Iron fist, but velvet gloveRobert Mickens
- 17 March 2007
Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino was formally denounced this week by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But in a surprise move, the Pope's enforcers have not silenced the man, banned his books or barred Catholics from reading them
For the first time in his almost two-year pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has ordered the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the CDF -to denounce publicly a well-known theologian's writings for containing "notable discrepancies with the faith of the Church". This week's formal "Notification" (and its explanatory note) on certain writings of Fr Jon Sobrino SJ accuses the liberation theologian of "erroneous" and "dangerous" theses that "may cause harm to the faithful".
But, surprisingly, it takes no direct steps to silence him, burn his books or stop Catholics from reading his theology. On the contrary, the CDF warning actually presupposes that people will continue to study Fr Sobrino's works and its Notification is meant "to offer the faithful a secure criterion, founded on the doctrine of the Church, by which to judge" what they read.
That may be small consolation to Fr Sobrino and his reputation as a scholar, especially since the Vatican puts up a forceful - and some may even say "prejudiced" - argument to try to convince readers that several of his theological assertions are wrong. But, at the end of the day, the CDF recognises that people are going to make up their own minds. And unless it is a mere rhetorical device, this admission marks a profound change in the way the CDF has customarily dealt with theologians such as Fr Sobrino who advance views that are, in the document's words, "not in conformity with the doctrine of the Church".
It is a dramatic change from the last time the CDF issued a Notification on the writings of a theologian. In December 2004 it condemned the works of Fr Roger Haight SJ. That document, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, laid down sanctions against the American Jesuit and said he "may not teach Catholic theology". There are no penalties of any kind in the Notification on Fr Sobrino's work.
However, in a letter sent with the Notification to all bishops, the CDF prefect - Cardinal William Levada - said it was up to episcopal conferences and local ordinaries to adopt "measures necessary" to implement the present Notification. Archbishop Patrick Kelly, head of the doctrinal commission of the Bishops of England and Wales, said: "If there is a problem then we should take the means necessary, but on this particular issue I don't see a problem. People in England have not been complaining or are puzzled [by Jon Sobrino's writing]. For the ordinary Catholic in the pew, this is rather obscure but nevertheless extremely important. These are technical matters but Christ's divinity is essential to our faith. People would be wise to ponder on these matters in the days leading to Easter."
Putting the onus on local bishops seems to be the first concrete sign of effective decentralisation in Benedict XVI's pontificate and recognition of the role of the diocesan bishop as teacher of the faith and "vicar of Christ" in the local Church. But this attempt to strengthen the local bishops could mean uneven interpretation of the Notification. Some may decide to do nothing. Others may follow the Archbishop of San Salvador, where Fr Sobrino lives and works, who has already said the theologian can no longer teach or publish "until he rectifies his conclusions".
The Vatican has had its sights on Fr Sobrino for some years, beginning a thorough study of his key texts in October 2001. In July 2004 a list of what the Notification calls "erroneous and dangerous propositions" found in his books were sent to the Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach. By March 2005 Fr Sobrino responded to the CDF and his commentary was studied at the Congregation's meeting on 23 November 2005, which decided that errors remained in his thinking.
Until this week the CDF, which was directed from 1981-2005 by the current Pope, has never found sufficient reason to denounce publicly his theological writings. That has certainly not been for lack of trying. The renowned Jesuit - a popular author of dozens of books in many languages - has long been on the CDF's radar screen because of his emerging role as Latin America's most credible advocate and scholar of "liberation theology". Although he was born and raised in Spain's Basque country, the 68-year-old priest has spent almost his entire adult life in San Salvador, ministering to the poor and teaching theology at the Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA).
People who know Fr Sobrino describe him as a "holy" man and a creative theologian. Some even believe he was saved miraculously from being murdered during an attack in 1989 which left dead six Jesuits with whom he lived at UCA. He happened to be lecturing in Thailand at the time. Fr Sobrino's experience of church oppression under El Salvador's military dictatorship and his closeness to legendary Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in 1980, have had a profound impact on his theological investigations.
Naturally, when the Vatican intensified its campaign to stop the spread of liberation theology, which it condemned in a 1984 CDF document as being tinged with Marxist ideas, Fr Sobrino could not escape the doctrinal office's watchful eye. As long ago as the late 1970s or early 1980s the CDF began scouring his writings.
It came close to silencing him at that time when it accused him of denying the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon's teaching that Jesus Christ was both "true God and true man". However, when the late Fr Juan Alfaro SJ (1914-93) - a respected member of the International Theological Commission - came vigorously to Fr Sobrino's defence, the CDF dropped the charges. But not its concerns.
The Notification that was released this week returns, in part, to those original accusations. Focusing on Fr Sobrino's two-part Christology - Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View (Orbis Books, New York, 1993) and Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims (Orbis, 2001) - the CDF admits that the Jesuit theologian "does not deny the divinity of Christ". But it says he fails to "affirm" it with "sufficient clarity". It also says Fr Sobrino's writings "tend to exclude" Jesus' self-awareness of being divine, a murky point in contemporary theology. The Notification cites a much debated line in Pope Pius XII's encyclical Mystici Corporis against Fr Sobrino's position. The late Pope said that Jesus already "began to enjoy the Beatific Vision" while still in his mother's womb.
The Notification also condemns the Jesuit's methodology, which situates his theological investigations in the Church of the poor. The CDF says "the ecclesial foundation of Christology" cannot be based there, but must be seen "in the apostolic faith transmitted through the Church for all generations".
One area of particular concern to the Vatican appears to be Fr Sobrino's criticism of the hellenisation of Christianity during the early Church councils. "Although he does not deny the normative character of the dogmatic formulations", the Notification says, "neither does he recognise in them any value except in the cultural milieu in which these formulations were developed." The Jesuit's critique, shared by many proponents of inculturation, is a direct contradiction to the assertions Pope Benedict made in his lecture last September in Regensburg, where he suggested that intrinsic to Christianity is its encounter with the Greek world.
The present Notification has actually been sitting in a desk drawer in Cardinal Levada's office since 26 November 2006, the date on which he and CDF secretary, Archbishop Angelo Amato, signed it. It is unclear why it took nearly four months to issue it. But the timing could be poetic. Its publication this week came 10 days before the twenty-seventh anniversary of the death of Oscar Romero and exactly two months before the Pope will be in Brazil to preside at the opening of the month-long Fifth General Conference of CELAM (Episcopal Conferences of Latin America).
Although the Notification deals specifically with Fr Sobrino's Christology, it looks very much as if liberation theology is the Vatican's real target. Perhaps the Pope and his collaborators at the CDF believe their kinder and gentler approach will gain a more sympathetic hearing and help put the final nails in the coffin of liberation theology. But, on the other hand, this particular Notification could have the opposite effect and help increase Fr Sobrino's popularity and revive a form of theology that many people already thought was waning.