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Theologian speaks on poverty and human dignity

Catriona Shaughnessy | Thursday, October 31, 2013

On Thursday evening in McKenna Hall, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez presented the annual Human Dignity Lecture, as part of the University’s Human Dignity Project, in which he spoke about poverty and the Church’s teachings on the transcendent dignity of the human person.

Gutierrez began his theological commentary by exposing our tendency to view poverty as an inexorable fact or a matter of fate. He said we are the actual source of poverty.

“It is a condition, not a misfortune. In the majority of cases, it is an injustice. We have made poverty,” he said.

Given that poverty is a product of human constructs, it is within our power to eradicate it, Gutierrez said. He reinforced this call to action by quoting a seemingly contradictory character, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank.

“The supposition that there will always be poor is an excuse for inaction,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez also talked about our human propensity to generate mental categories, which contributes to our conceptualization of insignificant persons. He cited the notion of Western superiority and the dominance of the male gender as examples of this phenomenon.

Gutierrez said the Bible stamps out such misconceptions.

“In the Bible, the poor are unclean, ignorant of the law … widows, orphans, women, children. When Jesus calls the children to him, the lesson is that they are important persons,” he said.

Gutierrez said poverty is not merely a social issue, but rather a fundamentally theological issue.

“Poverty is more than social. It is human. It is the whole person,” he said.

Gutierrez said poverty is a direct challenge to the Christian faith, a faith of life.

“Poverty is contrary to creation,” he said. “Creation is the gift of life.”

Gutierrez said poverty was a “failure” of creation,

“God has always been the God of the poor because the poor are the visible proof of the failure of the work of creation. The condition of poverty is a failure,” he said.

Gutierrez offered Scriptural support for his claims on poverty and human dignity. He paired Mark 14:7, (“You will always have the poor among you”), with Deuteronomy 15:7 (“If in any of your towns in the land which the Lord your God is giving you, there is a poor man, one of your countrymen, do not let your heart be hard or your hand shut to him”).

The latter conditional in context of the definite reveals our call to action, he said.

“Jesus speaks in context of the conditional … Open your heart and open your hands always,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez also approached the subject of preferential option for the poor. He defined this as “a practical recognition of the human dignity of any person.”
Gutierrez explained how the preferential treatment of the poor is not an invention or a new idea, but rather an implicit aspect of our faith in Jesus Christ.

“It is not a strange or beautiful idea, but we have it in the heart of the evangelical message,” he said.

We meet Jesus by meeting the poor and in our actions towards our neighbors, Gutierrez said.

“We have no neighbors. We are making neighbors. You must approach to have neighbors,” he said.

Gutierrez said individualism has failed and it is our challenge to overcome this ideology.

“It is impossible to be Christian if other persons are irrelevant to us,” he said.