Reflections on the Sobrino Notification

July 6, 2012 in Articles

Michael O’Sullivan has taught liberation theology at third level and with community groups for over 20 years and has lived and worked with the economically poor in El Salvador and elsewhere for almost as many years. He was the co-organiser and the chairperson of the first conference in Ireland on Liberation theology in 1976, and the editor of the conference proceedings entitled The Liberation of Theology: Theology of Liberation and the Irish Context (Dublin: Student Christian Movement, 1978).

The Latin American Catholic bishops met for only the second time at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968. (1) They met, three years after the end of Vatican II, to reflect on “the Church in the present-day transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council.” They knew 80% of the people in the continent were living in dire straits of economic poverty while unrest concerning the cry of the poor was growing. They were also aware of the Conciliar teaching calling on Christians to read the historical signs of the times (GS 4) (2) and to be in solidarity with “the joy and hope, the grief and anxiety of the people of this time in history, especially those who are poor” (GS 1).

In the light of such teaching they urged the Latin American Christian community, which numbered 90% of the population, to make a preferential option for the poor. They conceived this option in terms of a commitment to the liberation of the poor from their poverty, and derived their meaning for liberation from the doctrines of sin and salvation. For example, they said, “In the fullness of time, (God) sends his (sic) Son in the flesh, so that he might come to liberate men (sic) from the slavery to which sin has subjected them: hunger, misery, oppression, and ignorance (MC, n. 3); (3) “it (the current situation) appears to be a time full of zeal for…liberation from every form of servitude (MC, n. 4)…As Christians we believe this historical stage of Latin America is intimately linked to the history of salvation” (MC, p. 19). Consequently, pledged the bishops, “by its own vocation Latin America will undertake its liberation at the cost of whatever sacrifice” (MC, p. 23).

With the assassination of Rutilio Grande in March 1977, and of Ignacio Ellacuria and companions in November 1989, the Jesuits in El Salvador learned just how great a sacrifice such a vocation could bring. They learned this also from their bonds of solidarity with the poor who were being slaughtered on a shocking scale. Jon Sobrino would have been killed with his community in 1989 had he not been out of the country at that time. Having avoided assassination he now finds himself at 68 years of age in poor health, and confronted with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) negative judgement on aspects of his theology, which he developed from a deeply held and contextualised faith in Jesus Christ. Having lived in community with him in El Salvador, having accompanied him in some of his ministry among basic Christian communities, having an awareness of how much he has strengthened and developed the faith of numerous people, some among the most economically poor on the earth, and having read some of his writings, I am of the view that he may well be a saint.

It is not possible in the space available to me to comment in detail on the charges made against Sobrino by the recent Notification, or to do so in a way that might construe the document in a better light. And so I will confine myself to a few points. Firstly, Liberation theology, of which Sobrino is a leading exponent, is the only theology to my knowledge that has brought the embodied and historical concreteness of the poverty of the great majority of the world’s people to the very heart of its endeavour. This makes it a frightening theology for those who are not subjected daily to such poverty. Unlike Jon, they have not chosen to live and work in solidarity with people unable to avoid such poverty, or, like him, suffered the loss of loved ones who were assassinated because they took seriously what the bishops said at Medellín.

Secondly, the CDF Notification accuses Sobrino, among other things, of not doing justice to the divinity of Jesus. Since doing justice to the mystery of Jesus Christ in language and concept is a complex task, misunderstandings can easily arise. However, a surprising feature of the Notification is that it seems in places to go against some very reputable scholarship published in the last forty years and more. (4) This may help to explain Sobrino’s view that the CDF, according to information sent to me by friends of his in El Salvador, has misrepresented him. Like other liberation theologians, Jon has cherished the long standing belief in the tradition that Jesus was “like us in all respects but sin” (Heb 2:17) (5) which indicates that Jesus also “grew in wisdom” (Lk 2:40). It was not felt necessary in the past to add that Jesus was also unlike us because of his divinity. But this is what the Notification would appear now to require. However, a danger with its present position is that it could underemphasise faith in the real humanity of Jesus, which could, in turn, undermine faith in the doctrine of salvation since for centuries Christians have been guided by Gregory of Nazianzus’ belief that “what is not assumed (taken on) is not redeemed”. (6)

