Friday, March 16, 2007

Niente Penalitá: Rise of the Kinder, Gentler CDF?

Word floated 'round for the better part of a week on it, and then the hammer fell publicly on Wednesday, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the first "Notification" of the CDF pontificate regarding the Basque liberation theologian Jon Sobrino SJ.

But did the "hammer" really fall? In the lead piece of this week's edition of The Tablet, Robert Mickens in Rome can't help but compare Sobrino's examen to what came before... in the process finding no small divergence from the Sant'Uffizio's previous approach:
For the first time in his almost two-year pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has ordered the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the CDF -to denounce publicly a well-known theologian's writings for containing "notable discrepancies with the faith of the Church". This week's formal "Notification" (and its explanatory note) on certain writings of Fr Jon Sobrino SJ accuses the liberation theologian of "erroneous" and "dangerous" theses that "may cause harm to the faithful".

But, surprisingly, it takes no direct steps to silence him, burn his books or stop Catholics from reading his theology. On the contrary, the CDF warning actually presupposes that people will continue to study Fr Sobrino's works and its Notification is meant "to offer the faithful a secure criterion, founded on the doctrine of the Church, by which to judge" what they read.

That may be small consolation to Fr Sobrino and his reputation as a scholar, especially since the Vatican puts up a forceful - and some may even say "prejudiced" - argument to try to convince readers that several of his theological assertions are wrong. But, at the end of the day, the CDF recognises that people are going to make up their own minds. And unless it is a mere rhetorical device, this admission marks a profound change in the way the CDF has customarily dealt with theologians such as Fr Sobrino who advance views that are, in the document's words, "not in conformity with the doctrine of the Church".

It is a dramatic change from the last time the CDF issued a Notification on the writings of a theologian. In December 2004 it condemned the works of Fr Roger Haight SJ. That document, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, laid down sanctions against the American Jesuit and said he "may not teach Catholic theology". There are no penalties of any kind in the Notification on Fr Sobrino's work.

However, in a letter sent with the Notification to all bishops, the CDF prefect - Cardinal William Levada - said it was up to episcopal conferences and local ordinaries to adopt "measures necessary" to implement the present Notification. Archbishop Patrick Kelly, head of the doctrinal commission of the Bishops of England and Wales, said: "If there is a problem then we should take the means necessary, but on this particular issue I don't see a problem. People in England have not been complaining or are puzzled [by Jon Sobrino's writing]. For the ordinary Catholic in the pew, this is rather obscure but nevertheless extremely important. These are technical matters but Christ's divinity is essential to our faith. People would be wise to ponder on these matters in the days leading to Easter."

Putting the onus on local bishops seems to be the first concrete sign of effective decentralisation in Benedict XVI's pontificate and recognition of the role of the diocesan bishop as teacher of the faith and "vicar of Christ" in the local Church. But this attempt to strengthen the local bishops could mean uneven interpretation of the Notification. Some may decide to do nothing. Others may follow the Archbishop of San Salvador, where Fr Sobrino lives and works, who has already said the theologian can no longer teach or publish "until he rectifies his conclusions"....

One area of particular concern to the Vatican appears to be Fr Sobrino's criticism of the hellenisation of Christianity during the early Church councils. "Although he does not deny the normative character of the dogmatic formulations", the Notification says, "neither does he recognise in them any value except in the cultural milieu in which these formulations were developed." The Jesuit's critique, shared by many proponents of inculturation, is a direct contradiction to the assertions Pope Benedict made in his lecture last September in Regensburg, where he suggested that intrinsic to Christianity is its encounter with the Greek world.

The present Notification has actually been sitting in a desk drawer in Cardinal Levada's office since 26 November 2006, the date on which he and CDF secretary, Archbishop Angelo Amato, signed it. It is unclear why it took nearly four months to issue it. But the timing could be poetic. Its publication this week came 10 days before the twenty-seventh anniversary of the death of Oscar Romero and exactly two months before the Pope will be in Brazil to preside at the opening of the month-long Fifth General Conference of CELAM (Episcopal Conferences of Latin America).

Although the Notification deals specifically with Fr Sobrino's Christology, it looks very much as if liberation theology is the Vatican's real target. Perhaps the Pope and his collaborators at the CDF believe their kinder and gentler approach will gain a more sympathetic hearing and help put the final nails in the coffin of liberation theology. But, on the other hand, this particular Notification could have the opposite effect and help increase Fr Sobrino's popularity and revive a form of theology that many people already thought was waning.
In related news, this morning the Holy See confirmed Benedict XVI's visit to Brazil from 9-14 May for the opening of the CELAM plenary in Aparecida.

Much of the German Pope's first transatlantic trip -- a whole two days, it appears -- will be spent in São Paolo, which still awaits a new archbishop following the transfer of Cardinal Claudio Hummes to the Congregation for the Clergy.