One Sunday morning an all-too-familiar scene unfolded in the sacristy at Iglesia El Carmen in Santa Tecla, outside San Salvador. Giggling children blessed with the blood of the coffee gods surrounded an elderly Spanish priest, showering him with warmth and adoration. It was an image of an encounter—European and native—mythologized over centuries in Latin America from the first conquistador who disembarked with a gun in one hand, the cross in the other, and a mandate to “civilize.”
But the church pastor is no ordinary priest and this is no ordinary encounter. The pastor, Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, is a world-renowned liberation theologian. He says these children, the country’s poor, offer salvation. Through them the mystery of God is revealed. “La gloria de Dios es el pobre,” declared slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero—“The glory of God is the poor.” That aphorism hangs next to a banner with a crucified Jesus on the church’s otherwise sparse altar.
Romero’s words ring in Sobrino’s ears. They influence his many published writings and form the cornerstone of liberation theology, a strain of Catholicism that emerged as a force in Latin America during the 1970s, promoting Jesus as liberator of the oppressed and impoverished. But in a sanction published in March 2007, the Vatican branded the ideas contained in two of Sobrino’s books as “erroneous or dangerous,” thus discouraging Catholic seminaries and universities from teaching his work.
The Latin American Jesus promulgated in Sobrino’s books Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator is forged by the lived reality on the continent. With nearly half of the world’s Catholics living in Latin America—most of them in abject poverty—a Jesus who brings liberation reflects the reality from the ground, from the lives of the poor. But the Vatican objects. “Theological reflection cannot have a foundationother than the faith of the Church,” wrote the Vatican. “Only starting from ecclesial faith, in communion with the Magisterium, can the theologian acquire a deeper understanding of the Word of God ….” In other words, the Vatican governs the Catholic concept of Jesus Christ, and reality is the province of the hierarchical church.
The Vatican’s sanction sent a jitter through theologians and laity—not all of whom espouse Sobrino’s views—who fear it represents yet another signal of increasing rigidity within a Catholic Church that is shedding the more inclusive climate ushered in by Vatican II in 1963.
I encountered Sobrino in the sacristy of his church after Mass on a cool April morning, but he at first declined to speak with me (as he had refused other interviews requests). Suddenly, I blurted out the one question that had gripped me since reading his books: What is reality? My question caught his attention.
In Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, Sobrino wrote that reality is the Cross. “One must take charge of reality,” he wrote, quoting Ignacio Ellacuría, one of the Jesuit priests murdered in 1989 by U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers. “One must ‘bear the burden of reality’ with all its crushing weight.”
“Reality is what’s being covered up, the things that are covered up and are very hard to unearth,” Sobrino answered me, launching into a finely tuned reflection. “Hope is a reality. ... Reality is hard, but it’s wonderful. There is this energy, the will to live. ... I’m happy in this country. There are many good things.”
But Sobrino upends any simplistic view of the reality of El Salvador. True, 11 people are murdered every day and thousands flee every year, but many more stay and persevere. How easily we choose where to cast the lines of reality, from there choosing whose suffering merits help and who to kill.
“You know Sept. 11,” Sobrino states. “But what is October 7? It’s the day the democracies bombed Afghanistan. The poor of this earth, which are the majority, don’t even have calendars,” said Sobrino. “What should be said and what should be silenced is in the hands of the few and powerful, and that is what I fight against.”
In El Salvador, defining reality is a daily battle. Street vendors and activists are charged as terrorists while the late Roberto D’Aubuisson—the military leader and founder of the current ruling political party, who a U.N. Truth Commission determined ordered the assassination of Archbishop Romero—is nominated as an honorary “Hijo Meritismo” (“Meritorious Son”) of the nation. But for some 30 years Sobrino and the entire liberation theology movement have been the subject of Vatican scrutiny as a “Marxist-inspired” movement.
Although the recent Vatican “notification” did not officially silence Sobrino or remove his books from circulation, it warned Catholics that the content does not conform to church ideology. The sanction followed a six-year investigation initiated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, while he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the enforcer of church doctrine.
The Vatican rejected Sobrino’s notion of the “church of the poor” as the whole church’s base—a basic tenet of liberation theology—saying such a concept “would make this preference a partisan choice and source of conflict.”
Sobrino has defended his theology and refused to accept the Vatican’s judgment. In a private letter to the Jesuits’ Superior General, leaked to the public, Sobrino said prominent theologians had reviewed his book without finding error. By accepting the judgment, he would have to acquiesce to a 30-year Vatican campaign against liberation theology, Sobrino said, and betray religious leaders who sacrificed their lives defending the poor.
“If a Christology animates the poor of this world, victims of terrible sins—including ones committed by so-called believers—to maintain their faith in God and in His Christ, and to have dignity and hope,” Sobrino wrote in Getting the Poor Down from the Cross: Christology of Liberation, an online anthology published in his defense, “then this Christology will have its limitations of course, but I do not consider it to be dangerous in the world of the poor, but rather something positive. However, it is possible that it will be seen—and it has been seen—as dangerous in other worlds.”
