Catholic Newspeak?

I guess I should be over it by now, but it still rankles me when I think of how the mainstream media successfully covered up Bill and Hillary Clinton’s past as anti-war activists during the Vietnam War. I think it is clear why they did it. The reporters and commentators were sympathetic to this period in the Clintons’ lives.

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(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

But might Gutierrez mean by that what many orthodox Catholic thinkers have noted: that Marxism is a Christian heresy of sorts, a distortion of what Christians mean by the Mystical Body of Christ? Was Gutrierrez working to convince Latin American revolutionaries that the Church’s social teaching offers a truer vision of social justice than Castro and Mao Tse-tung?

To the contrary, Gutierrez held that Marx pointed “the way towards an era in history when man can live humanly,” when we “will have controlled nature, created the conditions for a socialized production of wealth, done away with private acquisition of excessive wealth and established socialism.” It is for this reason, he argued, that Christians must work for an “anonymous Christianity, in other words a Christianity beyond the visible frontiers of the Church,” the “advent of a Christendom without the name.”

This is why, he says, the task of the theologian must be an “active, effective participation in the struggle which the exploited classes have undertaken against their oppressors,” because “the idea of salvation is an intrahistorical reality.” Does Gutierrez believe there are any models for doing this? Yes. His “new man” of the Gospel was Che Guevara: “Ernesto Che Guevara wrote, ‘We revolutionaries often lack the knowledge and intellectual audacity to face the lack of the development of a new human being by methods different from the conventional ones, and the conventional methods suffer from the influence of the society that created them.’” Gutierrez adds, “This vision is what in the last instance sustains the liberation efforts of Latin Americans.”

At the time Gutierrez's book was published, Archbishop Robert Dwyer delivered an address in which he charged that the liberation theologians’ “aim was to destroy traditional religion,” replacing it with “a type of Marxist humanism.” Some observers at the time thought Dwyer went overboard with this accusation. I disagree. What else could one mean by a call to picture Christianity as an “intrahistorical reality” modeled on the vision of Che Guevara?

It is true that Gutierrez wrote these things in the early 1970s. Perhaps he has learned enough since then about life in Castro’s Cuba to understand the danger of surrendering our freedom to Marxist revolutionaries. Shouldn’t we forgive fellow Christians for errors perhaps brought about by excesses of youthful idealism? We should, if they admit to them rather than cover them up.

Many of them shared in the protests of the time. They did not want the Clintons to be damaged politically as a result of youthful behavior likely to be “misunderstood” by the voters. In large measure, they were protecting their own reputations as well. They did not want the anti-war activism of the time cast as a shameful thing.

It looks to me as if the Jesuits’ America magazine is engaging in a similar effort. They are deliberately ignoring important aspects of the career of Father Gustavo Gutierrez in an attempt to salvage the reputation of liberation theology. Gutierrez, author of A Theology of Liberation, now holds John Cardinal O’Hara chair in theology at the University of Notre Dame and was recently named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was interviewed by Fr. Daniel Hartnett, S.J. in the Feb. 3rd issue of America.

If one were to judge by the interview, Gutierrez is controversial only to the extent that his Christian commitment to the poor puts him at odds with the materialism of our era. The article describes Gutierrez as a man, who, “perhaps more than anyone else, has been instrumental in helping the Christian community read and live the Gospel from the perspective of the poor.”

When asked about his dedication to the cause of the poor, Gutierrez emphasizes that “Christians cannot forgo their responsibility to say a prophetic word about unjust economic conditions. Pope John Paul II’s approach to the phenomenon of globalization is a good example. He constantly asks: ‘How is this going to affect the poor? Does it promote justice?’” Gutierrez adds, “Liberation theology tries to deepen our understanding of this core biblical conviction…. The option for the poor is not optional, but is incumbent upon every Christian. It is not something that a Christian can either take or leave.”

Doesn’t sound very controversial, does it? Who would object to a Catholic priest seeking to implement the spirit of the Pope’s encyclicals on social justice? Unfortunately, the America article does not give us a complete picture of what Gutierrez means by promoting social justice. It leaves readers with the impression that John Paul II sees the world through the same lens as the liberation theologians, when the Pope has made clear that this is not the case. In Centesimus Annus, he admonished the liberation theologians. He praised “those who are searching today for a new and authentic theory and praxis of liberation,” noting that “the Church offers not only her social doctrine and, in general, her teaching about the human person redeemed in Christ, but also her concrete commitment and material assistance in the struggle against marginalization and suffering.” But then he warned, “In the recent past, the sincere desire to be on the side of the oppressed and not to be cut off from the course of history has led many believers to seek in various ways an impossible compromise between Marxism and Christianity.”

Is Gutierrez one of those seeking this “impossible compromise”? There can be no denying it. Consider his words in A Theology of Liberation. I can remember reading the book back in the 1970s. I approached it with an open mind, hoping to discover that the book was a plea for Catholics to seek a way to aid the poor without making the mistake of participating in the Marxist movements of the time.

What I found was quite different. I found that, for Gutierrez, the struggle of Latin American guerrillas was worthy of Catholic support because it was under Marxist direction. I don’t think I am being unfair when I charge that Gutierrez did little more than summarize the ideas of the new left ideologues of the period, and then call them the response that Jesus would want from his followers. He baptized Marx and Herbert Marcuse.

Is that a cheap shot? Here is what he wrote: “Many agree with Sartre that Marxism, as the formal framework of all contemporary philosophical thought, cannot be superseded.” For that reason, “Contemporary thought does in fact find itself in direct and fruitful confrontation with Marxism, and it is to a large extent due to Marxism’s influence that theological thought, searching for its own sources, has begun to reflect on the meaning of the transformation of this world and the action of man in history.”

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