Theologian to Pope: 'No'

March 29, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI is travelling to Brazil in May for an important bishops' meeting. To prepare the way the Vatican has slapped down Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, one of Latin America's major theologians and a survivor of the 1980s Salvadoran death squad war.

Using the Vatican's authority, Salvadoran primate Archbishop Fernardo Saenz Lacalle, who is a member of the reactionary Opus Dei organisation, has banned Sobrino from teaching or lecturing in his archdiocese, which includes the University of Central America (UCA), which Sobrino co-founded.

However Sobrino is defiant. Described as "a force which dwarfs Benedict XVI", Sobrino has authored key texts of the Latin American liberation theology trend. His outlook is evident from a 2005 speech about globalisation, which, he said "is presented as a firm and sure promise of salvation but ... when disasters occur [it is] absolutely selective: always against the poor, never or rarely against the rich".

"During Hurricane Katrina ... the rich left New Orleans in private jets ... others queued on the highways to get petrol [while] other people of Black race, men and women, had to stay in the middle of floods in the poor part of town.

"Neither the World Bank, nor the IMF, nor the G8, nor those who proclaim the Millenium Challenge are capable of thinking and deciding truly for a real globalisation of life. It's not a question of everyone suffering but of no-one suffering."

Sobrino specifically rejects charity as a means of aiding the poor. "Let donors not forget that if they don't help to change our unjust structures, worse still if they consolidate them to make a profit, aid for disasters is a routine deprived of humanity. It can even be an insult."

After years of review, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) struck in a 14-page notification put into effect on November 26, formally condemning elements of Sobrino's most important writings as "erroneous or dangerous".

"Outside the poor there is no salvation", Sobrino has written, paraphrasing the traditional Catholic motto, "outside the Church there is no salvation." This is exactly one of the ideas that the Vatican rejects: elevating the poor to a "fundamental theological place", as the principal source of knowledge, in the place of the "apostolic faith transmitted through the Church to all the generations".

Even more than a rebuke to Sobrino, the notification is a warning to all Latin American Catholics not to stand with the poor against the powers that be, and it foreshadows the guidelines that the pope will hand down to the Latin American Church, many of whose leading cadres are influenced by liberation theology.

Liberationists played a prominent role in providing intellectual and spiritual underpinnings for progressive Latin American social movements in the 1970s and 1980s. They have been under attack ever since, both physically by death squads and ideologically by the conservative Catholic Church hierarchy.

In Sobrino's own case, death squads broke into his house on November 16, 1989 and murdered six of his Jesuit co-workers at the UCA. Sobrino escaped the massacre because he was attending a conference in Bangkok.

The Jesuits were targeted for their outspoken work with the poor during the Salvadoran revolutionary war in which the US-backed army slaughtered 75,000 men, women and children.

Unlike other liberation theologians who have accepted Vatican bans in the past, Sobrino is fighting back. He wrote to Peter Hans Kolvenbach, the head of the Jesuit order on December 13, that he could not accept the criticism. It is rumoured that Kolvenbach said the Jesuit order will back him all the way.

Writing in the French language left-wing web journal, Swiss Marxist Charles-Andre Udry said, "The notification of Ratzinger-Benedict XVI cannot be detached from the politics of the Bush administration in Latin America". Udry says that political and human solidarity with Sobrino is required because of his commitment to the poorest of the poor in their liberation struggles.

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