Peruvian Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez Tells Students: You Cannot Have Contemplation without Action


Gustavo Gutiérrez is cheerful and witty and frequently gesticulates to get across his message: we cannot be Christians if our faith doesn’t spill over into our actions.

On November 15th, Gutiérrez met with twenty University of Chicago Divinity School students (mostly graduate students studying ethics and theology) and gave an informal talk on “Contemplation and Action” at Gavin House prior to taking part in a Chicago Council on Global Affairs event later that evening.

Citing the Gospel of John where Christ washed the feet of his disciples, Gutiérrez encouraged students to embrace lives of service, especially amongst the poor and disadvantaged. The poor are those who are insignificant—those who are ignored and marginalized and aren’t recognized as children of God. They can be people on the street, but also infants, the elderly, the infirm. In many cultures, women still aren’t treated with dignity and respect, Gutiérrez said in his endearing Peruvian accent.

Gutiérrez reminded students that we dwell in history, that faith requires us to be committed and involved in the events of our time period. Furthermore, as Christians, we are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. The incarnation is the key to the message, Gutiérrez explained. Spirituality and practice have to be intertwined; there must be a back and forth between the two. “One can’t choose only contemplation or action,” he said.

To emphasize even further, he added: “For Aquinas, charity was at the center of ethics.

Elsa Marty, a first-year PhD student in theology at the Divinity School, said of Gutiérrez’ presentation: “Gutiérrez discussed action and contemplation as essential dimensions of Christian life that cannot be separated. As a person who feels a tremendous need to work for peace and justice in our world, I found Gutiérrez’s presentation to be a helpful reminder that the mystical, contemplative aspect of Christian life must be a precursor for all of our action. Knowing that this is the belief and practice of one of the world’s leading advocates for the poor was liberating and inspiring.”

For all his accomplishments, Gutiérrez is remarkably unassuming. “If there is anyone who needs no introduction, it is Gustavo,” said his longtime friend and colleague from the theological journal Concilium, David Tracy. Tracy praised Gutiérrez for his work on behalf of the poor, and for inspiring countless theologians with a deeper understanding of how to integrate faith and action.

Gutiérrez, currently the John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, is one of the best-known theologians of the twentieth century. In 2004, he co-authored a book with Joseph Ratzinger’s successor as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, entitled Taking the Side of the Poor – Liberation Theology. He is a member of the Peruvian Academy of Language, and in 1993 was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for his untiring work for human dignity and life, and against oppression, in Latin America and the Third World.

After the Lumen Christi Institute gathering, Gutiérrez joined another longtime friend Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist, in a conversation on how societies can advocate on behalf of their most marginalized communities. Both men have worked tirelessly toward their common goal of building a better and more just world for the poor, and are internationally recognized for their pragmatic approaches to global health and social justice.

Lumen Christi was one of the partners of the Chicago Council for Global Affairs event, along with fourteen other Chicago-area institutions, among them DePaul University, the Catholic Theological Union, and the University of Chicago Center for Global Health.