From the Archives: Ratzinger, Gutierrez, and the bishops of Peru

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.

Ratzinger failed to recognize the concern that even the more conservative bishops have for the very real oppression their people suffer—a concern that supporters of liberation theology make central to their lives and their faith

So how did it happen that the bishops went back to Peru and wrote a single document which failed to censure either Gutierfez or liberation theology? Rumor has it that Rome overplayed its hand. Ratzinger failed to recognize the concern that even the more conservative bishops have for the very real oppression their people suffer—a concern that supporters of liberation theology make central to their lives and their faith. Furthermore, Rome did not acknowledge the overwhelming support for Gutierrez that the bishops received in letters from other bishops and theologians of international repute and from public figures in Peru. Prior to that, many of the Peruvian bishops had simply not realized that Gutierrez commanded such respect as a theologian. Last—but not negligible—was the national pride that the bishops came to feel for liberation theology as a product of Peruvian life and faith, and for Gutierrez as a Peruvian theologian. My own suspicion is that the decades of respect for and solidarity with the bishops that liberationists have demonstrated—a respect and solidarity which amazes and intrigues Americans and Europeans—evoked from the bishops a similar respect and a desire to accept responsibility for the liberation movement as a legitimate expression of Christian faith and of the church in Peru.

The accuracy of these speculations is open to debate. Few of the principals are speaking publicly. Gutierrez, when asked to explain the unexpected result, responded: "You mean why, besides the work of the Spirit?" Surely it must feel like the work of the Spirit for Gutierrez after having lived for almost two years on the edge of an international controversy which threatened a life's work of commitment to the liberation of the poor and to the formation of liberation theology. Perhaps even more disturbing had been the threat to the work of thousands of church leaders -- bishops, priests, religious, and laypeople -- who have drawn a great deal of their spiritual sustenance from Gutierrez's annunciation of the Good News in the context of human oppression.

It is certain that controversy will continue to surround both liberation theology and Gutierrez. This is only the end of an act, not the end of the drama. But the drama has been irrevocably changed by the events of this act. The Peruvian bishops held out in face of strong Vatican pressure, held out for a local decision. How the Peruvian bishops will deal with the very real issues that confront them—ever greater social misery, worsening social violence, political repression, continuing polarization of conservative and liberation forces within the church in response to the social situation—remains to be seen. They are not in agreement about the use of Marxist social analysis. They are concerned that the church's action on the social scene be a force for peaceful, constructive change without exacerbating tensions that could lead to greater violence and injustice.

How the Peruvian bishops will deal with the very real issues that confront them—ever greater social misery, worsening social violence, political repression, continuing polarization of conservative and liberation forces within the church in response to the social situation—remains to be seen.

The third section of the bishops' document, "The Necessity of Discernment," deals with "basic criteria" to be used in discerning action within commitment to the project of liberation. Those criteria emerge from a critical discussion of Marxist concepts within the general themes of history and society, praxis and truth, and the kingdom of God and human action. While the bishops acknowledge that Ratzinger's "Instructions on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation" treats these same themes, they do not indicate the radical differences in treatment between their document and Ratzinger's. The major difference is that the positions the bishops find objectionable—which are largely the same ones Ratzinger found—are not presented as reflective of liberation theology. Nor are these objections assumed to cover all contemporary Marxists. Rather they are currents in historical Marxist thought which the bishops, in their role as teachers, point out are to be avoided by those persons committed to liberation of the poor because they are incompatible with Christian faith. While it is doubtful that some of these,points are treated in the same way liberation theologians would treat them (especially the separation of spiritual and material), the bishops come closer than Ratzinger to presenting the real issues in the debate over Marxism within liberation theology. The bishops better realize both the variations within liberation theology on the issue of Marxism, and the nuanced approach most often taken by liberation theologians.

The February visit of John Paul II to Peru will constitute yet another act in the contemporary drama of the Peruvian church. John Paul has not to this point taken a consistent position on liberation theology as it exists in the Latin American church. He has expressed support for the Christian preferential option for the poor and for the organization of the poor, but rejection of Marxist social analysis, of the blurring of distinctions between clergy and laity, and of clergy participating in political activity—which in Latin America can include any attempt to improve the condition of the poor through organization. Will John Paul respect the decision of the Peruvian bishops? Does he recognize the consequences a judgment of his on liberation theology—in either direction—may have for the local church and for the Peruvian socio-political reality? These are burning questions in a nation where the division among bishops merely mirrors the unstable political and economic situation.

Yet the controversy over liberation theology in Peru has important implications beyond the future of liberation theology in the church, and beyond the church in Peru. If our church is to be truly universal, if the Gospel is to be fully enculturated in each region and nation, if the church is to truly become the People of God rather than an institutional structure, then the relationship between Vatican and bishops, the responsibility of bishops for the local church, the role of theologians in the church, and the ability of the laity to participate fully in the definition of what faith is in the midst of real human life must all be painstakingly worked out. This cannot be done without conflict, but perhaps the Spirit is telling us from Peru that it can be done with some degree of humility, compassion, and respect. Moreover, it must be done if the church is to have a meaningful role in the social task of transforming the world in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

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