The Vatican is preparing to discipline Father Jon Sobrino, a well-known proponent of liberation theology who worked for decades in El Salvador even as fellow priests were murdered, church sources said Tuesday.
Sobrino will be sanctioned for alleged errors in his teachings and writings about the divinity of Jesus, according to members of his Jesuit order in Rome. A Vatican spokesman this week confirmed to reporters that an investigation was underway.
Sobrino, who resides in San Salvador and is affiliated with the University of Central America there, was expected to comment on the punishment after the Vatican makes a formal announcement later this week, associates at the school said.
Although the censure was expected to focus on specific theological points, Sobrino’s supporters immediately decried what they saw as the silencing of an important voice for the poor and disenfranchised.
His punishment reportedly will include a ban on future teaching and publishing. However, other colleagues noted that the 68-year-old priest was weakened by diabetes and semiretired, so it was unclear how great an impact the restriction would have.
Still, many saw a message in the criticism of one of the last champions of liberation theology, a political and sometimes radical interpretation of Roman Catholicism that emphasizes justice for the poor. The controversial school of thought was despised by the conservative church hierarchy, which believed it departed from core dogma.
The order against Sobrino will be issued by the Vatican’s watchdog arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and will carry the approval of Pope Benedict XVI who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led efforts to stamp out liberation theology.
The move comes just two months before Benedict is to make his first trip to Latin America as pope. He will visit Brazil, another onetime bastion of liberation theology.
A Spanish-born Basque, Sobrino was assigned to El Salvador half a century ago.
He was part of an intellectual team of Jesuit priests based for many years at the University of Central America. Some believed in liberation theology, but all preached Catholicism with a social conscience in a country that descended into civil war in the 1980s.
A reactionary, U.S.-backed Salvadoran military regarded the clerics’ work as inspiration for leftist guerrillas, and in 1989 soldiers murdered six of the priests, their cook and her daughter. Sobrino escaped death only because he was out of the country.
Sobrino was also a close friend of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was slain as he prepared to say Mass at a chapel in 1980. Romero was detested by the right because of his advocacy of human rights and criticism of army abuses.
Today’s archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Saenz Lacalle, is a member of Opus Dei, a right-wing Catholic organization that has gained significant power in recent years. It appeared that Saenz had pushed the Vatican to act against Sobrino, according to Jesuit sources who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Saenz, also a former apostolic administrator of the Salvadoran military, first announced the censure against Sobrino in a news conference in San Salvador on Sunday. He said the Vatican had concluded that Sobrino’s writings questioned the divinity of Jesus.
“The divinity of Jesus Christ, that he is truly the son of God made into man, is a fundamental point of our faith,” Saenz said, according to news agencies. Sobrino “is aware of [Jesus’] humanity but not his divinity, so he is not Catholic.”
Others suggested that it was not so much what Sobrino had said and written that troubled his Vatican critics, but rather his omissions. Those who find fault would have preferred greater emphasis on Jesus’ awareness of his divinity, crucial to Christian theology because of his many calls on believers to follow him.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith launched its investigation of Sobrino in 2001, when the section was still headed by Cardinal Ratzinger. It zeroed in on two of Sobrino’s theological publications, “Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth” (1991) and, from 1999, “Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims.”
Sobrino received a warning in 2004 and was given a chance to “correct his errors,” but he declined, according to reports in the Catholic media.
Because the Vatican ruling was not yet public, and officials would not discuss it in detail, it was impossible to elaborate on its arguments. Nor was it possible to discern the severity because sanctions can run the gamut from mild rebukes to excommunication.
“Those of us who have known Father Jon Sobrino over the years can attest to his utter loyalty to the church and its teaching, both in his writings and lecturing,” said Father Keith Pecklers, professor of theology at the Jesuits’ Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
“In many ways, he exemplifies the best qualities of what it means to be a Jesuit,” Pecklers said. “He has consistently put his skills as a very able theologian at the service of the poor, and for this, the rest of us in the international theological community are very much in his debt.”
Sobrino’s defenders are convinced that the action against him is politically motivated.
Father Javier Vitoria Cormenzana, who teaches theology at the University of Deusto in Spain’s Basque Country, said he had reviewed Sobrino’s writings over the years and found no fault with them. He uses several as texts in class.
“This is nothing but a Vatican strategy that has lasted 30 years: looking for a way to condemn and silence Sobrino,” Vitoria wrote Tuesday in the El Diario Vasco newspaper.
And it was a slap at the “thousands” of victims of violence in Latin America for whom Sobrino served as witness, Vitoria said. “His voice is their voice. Silencing it silences once again the victims of barbaric murder.”
Special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.