The Vatican and Jon Sobrino

March 26, 2007 in News

Jon Sobrino SJIn March 2007 the Vatican issued a Notification on two books by Jon Sobrino SJ, declaring that they contained erroneous propositions. Gerard O’Hanlon SJ offers some reflections on this event.

Readers of AMDG may have noted the recent Notification from the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith concerning the writings of Basque Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino. The Notification was approved by Pope Benedict last November and published this March, with an accompanying letter asking Episcopal conferences and local ordinaries to adopt ‘measures necessary’ to implement it.

Sobrino, 69, has spent most of his Jesuit life in El Salvador, was a close friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and is a leading exponent of Liberation Theology. The Notification maintains that in six areas of his theology Sobrino contains ‘erroneous propositions…which contain notable discrepancies with the faith of the Church’. These propositions regard: 1) the methodological presuppositions on which the Author bases his theological reflection (too much emphasis on option for the poor, too little on ecclesial faith), 2) the Divinity of Jesus Christ (not denied, but insufficiently asserted), 3) the Incarnation of the Son of God (insufficient clarity around the identification of the Son of God with Jesus), 4) the relationship between the Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God (the person of Jesus not sufficiently identified with the Kingdom of God), 5) the self-consciousness of Jesus (it is wrong to say that Jesus knew God by faith…his knowledge of his Father is immediate), 6) the salvific value of his death (the death of Jesus is not just an example of how we should die, but causes us to be saved).

The Notification is published ‘in order to offer the faithful a secure criterion, founded upon the doctrines of the Church, by which to judge the affirmations’ contained in the publications of the author. It is in measured language and is clear that it ‘does not intend to judge the subjective intentions of the Author’. While the issues addressed by the Notification are serious, the extent of Sobrino’s ‘erring’ are not such as to result in any precise prescribed sanctions. In sporting parlance The Tablet seems to have got it right in saying that the Vatican has whistled Sobrino for off-side (rather than extending a yellow, much less a red, card: and they have played the ball and not the man.) Nonetheless it is of course a blow to Sobrino – it is reported that the Archbishop of San Salvador has said that he can no longer teach or publish ‘until he rectifies his conclusions’, while Sobrino himself, and many of his followers, have interpreted the Notification in the political context of a wider campaign by Church authorities, dating back to 1975, against Liberation Theology.

Let me offer some reflections occasioned by this situation. First it seems to me that, in the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church), we have a gift from God which we do well to respect and treasure. The promise of the aid of the Holy Spirit to the teaching authority of the Church gives a unity and strength to Catholic teaching that is, when well used, a powerful force for good. That was experienced in the early centuries of the Church, when those first ecumenical Councils clarified teaching around the divinity of Jesus and the mystery of the Trinity. More recently we have benefited from the wisdom and cogency of Catholic Social Teaching and the inspiration of the Documents of the Second Vatican Council. In ecumenical dialogue many Protestant churches have expressed the desire to have a similarly authoritative teaching office. Some Muslims feel the lack of a unified presentation of their faith.

Secondly, although aided by the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium is not God and neither is all of what it says of equal authority or central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The dropping of St Christopher from the Church calendar of Saints is not at the same level as truths about the divinity of Jesus Christ: there is, then, a ‘hierarchy of truths’ about which the Magisterium proclaims. Furthermore the strength with which a particular truth is proposed by the Magisterium may vary. This used to be covered under an older theology by the notion of ‘theological notes’- particular propositions of the Magisterium would be judged by theologians to be ‘of faith’, or ‘church teaching’, or – weaker still- ‘offensive to pious ears’. What this refers to is the authoritative nature of the source and mode of the teaching – is it the Pope ex cathedra, the Pope in less solemn mode, an ecumenical council ( and even with that, does it involve Declarations, Decrees, Constitutions, Dogmatic Constitutions…?), a local Episcopal Conference, a local Bishop and the many other variations which are possible. While these fine distinctions may at first seem more confusing than enlightening, they too alert us to any tendency to a sort of ‘creeping infallibility’ that can become prevalent and they free the Church to speak more freely on matters that are not so definitively settled.

In all this we still struggle to understand more exactly the link between definitive teaching and the ‘sense of the faithful’. It is certainly true that Papal and Conciliar teachings are true in so far as they are faithful to the scriptures, creed and possibly the faith of the whole Church (Joseph Ratzinger, 1971): if a formal decision were to be made without these conditions in place it would be defective. Similarly, because faith is a free responsibility of the individual and errors have been made by the Magisterium, the role of conscience (yes, informed conscience) is sacred, so that Walter Kasper can even say: ‘Some situations oblige one to obey God and one’s conscience rather than the leaders of the Church. Indeed one may even be obliged to accept excommunication rather than act against one’s conscience’ (from Hoose article in The Furrow, see below). We know of egregious errors from past Church teaching – the teaching which defended slavery, the permission given in a papal Bull by Innocent IV for the torturing of people in order to get them to admit to heresy, Leo X’s defense of the burning of heretics at the stake and so on. We know of theologians and saints in the past and present who have been subject to Church suspicion and even condemnation and then rehabilitated – one thinks of Aquinas himself, Ignatius of Loyola, and such 20th century luminaries as Rahner, de Lubac, Chenu, Congar and even von Balthasar.

