Liberation Theologian Censured

One Hundred Years After Pascendi, Vatican Still Condemns Modernist Theology

Father Brian Harrison, O.S.

Father Jon Sobrino

(Posted March 16, 2007 Many Catholics concerned about the continuing penetration of unorthodox, radical feminist and ‘gay-friendly’ ideologies into American church structures were less than enthusiastic at the unexpected elevation of San Francisco’s former archbishop, William Levada, to the position of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Fall of 2005. Recent reports have suggested that some of the surprisingly non-conservative U.S. episcopal appointments of the last year or so (to Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Washington DC, Reno, etc.) have been due largely to Cardinal Levada’s influence as the top American prelate in Rome. (He is also a member of the Congregation for Bishops.)

It is encouraging, therefore, to see that in his first major doctrinal intervention as Prefect of the CDF – an intervention which seems to have gone largely unreported in the Catholic media so far – His Eminence has come out very firmly on the side of Catholic tradition. (The Congregation’s widely discussed document of late 2005 on the question of homosexually oriented seminarians was disciplinary, rather than doctrinal, in character.)

I am referring to a lengthy (nine single-spaced pages on the Vatican website) “Notification”, formally approved by Pope Benedict XVI and signed by Cardinal Levada and his Secretary, Archbishop Angelo Amato, censuring the false doctrines about the Person of our Lord and Savior that have been propagated since at least the early 1990s by the Spanish Jesuit theologian Fr. Jon Sobrino. Sobrino has been one of the leading advocates of that left-leaning “liberation theology” which was so much in vogue in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and which has continued to be influential in some Latin American circles even in the new millennium.

The new Notification begins by rejecting Sobrino’s politicized Christology, according to which only “the Church of the poor” or “the poor in the community” can give faith in Christ “its fundamental direction”. Against this identification of the faith with a particular socio-economic group, Cardinal Levada insists that “the ecclesial foundation of Christology . . . is found rather in the apostolic faith transmitted through the Church for all generations”.

This theme of the perennial continuity of Catholic doctrine with the “apostolic faith” is emphasized right throughout Cardinal Levada’s document. For Fr. Sobrino, in common with other modernists and neo-modernists over the last century or so, effectively drives a wedge between what he considers to be the ‘real Jesus’ of history and the ‘false’ and ‘unhistorical’ image of our Lord supposedly produced by the Church’s ‘evolving faith’ in the decades and centuries after his life on earth. He thus claims that the dogmatic definitions about Christ of the early ecumenical councils, while “useful theologically”, are “also limited and even dangerous, as is widely recognized today” – a view rejected by the CDF as having “no foundation”, along with Sobrino’s related opinion that the formulations of Christological doctrine by those early councils had no value except in the ancient cultural milieu in which they developed. Echoing Pope Benedict’s teaching, in his renowned Regensburg discourse last September, that classical Greek philosophy has included perennially and universally valid insights, Levada insists against Sobrino that those ancient conciliar formulations “do not signify a hellenization of Christianity, but rather the contrary” – that is, a christianization of Greek culture which enabled the latter “to be used as an instrument for the expression and defense of biblical truth”.

In another ploy which (exactly a century ago this year) Pope St. Pius X declared was typical of modernist theology, Fr. Sobrino has also resorted to vagueness and ambiguity with regard to fundamental truths such as the divinity of Christ. He does not openly deny that Christ was God, but paves the way for this denial by claiming that Sacred Scripture itself does not teach this truth. All the New Testament does, according to him, is “make clear that [Jesus] was intimately bound up with God” – whatever that is supposed to mean – and “contains . . . the seed of what will produce confession of the divinity of Christ in the strict sense”. Sobrino assures us that “at the outset Jesus was not spoken of as God, nor was divinity a term applied to him; this happened only after a considerable interval of believing explication, almost certainly after the fall of Jerusalem”.

This, of course, is scarcely cutting edge theology. Sobrino’s ‘new insights’ would already have provoked yawns from well-read Catholics a century ago. They correspond substantially to two of St. Pius X’s specific condemnations of modernist errors in the 1907 Decree Lamentabili. Condemned proposition #27 reads: “The divinity of Christ is not proved from the Gospels. It is a dogma which the Christian consciousness has derived from the notion of the Messiah”. And condemned proposition #24 is this: “The exegete who constructs premises from which it follows that dogmas are historically false or doubtful is not to be reproved as long as he does not directly deny the dogmas themselves.”

So it is reassuring and encouraging to find that now, after another hundred years have gone by, the See of Peter continues to follow Lamentabili by not letting this latest modernist get away with that kind of ambiguity. The CDF declares that Fr. Sobrino “fails to affirm Jesus’ divinity with sufficient clarity”, thereby giving credence to the suspicion that the Church “has arrived at the formulation of Jesus’ divinity without a clear continuity with the New Testament”. We are assured by the Cardinal that the Lord’s divinity “has been the object of the Church’s faith from the beginning”, and is “affirmed in the strict sense” in the New Testament itself. In support of this assertion, Cardinal Levada points to various well-known texts: “John 20: 28 . . . refers to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and ‘God’. Similarly, John 1: 1 says that the Word is God. Many other texts speak of Jesus as Son and as Lord”. Here His Eminence refers in a footnote to Col. 2: 9 (“In [Christ] dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily”) along with a sampling other Pauline texts: I Thes. 1:10; Phil. 2: 5-11; I Cor. 12: 3; Rom. 1: 3-4 and 10: 9. What I find particularly refreshing here, in these times of widespread skepticism among ‘Catholic’ Scripture scholars, is the Cardinal’s unhesitating reaffirmation of the Church’s traditional understanding of these key biblical texts.