Sobrino’s emphasis on the humanity of Jesus is partly influenced by his desire to overcome heretical tendencies concerning the Incarnation. He is concerned that we believe Jesus really was incarnate. If Jesus had a real humanity, and “did not cling to his equality with God” (Phil 2:6), then he was not impervious to his own, and other people’s, suffering having a real effect on him. This makes the love he exercised on behalf of our salvation all the more astonishing since if his love came from his divinity but only appeared to pass through suffering in his humanity it would be much less impressive and do an injustice to the transcendence love sourced in our humanity requires of us. But for Sobrino, and the other liberation theologians, the Incarnation is not just about Jesus becoming human. What makes it truly extraordinary, in their view, is that Jesus became human “from below,” to use Gustavo Gutierrez’s phrase, in the sense that be became human from a position of low social standing, and was “the human and ordinary God,” to use the phrase of Carlos Mejía Godoy, the Nicaraguan composer.

This emphasis on the manner, and not simply the fact, of Jesus’ humanity is part of an overall emphasis by liberation theologians like Sobrino on the historical praxis (7) of liberation of Jesus. It enables them to highlight the soteriological value of the whole lived form of the Incarnation. It is in virtue of the reality of Jesus living a human and ordinary life precisely and carrying out the work of our salvation from the side of the poor, whatever the cost, that he reveals the divine quality of God’s love and draws us to believe in his own divinity: It takes God to love like that and it takes God with us in the form of God’s power at work in and among us for us to do something similar. The resurrection of Jesus verifies such faith, for liberation theologians, by vindicating the historical person and project of Jesus; so that for us to believe in his resurrection without living a life patterned on his at the level of contemporary knowledge and need would be a contradiction. At this point resurrection faith drives the liberation project and helps to explain the courage of countless Christians in Latin America. The really challenging question posed by Sobrino and other liberation theologians, therefore, is this: Are we willing to learn from God through this Jesus what salvation means and to act accordingly?

I have written this piece on the anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination (March 24th – he and Sobrino were good friends; Jon was often his advisor). Outside my office, in the grounds of Milltown, rows of lit candles frame the plaque of Oscar inviting people to remember him and pray for the people of El Salvador. As I stood at this plaque today and that of Sobrino’s martyred community which faces it, (8) I wondered, when will the Vatican issue a statement about the writings of theologians who fail to take the situation of the economically poor seriously enough, and when will it issue a statement expressing gratitude to all those who have lived out their vocation for the liberation of the poor at a cost of considerable sacrifice.


1. The first meeting was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1955. The President of the Conference of Bishops at the time was Manuel Larrain of Chile, who was a great friend of St. Alberto Hurtado and gave the homily at his funeral Mass in 1952. The Executive Secretary was Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil.

2. GS = Gaudium et spes (1965).

3. MC = Medellín Conclusions.

4. For example, read what the Vatican Notification has to say about the divinity of Jesus and the knowledge of Jesus in conjunction with Peter Schineller’s “The Newer Approaches to Christology and Their Use in the Spiritual Exercises,” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 12/4-5 (1980).

5. It should also be said, however, that this received formulation is not free of androcentric bias.

6.Gregory of Nazianzus, “Epistle 101,” Christology of the Later Fathers. Vol. 3, ed. Edward R. Hardy (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), 215-224 at 218. This formulation, too, is not free of androcentric bias.

7. Praxis means to think and theorise in and in relation to a situation for the sake of transforming it.

8. A memorial to the martyred Jesuits, to the woman and her daughter who had come to the residence a few days earlier because their home had been damaged by gunfire only to be murdered with the Jesuits so as to leave no witnesses, and to Oscar Romero, was erected on the grounds of Milltown Institute in 1991/92. One of the slain Jesuits had studied theology at Milltown and another had done a year of his training in Dublin. Also, some staff and students at Milltown had been prominent over the years in public shows of discontent against U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, and there was a desire on the part of the Institute to be associated with the spirit of the Christian faith that does justice characteristic of the Jesuit University of San Salvador.