Last Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a diminutive friar from Peru in the black and white habit of the Dominicans came before Benedict XVI, who was officiating over the rite in the Roman basilica of Santa Sabina. The pope applied the ashes to his head.
The friar was Gustavo Gutierrez, author of the 1971 book “A Theology of Liberation,” which gave rise to the theological current of the same name.
In 1984, and again in 1986, this theology was severely criticized by two documents from the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, signed by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. But it still influences large sectors of the Latin American Church, in their mentality and language.
Not all of its major exponents have taken the same path. Gutierrez has corrected some of its initial positions, has entered the Dominican order, and at the beginning of this Lent he was called to give a theology course at an illustrious pontifical university in Rome, the Angelicum, where Karol Wojtyla studied.
But another famous liberation theologian, the Jesuit Jon Sobrino, a Basque émigré to El Salvador, where he co-founded the University of Central America, UCA, has held firm on his positions even after the congregation for the doctrine of the faith placed two of his books under examination.
And he says that he doesn’t want to fold even today, now that two of his texts have been judged “erroneous and dangerous.”
The congregation’s sentence ends without inflicting any punishment on Sobrino. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because in effect, more than for the theologian under scrutiny, it is intended for his many readers and admirers: bishops, priests, laypeople.
It’s these that the Vatican document wants to put on their guard.
In mid-May, at the Brazilian sanctuary of the Aparecida, the episcopal conferences of Latin America will hold their fifth general assembly. It will be inaugurated by Benedict XVI in person.
The publication of the sentence against Sobrino thus gives a preview of one of the guidelines that the pope will hand down to the Latin American Church, many of whose leading cadres are influenced by the spirit of liberation theology.
A question that Benedict XVI sees as being of capital importance – as proved by his new book about to be published – is strictly connected to the preceding one. And it is the question of Jesus, true God and true man.
Distorting the truth of Jesus – as occurs, in the judgment of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, in the books of the major author on Christology in Latin America, Sobrino – is the same as distorting the truth of the Church, the meaning of its mission in the world.
This is precisely what’s said in the title Benedict XVI has given to the general assembly scheduled at the Aparecida: “Disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ, that our people may have life in Him.” Together with these words of Jesus in the Gospel of John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Take, for example, Fr. Ricardo Flores, pastor of San Jose Obrero parish in a typical residential neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, the national capital.
At San Jose Obrero, Flores is responsible not just for the life of this large urban parish, but for 14 other churches scattered throughout the surrounding area that have no resident priest. All told, his parish community encompasses around 150,000 people, which in other contexts might constitute its own diocese. In theory, six other priests are supposed to be on call part-time to help him, but two recently moved on to other assignments. The remaining four all have other duties in schools, parishes and other institutions across the country.
In addition, Flores is the national priest-director for the John XXIII Movement, a popular Catholic group in Central America and the Caribbean which has 5,000 members in Honduras. Its aim is to evangelize the marginalized, both in the church and in society.
Beyond that, Flores is also a professor at the seminary in Tegucigalpa, teaching a full load of four courses each semester for around 60 students. During the first semester, he teaches Mariology, Christology, Patristics and Ecclesiology; in the second semester, he teaches additional sections of Christology and Ecclesiology as well as courses in Holy Orders and Eschatology. To top things off, Flores is also the spiritual director for seven seminarians.
I asked Flores what a typical day looks like: MORE