| || ||
"Liberation"--And Oppression | Dr. James Hitchcock | IgnatiusInsight.com
A semi-serious objection to the Vatican's recent warning
about the work of the Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino is that the warning
temporarily resuscitated something that had been quietly dying--Liberation
Theology. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has identified various
errors in Father Sobrino's work, and his bishop has said that he cannot teach
until he corrects them.
The episode predictably brings into play certain perennial
moves, beginning with the charge that the Church is hostile to freedom. Father
Sobrino, however, retains whatever rights a resident of El Salvador possesses--the
Vatican is not about to throw him in jail. But the Church also has rights, one
of which is to safeguard the authenticity of its own teachings. Even the most fervent
advocates of freedom--the American Civil Liberties Union, for example--would
not tolerate a staff member who expressed disagreement with the group's own
Those see the Sobrino case primarily through the lens of
"freedom" are making a claim that they seldom admit openly--there is no such
thing as theological truth, thus it is impossible ever to say that any
theologian is in error. But if there is such a thing as truth, the Church has
not only a right but an obligation to insure that people know what that truth
Father Sobrino and his supporters also charge that his views
have been misunderstood or misrepresented. For years heterodox theologians have
clamed in effect that Church officials (John Paul II, notably) are too stupid
or careless to understand what the theologians are doing. But the CDF studied
Father Sobrino's work for six years, during most of which time its head was the
present Pope Benedict XVI, who is a vastly better theologian than Father
Sobrino. Those who write for publication in effect ask to be judged by what
they write, and if they think their work has been misunderstood they should
simply clarify it, not cry foul.
Liberation Theology had its heyday around 1980, when its
proponents tried to seize the religious and moral high ground by claiming to be
advocates for the oppressed, the true modern followers of Jesus. As with all
heresies, this claim required thinking that most professed Christians over the
centuries had gotten it wrong, until people like Father Sobrino finally came
along to straighten them out.
Liberation Theology also claimed to be "indigenous," growing
out of the experiences of the oppressed, but that claim was also fallacious.
Its roots were not in Latin America, where it attracted the greatest attention,
but in certain kinds of typically abstract German theology, and Father Sobrino
is himself an immigrant to El Salvador from Spain. Liberation Theology enjoyed
a vogue in Western Europe and North America, but there is no evidence that its
ideas ever had much popular support in Latin America itself, apart from a few
highly publicized "base communities" that for the most part were not very
influential or enduring.
There is also little evidence that the theology did much to
alleviate oppression, nor could it. Understanding social and economic realities
is not a theological task, although religion is the source of the moral
judgments made about those realities. Liberation Theology claimed some
practical relevance through various kinds of would-be revolutionary movements,
none of which believed in the kind of "freedom" Father Sobrino now claims for
himself, none of which were ever very effective, and none of which needed a
coat of theological varnish in order to operate.
Father Sobrino's supporters charge that the Vatican's recent
ruling is in reaction to his concern for the oppressed. But the Holy See made
it quite clear that the problem is not there but in Father Sobrino's treatment
of Christ and of the Church. He obscured the divinity of Christ and did not
affirm that His death was the definitive act that saved humanity, seeing Him
more as an example of social concern. His theology is "reductive," meaning that
it achieved its emphasis on social justice by obscuring the supernatural heart
of the Catholic faith.
Ironically, during the decades when Liberation Theology did
enjoy a certain vogue, millions of Catholics in Latin America left the Church,
not to join revolutionary movements but to become evangelical Protestants of
one kind or another. Those who study this development judge that those who left
the Church found in evangelicalism a direct, simple preaching of the Gospel
that they were not getting from Catholics who seemed to offer an essentially
If Father Sobrino deserves praise for his concerns about
oppression, it is tragic that he tried to awaken people to that reality by
radically deemphasizing the core meaning of their faith. In the end Liberation
Theology was itself a kind of oppression, helping deprive the oppressed of
their most precious possession, one that even the most tyrannical worldly
regimes could never take from them.
(This article originally appeared on March 24, 2007, on the
Women for Faith and Family website. It is reprinted by the kind permission of the author.)
Other IgnatiusInsight.com columns by Dr. Hitchcock:
Our Enslavement to "Freedom"
Conscience and Chaos
Orientation Is Not a "Gift"
Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion"
Ideology: The Grilling of Judge Roberts
Court's Penumbra of Politics
Ratzinger: Man for the Job
Modern Culture; Asserting the Gospel
Bishops, Liberal Results
The Myth of
the Wall of Separation
The Church and
Theory of the Enlightened
Dr. James Hitchcock, (e-mail)
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary
Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press, in the Adoremus
Bulletin, and on the Women
for Faith and Family website. He is the author of several books, including
The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years
of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the
Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life:
The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and
From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples"
(Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals,
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com
e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates
about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!
| || || |