The Sobrino File

How to Read the Vatican's Latest Notification

In March, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a “notification,” or warning, about the teachings contained in two books of Christology by Jon Sobrino, SJ, a major liberation theologian who has spent most of his career in Latin America. Commonweal invited two theologians to assess the Vatican’s statement and to discuss what it may mean for the future of theology.

William P. Loewe

With “notifications” criticizing the work of Jesuit theologians Roger Haight, SJ, in 2004 and Jon Sobrino, SJ, in March, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has been clearing the desk of business left pending by its previous prefect, the present pope. The two notifications differ markedly. On point after point, positions the CDF found in Haight’s Jesus Symbol of God were deemed unambiguously erroneous and contrary to the faith, and the notification concluded with a sanction prohibiting Haight from teaching Catholic theology. Sobrino’s work, specifically Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator, evokes a more nuanced, at some points tentative, and certainly gentler response. Perhaps most significant, the CDF has not imposed a sanction on Sobrino.

Sobrino’s theological oeuvre is by no means beyond criticism. My own reading of his Christology at the Crossroads (1978) led me to worry that he had adopted dubious elements of German Protestant theology. New Testament scholar John P. Meier has criticized the lack of methodological rigor in Sobrino’s claims for “the historical Jesus.” Still, the CDF’s critique seems to measure Sobrino not only by the faith of the church, but also from the viewpoint of one particular, if rich and valuable, theological tradition, namely scholasticism. The congregation omits from consideration the historically minded, praxis-oriented rhetorical structure of Sobrino’s theology and thus misses the legitimate differences between a project like Sobrino’s and the sapiential, metaphysically informed tradition of scholastic theology that the CDF takes as normative.

In opting for this one theological paradigm, the CDF, in my view, unnecessarily forecloses conversation among theologians and exegetes on such issues as the faith of Jesus, his human consciousness, and the extent of his human knowledge. It also neglects the relevance-and challenges-of historical-critical biblical exegesis in favor of an approach to Scripture that is redolent of the proof-texting of an earlier age.

The notification begins by attempting to establish two major points. On the one hand, it judges that Sobrino’s books “contain notable discrepancies from the faith of the church.” It condemns certain propositions put forth in Sobrino’s writing, even when, as the congregation notes, those statements appear in the context of other expressions that seem to affirm their opposite. In part, at least, the congregation seems to be applying Murphy’s Law: if something can be read in a sense contrary to the faith, it will be, whether or not the author intended that reading or the context warrants it. At the same time, the CDF’s criticism is circumscribed. It passes judgment on certain propositions found in Sobrino’s work, but not on his subjective intentions.

When it comes to specifics, the CDF groups its concerns under six headings, arguing that Sobrino’s methodology generates problems regarding Christ’s divinity, the Incarnation, Jesus’ relation to the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ self-consciousness, and the salvific value of Jesus’ death. We can glean from each of these headings the point of authentic Catholic faith the CDF finds at risk in Sobrino’s theology.

Methodology. The CDF affirms that Christology must be founded on the faith of the church, and that it must accord normative status to the New Testament and to the teachings of the great councils. Sobrino is faulted on both counts. Writing from Latin America, Sobrino insists the church of the poor should be the ecclesial setting of Christology. Not so, argues the CDF: the proper ecclesial setting of theology is constituted by the apostolic faith transmitted through time by the church. Sobrino would privilege a particular experience-namely, that of the poor-over “the experience of the church herself.”

