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Christoph Albrecht SJ

Comment on the Reprimand
of the Salvadorian Liberation Theologian
Jon Sobrino SJ


Unfortunately under wrong conditions

With the notification {1} on Jon Sobrino's two books about Christ at last the Roman church authorities bring once again the liberation-theological discussion into the limelight and so to the attention of the world church - unfortunately under the wrong conditions. The Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notices that Sobrino's work is studied, taught and reflected in numerous theological training centres, and gives the fact of this wide popularity as reason for this notification. It obviously fears that this theological reflection, which places the faith in Jesus Christ into the middle of the challenges of the historical reality of suppression and exploitation of the majority of human beings, could gain too large influence on the faithful.{2}


The necessary preliminary decision

Sobrino is one of the great theologians who regard their reflections not as mere academic exercise {3}. Theology - as actually any occupation into which one puts all one's heart - can only be pleasing to God when one enters into the middle of reality, when one is extremely upset by the cry for justice and opts in critical solidarity for the victims; of course not to make new victims out of culprits, but to break the destructive pattern of violence and counter-violence.
There is a basic decision in this dismay which precedes any reflection. With this consternation we read the gospel differently. The Biblical language knows God's lament about the hardened hearts, which do not let affect themselves, which remain in a different logic and place principles above the welfare of human beings. Also today we can read the gospel, the basic truths of the church tradition as well as the happenings in the world either with a hardened or with a concerned heart. {4}


Wholly Man because Wholly God

While I was reading this notification I got the impression of a collision between those two ways of reading. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accuses Sobrino to emphasize Jesus' human experience too much and so to endanger the unity of Christ (God, Logos from eternity to eternity) and Jesus (born by St Mary). As if Jesus' true human nature was at the expense of his divinity. Contrary to this the best church tradition and the insight laboriously achieved in the first Ecumenical Councils is just that Jesus is man par excellence because he is completely God. Sobrino underlines Jesus' ability to suffer and thus his boundless solidarity with the despised, maltreated, suppressed people (hence with the crucified people) by stating that Jesus could as man not know that he was the omnipotent God but had to trust in God's power and kindness. But thereby he does not abolish Jesus' divinity. On the contrary, since God suffered in Jesus what man is capable to suffer, suffering human beings can know they are close with God. Since God in Jesus as man devoted himself wholly to the Kingdom of God, we too can as men whole-heartedly devote ourselves to this Kingdom, with the same hope in the midst of impotence and powerlessness against the power of the violent (people) of this world.

When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith implies that Sobrino left room to those interpretations which deny Jesus Christ's divinity, then it should inversely let ask itself, whether it takes the risk of watering down God's identification with man. What there is at stake has been already intimated. Sobrino does not deny Jesus' divinity but reminds that God's identification with man is above all a radical solidarity with the suffering and the victims of any injustice.


Wholly Redeemer Because Wholly Poor

Who denies this forgets Jesus' claim to the powerful and rich. This is not only testified by the gospels but becomes visible also in St Paul's struggle. - For the primary Christian scandal for the world is Jesus Christ's cross{5}. And since Jesus Christ as the Crucified identifies with man, he also today reveals himself (not exclusively but necessarily) from the view of the in most varied way crucified peoples. Hence also the church is - according to Sobrino - to be thought, formed and lived from the poor. Sobrino is not alone with this discovery, no, he is first of all in best society with Pope John XXIII and a whole set of Council Cardinals {6}.

Secondly however, if one took his theses seriously this would have far-reaching consequences for the fundamental orientation of the Roman-catholic Church. For to regain its credibility it [i.e. the high ecclesiastical dignitaries]{*} must consider its [their] tendency to form an alliance with the structural force, and just in Sobrino's Christology and theology about the church of the poor it would find extremely helpful suggestions. For Sobrino's Christology can be seen in the broadest sense as theological reflection on what is lived in the churches of the basis communities: A community that is constituted from the margin because its centre (Jesus) can be found time and again at the margin, and because only from this margin Christ can be recognized and respected as the centre.

Only by the constant readiness to recognize Jesus Christ time and again quite anew, and this in an attitude of wonderment, we "academics" too will be able to be hit also 'on the level' of our hearts, where the knowledge of God is possible {7}. And only who includes the 'level of the heart' into the argument with faith and theology, gets time and again the strength to defend people against enslaving systems and ideologies, and to live - even under murder threat - the Christian freedom{8}.



{1} Notification means in this context a public statement which rejects the theological position of the person concerned as not in accordance with the teachings of the Roman-catholic Church.

{2} A role-playing that is repeated. Who has a heart for listening, may understand: "They arrived in Cafarnaum. At the following Sabbath he went into the synagogue and taught. And people were extremely upset by his teachings; for he taught them like someone who has authority, not like the scribes. In their synagogue sat a man who was possessed by an impure spirit. He began to cry: What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to plunge us into ruin? I know who you are: the Holy of God. There Jesus ordered him: Be silent and leave him! The impure spirit pulled the man back and forth and left him with loud yells. There all were frightened, and one asked the other: What does that mean? A wholly new doctrine is preached here with authority. Even the impure spirits obey his order. And his reputation quickly spread throughout the whole area of Galilee" (Mk 1,21-28).

{3} This is authentically expressed in his booklet which he wrote about the massacre of his fellow Jesuits and the Salvadorian people: Sterben muss, wer an Götzen rührt (To die is who questions the idols), EditionExodus, Fribourg 1990.

{4} See Mk 3,1-6.

{5} "The sense of the Church's relating to the world cannot be to neutralize the scandal of the cross but only to make it accessible again in its whole nakedness by clearing away all secondary scandals. () That the immortal suffered on the cross, () is an exciting imposition for man. The Council (Second Vaticanum) could not and did not want to neutralize this Christian scandal. But we must add: This primary scandal, which cannot be given up unless one wants to cancel Christianity, has in history often enough been covered by the secondary scandal of the preachers of faith. It is not at all fundamental for Christianity, but it is all too gladly mistaken for the basic scandal and enjoys the pose of martyrdom, where one in truth is only the victim of one's own narrow-mindedness. It is a secondary, home-made and so culpable scandal when - under the pretext to defend the rights of God - only a certain social situation and the power positions won in it are defended." (Joseph Ratzinger, Das neue Volk Gottes, Düsseldorf 1969, 317-318).

{6} The expression "Church of the Poor" comes from John XXIII, who at the opening of the Second Vatican Council mentioned three large tasks: The Church's opening to today's world, the protection of the unity of the Christians as well as the recognition of the church of the poor. Cardinal Lercaro took up this topic and made out that the Council could only do justice to this task when the church makes the mystery of Jesus Christ in the poor "the centre, the soul of the doctrinal and legislative work of this Council". (Quoted after Marie Dominique Chenu, "Kirche der Armen" auf dem Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, in Concilium 13 (1977), 233). Sobrino does nothing else but unfold this impulse - which above all found expression in 'Gaudium et spes' and was carried on by the Latin American Bishops' Synod in Medellín - in his Christology and ecclesiology, and embody it into the concrete experience of simple people.

{7} See Mt 11, 25-30.

{8} To this there is certainly no more well-known and more obvious example than the way gone by Oscar Romero - from his aha experience at the laid out body of Rutilio Grandes (murdered on 12 March 1977) up to his public request upon the soldiers to refuse the order to shoot the own people, with which he had of course risked his own murder (which was to happen on 24 March 1980).

{*} Additions in [] from the translator


Link to 'Public Con-Spiracy for-with-of the Poor'