We, the admirers of Pope Benedict XVI, will always assert that, rather than “God’s Rottweiler,” our beloved Holy Father was a shy and gentle intellectual, who administered doctrinal discipline with the precept that correction is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. As St. Paul advises, one should not “disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines” (cf. Hebrews 12:5-6).

The other side of the coin, however, is that a rebuke from the Vatican relating to a particular theologian’s life work can sting and bring professional dishonor to the recipient. That sensibility may have motivated Pope Francis to tell members of the Latin American Conference of Religious in June 2013 that, if they should receive a citation from the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF),[1] “Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.”

One fateful CDF citation was issued to Jon Sobrino, SJ, a Spanish-born, naturalized Salvadoran proponent of Liberation Theology, in November 2006 (and published in March 2007). Sobrino was a collaborator of St. Oscar Romero, and had been spared from a certain death by the fortuitous happenstance that he was traveling when six Jesuits colleagues and their two housekeepers were shot at point blank range by a rightwing death squad during the Jesuit university massacre of 1989 in San Salvador.

Fr. Sobrino’s CDF “Notification” is often pointed to as a case of pastoral insensitivity, at a minimum, especially due to the fact that Sobrino was singled out by the CDF in a document dated only ten days after the anniversary of his near-martyrdom. The document specified that Pope Benedict himself had “approved this Notification” in an audience with Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the CDF at the time. Additionally, Benedict was familiar with the issues cited in the Notification, having been prefect of the CDF under John Paul II. During his tenure as prefect, he issued two documents commenting on the valid boundaries of Liberation Theology. The Sobrino Notification concluded that the theologian had gone outside those boundaries, criticizing his methodological presuppositions, his understanding of the divinity of Jesus Christ, and other theological assertions in his writings.

Although Sobrino has generally refrained from discussing the censure, it is clear from multiple sources that the episode was painful and disastrous to Sobrino’s career. The Jesuit endured a long uphill history of distrustful treatment from Church authorities. Even St. Oscar Romero criticized his Christology before warming to him and making him a trusted theological adviser in the late 70s. Following his 2006 Notification, Sobrino was no longer free to write or speak on theological subjects and was ostracized from mainstream Church circles.

The Sobrino Notification, however, was not issued bare—it was accompanied by an “Explanatory Note” seeking to soften the blow. The Notification itself stated in two places that Fr. Sobrino’s “preoccupation” for the poor was “admirable.” The Explanatory Note recognized that “Father Sobrino manifests a preoccupation for the poor and oppressed, particularly in Latin America.” It validated this preoccupation by noting that “This preoccupation certainly is shared by the whole Church.” It also noted that, “From the beginning, this preoccupation for the poor has been one of the characteristics of the Church’s mission.”

Finally, the Notification itself took pains to explain that “The Congregation does not intend to judge the subjective intentions of the Author, but rather has the duty to call to attention to certain propositions which are not in conformity with the doctrine of the Church.” The Explanatory Note added that it was important for the CDF to weigh in promptly, “given the wide diffusion of Father Sobrino’s works, particularly in Latin America”—because the priest’s opinions had been published in Sobrino’s widely-disseminated books.

The Notification and the Explanatory Note present two sides of the coin: the apologetic need for correction on the one hand, and the painful exercise of correction—especially to those on the receiving end. But one cannot talk about the misery of correction without recalling the words of St. Augustine, in which our beloved Benedict was surely well-versed:

The gospel terrifies me. I could easily say, ‘What business is it of mine to be wearisome to people…’ [N]obody could outdo me in enjoying such anxiety-free leisure. There’s nothing better, nothing more pleasant than to search through the divine treasure chest with nobody making a commotion; it’s pleasant, it’s good. But to preach, to refute, to rebuke, to build up, to manage for everybody, that’s a great burden, a great weight, a great labor. Who wouldn’t run away from this labor? But the gospel terrifies me.’

(Sermon 339, 4.)[2]

In the words of the Sobrino Explanatory Note, true correction “seeks to be of service to the people of God, and particularly to the simple and poorest members of the Church.” And it does not deny that the person corrected may be trying to do the same thing.


[1] The office is now (as of June 5, 2022) called the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF).

[2] Fittingly, this same passage was quoted by Cardinal Angelo Amato, a co-signer of the Sobrino Notification, in his homily at the Romero beatification in San Salvador, to counter criticisms that Romero had been overly combative.

Image: YouTube screenshot.

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Carlos X. Colorado is an attorney and blogger from Southern California. He tracked the canonization of St. Oscar Romero in his «Super Martyrio» blog from 2006-2018. He is a member of the board of the St. Thomas More Society of Orange County, a Catholic lawyer group.

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