Sacred Medicine

Article excerpt

How liberation theology can inform public health.

Two of my greatest teachers were Latin American men, both ordained as Catholic priests. One, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was assassinated in 1980. I never met him, being a 20-year-old American who'd never set foot in El Salvador or anywhere else in Latin America. But Romero made me, a lapsed Catholic, wonder why his views- our views, if Christian social teaching means anything at all-would be viewed with murderous hostility by the Salvadoran elite. After all, it was all right there in the Book. Wasn't it?

The truth was, I didn't know. Was it worth looking at books about these matters? That's what we believed in medical school: Look it up! So Romero led me to the second of these teachers who, I'm happy to say, is alive and well and living (mostly) in Lima, Peru. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a diminutive and humble Dominican priest and a great friend of Romero's, taught me through his books, from The Power of the Poor in History to We Drink from our Own Wells, and later through his friendship and his almost mystical (to me, in any case) optimism.

Over the course of my 20s, the slender, frayed thread of my own faith, which I had believed cut, slowly came back into view. There was a filament a bit stronger than imagined, made visible in part by my Haitian hosts and patients and friends, and in part by Catholic social activists working against poverty in settings as different as tough neighborhoods in Boston, the farms of North Carolina, and the slums of Lima.

Some were nuns or priests, some were engaged laity, from many professions. Most were people living in and struggling against their own and others' poverty. Their activism taught me a lot about a space in the Catholic Church I'd not seen clearly before, and about the promise of long-term engagement in the monumental struggle against poverty and discrimination in all its forms. That includes gender inequality, no stranger to the institution. Most of the most inspiring activists were women.

NOW THERE IS a third Latin American priest on my mind. And happily for our troubled but beautiful world, both Archbishop Romero and Father Gutiérrez are on Pope Francis' mind. You can't be a Jesuit from Argentina and not have liberation theology in your thoughts. But now the man is the pope in Rome, and progressive, indeed radical, ideas have not always found warm welcome there. That may be changing, just by Francis' words and actions, which have included how best to honor Romero's memory and a recent consultation with Father Gutiérrez. Just knowing of the recent meeting between the two South Americans, knowing they said a Mass together, warmed my heart, and not just "for the good of all the Church" (in the words of that liturgy). It warmed my heart, and wove those strings tighter, because the secular world also needs liberation theology.

Over the past 25 years, I've not learned much theology (medicine and anthropology were more than enough for me), but some of us have taken a number of key concepts from liberation theology and applied them in medicine. Let me comment on three that have been important to the work of Partners In Health, an organization I cofounded to make "a preferential option for the poor in health care" in settings ranging from rural Latin America (Haiti, Guatemala, Mexico) and Africa (Rwanda, Malawi, Lesotho) to areas of urban poverty (Peru, the United States) and even into the prisons of Siberia. Gutiérrez has written books about all of these ideas and has sought to teach and learn about them through his own ministry. …

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