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“Liberation” — and Oppression

by James Hitchcock
March 24, 2007

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 purposes.

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 is.

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 political message.

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.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

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