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Jon Sobrino and the Vatican judgment


It is too early to explore the justice of the Vatican criticism of Jon Sobrino’s theology. But such judgments also affect human lives. So it may be useful to set this event in the context of the relationship between the Basque born theologian and the El Salvador to which he has committed his working life.

I first met Jon Sobrino in November 1989. He had a speaking engagement in Bangkok, but with characteristic generosity had agreed to visit the Jesuit Refugee Service meeting at Chachoengsao. During the day the radio carried the story that six Jesuits had been murdered in Jon’s community and with them the cook and her daughter. Jon honoured his commitment and joined us for the evening.

Next day, still shocked, he returned to the Bangkok office, where he found that the Bangkok Post displayed photographs of one of the murdered Jesuits. "That is my typewriter", he said suddenly, "that is my bible". "That is my room". Through the simple details flowed the horror of their death and of his survival.

Four years later I spent six months in El Salvador in the same community as Jon Sobrino. In the army massacre at the UCA, he had lost his friend and mentor, Ignacio Ellacuria. His health was not good, and he was still deeply affected by the death of his companions. Despite that, he continued to teach, to write and to encourage the poor Catholic communities that sought a just social order. He seemed to have given his life and his work to the poor of El Salvador and to have identified with them. He became a voice for them.

El Salvador was then at the end of a conflict in which the Government army, with United States backing, had waged war against its people. One incident defines the conflict for me. I spent some time in a settlement formed by villagers, survivors of massacres, who had returned from exile. As the community prepared to celebrate the anniversary of its return, I had the task of gathering the names of those who had died in the conflict.

One elderly country woman stays in my memory. She had seven children; most of them had been catechists. All had been killed by government forces, some specially targeted, and others in indiscriminate assaults on their communities. As she mentioned Juan, the last of her children, she paused. Tears came to her eyes as she said, "I had such hope in him".

This was the reality of the Salvadorean poor from whose perspective Jon Sobrino reflected on the implications of Christian faith. As a theologian his concern was less to think systematically about the Gospel than to ask how we should respond to it. In that sense he was as much a spiritual writer as a theologian. Identifying himself, as he did, with the systematically oppressed poor he had then to spell out what Christian promises and the path through death to life entailed. To be decent and credible the account he gave had to be concrete and to give full weight to disappearances, torture, evictions and intimidation. It has also to give weight to the use of these things as a tool of Government. He argued against those who weakened the Gospel by reducing it to individual piety or to abstractions. His theological voice is focused and passionate.

Sobrino’s theology reflects his Jesuit tradition. This emphasises identification with the poor, powerless and humiliated Jesus, and distrust of wealth, status and celebrity. Jon Sobrino focuses on the social context of Jesus’ life and the radical path he chose in his ministry, using Salvadorean society as the matrix for the theological imagination. In such exigent places Christ’s divinity hides itself. People who live in more comfortable places want a more ceremonious theology.

No doubt the humiliation entailed in the judgment on Jon Sobrino’s theology will serve large ends. But for him, it simply takes to a deeper level his identification with the poor of El Salvador. From being a voice for them, he shares their voicelessness. He will bear it, as he has borne so much, with the bravery of an exemplary Catholic, priest, theologian, Jesuit and human being.



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Existing comments

I wonder did St Paul live in a palace ...

James Baxter | 15 March 2007  

One of your best Andy! How easy it can be to forget human dignity when matters of theology are at stake. The most important aspects of Christ's example are too often placed secondary to theology when the comfortable fail to understand. You give me hope.

Beth Doherty | 15 March 2007  

Christ's divinity hides itself in such exigent places, Andrew says in his wise comment on Jon Sobrino's restraint in asserting it. Sobrino is in good company there. St Paul was equally restrained when he wrote in the Letter to the Philippians that 'though he was in the form of God' he 'emptied himself' (of that form), and 'taking the form of a slave 'he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death' (2:6-8).

Brian Gleeson | 15 March 2007  

As I thought about the vatican action against Jon Sobrino I wondered how this would affect him and his family personally. I remembered how badly Dupuis was hurt when the Vatican moved against him. Our community prayed this morning for Jon and all those affected by this action.

Greg Burke | 15 March 2007  

Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, forever, Heb 13.8, and where the whole Christ still suffers, he continues "to empty himself..." See Phil 2. 6-11.

Tony LeClerc | 15 March 2007  

As usual, Andrew hits the nail on the head. The gospel of justice is uncomfortable for all of us (myself included) who HAVE. We look for a way out, a rationalisation to ignore this "hard saying". But we cannot do so and be credible disciples of Jesus Christ. More importantly for the future of the Church, we are seen as "sell outs" by the young people to whom I try to minister, becuase we do not practice what we preach. More power to Jon Sobrino who has "conformed himself to the sufferings of Christ".

