By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In 1971, Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez coined the phrase “Liberation Theology” with his groundbreaking work A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Liberation theology, partly because it carries a direct political payoff, went on to become perhaps the most consequential and controversial movement in Roman Catholic theology in the second half of the 20th century.
In the same year, another young Spanish-speaking theologian was also pondering the question of how to credibly preach salvation in the modern world. Unlike Gutierrez, however, the cultural point of reference for Adolfo Nicolás was not Latin America but Asia, and the answer he came up with was not the theology of liberation but rather The Theology of Progress – the title of the doctoral dissertation of the future Father General of the Jesuit order, completed at Rome’s Gregorian University in 1971.
Therein lies a key to understanding the mind and the perspective of the new leader of the flagship religious order in the Catholic church, according to a Jesuit who knows both Nicolás and the development of Catholic theology in the 20th century well: Fr. Josep M. Benitez i Riera, a historian and long-time faculty member at the Gregorian.
Benitez offered an informal briefing today for journalists about the new Jesuit general at the invitation of Rome’s Foreign Press Club.
Nicolás was never opposed to liberation theology, Benitez stressed, pointing out that he and Jon Sobrino, the famous Spanish Jesuit liberation theologian who has spent most of his career in Latin America, are friends and Jesuits of the same generation.
“Yet Sobrino chose the path of El Salvador, and Nicolás that of Asia,” Benitez said.
In brief, Benitez said the central difference between liberation theology and the “theology of progress” worked out by the young Nicolás is that the former is more pastoral and more political, while the starting point for Nicolás is more academic and existential – raising the question of the meaning of individual human lives in a rapidly changing world, rather than focusing directly on sociology and questions of structural injustice.
The theology of Nicolás, Benitez said, was informed more by Kant than by Mark, and drew above all on the pioneering theological work of the late German Jesuit theologian Fr. Karl Rahner. His dissertation, Benitez said, was written under the direction of Jesuit Fr. Juan Alfaro of the Gregorian University, a onetime member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission known for his writings on theological anthropology.
“This was the era of social realism, of Marx, and so on, in which progress was the watchword,” Benitez said. “Nicolás asked the question, 'Progress towards what?' In other words, is the modern concept of progress truly adequate for the human person? What is the finality of the human being and of creation?”
In turn, Benitez suggested, this contrast between Nicolás and the liberation theologians was shaped by differing cultural experiences: by the time he arrived at the Gregorian for doctoral studies, Nicolás had already spent four years teaching and working in Japan, and it was clear that Asia was his intellectual and spiritual horizon.
It is partly for this reason, Benitez argued, that Nicolás was correct when he insisted in a meeting with the press last Friday that he is not the second coming of the late Jesuit Fr. Pedro Arrupe, associated in the popular mind with the Jesuit commitment to social justice. While Nicolás supports and admires the social apostolate, Benitez suggested, his own interests cut deeper, towards the personal foundations of faith amid great social and cultural transformations.
While few Jesuits probably voted for Nicolás directly on the basis of this relatively obscure piece of academic work from almost 30 years ago, nonetheless, Benitez suggested, it reveals something about the man that many still find attractive: a deep intellect combined with a keen pastoral awareness of “today’s realities.”
In general, Benitez said that among Jesuits Nicolás is seen as “very balanced, very intelligent, and very calm.”
“He’s never created scandals in the past, and he knows how to manage very difficult problems,” Benitez said. He summarized the style of the new Jesuit general as “wanting to understand the reality of situations, with enormous respect for dialogue and the experience of the other,” combined with a “touch” of what Nicolás himself described last Friday as sort of Italian mentality by way of the Philippines – meaning a healthy capacity to adapt law to particular circumstances, thus avoiding what Benitez described as “fanaticism or fundamentalism.”
One further quality recommended him to the Jesuit electors, Benitez argued: the deep optimism of Nicolás about the future of religious life.
On that front, Benitez pointed to another book by Nicolás: The Horizon of Hope: Religious Life Today, published in 1978.
“There was a great debate in that era,” Benitez said. “The numbers were going down, and some actually wrote that religious life does not have a future.” In that context, he argued, Nicolás “opened a new path of hope” with his book, “putting the accent in religious life on discipleship of Christ and the importance of personal witness,” as opposed to great corporate works.
“That was the future, and Nicolás saw it,” Benitz said.
In a sense, Benitez argued, the 1978 title by Nicolás anticipated some elements of Pope Benedict XVI’s later encyclical on hope.
Finally, Benitez revealed one other intriguing aspect of the new Jesuit leader’s intellectual biography: Nicolás has a great capacity, Benitez said, for etymology, with the ability to explain the roots of terms in a variety of languages.
This is one of the reasons, Benitez suggested, that Nicolás is likely to get on well with Pope Benedict XVI: not only are they men of roughly the same age, but they are both intellectuals who can speak the same academic language.