Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Vatican criticizes work of liberation theologian Jon Sobrino

Vatican bogeyman Jon Sobrino (Photo: El Mundo/EFE)

The Vatican's Holy Office (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, known previously as the Inquisition) has issued a condemnation of two works by the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, a Spainard who has spent most of his career as a Jesuit priest in El Salvador:
Vatican criticizes Jesuit liberation theologian, issues no sanctions by John Thavis, Catholic News Service 03/14/07; Vaticano reitera obra jesuita muestra discrepancias con Fe Diario de Hoy (El Salvador) 14.03.07.

Ironically, Pope Benedict XVI when he was Archbishop Ratzinger of Munich had Sobrino's doctoral thesis translated into German.

The official criticism was directed toward two of Sobrino's works in particular: Jesucristo liberador: Lectura históricoteológica de Jesús de Nazaret and La fe en Jesucristo. Ensayo desde las víctimas. Normally when a theologian's works are denounced this explicitly, a sanction is imposed forbidding the theologian to teach as an official Catholic theologian. I call it "yanking the Vatican franchise". Sometimes the person is "silenced", meaning they are forbidden to give public presentations of their ideas at all. Such sanctions do not mean that the criticized theologian is excommunicated from the Church.

In this case, the initial reports stress that there is no news of sanctions being imposed on Sobrino. But reporters may have fallen for Vatican spin on that one. The opinion piece by Elilio de Benito linked below quotes the Archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Sáenz, as saying that if Sobrino doesn't renounce the parts of his work criticized in the Holy Office's report, he would be banned from teaching as a Catholic. You could say his Catholic "franchise" has been suspended, with removal an immediate option.

Sobrino's best-known early work was Christology at the Crossroads, which is one of the basic texts of "liberation theology". This was a viewpoint on Christian theology that stemmed from the experience of Latin American Christians who suffered from both economic deprivation and bad government, often a dictatorial kind. It grew out of an official position of the Latin American Church that emphasized a "preferential option for the poor".

It's essentially impossible to summarize a serious theological movement in a few words. But if I had to do so, I would say that it was an attempt to elaborate the social doctrines of Christianity in a way relevant to the conditions of the late 20th century, with heavy emphasis on the prophetic tradition.

One of the institutions associated with liberation theology was known as "base communities". These were associations of local people who tried to cooperatively address very practical problems in their local villages, such as digging wells. Priests working with those communities encouraged discussion of Scriptural texts in light of the social experience of the local communities.

It's not surprising that this led to a perspective on Christianity that was not comforting to the comfortable.

A favorite text of those active in the base communities and liberation theology was the passage from Luke known as the
Magnificat of Mary, which includes these lines (RSV):

He has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.

Sobrino teaches at the University of Central America. Fortunately for him, he was out of the country on a teaching assignment on November 16, 1989, when Salvadoran soldiers murdered six priests on the campus, including the rector of the university. An event worth remembering when we hear references to a possible "Salvador option" in Iraq.

The news articles are also fairly vague about the nature of the Holy Office's criticisms. They accused the criticized works for being in error in both methodology and content. The essential argument seems to be that Sobrino's emphasizes the humanity of Jesus too much in comparison to his divine nature. According to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (which is so hard to understand that even theological-minded Christians wind up calling it "a mystery"), Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine.

Though liberation theology as a movement or intellectual trend has been largely suppressed by the Church for the moment, I continue to think that approach offers some real insight into how the Christian religion can conceptualize the challenges of the Church in today's conditions. I don't think it's going away.

Other news reports:

El Vaticano hace una advertencia contra las tesis del teólogo español Jon Sobrino El Mundo 14.03.07

Jon Sobrino espera ser sancionado por el Vaticano por 'falsear la figura del Jesús histórico' El Mundo 13.03.07

La primera condena del papa Benedicto XVI El País 13.03.2007

El Vaticano sanciona a Jon Sobrino, el principal teólogo de la liberación de Emilio de Benito El País 13/03/2007

Vaticano condena la obra de Jon Sobrino, importante teólogo de la liberación El Comercio (Ecuador) 03/14/07

On the mixed performance of the current Pope Benedict XVI:
The Puzzling Pope: Who Is Benedict XVI? by Andrew Greeley Commonweal 11/03/06

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