Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: May 1985

Letters to the Editor: May 1985

Unfair to Gutierrez

I greatly respect John C. Cort and agreed with much that he said in his column on the Vat­ican and liberation theology (Jan.-Feb.). But I was greatly dis­mayed by his comments about Gustavo Gutierrez. Cort cites one footnote about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and frequent references to “collective owner­ship” as his basis for judging that Gutierrez does not envision a democratic socialism but is “talk­ing about Marxist-Leninist com­munism.”

To indict Gutierrez on such evidence strikes me as quite un­fair. To build a case on one foot­note is bad enough, but even the one footnote does not substanti­ate Cort’s conclusion. The foot­note simply quotes Marx (not Lenin) on class struggle; it makes no statement of “clear approval” as Cort claims. Even if it did, it would not prove espousal of Len­inism. Many Marx scholars (e.g., Hunt, Draper) insist that Marx never intended dictatorship of the proletariat in the anti-demo­cratic sense used by Lenin. And why should “collective owner­ship,” a phrase used by demo­cratic socialists to cover various types of public ownership, be at­tributed to Gutierrez only in a sense of state-owned, party-con­trolled communism?

Gutierrez never uses Lenin­ist language or advocates Leninist tactics. He never calls for entrust­ing the poor to some vanguard party. Rather he repeatedly says that the poor themselves are “protagonists of their own liberation” (A Theology of Libera­tion, page 113), “artisans of their own liberation” without media­tion (The Power of the Poor in History, page 65), and “active shapers of their own destiny” (ibid., page 29).

Why not note that Gutier­rez “quotes with clear approval” Paulo Freire who warned against the Left imposing its views and Bishop Mendez Arceo who called for democratic socialism (A The­ology of Liberation, page 111)? Gutierrez may be criticized for not attending sufficiently to the importance of political freedoms, but to say that he is “talking about Marxist-Leninist commu­nism” is unwarranted and does him great injustice.

Arthur F. McGovern, S.J.

Dept. of Philosophy, University of Detroit

Detroit, Michigan


I greatly respect Fr. Mc­Govern and agree with most of what he has written, notably in his excellent book Marxism: An American Christian Perspective. His chapter in that book on liber­ation theology and Gustavo Gutierrez, however, misses some critical weaknesses, and that miss is reflected in the above letter.

Let us begin with the Paulo Freire reference. My editions of A Theology of Liberation and The Power of the Poor in History do not mention Freire’s warning “against the Left imposing its views,” either on page 111 of the former or on any other page mentioned in the index of either book under “Freire, Paulo.” Mc­Govern does mention it in his own book on page 175.

Gutierrez does quote Bish­op Arceo’s preference for “dem­ocratic socialism” on page 111. The big questions are: (1) Does Gutierrez himself quote “with clear approval,” and (2) does he understand by “democratic socialism” what McGovern under stands by that phrase?

In answering these questions, McGovern’s quotes about “shapers…artisans…protag­onists of their own liberation” are of little help to us. Leninist literature is full of such phrases and it has lately also been full of words like “democratic.” We need more than that.

Which reminds me: in 1972, the year after he published A Theology of Liberation, Gutier­rez took a leading role in the founding convention of Chris­tians for Socialism and, together with Hugo Assmann and Giulio Girardi, two other leading liberation theologians, wrote the “final document” of the convention, which is necessary background reading for our current discus­sion. But the ironic fact about this convention is that, not once but twice during the proceedings, Lenin is quoted as follows: “Marxism learns from the con­crete practice of the masses. Nothing could be further from its mind than the notion that it is to teach the masses certain forms of struggle….”

In other words, Lenin, who was the all-time champion imposer of leftist views on the masses, makes exactly the same point that McGovern makes regarding Gutierrez and Freire to prove that neither of them is a Lenin­ist. All we can conclude is that Lenin himself was not a Leninist. Maybe they were sincere and Lenin was not, but, I repeat, we need more than quotations of that sort.

What we need are quota­tions that prove that Gutierrez really understands the economic and political implications of his own interpretation of Marxism. Obviously Gutierrez is not a Len­inist in the strict sense of the word and I should not have left that unclear. I quoted once from Gutierrez on pages 272-273 of A Theology of Liberation, but I could have quoted the next six pages winding up with a dandy quote from the hardline French communist Louis Althusser, pre­ceded by this statement by Gu­tierrez: “The unity of the Church is rightly considered by Althusser as a myth which must disappear if the Church is to be ‘reconverted’ to the service of the workers in the class strug­gle.”

