Robert Mickens, Mark Brolly, Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, Graham Keeley
3 April 2007
Large numbers of dissenting voices around the world responded last month to the Vatican’s recent judgement on works by the Jesuit theologian, Jon Sobrino. The Vatican, for its part, went out of its way to engage with the media and explain the reasons for its decision to warn the faithful that Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator contained erroneous claims that could ‘cause harm to the faithful’, and tended to diminish the divinity of Christ.
The Vatican prepared bishops around the world and its own media outlet, Vatican Radio, to deal with any possible fallout or controversy from the case. Bishops’ conferences were sent early copies of the ‘Notification on Fr Sobrino’s writings’ by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in order not be caught out by a negative press reaction.
Vatican Radio conducted interviews with prominent theologians to help explain that neither the Pope nor the CDF had ‘punished’ Fr Sobrino, but had rather brought certain ‘problems’ in his writings to the readers’ attention. Augustinian Fr Prosper Grech – a CDF consultant – told listeners that people could ‘read [the books] all they want’, keeping in mind the doctrinal errors.
Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University and one of two non-cardinal members of the CDF, called the Notification a ‘defeat’ for Fr Sobrino since it showed he was not ‘thinking with the Church’.
Even in Rome, however, not all the reactions avoided criticism of the judgement. While recognising that his confrère may not have clearly expressed the traditional teachings on Christology, the press officer for the Society of Jesus in Rome, Fr Jose de Vera SJ, pointed out that Fr Sobrino’s theology was forged in a unique situation of working with the poor.
Elsewhere, the response was far less muted. A peace and justice group in the central Italian city of Pistoia mass-distributed a fierce critique of the CDF action by ‘Frei Betto’, a Dominican priest from Brazil who is revered as a champion of Latin America’s poor.
‘How can we renew the Church if its best minds are placed beneath the guillotine by those who see heresy where there is fidelity to the Holy Spirit,’ Frei Betto reportedly wrote.
The Pistoia group began soliciting signatures to show solidarity with Fr Sobrino. The hundreds of signatories included the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff.
In Spain three Catholic groups, the Association of Theologians of John XXIII, Somos Iglesia (We Are Church) and Christianity and Justice, a Jesuit study centre in Catalonia, attacked Rome’s action. In a joint statement, they said that Fr Sobrino lived an ‘exemplary lifestyle’.
A spokesman for the Association of Theologians of John XXIII said, ‘The reflections of Jon Sobrino about Jesus of Nazareth are among the most important and influential in 20th-century Christian theology.’
The three groups accused the Vatican of engaging ‘in a secret process, without discussion and in an authoritarian manner’.
The Catholic theological faculties of Graz and Münster universities expressed their deep concern at the Vatican reprimand and avowed their full support for the theologian.
Fr Sobrino is a ‘shining example’ of a theologian whose theology practises what it believes, the Graz declaration said. His theory and practice made an integral whole and expressed ‘the Church’s mandate to proclaim belief in Christ as Our Jesus Christ today’.
The Münster declaration asked whether Rome was not ‘more concerned with the question of power than of doctrinal issues’.
In Australia Fr Andrew Hamilton, publisher of the Jesuit-backed Eureka Street online magazine and a lecturer at Melbourne’s United Faculty of Theology, said:
‘Sobrino’s theology reflects his Jesuit tradition. This emphasises identification with the poor, powerless and humiliated Jesus … the humiliation entailed in the judgement … takes to a deeper level [Sobrino’s] identification with the poor.’
Thomas Reese, former editor of America, now senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, played down the judgement’s social relevance:
‘This notification will be of more concern to dogmatic theologians and scripture scholars than to social activists,’ he said. In Britain Catholic theologians including Tina Beattie, Nicholas Lash and Mary Grey questioned the Vatican judgement
The Tablet 24 March 2007