The Vatican’s leap of faith
It was a gathering that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
According to the Associated Press, Latin American priest Gustavo Gutierrez was at the Vatican on February 25, 2014, to attend the book launch of a fellow theologian. The report further stated that Gutierrez was given a “hero’s welcome,” receiving a warm round of applause as he approached the podium to share his reflections on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Of course, such action may, at first glance, seem perfectly ordinary. But for a 2000-year old institution steeped in rituals and tradition, the very act of clapping is already suffused with deep meaning and profound significance.
A Peruvian of mixed Spanish and native American parentage, Gutierrez is considered as the founder of “liberation theology” – a spiritual movement that began in his home continent more than 4 decades ago to address the stark social chasm between rich and poor people.
Writing in 1968, Gutierrez claimed that Christians “experience an urgent need to take part in solutions” as they “come into contact with the acute problems of Latin America.” Later on, he would describe poverty as “a scandalous condition.” He called on his fellow believers to reject “the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.”
Unfortunately, liberation theology alarmed Church authorities as it was seen as a veiled attempt to smuggle Marxist ideas into official Christian doctrine. In fact, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who would eventually become Pope Benedict XVI) even issued an “instruction” in 1984 decrying “the phenomenon of liberation theology” as a “fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.”
While Ratzinger did recognize liberation theology’s “special concern for the poor and the victims of oppression,” this did not prevent the Vatican from adopting a heavy-handed approach against its most vocal proponents. Such hostility eventually resulted in the excommunication of Tissa Balasuriya, a prominent Sri Lankan priest who was allegedly in favor of women ordination. Brazil’s Leonard Boff, for his part, was twice censured by the Vatican, prompting him to leave the priesthood in 1992.
Despite this apparent hostility from the Church hierarchy, liberation theology steadily grew in influence – spreading across Latin America and into other parts of the developing world. Eventually, this radical form of spirituality made its way to the Philippines, as hundreds of church workers began building Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) in remote areas of the country. In fact, these religious radicals were so adept in organizing work that that they soon became a potent force in opposing Martial Law. They assisted communities victimized by repression and exposed the countless human rights abuses that were perpetrated during the Marcos dictatorship.
Liberation theology was also pivotal in my own spiritual development, as it allowed me to reconcile the belief in God with my own political activism. Growing up in the slums of Pasay City, I came to experience firsthand the sense of hopelessness and despair that comes from deep-seated poverty. Recruited eventually into the Marxist movement, I had completely abandoned my faith by the time I entered college, thinking that the best argument against God’s existence is a world marred by injustice and oppression.
Young, angry and penniless, I persisted in my unbelief until I came across this enlightening passage from Gustavo Gutierrez:
“The sign of the coming of the messiah is the suppression of oppression: the messiah arrives when injustice is overcome. When we struggle for a just world in which there is not servitude, oppression, or slavery, we are signifying the coming of the messiah. Therefore the messianic promises bind tightly together the kingdom of God and better living conditions for human beings...The kingdom comes to suppress injustice.”
By addressing an issue that concerns me the most, Gutierrez was able to show that God is one with the poor, and that He provides special attention “toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life.” This divine solidarity with the destitute and the oppressed is best reflected in the humble circumstances of Christ’s own birth 2000 years ago and in his repeated appeal to “love one’s neighbor.”
And like other adherents of liberation theology, Gutierrez draws inspiration from Luke 6:20-21 where we find Jesus on the outskirts of Capernaum, telling his disciples:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. (NIV)
It is this sentiment that is also shared by Pope Francis – the former Jorge Bergoglio – who also hails from Latin America. In his recent exhortation entitled “Evangelii Gaudium” for instance, the Holy Father called on “each individual Christian…to be an instrument for the liberation and promotion of the poor [to enable] them to be fully a part of society.” This can be done, the Pope went on, not only through our “small daily acts of solidarity” but by “working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty.”
This does not mean, however, that Francis has fully embraced liberation theology or that the Vatican is now officially endorsing such teachings. The Pope, in fact, was critical of the Left’s use of liberation theology when he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, and had even condemned the use of violence to end the reign of Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship.
Nonetheless, there have been signs of growing reconciliation between liberation theologians and the Holy See since Pope Francis’ election in 2013. In January 2014, for example, the Pontiff agreed to meet with Fr Arturo Paoli, an Italian priest and a known advocate of liberation theology; 4 months earlier, Gustavo Gutierrez was invited to a private meeting at the papal residence.
These warming relations are, in fact, so apparent that the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, even issued a statement on September 3, 2013, asserting that liberation theology can no longer “remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years, at least in Europe.”
And with a Pope who wants to have “a Church which is poor and for the poor,” liberation theologians have much to hope for. Of course, it remains uncertain how this reconciliation process will eventually turn out. But if that dialogue is to succeed, then all that is needed is a simple prayer and a great leap of faith. – Rappler.com
Francis Isaac is a researcher for De La Salle University-Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance (DLSU-JRIG). A part of the Evangelical confession, the author believes in the importance of dialogue, not only among different Christian denominations, but also with people from other faiths.