And why? Because both Althusser and Gutierrez have bought Marx’s claim that any pri­vate ownership of the means of production that involves the em­ployment of one person by an­other person is by its nature “alienating,” “enslaving,” and “ex­ploitive” (Marx’s words), and that this evil condition cannot be remedied until all the owners are ousted and state ownership in­stalled, probably not without a revolution or some form of “dic­tatorship of the proletariat.” This at least is the message of A Theology of Liberation. Gutier­rez is much more circumspect in The Power of the Poor in Histo­ry. Whereas the former is full of references to Marx and Marxism, the latter, written mostly after this element of his thought had come under heavy attack, has on­ly two passing references to Marxism and none to Marx.

Gutierrez is fascinated by Protestant theologians like Barth and Tillich, so unlike each other but alike in their weakness for Marx and in their ignorance, like Marx’s ignorance and that of so many theologians and intellectu­als, of how the world actually works and how the Great P’s are related to each other: Property, Power, Personality, Politics, and Poverty.

The Protestant theologian whom Gutierrez should study is Reinhold Niebuhr, who did un­derstand these things, as demon­strated in his great book The Children of Light and the Chil­dren of Darkness. But of course Niebuhr was an ex-Marxist and made plenty of clear, unambigu­ous statements that he did not, as the Socialist International does not, consider communist dictatorships as “socialist” in any true sense of that much abused word.

Fr. Gutierrez is a great, good man to whom we owe a profound debt for his passionate and scholarly insistence on the implications of the Gospel for some sort of socialist restructur­ing of our capitalist economies. The question is, what sort? Be­sides a careful reading of Nie­buhr, I recommend to him and to Father McGovern more reflec­tion on that passage of Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno that denies that “the wage contract is essen­tially unjust,” but advises that it should be modified by partner­ship or co-operative agreements. Then follow that with a visit to the Mondragon co-ops in Spain and, finally, a reading of the 1951 Frankfurt Manifesto of the Socialist International. They will find that the practical knowledge of the world that comes from long, painful experience — as brought the Catholic Church and the Socialist International so close together that, in economics and politics at least, one can hardly tell them apart.

Take Heart, Jim

I read with interest Jim Hunter’s letter in the Jan.-Feb. issue. “Clustering” is indeed a curious phenomenon. I am a re­cent convert to the Roman Cath­olic faith who loves everything in it that strikes of miracle and mystery. As W.B. Yeats said, “Miracle is the only proof of re­ligion.” There’s more to it than that. Perhaps it’s just a phase, but conversion is almost like a re­-entry to beginnings, almost like childhood. For a tired intellect like myself, there is a childlike glee in imaginatively walking out upon the New Jerusalem fondling the beads of my rosary, ask­ing St. Michael to pray for me. It’s like a perpetual Christmas.

So I have a devotion to Mary, and this is not (I hope) on­ly childish but mature — or as mature as a human being can be on this earth: Mary is sister as well as mother, the bridge from earth to Heaven, as Christ is the bridge from Heaven to earth. But because I have a devotion to Mary, I find myself “in bed” with greedy misers and right-wing fanatics who think anything to the left of Reagan is anathe­ma, who think giving Church sanctuary to endangered human beings is to worship the abstract devil of communism, who appar­ently have not read the Gospels.

Take heart, Jim. Luckily there was Dorothy Day. Luckily there is Mother Teresa. Luckily we have a Pope who says to East and West: “A pox on both your houses.”

However, I cannot “cluster” with you, Jim, because of your siding with Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard’s ideas were rightfully condemned (de facto, if not de jure) for reasons which you could best learn about by reading Titus Burckhardt’s “Cosmology and Modern Science” in The Sword of Gnosis, a book now out of print.

But take heart, again: the one thing that can transcend our various inabilities to cluster is this strange thing called charity.

Thomas W. Case

Berkeley, California

“Discoin” It!

Please “discoin” John F. Maguire’s “word” disambiguate (see his review of The Schillebeeckx Case, Jan.-Feb.). Even if you are able to spell “Schillebeeckx” correctly, you have not advanced to the plateau of “dis­ambiguate,” nor to the carnage of “unambiguate.” Try “clarify.” It goes well with the more expen­sive spread.

Be of cheer: you didn’t say “disambiguish.”

(P.S. Emeritus signifies a “dispastorization” process.)

“Crucially” yours,

Rev. Joseph A. Kelly

Pastor Emeritus, St. Veronica Church

Chicago, Illinois


In his delightfully disportive dispatch, Fr. Kelly disadvises, or rather he discommends, the use of the verb “disambiguate.” He even — may I say? — dislusters the word “disambiguate” by dis­poning it with such defenseless discards as “discoin” and “disam­biguish.” In short, Fr. Kelly would disaccustom us to the ap­pearance of the word “disambig­uate” on the printed page.

