A Feature Review of
In the Company of the Poor:
Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez
Reviewed by James Stambaugh
The official story of liberation theology is that its time has come and gone; that it was a crypto-Marxist movement which fizzled out long ago; a relic of the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s.
Readers of In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez must conclude, however, that the official story is wrong. Liberation theology never fizzled out. It stands to this day in a tradition that extends back to the teachings of Jesus. In some ways the book is a tribute to, and a retrospective of the authors’ lives and work, but it also effectively argues for the vitality and relevance of liberation theology today.
Fr. Gutiérrez was born in Lima, Peru in 1928. He was ordained in 1959—the same year Paul Farmer was born—at a time of intense change in the Roman Catholic Church. Already in 1959, with Vatican II three years away, many Latin American bishops were attempting to shift the conversation of the church toward social issues, particularly toward the plight of the poor. Fr. Gutiérrez quickly joined the cause, and in time became its chief thinker. Rather than merely writing about the poor, he endeavored to listen and learn from his own neighbors and friends living in poverty. His first book, Teología de la liberación (Translated as A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1973), is still considered to be the defining text of the movement. Combining his considerable theological acumen with his personal experience of poverty, Fr. Gutiérrez critiqued poverty as an outcome of structural sin, and advocated for making “a preferential option for the poor.”
Fr. Gutiérrez is the recipient of too many awards to list, and has taught in universities around the world. In addition to his present post at the University of Notre Dame, he spends half of each year serving in the slums of Lima where he has ministered his entire life.
Dr. Paul Farmer grew up in a Catholic family. By the time he entered Harvard Medical School he had left his religion behind. But reading about the assassination of Oscar Romero in 1980 and engaging with the worker’s rights movement alongside committed Catholic nuns, led him to explore the social teachings of the Church. Before long, Dr. Farmer found himself reading A Theology of Liberation in rural Haiti between long shifts at a clinic treating some of the poorest people on earth.
From that experience, and heavily influenced by Fr. Gutiérrez, Dr. Farmer founded Partners in Health (PIH) in 1987 along with four colleagues. From the beginning, the organization’s motto has been “The preferential option for the poor in healthcare.” For over two decades, PIH has endeavored to bring the best healthcare to the poorest parts of the world, places like Haiti, Peru (where he met Fr. Gutiérrez in 1994), Rwanda, and Siberia.
PIH is one of the most, if not the most profound and successful instances of the practice of liberation theology. It is not merely an application of a rarified theory because liberation theology cannot be theory alone. Praxis married to reflection is intrinsic to the thing itself. The witness of Dr. Farmer and his mentor insists that to be a liberation theologian one must both reflect on the causes of poverty and act alongside the poor for the removal of those causes.