In Review

Liberation Theology Redux?

Paul Farmer, left, and Gustavo Gutiérrez at the University of Notre Dame in 2011. Courtesy of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame

By Harvey Cox

Why, on a cold evening in February 2014, did more than four hundred students and townspeople crowd into First Church, Cambridge, to listen to Dr. Paul Farmer be interviewed by Professor Davíd Carrasco of Harvard Divinity School? This book helps to answer that question. It is true that Farmer, chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, enjoys a well-earned reputation as a pacesetter in world health. He is also the founding director of Partners In Health, an international nonprofit network that provides health care services and undertakes research and advocacy for people suffering from both illness and poverty. His group’s innovative practices in Africa and Haiti model new, even revolutionary, approaches to health care.

Harvard is already replete with people doing extraordinary things, so why should Farmer draw such a throng that included not only medical students, but church people and divinity students? The answer is that Farmer makes it explicit that his ongoing motivation comes from liberation theology in particular, which he calls “an inexhaustible font of inspiration” (19). He told the audience that, like many college students, he had drifted away from his Catholic faith. But, as he began to work among the poorest in the global South, he “kept running into people who seemed to be guided by liberation theology,” especially the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, and by the writings of Peru’s Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose book A Theology of Liberation (Orbis Books, 1973), with its focus on “a preferential option for the poor,” is often considered to be the intellectual fountainhead of liberation theology.

Farmer met Gutiérrez in the early 1990s in Lima. The two quickly became friends, and this book, a conversation between the two, is the fruit of this long interdisciplinary and intercontinental friendship.1 In the first chapter, “Reimagining Accompaniment: A Doctor’s Tribute to Gustavo Gutiérrez,” Farmer says he learned three things from Gutiérrez that have guided his work ever since. “First, that real service to the poor involves understanding global poverty,” which means it must be seen as structural and systemic (19). “Second, an understanding of poverty must be linked to efforts to end it,” and this suggests that praxis is the key (21). “Third, as science and technology advance, our structural sin deepens” (22). Farmer translates this into medical terms; using the example of cholera, which has now become “a disease exclusively of the poor,” he says, “the pathogen has made a far more radical preferential option for the poor than have those fighting it” (33).2 Gutiérrez suggests that the church and theology today must frontally engage world poverty, and writes: “poverty for billions on this planet means an early death. We need to be clear . . . that poverty is an evil” (29).

Probably the main reason why the event at First Church drew such a huge crowd is that, often, the many young people who are determined to do something to alleviate sickness and destitution become discouraged. They hunger for something or someone to inspire and encourage them. And many students of religion want to find a way to apply their spirituality in a concrete way. The examples of Farmer and Gutiérrez respond to these needs and desires. As both men acknowledge, working amid those who are suffering is “hard and often painful” (24), but Farmer writes that he also learned from Gutiérrez “to look for the hermeneutics of hope that might follow the hermeneutics of generosity” (19).

From my perspective as a religion scholar, the well-attended event and this book also signal something else: the reinvigoration of liberation theology. Already in 1968, the Latin American bishops had issued a document that became the Magna Carta of what is among the most influential theological movements of the twentieth century. When a death squad murdered six liberationist Jesuits, gunmen killed four women church workers, and Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered while saying mass in El Salvador in 1980, instead of giving up, liberation theology refused to die. Instead, the “preferential option for the poor” rapidly spread throughout Latin America, where it inspired both laypeople and clergy to wade into the struggle against political and economic injustice. Meanwhile, the message spread to Korea (Minjung theology), to India (Dalit theology), and all around the world. Soon Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and Evangelical liberation theologies appeared. Still, however, liberation theology was censored by the Vatican and treated dismissively by most academic theologians.


In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, edited by Michael Griffin and Jennie Weiss Block. Orbis Books, 192 pages, $24

Book cover for In The Company of The Poor

In The Company of The Poor

In spite of this early tenacity in the face of violence and opposition, not long ago theologians were writing obituaries for liberation theology. Some said it had been just a passing fad, and that it was time to move on to something else. It is true that for a time liberation theology’s prospects looked grim. When Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was selected pope in 2005, Christians all over the world who had found hope in the rise of liberation theology held their collective breath. This was the man who, as prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had been its severest critic. He had issued warnings, silencings, and excommunications to nearly every quarter of the Catholic Church. He wrote two official documents criticizing the liberationist movement. He oversaw the appointment of bishops who were either opposed or not supportive. In addition to the Vatican’s disapproval, church leaders and laypeople inspired by liberation theology have continued to face more lethal threats.

Then came an unexpected but decisive reversal of fortune. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit bishop of Buenos Aires, was consecrated as the 266th pope in March 2013, one of his first acts was to call the eighty-five-year-old Gutiérrez and invite him to Rome for a conversation. The two concelebrated mass, then ate breakfast and talked. It was a short meeting, but it had enormous significance. In short, it demonstrated that Rome’s campaign against liberation theology was over. Since then, Pope Francis has called economic inequality a grave threat and criticized the pieties of the market worshipers.

Meanwhile, a courageous physician, his heart touched by liberation theology’s basic impulse, continues to demonstrate to young people all over the world that, as he puts it in his tribute to Gustavo Gutiérrez: “As long as poverty and inequality persist, as long as people are wounded and imprisoned and despised, we humans will need accompaniment—practical, spiritual, intellectual” (24).3

The theme of accompaniment is threaded throughout the essays and conversations in this book, and both men clearly admire each other for the stalwart commitment each has made to living and working with people who are, as Gutiérrez reminds us, “the poorest and weakest” (29). Gutiérrez suggests that Farmer’s work with Partners In Health is a paradigmatic example of praxis and tells Farmer directly, “I think very much about the witness of your work: accompaniment which is reflection” (165). Farmer states that what has always struck him, even from the early days of reading Gutiérrez and then meeting him, is Gutiérrez’s “understanding that fighting poverty is a humbling kind of engagement, even for a well-known theologian” (162). Gutiérrez responds that “one part of this humility is diligence, because . . . [e]ven if we cannot explain situations of suffering, we can be close to the people suffering” (164–165).

As Gutiérrez opens up about the ravages of cholera and other diseases among the communities he serves, and Farmer discusses what “the ministry of being a doctor or nurse means” (171), it is evident that, though they may have chosen different professions, they have learned much from each other. Because their ethical commitments come from the same “inexhaustible font” of liberation theology, they are able to serve as fonts of inspiration for others.


  1. The book includes essays by Farmer and Gutiérrez that give tribute and respond to each other, and concludes with the transcript of a public conversation the two had at the University of Notre Dame.
  2. Elsewhere, Farmer writes: “a preferential option for the poor offers both a challenge and an insight. It challenges doctors and other health providers to make an option—a choice—for the poor, to work on their behalf. The insight is, in a sense, an epidemiological one: most often, diseases themselves make a preferential option for the poor. Every careful survey, across boundaries of time and space, shows us that the poor are sicker than the nonpoor” (36).
  3. During the conversation at Notre Dame, Farmer is careful to note that “Partners In Health . . . is not a religious organization. It is a secular organization.” But, he goes on: “That does not mean that people in it cannot derive inspiration, spiritual or otherwise, from liberation theology” (175).

Harvey Cox is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. His next book, How to Read the Bible, will be published by HarperCollins in spring 2015.

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