JACKI LYDEN, Host:
The Vatican made headlines this week when a move to censure a well-known priest in El Salvador, a pioneer of the liberation-theology movement. The Vatican's watchdog arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the writings and teachings of Father Jon Sabrino are either erroneous or dangerous.
The decision to censure Father Sabrino comes just months before Pope Benedict makes his first papal trip to Latin America. Joining us to talk about what the censure means and its possible impact on the pope's upcoming trip is John Allen, correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Welcome John Allen.
JOHN ALLEN: Hi, Jacki.
LYDEN: Tell us more about Father Jon Sabrino and what in his books the Vatican found so offensive.
ALLEN: Well, it's an excellent question because I think that - for people who follow these things, the news that the Vatican has censured Father Sabrino would have the same effect as news that the Vatican has censured, say, eight- track tapes of "Miami Vice." That is it seems unlawfully anachronistic because the great battles over liberation theology were fought back in the '70s and '80s.
Father Sabrino is a Spanish theologian who was born in the Basque country in Spain. He moved to El Salvador in 1958, became very synthesized to the plight of the poor and then became a pioneer in this movement to try to put the Catholic Church on the side of movements for justice for the poor that came to be known as liberation theology.
But, actually, this week's document from the Vatican is not a kind of nostalgic return to those old battles over liberation theology. What actually got Father Sabrino into trouble this time is an entirely new set of issues, having to do with teachings about Jesus Christ, the technical term for which is Christology. And the Vatican fear that two of Father Sabrino's book on Christology flirt with religious relativism. That is thing that are teachings about Christ aren't really absolutely true. They are metaphors and symbols.
LYDEN: Would say - moral relativism. When it comes to Jesus Christ, would two relativistic an interpretation make him less god-like?
ALLEN: Well that certainly is the Vatican fear, yes.
LYDEN: But just as one can be given a prize for, you know, a work really done earlier but now are catching up, the timing here seems odd. "Jesus The Liberator" came out in 1991, "Christ the Liberator" in 1999, so why not?
ALLEN: Well, I mean, first of all, the Vatican is almost by definition always a bit behind the times. In this case, the investigation of Father Sabrino began in 2001. That's an important year because in 2001, the very famous Jesuit theologian from Belgium by the name of Jacques Dupuis was disciplined by the Vatican for many of the same issues.
So my point is that there was a climate of thought at that time in which this works by Father Sabrino became targeted and are really has taken six years for the process to crank forward to a conclusion.
LYDEN: What exactly does a censure mean for Father Sabrino?
ALLEN: Well, it is important to know that he has not been barred from teaching or publishing. So, in the short term, it probably means very little. Now, in the long term, it will probably mean in many places in Latin America, Catholic seminaries particularly, they will be less likely to use these two books in their classes and course work and so on. But it does not spell the end of Father Sabrino's career as a Catholic theologian.
LYDEN: The pope is going to be making his first trip to Latin America pretty soon and it has over half of the Catholic Church's 1.1 billion members. So how do you think the pope might be received? Will this play into his reception in any way.
ALLEN: I doubt it. I think that by the time the pope goes to Brazil on May 9th to the 14th, the controversy that has been generated by this action regarding Father Sabrino will probably have died down. I think that the bigger reality is that this is Benedict XVI first opportunity to present himself in Latin America and, for that matter, anywhere in the global south.
You know, it's not merely the case that half of the Catholic in the world today live in Latin America but two thirds of them live in the global south. And quite frankly, since Benedict's election two years ago that they haven't heard a great deal about the pope.
LYDEN: John Allen, you make a lot of trips to Latin America in your job for the National Catholic Reporter, what is your sense of what Latin American Catholics want to see from Pope Benedict?
ALLEN: Well, first of all, I think they want a basic indication that they are on his radar screen. I mean, bear in mind, this is a German pope who is intellectual background is very much tied up with European culture and European history.
But, secondly, I think what they're hoping for is a papal vote of confidence in the pastoral line of the church in Latin America, which above all, would have at a part the struggle for social justice, for economic justice, for development, for some kind of fair deal for the impoverished masses of South America and that the Catholic is going to support that and commit itself to it. I think that's what they want to hear.
LYDEN: John Allen is a Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter. John Allen, thank you very much for being with us today.
ALLEN: A pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.