Unsurprisingly, Fr. Sobrino’s ambiguity about the divinity of Christ as such is accompanied by a corresponding fuzziness about the Incarnation – the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures. He claims that “the Son (the second person of the Trinity) took on the whole reality of Jesus”, so that “the Son experienced Jesus’ humanity, existence in history, life, destiny and death”. Cardinal Levada very rightly discerns here nothing other than a warmed-over version of the ancient Nestorian heresy that postulated two different persons – the divine Son of God and a merely human Jesus – dwelling side by side in one human body. He declares that the literal sense of what the Jesuit theologian says here “is incompatible with the Catholic faith”. In Sobrino’s writings, His Eminence explains, “It is not clear that the Son is Jesus and that Jesus is the Son”.

In another refreshing touch, in this era when church leaders often seem to think it ‘ecclesially incorrect’ to back up their teachings with any magisterial statement pre-dating Vatican Council II, Levada rebuts Sobrino’s crypto-Nestorianism by an appeal to the Council of Ephesus (431), the Council of Chalcedon (451), and . . . Pope Pius XII’s almost-forgotten encyclical Sempiternus Rex of 1951. This document (which is never referred to even once by either Vatican II or the Catechism of the Catholic Church) was issued to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of Chalcedon and magisterially expounds the revealed mystery of the Incarnation. In the new Notification, it is cited against Sobrino to the effect that the ancient councils “clearly assert that both natures are united in ‘One Person and subsistence’, and rule out the placing of two individuals in Christ, as if some one man, completely autonomous in himself, had been taken up and been placed by the side of the Word”.

Cardinal Levada makes another welcome appeal to Pope Pius XII in rebutting Fr. Sobrino’s unorthodox opinion that Jesus, in his earthly life, was “a believer like ourselves”. According to the Jesuit scholar, Christ is “our brother in relation to God, since he was not spared having to pass through faith. But he is also presented [in Scripture] as an elder brother because he lived faith as its pioneer and perfecter (Heb. 12: 2). He is the model, the one on whom we have to keep our eyes fixed in order to live out our own faith”. The idea that Jesus was “a believer like ourselves” is of course a thinly-veiled attack on his true divinity, which implies that the Lord always knew his Father, and his own divine identity, by the direct knowledge of vision. Therefore, he did not need the theological virtue of faith, as we do.

Cardinal Levada again appeals to the traditional Catholic understanding of the Gospels, citing Jn 6: 46 (“Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father”), as well as the Synoptics (Mt 11: 25-27; Lk 10: 21-22). The magisterial teachings to this effect cited by Levada include a statement of John Paul II and also the new Catechism, ##473 and 474, which speaks of “the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father”.

However, these recent magisterial statements about our Lord’s knowledge, like all others since Vatican Council II (to the best of my knowledge) fail to address one very important issue, namely, the question of when our Lord began to enjoy the beatific vision and direct consciousness of his own filial relationship to the Father. The post-conciliar silence on this point has opened the way for a plethora of revisionist theories in recent decades telling us that Jesus “didn’t know who he was” at first, and so only gradually “came to learn” his own divine identity, perhaps being confused or ignorant about it right up until Calvary – or even the Resurrection! In other words, it has been a forty-year field-day for those holding and promoting another modernist error condemned by St. Pius X back in 1907, namely, the opinion that “Christ did not always possess the consciousness of his Messianic dignity” (Lamentabili #35, emphasis added). Therefore it is most encouraging to find that Cardinal Levada has now finally broken the long magisterial silence on this point. As well as the post-Vatican-II sources mentioned above, he also cites (against Sobrino) an affirmation of Pope Pius XII in the great 1943 encyclical on the Church, Mystici Corporis, to the effect that Christ possessed this knowledge throughout his earthly life. Referring to our Lord’s knowledge of us, the members of his Mystical Body, the Pontiff affirms: “But the knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of His Incarnation, exceed all that the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God when he began to enjoy the beatific vision” (D 2289 = DS, DH, 3812, emphasis added).

The Notification goes on to censure several other grave errors propagated in the books of this Jesuit theologian, including his shockingly rationalistic reduction of the meaning of Christ’s salvific death on the Cross. For Fr. Sobrino, Calvary merely shows us an inspiring ‘example’ of “a true and complete human being” who is heroically faithful unto death. Cardinal Levada again rebuts this error by citing not only Vatican II and the Catechism, but also a ‘pre-conciliar’ source, in this case the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification.

I would urge readers to study the complete document, which as I write can be found at the top of the ‘menu’ of doctrinal documents of the CDF (under the icon “Roman Curia”) at the Vatican website ( It is an intervention so squarely in line with Pope St. Pius X’s teaching about our Divine Lord’s attributes, as revealed in Scripture and Tradition, that I think it really merits the noble – but now much-derided – adjective anti-modernist.

Oh yes. In another final touch that will please tradition-conscious Catholics, the Notification appropriately bears the date of the Feast of Christ the King (Sunday November 26, 2006).