The Iglesia Descalza blog offers an English translation of an interview with the founder of Latin American liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, summarized in a report by Religión Digital following Gutiérrez's recent appearance at a Vatican book-signing for a book written by the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller. Religión Digital reports on questions that several journalists asked Gutiérrez following his presentation at the book-signing. What's interesting to note is what Gutiérrez didn't say as he was interviewed--and that's to say, what's interesting to note is what he did say by implication and through silence.
The interview reports that journalist Angela Ambroggetti asked Gutiérrez whether Pope John Paul II or his doctrinal watchdog, then CDF head Cardinal Ratzinger (subsequently Benedict XVI), "had more problems with liberation theology." Gutiérrez 's reply:
Ratzinger was more of a theologian. He understood better and that's been very important. I can honestly say that his understanding worked because he knew what it was about from the start, [because he knew] it wasn't the idea of Marxism.
And then Gutiérrez went on to say,
He never asked me anything about Marxism because he knew that it's nothing like that. You just have to have a little culture to know that if one says there's conflict, one isn't Marxist. One is just looking at reality.
But "with John Paul, it was different," Gutiérrez notes, without spelling out precisely how John Paul's response to liberation theology differed from that of Ratzinger, except by recounting a mysterious anecdote about his single meeting with John Paul, at which the pope remarked on how short Gutiérrez is, then put his hand on the theologian's shoulder and told him, "Go on, go on."
Reading between the lines, here's what I hear Gutiérrez saying: the hysteria about liberation theology as Marxist-inspired emanated from John Paul rather than from Ratzinger--though the latter, of course, willingly enforced John Paul's dictates that liberation theology be placed under a ban, its theologians silenced, the movement dismantled. Ratzinger, however, understood that John Paul's hysteria about liberation theology as a Marxist movement had no theological basis to it whatsoever, but reflected John Paul's roots as a Polish prelate battling Soviet communism.
As many commentators have noted, John Paul's stubborn intransigence about these and other matters--his refusal to listen to anyone whose opinion differed from his own, his determination to command, silence, and rule rather than engage in respectful dialogue with theologians who reflected an entirely different experience than his own--had fateful consequences not only for liberation theologians, but for the poor across Latin America. John Paul's attack on liberation theologians and on priests, nuns, and bishops throughout Latin America struggling to assist the poor aided and abetted ruthless dictators in the region who made life hell for the poor.
John Paul actively colluded with powerful, wealthy neoconservative Catholics in the U.S. who did everything in their power to attack liberation theology and to undercut priests, nuns, and bishops in Latin America working to aid the poor. He actively colluded with these powerful, wealthy neoconservative Catholics as they seeded in the mainstream media the meme that liberation theology was a Marxist movement--a meme still alive in the media's treatment of the movement.
And it was never about Marxism at all, as Gutiérrez says. It was about the gospels. It was about being faithful to Jesus as he calls us to see his face in the poor.
John Paul II was a man fiercely set on having things his way, and he inflicted untold suffering on the entire church as a result. Some of the suffering is now being addressed as Gustavo Gutiérrez is invited back to the Vatican and as liberation theology is rehabilitated by the first pope to come from Latin America.
For my part, however, I cannot see how the choice of Pope Francis to proceed with the precipitous canonization of John Paul II will do anything other than rub salt in the wounds of many of us who have not forgotten John Paul's shameful abuse of Oscar Romero, his penchant for blessing ruthless dictators in Latin America, and his collusion with socioeconomic elites in Europe and North America who have everything vested in keeping the poor of the developing world under their thumb.
And seeing the footage of John Paul in the recent "Frontline" documentary, as the pope embraced and blessed the truly monstrous Marcial Maciel, did nothing to dispel my decided opposition to this pope's canonization. John Paul knew full well who and what Maciel was, as he sexually abused seminarians for years, fathered children by several women, raping some of those children, and used drugs.
With Maciel, John Paul could not ever bring himself to act. With Gustavo Gutiérrez and other theologians in Latin America, who sought to make the gospel message pertinent to the cultural conditions of the people to whom they ministered, he acted with alacrity.
To his great discredit.