Rome accused of bullying Latin American liberation theologian

By staff writers
March 16, 2007

In a move which will confirm its critics’ accusations of authoritarianism, the Vatican has issued a stern warning to pioneering Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, sending a formal notification claiming two of his books “may cause harm to the faithful.”

Sobrino is a Jesuit priest, a highly regarded scholar and was formerly theological adviser to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador – gunned down by US-backed death squads for his advocacy on behalf of the poor. Other Salvadorean priests and theologians were also killed in the 1980s.

The ruling from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican’s ideological watchdog, formerly headed by Pope Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) finds various “flaws” in works by Sobrino.

In particular, it complains that he gives insufficient emphasis to the divinity of Christ in the earliest Christian writings (as distinct from later sources), and it suggests he ascribes to movements of the poor roles which belong to “the apostolic faithful”. Fr Sobrino says his work has been misrepresented as part of a campaign to discredit liberation theology.

Contrary to a number of media reports, including some from Roman Catholic press services, the Vatican has not barred Fr Sobrino from teaching or publishing, though a Jesuit spokesperson in Rome said that future disciplinary action had not been ruled out.

Liberation theology is a movement which argues that the Christian gospels show God as having a particular concern for the marginalized and oppressed. It sees God’s action for the poor as a key interpretative tool in reading the Bible, and a decisive element in the vocation and mission of the church.

Its opponents have tried to cast it as Marxism in priestly garb. But the chief proponents of liberation theology have been doctrinally conservative as well as politically radical, and have distinguished between the political and moral critique offered by the left and its philosophical underpinnings or ideological theories.

Friends and colleagues of Fr Sobrino are expressing shock but no surprise at the Vatican’s move. Some say that it is part of a calculated attempt to suppress alternative voices – one which has also targeted Roger Haight (another Jesuit, and a philosophical theologian of international standing), Jacques Dupuis (an inter-faith scholar), Leonardo Boff (another liberation theology forerunner) and Tissa Balasuriya (a Sri Lankan priest who wrote a controversial book on Mary and liberation).

Those advocating women’s ordination and recognition of lesbian and gay people have also been stamped on hard.

Fr Sobrino has not yet commented on the affair, but in a letter to Peter Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Jesuits, in December 2006, he said that he could not accept the Vatican’s judgment, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

NCR says he cited two reasons for rejecting the Sacred Congregation’s stance. 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.

This campaign against theology that speaks up for social justice, Jon Sobrino wrote to his superior, “is of little help to the poor of Jesus and to the church of the poor.”

A Catholic commentator told Ekklesia today: "This action [by the Vatican] will be seen by many as heavy-handed, ideologically motivated and bullying."

The books which have come under scrutiny are Jesus the Liberator, originally released in 1991, and Christ the Liberator, first issued in 1999. Both were published in English by Orbis Books in the USA.

Jon Sobrino, now aged 69, was born in the Basque region of Spain. He joined the Jesuits and arrived in El Salvador in 1958. He became one of the leading voices in liberation theology, widely regarded as the most important stream in Latin American Catholicism following the reforming Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In 1989, Fr 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 cited “the wide diffusion of Father Sobrino’s works, especially in Latin America,” as grounds for the action – which began in 2001.

In his letter to Kolvenbach, Fr Sobrino points out that the two books in question were reviewed extensively by fellow theologians prior to publication – and one carried the imprimatur of then Cardinal Arns of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Fr Sobrino says it would not be honest or ethical for him to accept the Vatican’s findings, and that to do so would be to question the judgment of many other theologians who have approved his work and affirmed it as appropriate Catholic theology.

NCR reports Fr Sobrino as writing to his Superior last year: “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.”

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.