[My neighbor is] not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in
whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek.
~ Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez
The unexpected death on February 21, 2022, of Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of the global non-profit Partners in Health and chair of the global health and social medicine department at Harvard Medical School, was, for many, both shocking and dispiriting. Followers of his work recognized in Farmer a resilient advocate for the poor, for the vulnerable and for the powerless, and a persistent challenger to the social privilege and moral equivocation of certain echelons of the Church and of developed nations, especially with regard to the communities of the destitute. That Farmer was a physician who imbued his medical work with the claims (and mandates) of social justice further illuminated his activism and tenacious campaign against poverty and indifference. It should be noted that he died as he had lived, at a medical clinic he had founded in Butaro, Rwanda, that provided free medical care and subsistence for the local population.
Farmer dedicated his career as a physician to some of the most impoverished and under-served communities in the world—in Haiti, Rwanda, Malawi, Peru and the Navajo Nation in the U.S.—but an inspiration far more profound than a physician’s (laudable) desire to heal rooted his passionate—and resolute —commitment. Admittedly indifferent to his Catholic faith most of his younger life, Farmer often stated that during his first years as a doctor, he experienced a deepening of that faith along with a transformation in his understanding of his craft through his encounter with the theological writings of Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, the noted architect of the ‘first wave’ of liberation theology. Indeed, so formidable was the effect of Gutiérrez’s ideas that Farmer often referred to Gutiérrez as his spiritual and moral accompagnateur, his ‘accompanier,’ in his public health and medical outreach and in his own ‘journey’ back to his Catholic faith.
From the principles of liberation theology, Farmer learned that the poverty that he encountered throughout the world is neither natural nor necessary, but it is ‘structural’: that is, the effects of material privation reach much farther and deeper into all facets of life than are apparent, and the dismal weight of poverty not only denies the poor access to the necessities of daily living, but also crushes hope and defies faith, creating an existential toxin that intensifies any physical malady. Poverty is the consequence of decisions and choices of capitalist engineers and its effects finally become ‘violent,’ damaging the body and the mind and the spirit, across and beyond generations.
Yet, poverty need not be a hopeless circumstance. As Gutiérrez taught Farmer, an antidote against that invasive contagion is a reorientation of perspective about the world and its people, based not on a hermeneutic of suspicion but rather on the “hermeneutic of generosity.” It is a hermeneutic grounded in hope and mercy that recognizes in real time the integrity of the other, regardless of material condition, by “walking” in company with, and not away from, those along whose paths we find ourselves. That creed of ‘accompaniment’ so enlightened Farmer that he was able to liberate his clinical work from mere diagnosis and prescription to a praxis of care and companionship: the healing arts, he realized, require not just chemicals and implements for corporeal restoration but compassionate and benevolent attention to the whole of each individual, accompanying them along the journey of illness to healing, or along the final pathway to death.
It does seem that the work and ideas of Gutiérrez and Farmer are especially pertinent at the start of this Lenten season. It has been a year of distress and sorrow, of many walking away from and dismissing the other, of defining truth only through the lens of the self. Yet Lent is the season of spiritual renewal, a period of reflection that calls us to the difficult truth of Jesus’ message of love and solidarity. It is a time of reawakening and transformation and so we pause to consider the liberating theology of Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez and the liberated life of Dr. Paul Farmer. Both men have called us to authentic personhood, to an intimacy with God through the love of Jesus that we express in our daily love for every person on whose path we discover ourselves. It is a love that rejects judgment and disdain and that is open to the fullness of each individual (Pope Francis refers to the “sacred ground of the other”) as a companion on the shared path of life.
June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.