By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s departure for Brazil, his first trip to Latin America, one of the region’s best-known Catholic theologians – whose work recently drew a negative review from the Vatican – has spoken out forcefully in defense of liberation theology and its “option for the poor.”
Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino’s essay, his first public statement since a critical March 14 notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, comes in a May 1 collection of essays published by the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.
While warning against deficiences in two books by Sobrino on Christology, the Vatican did not subject him to any disciplinary sanctions, including any restrictions on his freedom to publish. Though born in Spain, Sobrino has spent most of his career in El Salvador.
The question of the church’s engagement on behalf of the poor, and the proper theological framing of that commitment, is likely to be an important subtext to Benedict’s May 9-13 trip to Sao Paulo and Aparecida, Brazil, for the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM). Before he was elected to the papacy, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the architect of the Vatican’s crackdown on liberation theology in the 1980s, though Ratzinger always insisted that his concern was with faulty theology, not with the church’s defense of the poor.
In a similar vein, Vatican officials stressed that the March 14 notification on Sobrino was not intended as a further blow against liberation theology, but rather as a corrective to what were seen as problems in Sobrino’s Christology, meaning his presentation of Jesus Christ. Insisting upon the divine nature of Jesus, so that Christ is not reduced to simply a religious sage or social activist, is a core concern of the Vatican. It was also one motive for Benedict XVI’s recent book, Jesus of Nazareth.
In his 4,000-word essay, Sobrino does not comment in detail on the Vatican notification, but he offers a ringing defense of liberation theology.
Sobrino calls liberation theology a “great tradition” which he and like-minded thinkers want to “maintain, update and improve.”
“The spirit of that theology continues to inspire,” Sobrino writes: “That the indigenous, above all Africans, do not die in oblivion and silence, and that we don’t relent in defense of human rights and of the poor mother earth.”
Sobrino reflects at length on the idea of “the poor” in theological discussion.
“The poor are those people who do not take life for granted, like something normal,” Sobrino writes. “The poor are those who have no name … the poor are those who, if I may put it this way, have no calendar. For example, no one remembers October 7, even if we all recall Sept. 11. October 7 was the day the democracies bombed Afghanistan, as a response to Sept. 11. Without names or calendars, the poor don’t exist. They are not. … But they do exist, and in them a great mystery shines: ‘primordial sanctity.’ Thus in fear and trembling, I have written: Extra paupers nulla salus. (‘Outside the poor, there is no salvation.’)”
Sobrino then recalls a saying of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, whom Sobrino served as a key theological advisor: Gloria Dei vivens pauper. (‘The glory of God is a poor man fully alive.’) Sobrino suggests that this saying could function as “brief formula of Christianity.”
“For today, Romero is only a Servant of God, even if for the poor and those of a good heart he is ‘Saint Romero of America,’” Sobrino writes.
Sobrino notes that in the Middle Ages, the poor were referred to as “Vicars of Christ.” He recalls that the assembly of the bishops of Latin America in Pueblo, Mexico, in 1979, asserted that God “defends and loves the poor, independently of their personal and moral situations.”
In what appears to be an indirect reference to the March 14 Vatican notification, Sobrino concedes that liberation theology “can have its successes and its errors, it can offer salvation but also dangers.”
“Personally, I’m quick, as I think we all are, to amend whatever is in error. I don’t see any problem here. What I see as more necessary is that everyone’s responsibility, according to the nature of each case – administrative-hierarchical, intellectual, academic, as well as the sensus fidelium of the People of God – be applied so that the faith is alive and gives life, so that theology is truthful, true and salvific,” Sobrino writes.
“These days, several groups have given their opinions about my Christology,” Sobrino writes. “The ecclesiastical officials in charge of doctrine have done so, as have a great number of theologians, in various places, responsible and prestigious people. Let’s hope that a true dialogue occurs, and that the attitude of shaping Christology ‘among all’ prospers, always respecting the different cases involved.”
Sobrino says that “they,” presumably meaning Vatican officials, refer to the faith of the church and to tradition.
t“In substance, I believe we all take this as something obvious,” Sobrino writes. “But it doesn’t seem right to send us to the past in such a way that the past seems jealous of, and superior to, the present, so that the ‘now’ of God is obscured.”
“People speak about dangers, and we all want to avoid falling into them,” Sobrino writes. “Sometimes it can be easy to detect them, but other times it’s not so simple. If a Christology endangers the transcendental relationship with God, and the relationship – for some also transcendental, for others, at least, essential – between God and the victims and the oppressed, then that danger is obviously something negative. But if it ‘endangers’ an image of Jesus Christ that favors all that serves power, riches and worldly honor, then this danger is positive. It is a way of ‘endangering’ human sinfulness, which also effects theology.”
“I’ll say it with simplicity,” Sobrino writes. “If a Christology animates the poor of this world, the victims of great sins – including the sins of those who call themselves believers – and enables [the poor] to maintain their faith in God and in Christ, to have dignity and hope, then that Christology can of course have its limitations, but I don’t consider it dangerous in the world of the poor, but rather positive – although it can be seen, as has been seen, as dangerous in other worlds.”
“We’re dealing with a delicate subject,” Sobrino writes: “When a Christology is not only conceptually correct, but also Christian and existentially pastoral. In these days, many have wanted to thank those believers and theologians who have helped them discover Jesus as Good News. In that, they don’t see any danger.”
Sobrino then warns against some “demons of our time,” including:
•tDocetism: “To live in surreality, to live in abundance and pomp while the world starves;
•tGnosticism: “To look for salvation in esoteric things, and not in discipleship of Jesus;
•tA “light” faith and liturgy, “when what reality demands of us is a strong faith.”
Sobrino concludes with the hope that the “Christ of Medellin,” referring to the 1968 gathering of the Latin American bishops which endorsed the “option for the poor,” will “return and remain in this continent.”
Sobrino’s essay, along with the rest of the collection, in Spanish and Portuguese, is available here: http://www.eatwot.org/TheologicalCommission/