Liberation theologian barred from teaching and publishing

January 01, 1970
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On March 14, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released the Notification concerning two books by the Spanish Jesuit Jon Sobrino, a liberation theologian, age 67, residing in El Salvador. Approved on October 13, 2006 by Benedict XVI who ordered its release, the document was signed on November 26, 2006 by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation. Fr. Sobrino teaches theology at the University of Central America.

“It is a warning from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, concerning certain points in his books,” declared Fr. Federico Lombardi, director for the Press Office of the Holy See. “The Congregation does not claim to judge the subjective intentions of the author,” specifies the Explanatory Note, “but it is its duty to draw attention to certain statements which do not conform to the doctrine of the Church.” The six disputed points are: “the methodological presuppositions enunciated by the author and upon which his methodological reflection is based; the divinity of Jesus Christ; the incarnation of the Son of God; the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God; the awareness that Jesus Christ has of Himself; and the salvific value of His death” in the two books: Jesucristo liberador – Lectura històrico- teologica de Jesus de Nazaret, published in Madrid in 1991 and La fe en Jesucristo – Ensayo desde la victimas, published in 1999 in San Salvador.

In October 2001, “because inaccuracies and errors found” in these two books, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had decided to conduct “a subsequent and detailed study.” In July 2004, the Congregation sent Fr. Sobrino a list of erroneous or dangerous propositions noted in the two books. In March 2005, the Jesuit Father replied to the text of the Congregation. But even though “the author had partially modified his thought on certain points, the answer was not satisfactory, and the errors which originated the sending of the above-mentioned propositions remained substantially present.” This is why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided to publish the Notification “so as to offer to the faithful a sure criterion of judgment, based on the doctrine of the Church, concerning the statements contained in the author’s writings.” – The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has previously published 11 notifications against works by theologians which did not conform to the Magisterium of the Church: Hans Küng, in 1975 and in 1980; Jacques Pohier in 1979, Edward Schillebeeckx in 1980, 1984 and 1985; Leonardo Boff, in 1985; Charles Curran, in 1986; Tissa Balasuriya, in 1997; Anthony de Mello S.J., in 1998; Reinhard Messner, in 2000; Jacques Dupuis S.J., and Marciano Vidal, in 2001; and Roger Haight S.J., in 2004.

“But there will be no sanction, and no condemnation” from the Holy See against Jon Sobrino, “the sanctions fall within the competence of the local bishops or the institutions” upon which the religious(Jon Sobrino) depends,” declared Fr. Lombardi.

Bishop Fernando Sanez Lacalle, archbishop of San Salvador, condemned Fr. Sobrino to be “barred from teaching theology in any Catholic center, until he revises his conclusions on a basic point of our faith: the divinity of Jesus Christ who is truly the Son of God made man.” The Jesuit is also forbidden to publish. “The Holy See deems that the conclusions of the theological writings which Fr. Sobrino published do not agree with the doctrine of the Church,” declared the archbishop. Fr. Jon Sobrino makes Jesus a defender of social causes and no longer a redeemer. He had already received several warnings from the Holy See and had refused to change his teaching, in spite of the request from the dicastery”, continued Archbishop Sanez Lacalle.

Archbishop Ignazio Sanna of Oristano, a theologian and member of the International Theological Commission, specified in the Avvenire of March 15: “We cannot impoverish Jesus under the illusion of promoting the poor.”

 

The Jesuit’s answer

Jon Sobrino sent a letter to Peter Hans Kolvenbach, the Superior General of the Jesuits and the intermediary between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Spanish Jesuit. In this letter, dated December 13, 2006, he says: “I absolutely do not feel represented in the overall judgment of the Notification. For this reason, it does not seem honest for me to subscribe to it.” (…) “The first book, Jesucristo liberador, Lectura historico-teologica de Jesus de Nazaret, was published in Spanish in 1991, and translated into Portuguese, English, German and Italian. The Portuguese translation received the imprimatur of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns [then archbishop of Sao Paulo (Brazil)], on December 4, 1992. As far as I know, no review, no oral theological comment questioned my doctrine.”

He continued: “a good number of theologians read both my books before the publication of the text by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2004. Several of them also read the text by the Congregation. Their unanimous judgment is that my books contain nothing that is not compatible with the faith of the Church.” He reported the comment by the French Jesuit Bernard Sesbouë, consultant for the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and former member of the International Theological Commission, as follows: “I did not want to give too precise an answer to the document from the Congregation which seems to me to be so exaggerated as to be worthless. Talleyrand said: What is exaggerated is insignificant! Following this deliberately suspicious method, I can read many heresies in the encyclicals of John Paul II!”