Sobrino, now 70 years old, settled in El Salvador from the Basque region of Spain in 1973 at a time of death squads and massacres and the emergence of a new generation of religious leaders and laity who broke with centuries of allegiance to the Latin American elite. This new generation possessed, as Sobrino put it, the “ability to see through the peasants, with the peasants, and also being for the peasants to see for themselves, more than I saw, the mystery of God.”
I returned to Sobrino with more questions and this time found him in his office at the University of Central America, the site of the 1989 massacre of eight members of Sobrino’s community. (Sobrino was traveling at the time of the massacre.) At the entrance to the theology center, an exhibit honors the Salvadoran martyrs, including Archbishop Romero, who once declared that “a church that does not unite with the poor is not the true church of Jesus Christ.” Romero was gunned down by a death squad while celebrating Mass. A jewelry box entrusted to Sobrino contains a slightly yellowed handkerchief, the one used to wipe Romero’s blood. These artifacts are bloody reminders of a church that stood in solidarity with the poor, in pursuit of liberation—a mission, Sobrino says, the church has abandoned.
“In the last 25 years the churches, especially the institutional church, have tried to move away from a relationship with society. What God created was the world, not the church. The church came later. Now the churches are moving away from being in the real world and away from service to the real world. Specifically, this is true of Latin America, because being in and at the service of the real world is very dangerous.
“The church has moved away from being a church that went into conflict and suffered persecution and killings and bombings. But we must ask why? One reason is historical. There are victims, the poor, of this world of ours.
“The United States is an exception [to the rest of the world]. It is an anecdote. In the First World, in the United States, they may argue—Republicans and Democrats may argue among themselves—about President Bush, but they all agree on one reality. They agree about us [in the Third World]. They expect countries to be poor and violent. Of course, people don’t care about El Salvador. They don’t care about the poor in Brazil.
“But why? In the United States and in my country—I was born in the Basque country—we take life for granted. We take living well for granted. We don’t want to lose what we have. That is the untouchable thing. In your country, politicians have said, ‘It is our Manifest Destiny,’ which is, by the way, religious language. It is the ‘manifest destiny’ of the United States to be a prosperous country and then go back and save poor people from poverty, lack of freedom, lack of democracy, and bring them back to the real world which is democracy. For me that is an issue.
“Religion is not something different from being human,” Sobrino continued. “Religion is one way of being human. It’s not because I’m religious that I want to know the truth. We believe in a God that tells us to look at reality and to love the truth. If you don’t do that, then you have failed as a human being—not as a believer, but as a human being. Religion reinforces that human impulse toward truth, toward unmasking reality.
“Why in El Salvador do we talk about la verdad [truth] and la realidad [reality]? Well, because awful crimes—that’s certainly true of your country—awful crimes have been, some of them, ignored. The war in Congo, for example, is simply ignored. When silencing is not possible, then it is covered up. Unmasking reality or trying to get to know reality becomes something very important for us as human and religious persons.
“It’s not only about unmasking the truth of cruel realities. If it is bad to cover up cruel things, it is worse to cover up good things. When you see goodness, if you don’t want to acknowledge it or if you are not happy in its presence, then I don’t see any hope for this planet. Have we seen goodness in El Salvador? Plenty! In this room you see pictures of those who have died: Ignacio Ellacuría, the martyred Jesuits, Rutilio Grande, Romero. This is goodness. Goodness is so beautiful. It is without arrogance, without propaganda. Goodness doesn’t make money.
“My real worry for the church is how to care for this world and also how to see the goodness there has been—and that there still is—on this continent. I am a theologian. At times theologians write things that might not be quite right or even might be wrong. But we write in the presence of the poor. When you see horrible massacres in El Salvador, Rwanda, or Burundi and when you see people, especially women, walking with all they have left and their two children and lots of things on their head, when you see them just walking, looking for refuge, I say that is primordial sanctity, primordial holiness. These are the words I use to describe something that I don’t see all the time. Yes, there is poverty, but this is to describe a type of dignity that comes from wanting to survive. I call that ‘primordial sanctity’ in order to identify something wonderful in the midst of a tragedy.”
My mind turns to Doña Francisca Orellana, a woman I met in the northern province of Chalatenango where, during El Salvador’s civil war, support for the guerrillas was fierce and the government backlash was unforgiving. A bomb dropped in front of her house. As she sat weaving a palm mat, she described to me how the shrapnel cut through her pelvis, how she found help at a guerrilla-run clinic.
“I saw our brothers sick, lying in bamboo cots, and my heart broke,” Doña Francisca said. “I always prayed the rosary. I stayed there watching the sick. There was Jesus, crucified.” She prayed not simply for life, but also to serve. “Let me live, Lord, so that I may weave palm mats for those who suffer, to ease their pain.” Dona Francisca’s weathered face exuded pure happiness. With such dignity in her daily struggle to live, one could never imagine calling her “poor.” When Sobrino says “primordial sanctity,” I see Doña Francisca.
As I left Sobrino’s office, I said, “I don’t believe that the Vatican’s sanction is about you. It is about everything I’ve seen here.”
The sharp-tongued theologian didn’t correct me, but smiled with satisfaction.
Michelle García recently completed a Knight fellowship with the International Center for Journalists in El Salvador. Previously she wrote for The Washington Post from its New York bureau. She is based in New York.