Do I disagree? I’m not sure. I’m caught by the disconcerting fact that all the “dis”-words I’ve used so far can be found in any good dictionary, but not — alas! — the word “disambiguate.” Query: What discrepates (sorry: What distinguishes) “disambigu­ate” from, say, the dictionary-ap­proved word “discommend”? My guess is that the root word “com­mend” is a real verb, whereas the root word “ambiguate” is not a real verb — at least I’ve found no proof that it is. Fr. Kelly is there­fore quite right to suggest that “disambiguate” is a suspect coin­age.

Is this enough to dissuade writers from using it? For my part, so long as certain theolo­gians dispread real ambiguity within sacred sciences, I cannot bring myself to disrelish the in­junction to “Disambiguate!”

Not that I don’t hear the same dissonance that Fr. Kelly hears! The word “disambiguate” is unmusical in every sense. I sus­pect that the late, great Nat King Cole would have discountenanc­ed anyone foolish enough to want to “disambiguate” the smile of Mona Lisa.


The New Oxford Review has become a welcome and val­uable resource in my continuing search for a moral and intellectu­al stance that has both integrity and substance. In a day of parti­san causes and gale-forced cross currents, the NOR has become a beacon of sanity for me. As an Anabaptist, I don’t pretend to understand or agree with every­thing you print, but I am amazed at how many connections you do make with my own background and experience.

I found especially useful Steven Hayward’s article “The Two Minds of Modern Conserva­tism” (Jan.-Feb.). It helped clari­fy my thinking about what is lib­eral and conservative, and what I am. The words used to describe your patron in the editorial in the same issue, “conservative to­ward God and the church but liberal toward his neighbor,” also helps say what I value in the NOR.

Keith Harder

Elkhart, Indiana

Credibility Lacking

I hoped Juli Loesch would have given her peace visit to Eu­rope (Jan.-Feb.) a sense of bal­ance by speaking to groups in the Soviet-bloc countries. However, as I read her itinerary I looked in vain for Prague, Budapest, War­saw, or East Berlin.

Loesch and those involved in the anti-nuclear-weapons move­ment would give more credibility to their cause if they brought their message to all countries in which nuclear weapons are manufactured or installed.

Kathleen McCormick

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Ed. Note: Indeed! But getting in­to Soviet-bloc countries and do­ing anti-nuclear work there is eas­ier said than done. While we hope Loesch will find her way to Prague, etc., we find it hard to fault her for not having been able to do everything all at once.

Chesterton Revival

The University Press of America has contracted with Prof. Lawrence Clipper of Indi­ana University, who will serve as editor, to publish all of G.K. Chesterton’s weekly columns from the Illustrated London News, two-thirds of which have never been reprinted. The col­umns began in September 1905 and ended with Chesterton’s death in June 1936. Seven thou­sand dollars of the estimated $20,000 needed for the project has been raised and about one-third of the work has been com­pleted.

We are in urgent need of help to complete the project. We have been given a wonderful op­portunity: we will receive a matching grant of $5,000 on condition that we first raise $5,000. We have good reason to believe there are many Chester­ton lovers among NOR readers who would be willing to contrib­ute.

There are two additional in­centives for Chesterton lovers. A valuable one-of-a-kind, boxed, bound volume of 320 original Il­lustrated London News pages with Chesterton’s columns on one side and fascinating insights into the world of 1905 to 1911 on the other (“Mr. Wilbur Wright’s…remarkable fight of sixty-one-and-a-half miles,” the Boer War, Tolstoy’s 80th birthday, etc.) will go to one of the donors of $25 or more at a June drawing. Also, donors of $100 or more will have their names print­ed in the first volume of the pro­jected 11-volume set. Contribu­tions of any amount, however, are most welcome.

This is a great opportunity to help Chesterton and the things he stands for not only survive but prevail.

Frank A. Petta

President, Midwest Chesterton Society

Carpentersville, Illinois

You May Also Enjoy

The News You May Have Missed

Games Bishops Play... Cream-Pie Intimidation... Banning the Blade... Piss Christ, the Admontion... Barney Rubble's Twin Brother? Longevity & the Loss of Religion... Gaga for Judas... and more ... and more

Prostitutes in Portsmouth?

Bishop Crispian Hollis wants to legalize brothels. But, says Bishop Hollis, "that's not to say that I approve of prostitution."

The Underclass, Part V: Children & Violence

We see kids on the street with guns and stacks of $100 bills. There’s no rule of law, no belief in anyone’s laws -- not man’s, not God’s.