Recalling his 30 years of relations with the hierarchy, the Spanish Jesuit stated: “The document of 2004 and the Notification (of 2006) are not a complete surprise. Since 1975, I have had to answer to the Congregation for Catholic Education, under Cardinal Garrone, and to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, first under Cardinal Seper, and later, several times, under Cardinal Ratzinger.” (…) “I not only received serious warnings and accusations from these Congregations, especially that for the Faith, but very soon in several diocesan curiae and with several bishops, a climate of opposition to my was created at the Vatican – and in general, against liberation theology. They created an atmosphere of opposition a priori to my theology and often without even needing to read my writings.” (…) “For me it is not moral to approve or support with my signature a manner of proceeding which is not very evangelical.” (…) “I feel that to adhere to the Notification, which largely mainly expresses this campaign and this manner of proceeding which is often clearly unjust, against so many good people, would be to condone it. I do not want to sin through arrogance, but I do not think this would help the cause of the poor of Jesus and of the Church of the poor.”

The Italian Vatican observer Sandro Magister pointed out that Fr. Sobrino “named among his most bitter enemies Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo and complained that the continual rejection by the Vatican of the cause of beatification of the archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero, murdered in 1980, could be explained, among other reasons, precisely by the friendship between Archbishop Romero, and himself, Sobrino.” (…) “In his letter, Fr. Sobrino even criticized the man who was then Cardinal Ratzinger. He accused him of having misrepresented his thinking in an article against liberation theology published in 1984, in the weekly of Communion and Liberation, 30 Days. He recalled that, among the bishops attacked by Rome because of their sympathy for liberation theologians, were, besides Archbishop Romero, Brazilian Helder Camara, Mexican Samuel Ruiz, and Equatorian Leonidas Pronaño.” (…)

“Extra paupers nulla salus” wrote Fr. Sobrino in his letter, replacing the Church by the poor in the dogmatic formula “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.” This is precisely one of Fr. Sobrino’s theses which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith considers erroneous: to prefer the poor to “the apostolic Faith transmitted by the Church to all the generations” as “basic theological premise”, that is to say as main source of knowledge. The sentence of the Vatican acknowledges that Sobrino rightly takes care of the poor and the oppressed – an essential duty for all Christians – but it accuses him of diminishing the main features of Jesus: his divinity and the salvific value of his death, in the name of the liberation of the poor. (…) To “impoverish Jesus” means to not recognize his divinity and to consider him merely as a man, be it an exemplary liberator.” Sandro Magister concluded by explaining that the sentence of the Vatican “foreshadows one of the directions which will be given by the pope [during his visit next May] to the Latin-American Church, whose leaders are for the most part influenced by the spirit of liberation theology.”

 

Some reactions

Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan and historian of liberation theology, declared that “the condemnation of Jon Sobrino, one of the most serious and most evangelical theologians takes on a particular gravity.” It will drive the poor to despair and destroy a person of great spiritual talent, he said.

The theologians of the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Münster (Germany) received the announcement of the Notification with “consternation”. Fr. Sobrino is accomplishing a scientific work with a courageous commitment in favor of justice and peace, they specified in a communiqué dated March 15. The root issues he is reproached with by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should have remained subjects for theological discussion. – The Faculty of Münster had granted the doctorate honoris causa to the Spanish theologian in 1998.

Joseph Gähwiler, in charge of the Missionaries of Bethlehem Immensee (MBI) in Switzerland, stated that the main reproach of the Jesuit is to have described Jesus more as a companion of men than as a divine savior. Now, the concept of a Jesus in solidarity with man, as developed by Sobrino, is inseparably linked to the option for the poorest and the oppressed, according to MBI. Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose theological adviser Sobrino was, lived this vision all the way to martyrdom.

The German Jesuit Martin Maiera, on Radio Vatican defended his confrere Sobrino, who felt “he was incorrectly understood” by the Vatican, because during the five years that the procedings lasted, he was unable to have direct contacts with the members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who were reproaching him with grave errors.

The Central Mission of the Franciscans in Bonn, the Secretariat of the Missionaries of Steyl in Germany, the International Christian Initiative Lernen, the Romero Christian Initiative, the Freckenhorst Circle, the Initiative of the Church from the Rank and File in Bonn, the Institute for Theology and Politics in Münster, and the movement “We are Church” in Dachau, expressed themselves in a declaration published on March 14 in Münster: Does the Church take “her option in favor of the poor” seriously? Is it a matter of divergent opinions on questions of faith or a conflict for power?…

Fr. Jose de Vera, spokesman for the General Council of the Jesuits, specified that the liberation theologian is considered by his confreres as an eminently knowledgable man. The quotations with which he has been reproached by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith lead to an interpretation of his work which is contrary to their author’s meaning. His theology is influenced by his personal experience, especially as a young priest under the dictatorial regime in El Salvador, explained Fr. de Vera, adding that the Jesuit Order is “in complete agreement” with all his writings. However, the Superior General of the Jesuits will ask the theologian to no longer make pronouncements on the subjects specified by the Vatican, and Sobrino “will willingly accept the corrections, as he has done all through his life.”

The German theologian Peter Hünermann, emeritus professor at the University of Tübingen and former president of the European Association of Catholic Theology, asked for an “intelligent reform” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The latter remains an “authority for censure at the beginning of the modern era” which was satisfied with a “superficial” reading of Jon Sobrino’s writings in order to draw inadequate conclusions he declared to the monthly Herder Korrespondenz of Fribourg in Brisgau.