What all this points to is the need for the Church to exercise its teaching authority with care and for the rest of us to respond with maturity. So, for example, it really does seem that the ‘sense of the faithful’, which was attended to by the Church in the decades preceding Vatican II concerning the purpose of marriage (an equally primary role now given to the love between the partners, as to the procreation of children), has not been given sufficient attention in other sexual and gender issues (see the ongoing, but often unspoken, unease among theologians and faithful about issues like birth control and the ordination of women). And, at the same time, it often seems it is precisely in matters sexual that one incurs the most attention from Church authorities – ‘One can disagree with the pope about war and various issues of social ethics even on the front pages of national newspapers without inviting censure. Disagreement about contraception in a book that sells only a few hindered copies, however, can apparently land one in deep trouble’ (Hoose, 135).

Furthermore there has been a great deal of concern expressed about the manner in which investigations of theologians are conducted. As mild and Roman a person as emeritus professor Gerard O’Collins was minded to protest last year in The Table at the treatment of Jacques Dupuis by the Roman authorities. Procedures need not just to be fair but also humanly sensitive, as befits a Church which has at its centre not the Magisterium (however wonderful its role) but rather the love of God in Jesus Christ. Similarly while the delegation of powers to local episcopates in these matters is welcome (the Vatican, as mentioned, has left it to local authorities to take the appropriate measures in foot of the Notification), nonetheless there should also be transparent and just procedures of appeal at both local and Vatican level should the local Archbishop (as may be the case with Sobrino) take measures that are judged to be draconian. At the same time there is sometimes a natural human disinclination to listen to, much less accept, the voice of authority and, given the blessing that the Magisterium is and the improvements that can be made to its exercise, it would be short-sighted to adopt an excessively reactive attitude. Neither however should we be tempted to equate the Magisterium with the Holy Spirit nor to give it exaggerated importance.

Thirdly, let me briefly refer to the particular situation of Sobrino. I am not sufficiently well read in his theology to pass a judgment on the accuracy of the Notification. What I can say is that the measured language and meaning of the Vatican text might well serve a useful function in reading Sobrino himself. For centuries, since the definitive statement of the Council of Chalcedon (5th century) about Jesus Christ as God and man as one person and two natures, theologians and others have struggled to understand and express this mystery. The Vatican is concerned that Sobrino errs on the side of emphasizing the humanity of Jesus. This may be so, even if it has to be said that in the view of most theologians it has been the divinity that has traditionally been so stressed that often it seemed as if Jesus was only going through the motions of being human. The remark of Pope Leo I (who wrote to the Council of Chalcedon on the issues) is apposite: “it is as dangerous as evil to deny the truth of the human nature in Christ as to refuse to believe that his glory is equal to that of the Father’. Jesus was born, grew, suffered, was ‘like us in all things but sin’, felt abandoned by his Father…: I was not sure that the Vatican text itself succeeded in being even-handed between the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ when (pace Aquinas and Pius XII) it ascribes the Beatific Vision to Jesus in the context of his self-consciousness. Rahner’s distinction between unthematic and thematic knowledge, or Lonergan’s between basic and reflexive consciousness both seem to allow more scope for Jesus to be truly human while also divine. Even von Balthasar, pace the Notification, speaks of the ‘faith’ of Jesus Christ.

It is reported that impeccably orthodox theologians like the late Juan Alfaro and Bernard Sesboue have defended the views of Sobrino on the important issues at the centre of this controversy. Sesboue in particular, a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, is reported to have said, referring to the approach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘with such a deliberately suspicious method, I could find many heresies in the encyclicals of John Paul II!’. And, in truth, from my more intimate knowledge of a theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar, I could imagine that his views about the nature of God (does God change? does God suffer?), if unsympathetically considered, might well end up being regarded as sufficiently controversial to warrant a Vatican Notification.

It would be a real scandal and truly offensive – not just to pious ears! – if any of this proved to be an obstacle to the Christian option for the poor in Latin American and elsewhere. It may of course have the opposite effect: in conversation with Cardinal Diaz (then of Bombay, now head of a Vatican Congregation) I once expressed the view that condemning someone like Tony de Mello succeeded only in boosting sales of his book- he disagreed, at least to the extent that he believed putting down markers about truth was more important than sales of books. Of course truth is important, and the best possible outcome from this controversy would be a vigorous engagement by Liberation theologians with the substantive points made in this Vatican document. This would ensure that the fascinating mystery that is Jesus Christ might become even more captivating and draw more men and women to follow as disciples in service of a just world.

Further Reading

C. O’Donnell, Ecclesia, on Magisterium, 1996.

B. Hoose, The Service of the Magisterium Reconsidered, The Furrow, March 2007, 127 ff

The Tablet, March 17, 2007

G. O’Hanlon, The Jesuits and Modern Theology – Rahner, von Balthasar and Liberation Theology, Irish Theological Quarterly, 58, 1992, 25 ff

O’Hanlon, Europe and the Roman Catholic Church, in The Future of Europe, ed Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, 2006, 62ff