Friday, April 06, 2007

Liberation Theologian Condemned

Holy Thursday 2007

The Vatican's attack dogs are at it again.

Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, a Spaniard living in El Salvador, has been censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. While Pope Benedict XVI, who was called God's rottweiler when he headed up that office for over twenty years, did not personally sign the official "Notification," his fingerprints are all over it.

The Jesuit priest was formally denounced, but not silenced, for "erroneous" and "dangerous" statements in two books written in the 1990s which -- his inquisitors charge -- diminished the divinity of Christ and "may cause harm to the faithful." The Notification was meant "to offer the faithful a secure criterion, founded on the doctrine of the Church," by which to judge what they read. The last time a theologian was censured, a little over two years ago, over the signature of Cardinal Ratzinger, the Jesuit Roger Haight was forbidden to teach Catholic theology. Although the Vatican itself did not similarly silence Sobrino, the Archbishop of San Salvador, where the theologian lives and works, has said he can no longer teach or publish "until he rectifies his conclusions." Bishops worldwide have been sent the letter and told to make their own decisions about the theologian. And a Vatican spokesman said future disciplinary action has not been ruled out.

In the summer of 2004, I went one afternoon to hear Jon Sobrino speak at Santa Clara University. While I have forgotten the topic of his talk, it was not long before the publication of his last book, Where Is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope (Orbis Books, 2004). He is a slight man of my age, well spoken with barely a trace of accent, and for an academic cleric, his passion on the topic of social justice was remarkable and contagious. Sobrino, raised in Basque country, was sent by his order to El Salvador in the late 1950s and became a close friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was murdered in 1980 while celebrating mass by agents of the ruling junta. In 1989, Sobrino barely escaped being killed along with six of his Jesuit brothers at the University of Central America by members of a Salvadoran army death squad because he was in Bangkok giving a lecture.

But now that life is relatively safe in his adopted country, Sobrino's Christology, his legacy as a theologian and teacher, is being assassinated by the protectors of orthodoxy. After at least five years of investigation, the Notification was signed by Cardinal William Levada, Ratzinger's replacement and former Archbishop of San Francisco. In it, the faithful are alerted to "grave deficiencies" in two books by Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator. Both take as central the perspective of the poor, in the Gospel accounts of Jesus and in the Church. Sobrino is faulted by the Vatican for placing too much emphasis on the human rather than the divine nature of Jesus, and for minimizing his death as the way to salvation. The Church in its teachings requires assent to the doctrine that Jesus is equally both human and divine, and that his death saved the world from sin.

Most commentators on the censure assumed that by condemning Sobrino's writings, the Pope was continuing his twenty-year war against liberation theology for its excesssive reliance on Marxist theory, its social concept of sin, and for a worldly understanding of salvation. Even Sobrino, in a letter to the superior general of the Jesuits, thought this was the target, and wrote that the long "campaign of defamation" against liberation theology "is of little help to the poor of Jesus and to the church of the poor." One of the leading lights of liberation theology, which evolved in Latin America after Vatican II, Sobrino felt the sting of Vatican criticism in 1984 and 1986 but was not singled out like Leonard Boff of Brazil who was silenced and eventually left the priesthood.

Sobrino told his superior that he could not accept the Vatican's findings because the investigation misrepresented his theology which has been praised extensively by Catholic theologians. He had been harrassed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1976, he wrote, and their methods were "not always honest or very evangelical."
I think that to endorse these procedures would not in any way help the church of Jesus to present the face of God to our world, nor to inspire discipleship of Jesus, nor [to advance] the crucial fight of our time, which is for faith and justice.
He believes that one reason Romero's cause for beatification has been held up in Rome is because of the suspicion that he influenced the late archbishop's writings and speeches.

The condemnation of Sobrino's writings was criticized widely. Leonard Boff predicted that the Vatican's criticism would mark a resurgence of Marxist theology in Latin American, and might "lift the spirits of those Christians who are follower of liberation theology." The resigned priest said that this action "cheats many of the poor, because Jon Sobrino was always an ally of the poor. And the Church may be able to disappoint the rich, but she cannot betray the poor." Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit author, said Sobrino is "one of my heros" and a "theological giant," and anyone who sought Jesus among the poor would feel the same. Frei Betto, a Dominican priest from Brazil, who has championed Latin America's poor, asked: "How can we renew the Church if its best minds are placed beneath the guillotine by those who see heresy where there is fidelity to the Holy Spirit." Theologians in Germany issued a letter which described Sobrino as a "shining example of a theologian whose theology practices what it believes," and asked why Rome was not "more concerned with the question of power than of doctrinal issues."

But John Allen, the respected observer of Rome for the National Catholic Reporter, and author of a book about Pope Benedict XVI, believes the first censure of a theologian in this pontificate is more about the future than the past, more a condemnation of "religious relativism" than Marxist influences in liberation theology. The Notification against Sobrino is a respone to "recent debates over the uniqueness and singularity of Jesus Christ." The Vatican's "core theological concern," Allen writes, is that, "in the name of cultural and religious pluralism, traditional doctrines about Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the World gradually will be drained of their content...Christology is, to this way of thinking, the 'canary in the coal mine' for the impact of religious relativism on Catholic doctrine." If anything upsets the current Pope it is the "dictatorship of relativism" that turns dogma and orthodoxy into metaphor and poetry. The Church demands that its truths be objective and singular. Liberation theologians value Christiantiy for its social utility, the liberation of the poor, orthopraxis over orthodoxy. Religous relativism, for Pope Benedict, "ends in a kind of liberation theology by default," according to Allen.

