Friday, March 23, 2007

John Allen on the Censuring of Jon Sobrino

Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino (pictured below) was censured last week by the Vatican. Sobrino, of course, is one of the great pioneers of liberation theology, aspects of which have long been a bone of contention for both Pope Benedict XVI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Yet as National Catholic Reporter columnist John L. Allen, Jr. astutely
notes, the Notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sobrino “is not really [about] old arguments over liberation theology and Marxism, but rather more recent debates over the uniqueness and singularity of Jesus Christ.”

Accordingly, Allen observes that the Notification on Jon Sobrino “is of a piece . . . not with the 1984 ‘Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation,’ but rather the 2001 document ‘Dominus Iesus,’ and the proper analogy is not to 1980s-era investigations of Leonardo Boff or Gustavo Gutiérrez, but rather to notifications over the last six years regarding Jesuits Roger Haight* and the late Jacques Dupuis.”

Following are excerpts from Allen’s report on Sobrino’s censuring by the Vatican:

Surveying the contemporary scene, the Vatican’s core theological concern is that, in the name of cultural and religious pluralism, traditional doctrines about Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the World gradually will be drained of their content. Theologians may continue to use the old vocabulary, but what they mean by it will mutate, and over time the Second Person of the Trinity will be replaced with a merely human Jesus analogous to other great religious founders and prophets.

Christology is, to this way of thinking, the “canary in the coal mine” for the impact of religious relativism on Catholic doctrine. Once the decision is made that it’s arrogant to impute a special truth value to Christianity, then traditional claims about Christ have to be understood as “metaphors” or “symbols,” rather than as statements of fact. If that’s allowed to happen, then Christian doctrines become a sort of religious poetry, rather than a body of teaching grounded in ultimate reality.

. . . Confusion on Christology, as the pope sees it, ultimately brings us back to liberation theology. If the objective truth of teachings on Christ is set aside, Ratzinger has observed, then some other reason has to be found for holding onto them. Usually, that reason is their purported social utility – that they promote liberation of the poor and oppressed. As Ratzinger has put it, such a move marks the triumph of orthopraxis over orthodoxy. Religious relativism, he believes, ends in a kind of liberation theology by default.

. . . Benedict’s concern is not just a matter of defending what he regards as a core truth of the faith. He also believes that defective Christological doctrines can have two dangerous consequences:

(i) If Christ is not understood as the lone and unique savior of the world, then Christian missionary efforts may be undercut, something the pope believes has already happened to some extent in the post-Vatican II church;

(ii) If Christ is seen as merely a human being, then Christian service to the world could be reduced to a “purely sociological” endeavor, as opposed to something that points to a spiritual message about supernatural redemption and salvation.

Given all that Benedict XVI and his team at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith believes to be at stake, this is likely not the last time we’ll hear from the Holy See about debates in Christology. In that sense, this week’s notification on Sobrino is not so much a remembrance of things past, but a sign of things to come.

To read John Allen’s article, “Sobrino’s Notification: A Sign of Things to Come,” in its entirety, click here.

* For an insightful article regarding the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s censuring of theologian Roger Haight, click here.

NOTE: The National Catholic Reporter's March 23 editorial offers the opinion that, “The broad legitimacy of the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s] concern over protecting the boundaries of belief does not justify the particular process followed in [Sobrino’s] case, or the particular conclusions reached.

The editorial goes on to note the following:

Those who know Sobrino testify to his personal integrity, and to the solidity of his Catholic faith. His heroism over the years in standing up for the marginalized and oppressed is beyond question. This history suggests that his theology ought to be given the benefit of the doubt, and presumed to be orthodox unless it is obviously otherwise.

Moreover, Sobrino said that a number of theologians reviewed the two books in question prior to publication, and found them free of doctrinal error. One quipped that if he were to apply the same “hermeneutics of suspicion” used by the Vatican to the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, he could find plenty of heresy there, too. Sobrino himself says he does not recognize his theology in the notification.

It is hardly “dissent” to observe that the current process -- in which the targeted theologian is basically a bystander, and much of the review is carried out by people seemingly determined to find heresy -- is not constructive. A more generous and creative way of doing business is urgently needed.

Imagine, for example, if the doctrinal congregation had invited Sobrino and other liberationists to collaborate on a joint document about dangers to be avoided in Christological exploration. Such a text would have had much greater impact than a unilateral declaration from authority.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Text of the Notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sobrino
“Censure Dismays Priest’s Supporters,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2007.
“The Sentence Against Theologian Jon Sobrino is Aimed at Entire Continent,” Sandro Magister, Free Republic, March 20, 2007.
A Concise History of Liberation Theology by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff
Christ’s History, and Ours by Gustavo Gutierrez

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
“Understanding Jesus’ Divinity” in Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy
Revisiting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)


pendean said...

I'm delighted to see my work used in this way!

Every blessing

Philip Endean sj

Michael J. Bayly said...


Philip’s comment refers to the previous post, Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity - a post that for some reason is not displaying the icon signifying that you can leave a comment, and thus allowing folks to do so.

If anyone knows what’s going on and how I can rectify this glitch, I’d appreciate it.



Michael J. Bayly said...

Okay, I've just copied and reposted the text of "Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity," and it's looking like one can now leave a comment in response to it.



Michael J. Bayly said...

"Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity" can now be found here.