Father Gustavo Gutiérrez leads Notre Dame’s annual human dignity lecture, focusing on poverty in the modern world.

Victoria Velasquez, Staff Writer

Notre Dame was honored to host one of her own scholars, Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, who addressed the tension between poverty and human dignity in the Annual Human Dignity Lecture on October 30 at McKenna Hall.  The lecture series is part of the Human Dignity Project, sponsored by Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life (ICL).

The main dedication of the Human Dignity Project, according to Dr. John Cavadini, the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the ICL, includes “uplifting, exploring and clarifying the concept of human dignity as we find it in Catholic teaching.”

Fr. Gutiérrez has made a “profound and fundamental” influence on modern Catholic theology, although he originally studied medicine.  “We are happy that his interest changed,” Cavadini joked.

Fr. Gutiérrez began his lecture, Poverty and Human Dignity, by addressing harmful flaws in the way most people view poverty.

“Humanity has seen poverty as inexorable fact, almost a fate,” he explained.  “But now we cannot accept poverty as a destiny.  It is a condition, not a misfortune.”

Quoting Blessed Pope John Paul II as well as the president of the world bank, Jim Yong Kim (“No, he’s not the leader of the Church,” he added with a smile), Fr. Gutiérrez insisted that poverty is an injustice resulting primarily from political structures created by human wills.  As a human construct, we have the ability and the responsibility to eliminate it.

“But,” Gutiérrez added, “we need to have the will to do that.”

Gutiérrez said that, contrary to the dominant assumption, poverty cannot be reduced to an economic level: “We call poor persons ‘insignificant persons.’  Someone can be considered insignificant on economic, cultural, gender and racial grounds.  But no one is insignificant.”

In order to understand the scope of the challenge of poverty, we must look at it through the framework of creation, he said.  “Poverty is a failure of creation…creation in the gift of life.”

Fr. Gutiérrez emphasized how essential the enterprise of treating and eliminating poverty should be to the Church’s social teaching.

“You give bread to a hungry person, but it would be better that no one is hungry,” he said, citing Saint Augustine.

In his text, A Theology of Liberation, and briefly at the end of his lecture, Fr. Gutiérrez differentiates between two types of poverty.  God detests the unjust first poverty, economic poverty, or “the hunger for bread,” while He champions spiritual poverty, or “the hunger for God.”  Fr. Gutiérrez expressed desire that the people’s hunger for God remains, and the hunger for bread be satisfied.

Fr. Gutiérrez called upon the fourth principle of Catholic social teaching as an approach to eliminate poverty.  According to Catholic teaching of preferential option for the poor, “We are called to emulate God by showing a special preference for those who are poor and weak.”

Despite the modernness of the term “preferential option for the poor,” Fr. Gutiérrez insisted that it is “not an invention, not a new idea,” but is implicitly stated in scripture and in Christian faith in the God who became human so as to “enrich us with His poverty.”

“I think we must go directly to the message that is the source of theology.  The universality of the God of Love is clearly present in the witness of Jesus; at the same time it is the priority of the marginalized people,” he said, with a reminder that “the last will be first.”

Fr. Gutiérrez echoed the words of Pope Francis when he said that the Church should be “the church of every person and especially the church of the poor.”

To fully commit to human dignity, one must recognize the equality and the dignity of human persons unconditionally. Gutiérrez urged that in order to understand this dignity, we must overcome the sense of individualism that is prevalent in modern society.

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

The purpose of Christians is to be committed to others, he concluded: “Open your hand.  Open your heart.”


Victoria Velasquez is a freshman majoring in English. She fully endorses the freshman 15 as a protective measure against winter in South Bend. Contact her at vvelasq2@nd.edu.