Pope Benedict XVI may be going to Latin America in May and his condemnation of Sobrino's Christology may serve to silence any remaining believers in the value of liberation theology, but his real target, Allen observes, was disclosed by the recent apostolic exhortation based on the results of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist. In it, the Pope reaffirmed priestly celibacy as well as urged vigilance about Christological doctrine. Jesus is the lone and unique savior of the world, and Christ, seen as merely a human being, reduces salvation to a "purely sociological" endeavor.

While the old dogma of "no salvation outside the Church" may not be in favor, the new dogma is Christ alone. At a 2002 Congress on Christology in Spain, Ratzinger emphasized the need to accent Christ's singularity:
Christ is totally different from all the founders of other religions, and he cannot be reduced to a Buddha, a Socrates or a Confucius. He is really the bridge between heaven and earth, the light of truth who has appeared to us.
Sobrino famously changed the old dogma to say: "No salvation outside of the poor." Which, of course, got him into hot water with the modern Inquisition. As for me, I side with Sobrino and I tip my hat to Buddha, Socrates and Confucius. Jesus is in good company.

Although Pope Benedict XVI has dramatically (and not very successfully) reached out to Islam, his emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ makes ecumenism all but impossible. In last week's issue of The New Yorker, writer Jane Kramer notices the differences between two ecumenical gatherings in Assisi sponsored by Pope Paul II. The first gathering in 1986 "was a common prayer: a hodgepodge of interfaith holiness," Kramer writes. "For John Paul, it was an irresistible, ur-ecumenical occasion, with everyone praying together in what was described by a 'an unconditional opening to the religion of the other.'" Such an affair did not appeal to Ratzinger who told an Austrian paper, "This cannot be the model." Assisi I had been "too folkloric," Kramer writes, and, worse, "it had carried a risk of religious relativism and 'syncretism' (which, to be fair, it did)." The next Assisi gathering in 2002, before Pope Paul II's death but when Ratzinger exerted much influence, was "a highly negotiated outpouring." Assisi II was reinvented, an organizer told Kramer. “'The religions would pray one beside the other. Not together but beside.' This time, John Paul II was installed on a big throne, surrounded by other Catholics, and the religions prayed alone."

One barrier to ecumenism is the hellenisation of Christianity which sees the faith in Greek categories and places an emphasis on reason and the Logos. Kramer discusses this in her article. And Sobrino may have come under scrutiny in part because of his criticism of hellenisation during the early Church councils. "Although he does not deny the normative character of the dogmatic formulations," the Notification says, "neither does he recognize in them any value except in the cultural milieu in which these formulations were developed." Sobrino's critique, shared by many proponents of inculturation, as well as of ecumenism, is a challenge to assertions the Pope made last year when he suggested that intrinsic to Christianity is its encounter with the Greek world. An exclusively Greek Christianity cannot dialogue comfortably with the Hindu or Buddhist East. Which is a shame.

Researching this story has been depressing. I came into the Church 23 years ago partly because I had been inspired by the liberation theologians of Latin American and the base Christian communities started there by believers in peace and social justice who put their beliefs into practice and struggled to liberate the poor and oppressed, as Jesus had taught in the Gospels. God acts through our hands, and if they are always folded in prayer rather than feeding the hungry then his will is not done. And now my hopes for interfaith dialogue and ecumenism are being trashed by the aging celibates in rome. The legalism and the authoritarian posturing of the Vatican and the current Pope I find disgusting. Why do I continue to stay in the Church?

Because it's our Church, damnit!


Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

It is a shame that the good work done by many priests, social workers who work, in what they see as an act in the likeness and mimic of Jesus is overshadowed by a control system that is the Catholic church. Although it is ironic that the church would not be the social and political power it is without this absolute control, it is surely not what I have ever read about the life of Jesus. I have given up on the Catholic church, or better said I have opened my mind and soul to accept that it is ok to not follow the church. The Catholic church has proven for hundreds of years to be an entity bent on power and growth (in numbers of parissioners) which it really only does by keeping current members in line and fearful of thought. I have finally accepted that it is ok to not be a part of the church. I am not shaming my community or my upbringing or family. I am awake more than ever and feel like we have guises good work as work on behalf of the church for too long. Do good onto others simply because it a good thing to do. I feel liberated myself. I applaud the work of Liberation theologians and their efforts to help the oppressed in Latin America. The Catholic church full of secrets and scandal wolud be plagued if their was an interventionist God. Young children from El Salvador to Rwanda would not have to endure hunger and hate and fear if their was an interventionist God. How ignorant can we be?
Silencing good work by faithful while enabling pedophiles and power glutinous members is without excuse. I will never return to the Catholic church unless Jesus himself walks me through the front doors and even then I would ask him why he allows his name to be represented by this place.
We are fools if we overlook the negative of the church and try to focus on the good work done by 99% of the church. We must focus on the good but erraticate the bad.