As for the New Testament and the councils, according to the notification, Sobrino fails to pay due heed to what they affirm. Of particular concern to the CDF is his treatment of the councils. While Sobrino acknowledges that the dogmatic formulations of the councils are useful and even normative, he also insists that they are conditioned by the cultural context from which they emerged. Conditioning is one thing, but the CDF ups the ante when it charges that Sobrino does not “recognize in them any value except in the cultural milieu in which these formulations were developed.” The cultural milieu in question is the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire and its tradition of philosophic speculation. With this charge the CDF is identifying Sobrino with a position advanced by German liberal Protestant scholars in the nineteenth century. For Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and others, classic metaphysical dogmas like Christ’s consubstantiality with the Father (Nicea, 325) and the hypostatic union of his divine and human natures in his one person (Chalcedon, 451) represent outmoded monuments of a past cultural moment with no claim on faith today. The CDF demurs: the “councils do not signify a Hellenization of Christianity but rather the contrary.” True, but the charge against Sobrino is puzzling because he explicitly affirms the same thing. He does not advocate Harnack’s Hellenization thesis.

The CDF also chides Sobrino for characterizing the classic dogmas as not only limited but also dangerous. This may seem odd. It is important to remember, however, that Sobrino’s critique of these classic formulations is best understood in the context of his criticism of oligarchic military types in Latin America who could dutifully shepherd their families to Sunday Mass and recite the creed, all the while violently repressing any threat to their hegemony. Sobrino’s concern is that the emphasis placed on such metaphysical affirmations too often reduces the empowering gospel narratives of Christ’s life and death to mere abstract propositions. Taken in isolation from the church of the poor, the recitation of dogmas about Christ’s nature risks losing the prophetic-critical power of true Christian discipleship.

Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God Incarnate. For Sobrino, the New Testament plants the seed that will produce the confession of Jesus’ divinity in the strict sense, but it does not offer a formal definition of Jesus’ divinity. The CDF, to the contrary, thinks the New Testament contains more than a seed. The congregation’s concern is that Sobrino’s view of the historical development of dogma leaves room for suspicion that that development was not clearly continuous with the New Testament. In this regard, the congregation contests Sobrino’s reading of two New Testament texts (John 1:1 and 20:28), arguing that both plainly affirm Jesus’ divinity. Without such clarity of expression, the congregation appears to think, the conviction that Jesus’ divinity was recognized by the faith of the church from the beginning would be jeopardized.

Regarding the Incarnation, the notification identifies passages in Sobrino’s writing that, if read literally, would imply that the Son of God is one person and Jesus another, thus denying the unity of person affirmed by the councils at Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon. At the same time, the congregation does not assert that Sobrino should be read as saying this. In a second, related point, the CDF faults Sobrino’s presentation of what is known as the communicatio idiomatum. According to this ancient rule for Christological discourse, because of the unity of Christ’s person, human properties can be attributed to the divine-one can say, for example, that the Second Person of the Trinity suffered. The reverse also holds, so that it is permissible to say that the Son of Mary is the Word through whom all things are created. According to the notification, Sobrino violates this logic when he writes that “the limited human is predicated of God, but the unlimited divine is not predicated of Jesus.” Perhaps. But the latter phrase might also safeguard against the ancient heresy of docetism, which held that Jesus was an omnipotent, omniscient divine person merely parading on earth in human form.

Jesus and the Kingdom of God. The CDF judges Sobrino’s views on this topic “peculiar.” Although Sobrino affirms that in Jesus “the definitive, ultimate, and eschatological mediator of the Kingdom of God has already appeared,” that is not sufficient for the CDF. (For Karl Rahner, however, the acknowledgement of Jesus as eschatological prophet contained all that the classic Christological dogmas affirmed.) Why not? First, the inseparability of Jesus and the Kingdom is inadequately articulated. Perhaps on this point the CDF is anxiously looking beyond Sobrino to some Asian theologians who, in an interreligious context, subordinate the church to the Kingdom. Second, Sobrino is faulted for affirming that Christ’s human activity enables him to mediate the Kingdom and therefore “excludes the fact that his condition as Son of God has relevance for Jesus’ mediatory mission.” Sobrino may not state the latter fact, but does his silence amount to denial? Moreover, Aquinas held very much the same view of Jesus’ human mediation of salvation. Is the CDF overreading Sobrino in this regard?

