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Vatican censures Sobrino, who calls procedures 'not honest'

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
New York

tTwo books on Christology by a pioneer of the liberation theology movement contain statements that are “either erroneous or dangerous,” according to a formal Vatican notification published today, “and may cause harm to the faithful.”

tThe ruling from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith finds various flaws in the works by Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, a former theological adviser to Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Most notably, it complains of insufficient emphasis on the divinity of Christ.

Contrary to some early reports, the Vatican has not barred Sobrino from teaching or publishing, though a Jesuit spokesperson in Rome said that future disciplinary action has not been ruled out.

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John Allen offers more analysis of the Sobrino cases in his weekly column: Sobrino's notification: a sign of things to come.

tSobrino himself has not yet commented, but in a December letter to Fr. Peter Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Jesuits, Sobrino said he could not accept the Vatican’s judgment for two reasons: first, because it misrepresents his theology; and second, because to do so would be to acquiesce in what he described as a 30-year-long campaign of defamation against liberation theology, which, Sobrino wrote, “is of little help to the poor of Jesus and to the church of the poor.”

tThe letter, which is dated December 13, 2006, has not been made public, but NCR obtained a copy.

tThe books in question are Jesus the Liberator, originally released in 1991, and Christ the Liberator, first issued in 1999. Both were published in English by Orbis Books.

tSobrino, 69, was born in the Basque region of Spain. He joined the Jesuits and arrived in El Salvador in 1958. Sobrino became one of the leading voices in liberation theology, the most important current in Latin American Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It was designed to break the traditional alliance of the Latin American church with social elites, and to support justice for the poor. The movement aroused fierce opposition; in 1989, Sobrino narrowly escaped an attack on the University of Central America that left six of his fellow Jesuits dead, plus their housekeeper and her daughter. The Vatican has also been critical, issuing documents in 1984 and in 1986 warning of excessive reliance on Marxism, a sociological concept of sin, and a this-worldly understanding of salvation.

tWhile calling Sobrino’s concern for the poor “admirable,” and stating that it does not intend “to judge the subjective intentions of the author,” the new Vatican notification nonetheless cites six categories of errors in the two books:
•tSobrino’s method makes the “church of the poor” the central context for theology, thus minimizing or ignoring the apostolic tradition of the church, especially as expressed in the declarations of early church councils;
•tIt’s not sufficiently clear in his work that the divinity of Christ is taught by the New Testament itself, as opposed to being a product of later dogmatic development;
•tIn places, Sobrino tends toward the ancient Christological heresy of “assumptionism,” treating the historical Jesus as a separate figure who was “assumed” by the divine Son of God;
•tSobrino makes too strong a distinction between Christ and the Kingdom of God, thereby devaluing the “unique and singular” significance of Christ;
•tJesus’ self-consciousness as messiah and as the Son of God are not sufficiently clear;
•tThe death of Christ on the Cross is reduced to a moral example, rather than understood as having universal significance for salvation.

While battles over liberation theology date back to the 1970s and 1980s, the Vatican said that the examination which led to this notification began only in 2001. It cited “the wide diffusion of Father Sobrino’s works, especially in Latin America,” as grounds for the action.

tIn his letter to Kolvenbach, Sobrino lays out the reasons why he is unable to accept the Vatican’s findings “without reservation.”

tIn the first place, he says, the two books in question were reviewed extensively by fellow theologians prior to publication. The Portuguese translation of Jesus the Liberator, Sobrino writes, carried the imprimatur of Cardinal Paolo Evaristo Arns of São Paulo, Brazil. For Christ the Liberator, Sobrino cites a number of theologians who he says found the book free of doctrinal error: Frs. J. I. González Faus, J. Vives and X. Alegre of the Monastery of San Cugat, Spain; Fr. Carlo Palacio, of Bello Horizonte, Brazil; Fr. Javier Vitoria of the University of Deusto in Spain; and Fr. Martin Maier, of the German Jesuit publication Stimmen der Zeit.

tIn addition, Sobrino writes that Maier sent a 2004 critique of Sobrino’s work from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to another Jesuit theologian, Fr. Bernard Sesboué,a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. Sobrino quotes from Sesboué’s response: “I do not want to answer with too much precision the document of the CDF, which appears so exaggerated as to be without value … with such a deliberately suspicious method, I could find many heresies in the encyclicals of John Paul II!”

tSobrino says it would not be honest for him to accept the Vatican’s findings, and that to do so would be to question the judgment of these other theologians.

tSecond, Sobrino complains to Kolvenbach about harassment from church authorities which he describes as reaching back to 1975, the year in which he first had contact with the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, and 1976, when he first heard from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He describes the Roman Curia’s methods as “not always honest or very evangelical.”

t“An atmosphere against my theology was created in the Vatican, in several diocesan curias and among several bishops,” Sobrino writes, “and in general against the theology of liberation. This atmosphere was created a priori, often with no need to read my writings.”

tSobrino says it would not be ethical for him to “approve or support” such efforts by signing the notification.

t“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,” Sobrino writes.t

tSobrino adds that he “knows very well” that suspicions about his influence on the writings and speeches of Romero is one reason that the late archbishop’s cause for beatification has been held up in the Vatican. Sobrino says that he has written a 20-page document on the subject, and signed it.

tSobrino goes on to cite numerous interventions by Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, currently President of the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome, as well as other examples of what he considers a climate of hostility.

Sobrino says that in “1987 or 1988,” he received an invitation to speak in the Viedma diocese of Argentina. He claims that Cardinal Raúl Francisco Primatesta of Córdoba, Argentina, objected, and the invitation was withdrawn. Sobrino says he was later told that the bishop of Viedma was given an ultimatum: Either cancel the invitation to Sobrino, or Viedma would be scrubbed from the itinerary for a future papal visit to the country.

Through the use of such methods, Sobrino writes, “many theologians, both men and women, who are good people – with their limitations, of course, but with great love for Jesus Christ, the church, and the poor – have been persecuted insensitively.”

Sobrino also cites several bishops, including Romero, Helder Camara of Brazil, Leonidas Eduardo Proaño of Ecuador, and Samuel Ruiz of Mexico, as well as Latin American Confederation of Religious (CLAR), as objects of what he considers similar persecution. Sobrino charges that elements of the hierarchy have sought to dismantle the “base communities” in Latin America.

Sobrino quotes extensively from a 1984 article on liberation theology by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger which was published in the Italian magazine 30 Giorni, and which Sobrino charges misrepresented his thinking on key points. Sobrino also reaffirms seven key elements of his own thought, including concern for the poor as the context for theology.

Extra pauperes nulla salus, Sobrino writes – “Outside the poor, there is no salvation.”

Sobrino also tells Kolvenbach that the notification will likely cause “some suffering” to his friends and family.



A copy of the notification is on the Vatican Web site:


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