This article was originally published in Commonweal on Feburary 8, 1985.
THE LONG investigation of liberation theology in the person of priest-theologian Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru has come to an end in a way few observers expected. The bishops of Peru completed a document in October, released in November, which treats liberation theology without censuring any part or any theologian, while claiming credit for it as a Peruvian gift to Latin America.
Why is this so unexpected? It was a surprise because only one-third of the bishops supported Gutierrez and liberation theology throughout the many stages of the investigation into the orthodoxy of Gutierrez's writings on liberation theology. The investigation process had begun in February 1983 with a series of very critical "observations" about Gutierrez's writings, observations sent by the Vatican to the Peruvian bishops' conference along with a request for consideration and decision. These investigations were not expeditiously resolved because the bishops were divided: approximately one-third were supporters, one-third were opponents, and one-third did not want to commit themselves to either side. This last group wavered, tending to join the supporters to defeat motions to condemn, and to join the opponents to defeat motions to acquit.
In summer 1984 what had looked like the end of the investigation process—the composition of two documents: a majority report of censure and a minority report defending Gutierrez—was aborted by order of Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who had ordered the investigation. Rumor in the Peruvian church has it that Ratzinger sent word that the local church was not capable of handling this matter. Insiders close to the liberationist bishops' camp reported that after the theological criticism Ratzinger received for his own recent writings on liberation theology, he was reluctant to have the faction he supported, opponents of liberation theology, produce what looked to be a theologically weak document which would suffer by comparison with the minority report, on which some first-rate theologians, including Gutierrez himself, had collaborated. Cardinal Ratzinger apparently had hoped for a single unequivocal stance from the bishops which would not only discredit liberation theology in Peru but damage it throughout Latin America.
Ratzinger's next move after aborting the local investigation was to have all fifty-two bishops of Peru summoned to Rome for two weeks in September. Forty-five were able to attend; the very unusual presence of a nearly complete national bishops' conference in Rome was unsuccessfully explained to the press as a matter of coincidence. For two weeks, the bishops met with Ratzinger and also with John Paul II in groups, and occasionally individually. The pressure from Ratzinger was strongly in favor of a single document censuring Gutierrez. John Paul was reportedly more difficult to read; his comments to groups of bishops indicated he had read some of Gutierrez's work and did not share all of Ratzinger's views.