Jesus’ Self-Consciousness. Sobrino appeals to Hebrews 1:12 in order to attribute a human, if exemplary, faith to Jesus. On the contrary, writes the CDF, Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus enjoyed “an intimate and immediate knowledge of his Father.” Jesus’ enjoyment of the Beatific Vision, the congregation explains, is a necessary consequence of the hypostatic union. In addition to this knowledge of the Father, Jesus’ mission also required that he know the Father’s plan of salvation. Hence, Jesus cannot be said to be a believer like us. His consciousness was filial and messianic.

With this riposte the CDF is wading into a contemporary theological discussion in which not only Sobrino but far less controversial authors (like Gerald O’Collins, SJ, retired dean of the Gregorianum) espouse the notion of Jesus’ human faith. At issue is the scholastic doctrine of the triple human knowledge Christ possessed. Medieval theologians taught that from the first moment of his conception Jesus enjoyed both the Beatific Vision and specially infused knowledge that brought his human faculty of intellect to perfection. Aquinas thought Christ also possessed ordinary human knowledge, a position he embraced late in his career, and his thought on the matter became standard in scholastic theology. Thus the doctrine of Christ’s three-fold human knowledge.

It is noteworthy that today, Jean-Pierre Torrell, OP, the leading contemporary exponent of Aquinas’s Christology, takes issue with this doctrine of Christ’s triple human knowledge. For Torrell, by ascribing the Beatific Vision to Jesus during his lifetime, the scholastics came perilously close to denying the clear teaching of the Council of Chalcedon that in his humanity, Jesus was “like us in all things except sin.” For this and other reasons the scholastic doctrine is currently undergoing reinterpretation among some theologians, while others have simply discarded it.

The Salvific Value of Jesus’ Death. Two issues come into play on this topic. First, did Jesus attribute salvific value to his own death, or was that a discernment of the post-Easter Christian community? Sobrino holds for the latter. He thinks that Jesus went to his death confidently and as a service for others, an effective example of complete fidelity as the key to true humanity. According to the CDF, Sobrino’s position deprives the New Testament affirmations of the salvific value of Jesus’ death “of any reference to the consciousness of Christ during his earthly life.” This allows an erroneous hypothetical reconstruction of the historical Jesus to trump the New Testament data, which, the CDF apparently thinks, speak for themselves.

Second, the CDF finds that Sobrino’s account of how Jesus’ death effects salvation reduces the redemption to moralism, a matter of “good example.” Traditional scholastic theology described the efficacy of Christ’s Passion in terms of merit, satisfaction, ransom, sacrifice, and especially efficient causality. Here, the congregation observes, by concentrating on Jesus’ exemplarity, Sobrino fails to reflect the teachings of the Council of Trent, Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and John Paul II, all of which affirm one or more of those further modes. The reason for this failure? It lies, the congregation suggests, in Sobrino’s neglect of Jesus’ divine identity.

Perhaps at this point one can discern a pattern running through the notification. The CDF takes its review of Sobrino as an opportunity to reaffirm the faith of the church, as expressed in the New Testament and the classical councils, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God incarnate who through his Cross fulfilled God’s plan for our salvation. The congregation also draws on an understanding of that faith centered on the dogma of the hypostatic union and articulated in classic scholastic theology. Reading Sobrino from this perspective, it finds various aspects of his Christology problematic, albeit in varying degrees.

Sobrino can, however, be read from a different perspective. While scholastic Christology, fundamentally a metaphysically informed reflection on the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Chalcedon, once held the field, a different paradigm has emerged among Catholic theologians over the past thirty years. Christology from this perspective involves more than a systematic understanding of conciliar dogma. Many contemporary theologians see that understanding as one moment within a broader project that seeks to shed the light of faith on a comprehensive and multifaceted account of the development of the church’s beliefs about Jesus. This shift in emphasis is intended to bring Christ’s revelatory and redemptive significance to bear more urgently on the present. Sobrino’s work finds its home within this context.

