Liberation Theology No. I: Gustavo Guitierrez

In 1988, a Peruvian Roman Catholic scholar and priest, Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1928) published A Theology of Liberation. [1] The book has been the classic formative text for a generation of theologians influenced by its thesis, which focuses on the gospel as a revolutionary force in society. Gutierrez was educated in France and a Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of Lima, Peru. The details of the emergence of the text are well-known. It was the fruit of many conferences, lectures, and studies by the author, who developed his thesis over many years. It is the mature thinking of a theology profoundly impacted by the poverty and suffering of the poor in Latin America and elsewhere as well as by the Marxism popular among academics of the period.

Gutierrez has been humble and willing to adjust some of his thinking in light of theological critiques and the concerns of the magisterium Roman Catholic Church. [2]

Basic Underlying Principles

Three principles that guide Gutierrez’s thought:

  1. Poverty is a degrading social evil and must be opposed and rejected;
  2. Poverty is not to be seen as the result of laziness, but the result of structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.
  3. Poverty is not inevitable. [3]

For Gutierrez, God loves and wishes the best for all human beings, and, this love is especially evident in his concern for the poor and oppressed.

While there is truth in these fundamental principles, it would perhaps be best to rephrase them as follows:

  • Extreme poverty is a degrading social evil that must be addressed by society and its members, including the church;
  • Poverty is not necessarily or even usually the result of laziness. It can be and often is the result of structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.
  • Systemic extreme poverty is not inevitable in most, if not all, societies.

My paraphrase is designed to eliminate the objection that, in some way, “the poor will always be with society,” and that some people do fall into poverty due to their own decisions (in my experience, alcoholism and drug abuse are factors in this), and that some degree of poverty is present in all cultures and in all economic systems, a situation that is probably inevitable inside of history. In addition, there may be some cultures so broken and dysfunctional located in places without the potential for economic development that poverty is nearly inescapable.

Theology as Reflection on Praxis

For Gutierrez, theology properly understood is the disciplined reflection on praxis. Another way he often phrases this notion is that “theology is a critical reflection on the Christian praxis in the light of the word of God.” [4] In other words, theology reflects on the actual life of the church as it exists and developed throughout history. An excellent place to begin in analyzing Gutierrez is thinking about the meaning of praxis on a somewhat broader scope and then looking at the slightly reduced focus of the liberation theologians. Generally, “praxis” in Greek means a deed, an action, a function, a business or behavior, or a doing of something. In a way, praxis is not more than what the church or society is actually doing. The second part of the definition involves bringing the word of God, the revelation of Christ, into dialogue with the praxis. It is allowing the word of God to inform and alter first theological understanding and then praxis itself.

In Acts, one of the first descriptions of the Christian faith is people of the “Way,” by which the author means people who believe that way to God is through Christ. Nevertheless, the Way did refer to a concrete way of life first described in Acts:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those being saved (Acts 2:42-48).

This life, as described, is a life of communal worship, listening to Christian apostolic witnesses, fellowship with other believers, shared meals and communion, prayer, generosity, and witness. This broader view of the Christian Way differs from what Gutierrez and other liberation theologians mean by praxis. Gutierrez discerns two steps in his concept of praxis:

  1. Experiencing the poverty and oppression of the marginalized;
  2. Actively engaging theologically to bring about the transformation of unjust social structures. [5]

It is a fair critique of A Theology of Liberation that it does not sufficiently incorporate the fullness of the Christian way of life, of which response to human need is an important part, into its argument.

The Influence of Marx and Revolutionary Ideologies

From the beginning, Gutierrez admits the influence of Marx on this theology. For Gutierrez, disciplined reflection connotes a reflection that will lead to material and revolutionary change in the conditions of the poor and marginalized. [6] Secondly, Gutierrez is primarily interested in the transformation of society. [7] Gutierrez distinguishes this new theological approach from what he refers to as the historical approaches that couched their theologies as a form of wisdom or a form of rational knowledge.[8] Roughly, theology as wisdom characterized the early church, and theology as rational knowledge characterized the Middle Ages. Following Marx, Gutierrez wants to see theology as an embodied action designed to change the socio-economic realities of the material world.

The revolutionary implications of Gutierrez’s approach (and a frightening one) is found in Gutierrez’s glorification of the French and Russian Revolutions. Gutierrez believes that the social practices of the contemporary human race are becoming mature. Human beings are more conscious of being actively in control of human history, more willing to speak up against social injustice, and determined to participate in transforming social structures and effective political action. Gutierrez goes on:

It was, above all, the great social revolutions – the French, and the Russian, for example, to mention only two more important milestones – together with the whole process of revolutionary ferment, that they initiated, which wrestled, or at least began to end political decisions from the hands of an elite, who are destined to rule. After that time, the great majority of people did not participate in political decisions, or did so only sporadically informally. [9]

I first read Gutierrez more than thirty years ago and wrote a critique of his work on just this point. I thought then and think now that the glorification of violent revolutions in which millions were killed ignores the example of Christ and his actual work in history. If the price to be paid for the participation of people in public life is slaughter, then we might want to revisit our commitment to that end. Fortunately, I do not think embracing a revolutionary and violent ideology is necessary to increase human flourishing. [10] More importantly, the thesis ignores the results of Marxism from the Russian Revolution to the more recent economic impoverishment of Venezuela.

