're in the most unequal continent, economically speaking, and it's necessary to combat this. The rich are getting more and more powerful and the poor are getting poorer and poorer. I read a quote from a great economist and philosopher who says, "the world is spectacularly rich and desperately poor" -- that man is remarkable. This shouldn't be happening but it is in Latin America and there still isn't work to be able to change it.

Adital: But you already mentioned that Latin America is the continent of hope ...

Gutierrez: It's a funny thing. But of course hope will always exist too. These are phrases that encourage people. Hope is absent and present everywhere. In Africa, in Asia. And since we are talking about people, there is a phrase that says that "the last thing you lose is hope," but the phrase doesn't say "in Latin America, the last thing you lose is hope," therefore it's valid for every human being. Because of there having been significant changes, it's necessary to value, in Latin America, this step, politically speaking, of having come out of dictatorships towards democracy.

Adital: What is spirituality to you and how does one live it out today?

Gutierrez: Spirituality covers many realities. It's putting on one's slippers and walking through many places that are not level -- which is crazy, but it's fundamental. Jesus' basic message is loving people and the primacy of the poorest. There's an eternal question that families are asked: "Mother, do you love my brother more than me?". The eternal answer is "I love everyone equally." But if the mother doesn't protect the children, everyone gets sick. So why the poor first? Because they are weaker. It's such a simple thing and people don't understand it. They say, "No, God doesn't speak only for the poor ..." God loves all people, but, at the same time, the weak first.

Adital: About Monseñor [Oscar] Romero [former archbishop of San Salvador], what is the meaning of his beatification?

Gutiérrez: I'll begin at the end. I think the story of his beatification and canonization is very important and rich for Latin America for one simple reason -- because at first they didn't understand what was essential. He died, of course he had a great impact, but in El Salvador, many baptized, Catholic people complained that he was a Communist. So this recognition will give value to many testimonies of the same style in a number of places in Latin America. In Argentina, before Romero, they killed Monseñor [Enrique] Angelelli; after Romero there was [Juan] Gerardi in Guatemala, and a number of laypeople and religious. It will give value in that acknowledging that Romero was killed by Christians for defending the poor, will be interesting for the Latin American Church.

Adital: You've talked a lot about humor. What is its role in life?

Gutiérrez: It's not taking it very seriously and not thinking one is all that and a bag of chips, as they say. It's not mockery, nor does it mean that one isn't suffering. In the world, there are many people suffering, but it's not indifference or superficiality either. I think it's not necessary to lose one's humor. I joke a bit, saying that there's a sacrament to recover grace but no sacrament to recover one's humor. I think that humor is nourishing and can be a psychological thing too. People who are repressed don't act. Even in a difficult situation, a person can keep a distance and have humor. Humor is also a way to communicate something. I joke a lot because it's my way of being, but it doesn't mean that all is well, that I have no concerns or that poverty, to me, is not a scandal with so many people suffering. No. I worked my whole life with poor people, as a pastor, always on the periphery, and it's quite painful, but I can't cry every day and the people can't either. What I want is for them to get out of that situation. There is also an obsession with money and that preoccupation, in many people, surpasses closeness with others. I think that humor also helps us to age.

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