Patrick Jurd | 15 March 2007  

He was, however, less restrained when he wrote the three verses that follow (see Philippian 2:9-11).

James Baxter | 16 March 2007  

It is well for us to remember that in "wealthy" countries like the US and Australia,the wealth is not evenly distributed: we have many poor people. To the poor - and those who would be inspired to serve them - the proclamation of the Kingdom of God can well draw on the theology of Jon Sobrino.

As I read of Pope Benedict's love of classical music and his brilliance as a pianist, the thought comes to my mind that Local Government Authorities in Australia have found that the best way to drive youths from areas, in which they are not welcome to congregate, is to play classical music over loud speakers in those places.

Of course, there are some, who wouldn't want "THAT" type at Mass.

The principle of subsidiarity needs to be applied in all areas of Church life.

Peter Ryan | 16 March 2007  

Andy, it is always great to read you.This time I am most moved about the issue concerning Jon Sobrino. So may thanks goes deeper. All sorts of issues crop up- and the gospel remains ever so clear for those who listen...

Ferruccio Romanin SJ | 16 March 2007  

Thank you for such a wonderful article Andy. Your moving account throws a hopeful clarification on this issue.

Maggie Power | 21 March 2007  

Sources of truth and justice come into our lives in the most unbidden ways. I do not know this man Jon Sobrino. But now I want to know him and his theology. I only just read of the Vatican's move to silence him. Yet you all speak so deeply and respectfully of this Fr Jon. So now I must search for his words, learn of his work, reach his heart.

I work for social justice and am writing from the small country of Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean. More recently the Jesuits have come here - just a few years now - and already there is deep love and respect for them ... Fr Eddy from England, Fr Malcolm from Guyana. I remember one other good Jesuit I know, Padre Hugo Mansini at the retreat house in Galloro outside Rome. I thank God for these people who bring Christ to us with a manner of living that is so simple and is so Jesus. And now I thank you all for bringing Fr Jon to me in ways that make me want to search for this man's truth.

Thank you all. And please pray for social justice in Trinidad. The pain of the poor is great here too.

I am going off to learn of Fr Jon now. I know he will teach me things that will make me think and reflect, bring new insights, deepen our spirituality of justice down here. Thanks again all.

Blessings ...maureen arneaud

maureen arneaud | 23 March 2007  

I often despair about a hierarchical Church which appears all too often to be more interested in protecting orthodoxy than allowing the voice of prophecy to be heard. Congratulations on the article. I have only just discovered your excellent publication

Martin Donaldson | 26 March 2007  

Hello, I am from El Salvador and I studied at Central American University in San Salvador where I met Padre Sobrino and I think he is a Saint in our days, God bless him now and always, I would like to receive a letter from you. Thank you
Virginia Melgar

Virginia Melgar | 28 March 2007  

The sound of silence can be deafening. Christ's story is repeated and in the process those who seek silence will create a greater and more powerful voice.

john dallimore | 19 April 2007  

Christ's divinity never hides itself! In fact, in exigent places it becomes more revealing...note: the fish and loaves where His divinity becomes extremely evident to all. (P.S. that's just one example.) Blessings!

Vince Torres | 09 May 2007  


When did Christ ever wear red expensive shoes, don on ornate ceremonial albs, be surrounded and protected by a private army, be a political head of state, write in Ph.D books no one can understand except himself and by a few men, oppress those who work with and for the poor like Jon Sobrino? If Christ were to visit Rome today, what would he say about the worse sins of pedophile priests seething beneath the Vatican archives which are worse than the sins at the Temple of Solomon?

Would he recognize the Peter-the-Rock clones residing at the grand palace of the Vatican rivaling the palace of the Ceasars of Rome? Christ would gag at his ostentious "Vicar of Christ" when they meet for the first time, they'd be like the Prince and the Pauper, the Pope being (and dressed as) the Prince!

Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever and he would do like what he did when he got very angry with the marketeers at the Temple and turned the tables upside down because they have "made God's temple a den of thieves" . But this time the Temple of the Vatican has become the Opus Dei (Ambrosiano Bank)den ... worst of all now the Vatican has become a "den of High Priests-pedophiles"! So Christ would repeat the curse of the Temple of Solomon that "not one stone will be left standing" about the Temple of the Vatican now owned and operated by the Octopus Dei.

We follow-up on the autocracy of Benedict XVI and the Opus Dei Archbishop of El Salvador and their subtle Galileo-style treatment on Jon Sobrino
---- http://pope-ratz.blogspot.com/2007_05_01_archive.html

Charles | 05 August 2007  

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