This aspect of Gutierrez’s thought, admittedly not the majority of this thinking, is what led Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, who had an intimate understanding of the dangers of Marxist totalitarianism, to issue their warning against certain aspects (not all) of the theology:

The warning of Paul VI remains fully valid today: Marxism as it is actually lived out poses many distinct aspects and questions for Christians to reflect upon and act on. However, it would be “illusory and dangerous to ignore the intimate bond which radically unites them, and to accept elements of the Marxist analysis without recognizing its connections with the ideology, or to enter into the practice of class-struggle and of its Marxist interpretation while failing to see the kind of totalitarian society to which this process slowly leads. [11]

It is important in reading this instruction to note that the Vatican did not condemn liberation theology as a movement but only certain tendencies that might lead people beyond the Christian faith.

A Preferential Option for the Poor

One of the more controversial aspects of Gutierrez’s approach to theology is the so-called “preferential option for the poor.”  In an interview in America in 2003, Gutierrez stated his own belief that a preferential option for the poor had become a fixed element of Catholic theology:

Do you think the “preferential option for the poor” has become an integral part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching? And where did that term come from?

Yes, I do believe that the option for the poor has become part of the Catholic social teaching. The phrase comes from the experience of the Latin American church. The precise term was born sometime between the Latin American bishops’ conferences in Medellín (1968) and in Puebla (1979). In Medellín, the three words (option, preference, poor) are all present, but it was only in the years immediately following Medellín that we brought these words into a complete phrase. It would be accurate to say that the term “preferential option for the poor” comes from the Latin American church, but the content, the underlying intuition, is entirely biblical. Liberation theology tries to deepen our understanding of this core biblical conviction. [12]

In appreciating the scope of the preferential option for the poor, one must begin with what it does not mean. It does not mean replacing one kind of injustice for another. It does not mean depriving those who are not poor of justice. It means a concept of justice that includes rejecting extreme poverty and social structures that undergird it. Gutierrez does not limit his definition of poverty to mere physical deprivation. Unjust poverty includes captivity to sin, captivity to oppressive social structures, and captivity to psychological or anthropological injustice. In other words, properly understood, it is a holistic concept outlining the Christian response to all forms of oppression.

Political Realism and Liberation Theology

Gutierrez has much in common with Reinhold Niebuhr about his assumption that conflict is inevitable in politics. [13] Building a just society means confronting and opposing unjust social structures in words and deeds. [14] With this observation, it is difficult to argue. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is talking about the internal, moral, and spiritual kingdom of God’s rule in the interior life of individual human beings. However, this inner, or what Gutierrez calls the “psychological level” of the kingdom, is not without its external results. John the Baptist vividly describes the results of repentance:

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:8-14).

The gospel is to have more than a personal, interior application. God is interested in transforming the human subject, mind, spirit, body, and emotions. It is this wholistic emphasis of liberation theology that is its greatest strength.


Liberation Theology, as it was initially voiced by Gustavo Gutierrez, flowed from his reflection on the terrible poverty of some parts of Central and South America in light of the gospel of Christ and its promise of new life to all human beings. Gutierrez attempts to ground his analysis in the Scriptures and historic Christian faith and reflect upon that faith. He is also concerned that the Christian faith in Latin America did not descend into a mere acceptance of the current social structures that trap many human beings in poverty. Although his work has been and can be critiqued, it remains a powerful force.

The critique of liberation theology has focused on its use of Marxist analysis. In my view, this critique is also valid—but limited. Marxism resulted from the inadequate worldview of post-Enlightenment modernity with its relentless materialism. On the other hand, pre-Marxist thought often incorporated an equally materialistic notion of reality (Laisse Faire Capitalism) that ignored human life’s spiritual and moral elements. What is needed is a movement beyond these two alternatives through a more holistic view of reality.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation tr. Sister Caridad India and John Eageson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).

[2] The version of his work which I read for this blog was different and improved from the version I first read in school. In 1984, the Vatican took issue with certain aspects of this thought, and a report was issued. Then Cardinal Radzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Pope John Paul II both voiced concerns about his work. Gutierrez was never, however, mentioned by name or condemned.

[3] Wayne Northey, Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor (November 8, 2011) at (downloaded June 22, 2023); John Dear, “Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor” National Catholic Reporter (November 8, 2011) June 22, 2023).

[4] Gutierrez, at 6.

[5] A. Denisencko, “Review of A Theology of Liberation” Multiversum Philosophical Almanac (Downloaded June 22, 2023).

[6] Id, at 9. This aspect of Gutierrez’s thought has provoked the most criticism, including from the Vatican.

[7] This does not mean that Gutierrez is unconcerned with the individual level of salvation. liberation includes both the individual level of salvation and its economic, political, and social level involving entire classes of people. It might be best to consider Gutierrez’s fundamental idea as a holistic liberation or freeing of human beings from all structures, psychological and social that warp human existence.

[8] Id at 4-5.

[9] Id, at 46.

[10] It is, however, necessary to recall the experience of economic and political oppression in the so-called “Developing or Third World” and to understand and internalize the anger that can and should be felt at the injustice that they have experienced.

[11] Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’”  found at (downloaded June 22, 2023).

[12] Daniel Hartnett, “Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez” America: A Jesuit Review (February 3, 2003) at (downloaded June 22, 2023).

[13] Gutierrez, at 48.

[14] Id.