It seems to me, therefore, that on those few issues on which the congregation pinpoints substantive differences and real oppositions between its own positions and Sobrino’s, those differences remain in the realm of legitimate theological inquiry and debate. Perhaps one may take the congregation’s failure to conclude its notification with a sanction as an acknowledgement of that fact.

William P. Loewe is associate professor and director of the Historical and Systematic Theology Program in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of The College Student’s Introduction to Christology (Liturgical Press).

J. Matthew Ashley

Assessing the notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the work of Jon Sobrino, SJ, is no easy matter. First, it is difficult to discern the rich contours and nuances of Sobrino’s Christology in the CDF’s depiction. Second, the notification itself is ambiguous; there is a range of possible interpretations defined by two extremes. The notification finds “grave deficiencies both in terms of methodology and content” in Sobrino’s Christology, and the extreme toward which one’s interpretation tends will depend on whether one concentrates on the alleged errors of content or on the objections to methodology.

The problems of content arise in some of the most difficult and disputed issues in Christology. Yet the notification’s language here is strikingly tentative. Instead of “dangerous and erroneous propositions” or “grave deficiencies,” one finds verbs like “tend” or “suggest”; nouns like “suspicion” and “difficulty”; and adverbials like “with sufficient clarity.” So, for example, Sobrino’s language “suggests to the reader the presence of two subjects in Christ.” In speaking of Jesus’ self-consciousness, the notification warns that some of Sobrino’s statements “do not clearly show the unique singularity of the filial relationship of Jesus with the Father, indeed they tend to exclude it.” In speaking of the Cross it warns: “In some texts some assertions of Fr. Sobrino make one think that, for him, Jesus did not attribute a salvific value to his own death” (my emphases).

Whatever one thinks of the accuracy of these judgments, the language allows a more irenic reading of the notification. A tendency is not the same thing as an error. The possibility remains that Sobrino’s thought could be read, taught, and further developed in a way that did not “suggest,” “tend,” or “fail to affirm with sufficient clarity.” This seems consistent with the absence of any sanction against Sobrino. A more irenic reading is also far less worrisome to theologians than a stronger one, since citing Sobrino’s positions as erroneous tout court would make it virtually impossible to continue exploring many of the fruitful Christological avenues opened up since Vatican II. The stronger reading would rule out, for example, the efforts of many contemporary Christologies, including Sobrino’s, to explore the insight of Scripture scholarship that the New Testament manifests a rich diversity of ways to describe Jesus’ relationship to God (his “divinity”). This insight presses us to see the road to Nicea, with its language of consubstantiality, as something other than the simple deduction of an assertion unambiguously present in Scripture. An outright proscription of this work, and others like it, would have serious consequences for all theologies, not just liberation theologies.

Much more could be said about this and other issues of content, but the notification’s more serious objections have to do with Sobrino’s method. Sobrino is accused of failing to pay “due attention” to the full breadth of the New Testament and to the early ecumenical councils, even though, as the notification concedes, Sobrino asserts that they are normative for theology. So what would paying due attention mean? Without explicitly stating it, the document suggests again and again that paying due attention means repeating the terminology of the early councils. It means taking up not only the point that the councils were trying to make, but also the language and the cultural and metaphysical worldview that they used to make that point. The notification suggests, for example, that only terminology of the Beatific Vision, which, it maintains, is required by the doctrine of the hypostatic union, can do justice to Jesus’ consciousness of his relationship to the Father. Language that does not repeat or cannot be directly translated into the language of the hypostatic union is unavoidably deficient. According to the strongest reading of the notification, then, early conciliar dogmas are not just normative sources or parameters for any Christology, but are themselves a self-sufficient, timeless Christology, which can only be repeated, not interpreted or reapplied in different contexts.

