Vatican criticizes Jesuit liberation theologian, issues no sanctions
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican strongly criticized the work of Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, a leading proponent of liberation theology, saying some of his writings relating to the divinity of Christ were "not in conformity with the doctrine of the church."
In publishing a detailed notification March 14, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said it wanted to warn pastors and ordinary Catholics of the "erroneous or dangerous propositions" in Father Sobrino's work.
The notification did not, however, impose any disciplinary measures on Father Sobrino, such as limiting his right to teach or publish as a Catholic theologian. Father Sobrino, 69, was born in Spain and has taught for many years at the Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador.
The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said that while the Vatican has not imposed sanctions on Father Sobrino "this does not mean other authorities, for example a bishop, cannot decide that in light of this notification Father Sobrino cannot teach or give conferences" in a specific diocese or institution.
Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle of San Salvador, where Father Sobrino resides, told reporters March 11 that Father Sobrino would not be able to teach theology unless he revised his positions in light of the Vatican critique.
The Vatican notification came after six years of study by the doctrinal congregation, which focused on Father Sobrino's widely read books, "Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View" and "Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims."
In 2004, Father Sobrino was sent a list of Vatican objections to his works; he responded in 2005 in a way that indicated modification of his thought, but which the Vatican still deemed unsatisfactory.
In October 2006 Pope Benedict XVI approved the notification in an audience with U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the doctrinal congregation. It was the first public declaration against a theologian's work under Pope Benedict, who headed the doctrinal congregation until his election as pope in 2005.
The doctrinal congregation said its objections fell into six categories:
-- Father Sobrino's "methodological presupposition," it said, identifies the ecclesial foundation of Christology with "the church of the poor" instead of the apostolic faith as transmitted through the church for generations.
-- It said Father Sobrino's proposal that the divinity of Christ is found in the New Testament only "in seed" and was formulated dogmatically after later reflection, although not denying the divinity of Jesus, fails to affirm it with "sufficient clarity."
-- Because of the way Father Sobrino treats the divine and human natures of Christ, "the unity of the person of Jesus is not clear," it said.
-- Father Sobrino distinguishes between Jesus as mediator and the kingdom of God in a way that obscures the universal and absolute nature of Christ's salvation, it said.
-- By emphasizing Christ's humanity, the congregation said, Father Sobrino downplays Christ's awareness of his own divinity and the divine plan of salvation.
-- In some of Father Sobrino's texts, it said, he appears to presume that Jesus did not attribute a salvific value to his own death, but only saw it as having exemplary value for others.
In an accompanying explanatory note, the doctrinal congregation said its issues were not with Father Sobrino's concern for the poor but with his Christological conclusions.
"Father Sobrino manifests a preoccupation for the poor and the oppressed, particularly in Latin America. This preoccupation certainly is shared by the whole church," it said.
But the church cannot express its preferential option for the poor through "reductive sociological and ideological categories," it said.
Father Jose de Vera, a spokesman for the Jesuits in Rome, said the order naturally accepted the congregation's notification, but would make no formal statement on it. Whether there is any action taken by the Jesuit order will depend on Father Sobrino's local superior, he said.
"Father Sobrino is ready to obey his superiors, as he has always done," Father de Vera said.
The Jesuit spokesman pointed out, however, that the notification carried no penalties or sanctions, and was a theological critique rather than an outright condemnation.
"Father Sobrino is not a rebel. He does not have heretical opinions. His faith is the faith of the Catholic Church -- he says that. The only thing is that he is presenting it in a different way," Father de Vera said.
He said the Jesuit superior general, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, had presented his views on Father Sobrino's works to the doctrinal congregation.
In general, Father de Vera said, the Jesuits emphasize that Father Sobrino's theology was born out of his experience in impoverished El Salvador, a country plagued by violence in the 1980s and '90s. Father Sobrino saw many of his companions murdered; in 1989, he escaped being killed with six Jesuit colleagues because he happened to be out of the country.
"This was a place of injustice and sin. These experiences have perhaps pushed him to express his thought in a way that is not that of pure, scientific theological expressions," Father de Vera said.
The text of the 14-page notification was released by the Vatican press office in Spanish, English, Italian and Portuguese.
In a concluding section, it said theological reflection cannot have a foundation other than the faith of the church, and must be carried out "in communion with the magisterium," the church's teaching authority.
In a written commentary, Father Lombardi said the Vatican was not questioning Father Sobrino's good intentions or his observations about situations of dramatic injustice.
Theologians who experience this poverty and injustice firsthand can be led to construct a "Christology from below" that emphasizes Christ's humanity, Father Lombardi said.
"This was certainly the situation of Father Sobrino, in the characteristic path of Latin American theology, which is so attentive to the journey of human and spiritual liberation of the populations of the continent," Father Lombardi said.
The problem, the Vatican spokesman said, is that this approach can undervalue Christ's divine nature, placing in question fundamental elements of the faith.
Vatican Radio interviewed Augustinian Father Prosper Grech, a consultor to the doctrinal congregation, who said one big reason for the notification was that Father Sobrino's books are not only widely read but are used in seminaries.
The books in question are not in any way prohibited, he said, but should be used with caution.
"It is a question of telling the faithful, look, read (Father) Sobrino's books as much as you like, but remember that these points which we have touched upon are, let us say, dangerous for the faith," Father Grech said.
"We are not speaking here of explicit heresy, of personal excommunication, but of theological statements which endanger the faith of the Catholic Church," he said.