Friday, March 23, 2007

Heresy and Vatican equivocation

The Vatican has censured the writings of Father Jon Sobrino, a Roman Catholic priest in El Salvador notorious as an advocate of liberation theology. Pope Benedict XVI has ordered the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to denounce publicly on March 14, 2007 certain writings by Fr Jon Sobrino, SJ a well-known theologian, for containing "erroneous" and "dangerous" theses and "notable discrepancies with the faith of the Church" that "may cause harm to the faithful".

There are no direct steps to remove Sobrino, to prevent him from "teaching Catholic theology" or to stop Roman Catholics from reading his books. The warning assumes that Roman Catholics will continue to read Sobrino's works and simply seeks "to offer the faithful a secure criterion, founded on the doctrine of the Church, by which to judge" what they will read. The warning ends vaguely "The purpose of this Notification is precisely to make known to all the faithful the fruitfulness of theological reflection that does not fear being developed from within the living stream of ecclesial Tradition."

It seems that in the late 1970s or early 1980s the Vatican accused him of denying that Christ was both "true God and true man". They later dropped the charges when Fr Juan Alfaro SJ defended him. The Vatican now say that Sobrino "does not deny the divinity of Christ" but that he fails to "affirm" it with "sufficient clarity". Also his writings "tend to exclude" Jesus' self-awareness of being divine". The Vatican are pulling back from what is quite obvious just because the language of this author is slightly obscure. Sobrino says "the limited human is predicated of God, but the unlimited divine is not predicated of Jesus" (Christ the Liberator, 223, cf. 332-333). He also says that "[The New Testament] makes clear that he was intimately bound up with God, which meant that his reality had to be expressed in some way as a reality that is of God". Sobrino believes that the major Councils of the early Church moved away from the historical Jesus.

The Vatican statement also notes that "In some texts some assertions of Father Sobrino make one think that, for him, Jesus did not attribute a salvific value to his own death: "Let it be said from the start that the historical Jesus did not interpret his death in terms of salvation, in terms of soteriological models later developed by the New Testament, such as expiatory sacrifice or vicarious satisfaction […]. In other words, there are no grounds for thinking that Jesus attributed an absolute transcendent meaning to his own death, as the New Testament did later" (Jesus the Liberator, 201). "In the Gospel texts it is impossible to find an unequivocal statement of the meaning Jesus attached to his own death" (Ibidem, 202). "…Jesus went to his death with confidence and saw it as a final act of service, more in the manner of an effective example that would motivate others than as a mechanism of salvation for others. To be faithful to the end is what it means to be human" (Ibidem, 204)."

The statement circles around these issues in a very equivocal way, hinting at but refusing to condemn the writings as heretical. Sobrino is simply guilty of "imprecisions". It shows that the Vatican is aware of error but feels that this is the most that it can do nothing to take firm action against it.

The reason that the Vatican has been reticent to condemn Sobrino overmuch is seen in the backlash against the statement by Jesuits across the world. In Italy, Australia and Brazil there have been protests. In Spain, three groups, the Association of Theologians of John XXIII, Somos Iglesia (We Are Church) and Christianity and Justice, a Jesuit study centre in Catalonia have attacked the statement accusing the Vatican of engaging "in a secret process, without discussion and in an authoritarian manner". In Germany, the Roman Catholic theological faculties of Graz and M√ľnster universities expressed their deep concern at the Vatican reprimand and avowed their full support for the theologian.

The Vatican must be more worried now than it was originally.