Last week, Catholics around the world experienced a sense of déjà vu. In a reprise of theological struggles of the 1980s, the Vatican's guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a formal notification that two books authored by the prominent Basque-born promoter of liberation theology, the Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino, contained ideas that did not conform to orthodox Catholic belief.
The reaction to this turn of events was predictable. Some commentators immediately complained of censorship and invoked the word “Inquisition,” before proceeding to make the usual comparisons with the Galileo case. Prominent liberation theologians, such as the ex-priest Leonardo Boff, expressed their outrage, suggesting that Rome's action against Fr. Sobrino would reinvigorate Latin America's ailing liberationist movement.
In several senses, Mr. Boff is correct. Liberation theology throughout Latin America is certainly in the doldrums. It has morphed in ways that make the agendas pursued by most liberation theologians largely indistinguishable from leftist, politically correct causes. Moreover, though Rome's examination of Fr. Sobrino's work has been formally underway for at least six years, liberationist activists around the world will not miss the symbolism of Rome's censure of his Jesus the Liberator (1991) and Christ the Liberator (1999) at this particular juncture in time.
Rome is far less Machiavellian than its detractors assert, but with Latin America's Catholic bishops assembling in Brazil in May this year, Fr. Sobrino's censure sends a clear message to any liberationists intent on hijacking the meeting. The irony is that the heart of Rome's critique of Fr. Sobrino's work is only marginally concerned with the liberation theologies that produced such havoc in Latin American Catholicism in the 1980s.
Instead, the core of Rome's objection concerns Fr. Sobrino's treatment of the person of Jesus Christ: Specifically the manner in which his books downplay the divinity of Christ and seemingly treat Christ as simply another prophet like Moses and Isaiah — or Buddha and Muhammad for that matter.
During the past 15 years, the Catholic Church's leadership has become disturbed at the rise of religious relativism — the idea that one religion is as good as another — among Christians and non-Christians. The Catholic Church has always taught that, as much as it may respect other religions, religion is ultimately about truth, and that the fullness of the ultimate truth about God and man is to be found in orthodox Christianity.
Reading the work of many self-described liberation theologians, it becomes clear that many of them do not believe this, and they consider their mission to be the “liberation” of Christians from some of the Church's most essential beliefs, especially when it comes to Catholicism's moral teaching.
Yet for all these developments in the story of liberation theology, there is an element of continuity between Rome's critique of Fr. Sobrino and its analysis of the liberation theologies of the 1980s. This is the underlying influence of particular Marxist assumptions upon many liberationist claims.
In its critique, Rome observes that Fr. Sobrino believes that theology can only be done from the standpoint of “the Church of the poor.” By “the poor,” Fr. Sobrino does not have in mind “the poor” of the Gospels — that is, everyone, materially rich or materially poor, who needs to encounter Jesus Christ — but rather those who are suffering material deprivation. For Fr. Sobrino, the “true” Church is to be found in the materially poor at a given time, rather than in those who adhere to the apostolic Catholic faith transmitted from generation to generation.
The implication is that if you are not materially poor, then you cannot really be a member of the Church and therefore part of the body of Christ. This, in turn, raises the issue of why liberation theologians would even want to liberate the poor from their poverty. It would be far more consistent for them to wish poverty on everyone.
In short, Fr. Sobrino subjects the Christian Church to the type of class-reductive exercise normally associated with Marxist analysis, and ends up having to support positions seemingly at odds with his desired goal. To this extent, the case of Fr. Sobrino illustrates how much liberation theologians remain trapped in the past. Like the Bourbons in post-Napoleonic Europe, they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
Content to ignore socialism's proven failure and apparently unable to escape the stifling constrictions imposed by their adherence to neo-Marxist analysis, they contribute nothing to the development of real solutions to Latin America's grave economic problems.
In the meantime, Latin America's poor continue to be ravaged by corruption, repressed by mercantilist economic structures, and seduced by populist politicians peddling impossible promises. They deserve more than the reduction of Christ to just another brave man and the elevation of envy as a morally virtuous disposition.