On the Side of the Poor

The Theology of Liberation

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Gustavo Gutiérrez, Gerhard Ludwig Müller
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , March
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


One of the most remarkable events attending the papacy of Pope Francis has been the rehabilitation and incorporation of liberation theology into the heart of the pastoral and magisterial engines of the Roman Catholic Church. To speak of the “rehabilitation” and “incorporation” of liberation theology, one comes to grips with two sides of a process that began some three decades before Francis’s election, but that has now consolidated in a decisive way, amid gestures that mark the present Pope, among recent pontiffs, as the one most committed to the option for the poor. On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation, co-authored by Gustavo Gutiérrez and Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, is one of the prime exhibits evidencing this rehabilitation and incorporation.

On the Side of the Poor is not a new book. The story of its journey from a German edition in 2004, to this 2015 English translation from Orbis Books (very ably translated by Robert A. Krieg and James B. Nickoloff), offers intriguing insights into the meandering assimilation of liberation theology into the Catholic mainstream. First is the collaboration itself, growing out of a friendship between Gutiérrez and Müller that began in 1988, when Müller first went to the poor barrio in Lima where Gutiérrez works as a pastor. Müller was one of many Europeans who traveled to Perú to attend courses Gutiérrez was offering on liberation theology, emphasizing a pastoral praxis in which theologians are embedded in the hazardous existence of poor communities. The experience had a powerful impact on Müller, who returned repeatedly to study with Gutiérrez in the subsequent years. Sixteen years later, their study and collaboration led to the first editions of On the Side of the Poor, first in German (Sankt Ulrich Verlag, 2004), then in Spanish (Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, 2005). The book has also been translated into Italian (Messaggero, 2013) and French (Bayard, 2014). In the years since their collaboration began, Fr. Müller was promoted a number of times. He became Bishop of Regensburg in 2002. Ten years later he was appointed Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position he still holds. Müller was elevated to Cardinal in 2014.

The authors presented the Italian edition of their book in person to Pope Francis on September 12, 2013, in an audience so private it went unnoticed in the press at first. Eyebrows jumped and jaws dropped when it came out that a prefect of the CDF had presented the Pope with a book on liberation theology, one he had co-authored with no less a figure than Gustavo Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez—and liberation theology as a whole—were long the targets of criticism from the CDF under its prior prefect, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who later was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. Gutiérrez was personally the target of a 1983 instruction from Ratzinger titled, “Ten Observations on the Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez,” in which Gutiérrez was censured for his supposedly “uncritical acceptance of Marxist interpretation.” Another intriguing aspect of the book’s history is the fact that the Italian translation has a slightly different title than the others. Dalla parte dei poveri: Teologia della liberazione, teologia della Chiesa translates as, “On the Side of the Poor: Theology of Liberation, Theology of the Church.” That last phrase—teologia della Chiesa—rings with the suggestion that liberation theology is no longer a marginal enterprise, but has become central to the “theology of the Church.”

The book itself is less a history of this process than a restatement, in two voices, of the central methods and perspectives of first-generation liberation theology, especially as it has been adopted by the Roman Catholic magisterium. Gutiérrez’s was the clarion voice of that generation. His “restatement” of liberation theology is anything but rote recap, however. Even elemental themes that we theologians will have read over many years in different texts of Gutiérrez’s find a deeply poetical and mature voice in this book. His elegant restatements of central themes and perspectives of liberation theology are rich with insight and beauty. Gutiérrez recasts his reflection on the option for the poor in a context of a global neoliberal capitalism abetted by the cultural milieux of modernity/postmodernity. With its tendency toward a “fragmentation of human knowledge,” postmodernity promotes an individualism that dilutes reflection and commitment to the praxis of resistance to poverty. Gutiérrez’s critique of “postmodernity” identifies the right symptoms, but misses an important trajectory of research on economic root causes. Privileging poststructuralist philosophical reflection on postmodernity with Lyotard and Vattimo, Gutiérrez misses the other wing of postmodern interpretation, from critics of late capitalism such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and later, Frederic Jameson. It is noteworthy that Gutiérrez—having shown sensitivity in earlier works to the role of capitalism in the formation of ideological cultures—should neglect this trajectory.

Müller’s contributions are strongest when he places the advent of liberation theology in the historical perspectives of secularization, modernization, reform, and social revolutions that unfolded both in society and inside the Church. He is sensitive to the value of marxist perspectives in liberation theology, so long as atheism and authoritarianism do not form foundations for a Christian engagement with marxism. But these are very safe positions on liberation theology’s engagement with secularization and marxism that Catholic theology—even in the magisterium—has long embraced. Beyond that, Müller shows little capacity for the heavy work of integrating insight from the social sciences into theological analysis. His “critique of liberation theology” seems stuck in the class-centric analytic of dependency theory. The dependency theory of the 1960s and 1970s has been thoroughly critiqued, but also widened—especially in theories of the “Modern World-System,” and later studies in postcolonial/decolonial criticism. Recent works interpreting the economics of the crash of 2008 or the history of debt have also brought new insight into the predatory piracy that characterizes what some critics call “casino capitalism.” A range of new cultural studies perspectives is also being brought to bear on theological analysis of racism, sexism, and homophobia, in a manner that could be said to root genealogically in the methods of first-generation Latin American liberation theology. But these advances in the social sciences are hardly touched.

While both writers address globalization, neither addresses the more extended social revolutions taking place since the advent of liberation theology—especially struggles for gender and racial equality, and sexual liberation. Feminist theology is invisible as a source in this reading of “liberation theology,” which otherwise is presented as though it were a monochromatic tendency in Roman Catholicism. Likewise, the theological challenge of same-sex love and transgendered sexualities— themes that have evolved both in tandem, and in tension, with first-generation liberation theology—are literally unspeakable. These shortcomings are continuous with what critics—especially feminists—have long called the “limits of liberation,” marking the perspective of Gutiérrez and Müller as unredeemed from sexism and homophobia. This is probably an inalienable shortcoming in a theology rooted in the ecclesial functionalism that Gustavo Gutiérrez traces as the true ambit for theology. As he says, “the theological task is a vocation that arises and is exercised in the heart of the ecclesial community” (1). But what if deep historical pathologies in that ecclesial community are so formidable that escape from the community itself becomes a life-and-death necessity for some believers? This is a question one regularly must confront when considering the experience of queer Christians, for whom Christian God-talk is often mentally destabilizing and even a motive for suicide. While ecclesial dysfunction would organically draw fire, inasmuch as the Church itself is a locus theologicus in liberation theology, Gutiérrez and Müller evidently are not fitted to do this work.

These are my largest critical reservations about this otherwise very workable introductory text. The perspective of Müller and Gutiérrez has hardly departed from the thinking of the generation of the 1970s in which Gutiérrez and his confreres were steeped. (And we would have to insist on the masculinist styling here.) Perhaps this is because the Roman Catholic hierarchy, after years of resistance, has finally adopted the central theses of the pastoral variant of liberation theology, which means that this book is a document attesting to an incorporation of liberation theology that has mixed blessings. While Pope Francis has enshrined the economic option for the poor, even extending it creatively to questions of environmental devastation, his idea of liberation remains limited—as does the perspective of this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jorge A. Aquino is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at University of San Francisco.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Dominican priest and theologian from Peru, is the author of A Theology of LiberationOn Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the InnocentWe Drink from Our Own WellsThe God of Life, and many other books. He teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

Gerhard Ludwig Müller was ordained a priest in 1971. After teaching dogmatic theology in Munich, he was appointed bishop of Regensberg. In 2012 he was appointed Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was named a Cardinal in 2014.


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