Censure dismays priest’s supporters

Times Staff Writer

When a Salvadoran army death squad dragged six Jesuit priests from their beds in the middle of a November night in 1989, then dumped their bloodied bodies on a lawn, Father Jon Sobrino was 11,000 miles away, delivering a lecture.

But for that assignment, Sobrino would have become another of the “martyrs,” the long line of priests, nuns and other religious workers killed during years of civil strife in El Salvador.

His work with the country’s campesinos and his strong advocacy of liberation theology, a doctrine sometimes tinged with Marxist thinking, had made him a target of El Salvador’s reactionary forces.

Sobrino’s views also invited critical scrutiny from the Vatican, especially by former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the enforcer of Roman Catholic Church dogma and a longtime foe of liberation theology and other nontraditional currents who two years ago became Pope Benedict XVI.


On Wednesday, after years of review, the Vatican formally condemned elements of Sobrino’s most important writings as “erroneous or dangerous,” adding that they “contain notable discrepancies with the faith of the church.”

Sobrino, who is still based in San Salvador, failed to give proper emphasis to the divinity of Jesus, a core belief in Christianity, in two of his most widely disseminated books, the Vatican said in a dense, 14-page “notification” released Wednesday in five languages.

The decision dismayed many of Sobrino’s supporters, who rejected any suggestion that he harbored heretical ideas.

Unusually, the ruling by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stopped short of imposing sanctions, such as barring Sobrino from publishing or teaching at a Catholic institution.

However, church officials said the conservative archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Saenz Lacalle, has the prerogative to impose punishment, and he has said he favors gagging Sobrino.

“As for eventual sanctions, the situation is open,” Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman and, like Sobrino, a Jesuit -- said in an e-mail to The Times.

At San Salvador’s University of Central America, where Sobrino taught for decades until illness recently sidelined him, the priest declined requests for an interview. He said through associates that he preferred to remain “prudent” for the time being.

Sobrino has said he considers the work of the committee inspecting his writings to be unfair and to have misrepresented his theological thinking, which he defends as being firmly grounded in Roman Catholicism. Accepting its censure, Sobrino said, would lend credence to what he described as a persecution of liberation theology that dates to the 1970s.


The comments were contained in a letter Sobrino wrote in December to the head of the Jesuit order in Rome, Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach. Portions were published Wednesday by the National Catholic Reporter.

The decision to act now against one of the last major champions of liberation theology may be connected with Benedict’s trip to Brazil in May, when he is to preside over an extraordinary meeting of Latin America’s leading clerics. It was the first public censure of a theologian’s work under Benedict.

But Ratzinger, at least as far back as the early 1980s, disapproved of Sobrino and his embrace of liberation theology, a religious approach that emphasizes political activism in the fight for justice for the poor. The church in those days reportedly made attempts to discipline Sobrino, Peruvian Father Gustavo Gutierrez and Brazilian friar Leonardo Boff, three of the principal exponents of liberation theology.

Reports that the censure of Sobrino was imminent have been circulating for a week or so, provoking angst among the Basque Jesuit’s defenders and admirers.


“He’s a theological giant,” said Father James Martin, an American Jesuit writer and author of the new book “My Life with the Saints.” “Father Sobrino is one of my heroes, and he’s a hero for any Jesuit who has sought to find Christ among the poor.”

Martin, like several other Jesuits contacted, said he found Sobrino’s writings to be fundamental to his ministry, especially among refugees and the disenfranchised.

“Any time a Jesuit is critiqued by the Vatican for his work is a time of sadness for any other Jesuit,” Martin said.

Father Jose de Vera, spokesman for the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, said he knew that people at the university were especially upset, but that their leaders had asked them to remain calm. De Vera said he thought Sobrino was prepared for the bad news, having endured criticism for many years.


“He may accept it, but it does not mean he will change,” De Vera said. “He is ready to dialogue.”

De Vera said Sobrino is confident that his theology is sound, if untraditional. He cited five theologians who signed off on the two books in question, judging them free of doctrinal error.

Sobrino’s theology was born of his dramatic experiences in a country mired in poverty and violence, De Vera said, and one that he first came to know as a young and impressionable 18-year-old five decades ago. In addition to his fellow priests, tens of thousands of people, most of them impoverished peasants, were killed in El Salvador’s civil war, all of which shaped his views, De Vera said.

“You cannot always write theology sitting in an office with the air conditioning on,” he said. “It was logical, natural ... that he would develop a preference for the poor.”


The “notification” was signed by Cardinal William Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco who took over as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, replacing Ratzinger when he became pope.

In it, the faithful are alerted to “grave deficiencies” in two of Sobrino’s works: “Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth,” and “Christ the Liberator: A View From the Victims.”

Among other elements, the critique expresses appreciation for Sobrino’s concern for the poor but faults him for placing too much emphasis on the human rather than the divine nature of Jesus and for minimizing his death as the way to salvation.

“A number of Father Sobrino’s affirmations tend to diminish the breadth of the New Testament, passages of which affirm that Jesus is God,” the report says.


Saenz Lacalle, the Salvadoran archbishop and a member of the conservative Opus Dei who is to thought to have encouraged the sanctioning of Sobrino, did not comment Wednesday. Earlier, however, he said he would pray to God “so that Father Sobrino will remain docile before the teachings of the church and review its conclusions.”

Special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.