For many contemporary theologians, including Sobrino, doing theology requires that we recontextualize and reinterpret the doctrinal tradition. The aim is not to ignore the tradition, but to bring it to bear anew in “reading the signs of the times.” Sobrino’s Christology is precisely such an attempt or experiment (ensayo): an interpretation of Christian faith from the perspective of the countless poor of Latin America, victims of our current globalized economy. He therefore identifies the “setting” of his Christology as the reality of the poor. He maintains that, while the reality of the poor does not replace the normative sources of Christian faith, it does “shed light” on them in a unique and indispensable way. The notification reserves its most unequivocal language for this: “the ecclesial foundation of Christology may not be identified with ‘the church of the poor,’ but is found rather in the apostolic faith transmitted through the church for all generations.” It is difficult to assess this objection, since it frames the issue in language that Sobrino does not use-a “setting” is not a “foundation.” But it does get to the heart of the issue.

Can Sobrino combine an insistence on the fundamental importance for theology of the reality of the poor with his assertion of the normativity of Scripture and tradition as sources of theology-including the doctrinal statements of the great Christological councils? Or can he even define such a combination as a desirable, indeed essential, feature of theology? Can the preferential option for the poor be more than an ethical impulse that never reaches the heart of the way we think about the God revealed in Scripture and tradition? This is the most fundamental challenge raised by the notification, and, if the strongest, most critical reading prevails, it is also the most disturbing.

When I first learned of the notification, I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, not far from the site of the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” preparing to give a lecture on Christian responses to the theory of evolution. Perhaps that is why my thoughts turned to priest-scientists such as John Zahm, CSC, or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. Their assertion that the science of evolution could be harmonized with Catholic doctrine also brought negative attention from Roman congregations. While the church avoided a repeat of the Galileo affair, and no condemnation of evolution resulted, these theological experiments were suppressed by other means. The resulting pall, which stifled theological work precisely as the science of evolution solidified its authority among scientists, remained until Vatican II, to the detriment of both faith and science.

The parallels are illuminating. Theologians sensitive to the compelling vision of the world disclosed by modern science insist that we cannot think about our faith, interpret Scripture, and apply normative statements of the magisterium in the same way we did before the seventeenth century. Galileo’s discoveries required only some modest reinterpretations of a handful of Scripture passages. Teilhard proposed a more dramatic rethinking of the story of the Fall and the doctrine of original sin, among other things (with dire consequences for his career). Such rethinking does not mean ignoring the relevance and normativity of Scripture and tradition. It means consulting them anew in the light of a startlingly novel understanding of the world and the pressing new questions such an understanding poses for Christian faith. In its own way, modern science has created a particular “setting,” a milieu within which theology takes up certain questions (and not others), interprets its sources (texts, lives of saints and martyrs, etc.), applies normative parameters, tries to understand what would constitute an adequate answer to those questions, enters into dialogue with other disciplines, and so on. Such an effort cannot proceed without seeking new language for theology, and without some freedom to explore new ways of interpreting Scripture and tradition. If theology were still limited to literal interpretations of Scripture, as was the case in Galileo’s day, or to literal interpretations of doctrines such as monogenism (according to which the human race descended from one original couple) or the Fall, as was the case in Teilhard’s day, such an endeavor would be crippled from the outset. Would our theology and faith be the better for that, truer to the best that the gospel represents and has to offer a world in which science is such an essential element?

The Catholic Church has, with great reluctance at times, come to affirm this endeavor. But what about other “realities”? The world of the poor-with its unimaginable (at least to those of us who are not poor) suffering and displays of sinfulness, but also with its amazing, counterintuitive displays of faith, hope, love, and joy-presents equally fundamental questions and resources to living and proclaiming the gospel. The premise of liberation theology is that this world of the poor, with both its challenges and its resources, is equally deserving of the kind of creative theological rethinking that has been conceded to theology in dealing with the world disclosed by modern science. The stronger reading of the notification disallows this premise. If such an interpretation prevails, will our theology and our faith be the better for it? Will they be closer to what God desires of us, in a world that desperately needs a message of prophetic challenge and evangelical hope in the face of the mounting misery of the majority of its inhabitants?

J. Matthew Ashley is associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Published in the 2007-05-18 issue: 

J. Matthew Ashley is associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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