Last night at Fordham University, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez was awarded the President’s medal—an award given about thirty times in the university’s history. The award came as a surprise, at the conclusion of a conversation he had with Fordham theologian Michael Lee. Gutierrez, widely regarded as the father of liberation theology, spoke softly in a thick Peruvian accent. He was very expressive with his hands, and hit the table often, drumming a rhythm to his words. He repeated words, and simple phrases. By academic standards, the conversation didn’t “say anything new” but it said the important stuff Jesus had to remind his disciples of all the time, over and over again: that God loves everyone, especially the poor.

The auditorium was packed with theology students, professors, priests, journalists, a significant number of bright-suited nuns and Commonweal editors (including Grant Gallicho who live-tweeted and took some video), readers, and writers. Gutierrez’s fame meant the event was oversubscribed. So when he first spoke, I felt a slight, guilty, let down. I expected an orator, someone who would rouse in me the kind of inspiration “liberation theology” ought to inspire. This happened, but quietly.

The talk came a week before Gutierrez will travel to Rome to meet with the pope and speak at the annual gathering for Caritas Internationalis. Pope Francis has chosen him to be one of the lead figures in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

Lee began by asking about Gutierrez’s relationship with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Last year, when Gutierrez was a surprise guest speaker at the cardinal’s book launch, the irony wasn’t lost on many who remembered when the liberation theologian was investigated by the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He’s been friends with Mueller since “1988, the last century,” and said the cardinal is “one of the best” when it comes to understanding the perspective of liberation theology. He also praised Mueller for spending his summers teaching theology in parts of Peru where even some Peruvians won’t go. “I have never seen one liberation theologian take his vacations on the beach.”

Other subjects avid readers of the Catholic blogosphere might find most interesting, he found less interesting. When asked whether, as some have recently claimed, his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, was authored by the KGB, he swatted the air and twirled a finger around his temple: “I have to laugh.” When asked about the last time he spoke with Archbishop Oscar Romero, he made sure to qualify the story afterward: “But my personal relations with Romero aren’t important.” What’s more important is the meaning of “the poor, the painful riches of the church, the Latin American martyr…there are hundreds of thousands.” When asked what advice he would give to future theologians: “I don’t care about the future of liberation theology. All I care about is my country and my people.” He told the story of the time a U.S. Evangelical theologian asked him what liberation theology had to say about the conflict in Israel and Palestine—he responded, “Do you think liberation theology is a political party and I’m its general secretary?”

No, what he kept returning to was the preferential option for the poor. He spoke at some length about the meaning of the preferential option: Jesus saves all of humanity, but he is very close to the poor; the church is a church of everyone, especially a church of the poor. “The preferential option for the poor is 90 percent of liberation theology; it comes from the Bible…. When we take the question of the poor it is not an obsession, it is to underline the central point of Christianity.” But, he points out, “preference does not conflict [or] contradict with universality. Are they in tension?” He shakes both fists “Yes!” “Even the poor must make the option for the poor,” he continued. “It’s one universal question; the poor are also first for the Christian poor…the option for the poor is a theocentric option…. We believe in the God of justice who is the source of this. We have human resources, but there is pride. It’s a problem…. I have great respect for non-Christian believers doing the option for the poor.” 

With this core principle established, Gutierrez spoke about what liberation theology actually is: “Maybe we don’t need the name 'liberation,' because it means salvation. The theology of liberation is the theology of salvation, which is to say communion with God, between us.” He reminded the audience that his theology of liberation originated “not in theological institutions,” but in the concrete experience of poor people. Other theologies of liberation: Black theologies, feminist theologies, mujerista theologies, these also come from the experience of being poor, of being “a person who does not even have the right to have rights,” as he paraphrased Hannah Arendt.

Gustavo Gutierrez did not propose a theory of implementation of, raise an argument for, or give a defense of Liberation Theology in the context of the modern world. But he made a clear point.

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