by Jonathan Petre THE BOMBSHELL dropped by theVatican this autumn in the form of a
critique of liberation theology was hardly unexpected; the writing had been on the wail for months.
Late last year Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from which the critique eventually emanated, delivered the first salvo when he aired his considerable doubts about liberation theology in an interview with the Italian magazine Jesus.
Return fire duly came in July from a group of leading liberal theologians, including a founder of the new movement, Fr Gustavo Gutierrez, as well as Frs Edward Shillebeeckx and Hans Kung.
Not only did the group vigorously defend liberation theology and urge the Church to commit itself to the poor, but it also made a strong complaint about what many considered to be a Vatican smear campaign by implication against some of the new theology's leading exponents.
All through the hot summer months, experienced observers knew something was brewing.
Nevertheless, the shockwaves that rippled through the Church when the Vatican document was somewhat coyly unveiled on September 3 did more than rattle a few tea cups.
In fact, to those who had been working for 20 or more years to promote liberation theology in Latin America and elsewhere, it represented something of an earthquake.
With the eyes of the world, particularly those of the United States, on the volatile political situation in the region, the theologians were left anxiously scouring the seismic evidence and the press attempted to read the tea leaves.
The Vatican document, significantly called an
"instructionon some aspects of liberation theology, has proved ambiguous enough to provide comfort to both sides in the debate.
As one Jesuit has remarked, the document appears to have two authors, the author of the first part being supportive of liberation theology, that of the second distinctly unsympathetic.
Another Jesuit Fr John Sobrino, a prominent adherent of liberation theology, puts this schizophrenia down to an attempt by the Vatican "to have it both ways". , It approves of the aims of liberation theology, he said during a recent visit to London, but it does not desire the inevitable consequences — the violence and persecution involved in following it through. But it is not possible, he commented, to have the one without the other.
As everyone is now well aware, the Vatican document concentrated its fire on the "deviations" which are "inherent in some aspects of the theology of liberation, which use concepts of Marxist thinking in a way that is insufficiently critical."
Although the term "theology of liberation" is a valid one, the document says, because the liberation of oppressed people from social and economic slavery is a theme of both the Old and the New Testaments, many of those who preach it use "scientific" Marxist analysis which entails class struggle and violence which must ultimately divide the Church.
"Let us recall," the document says, "the fact that atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and his rights are at the core of Marxist theory."
The present Pope has both practical and theoretical objections to liberation theology, and his belief that Marxism can never, by its very nature, peacefully co-exist with the Church springs from his Polish roots.
His beliefs received added support recently with the brutal murder of the pro-Solidarity priest Fr Jerzy Popieluszko.
For all intents and purposes, he regards the nascent, grassroot revolution in Latin America as the seed from which monolithic Eastern European-style regimes will emerge, shunting aside the Church the more established they become.
To orthodox Marxism he has a number of fundamental objections. First, Marxism denies the Christian notion of the transcendental nature of the human person made in the image of God.
Second, the Pope rejects the Marxist view that human alienation is a problem capable of a political solution alone. More fundamental, as he emphasises in his major document on reconciliation, is man's estrangement from God, and the truth that individual sin is at the root of social sin, not vice versa.
Third, the Pope is in complete disagreement with the Marxist analysis of the class struggle which, he argues, 'leads to the notion that members of one class are natural enemies of another.
As the Vatican critique pointedly states, the Marxist theory of truth, which excludes all those not actually involved in the practical revolution (the "praxis"), would not only alienate the ruling classes, but the hierarchies and the Vatican itself.
The general response of the Latin American theologians, who were gravely disappointed with the negative tone of the document, has been to say that the Pope is merely tilting at windmills; the situation that he imagines in Latin America, they say, simply does not exist. and no theologian of liberation would be foolish enough to uncritically take Marxism on board.
Yet, despite the view that the Vatican is attacking straw men, it does appear to be keeping at least one eye on a number of priests who hold "dissident" opinions.
The most prominent of these is Fr Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian whose book Church, Charisma and Power angered the Vatican with its stringent criticisms of Church structures. He was summoned to Ttcprie to be quizzed by Cardinal Ratzinger and the Congregation. His "inquisition" was inconclusive, but the Cardinal promised to issue a verdict early next year.
In Nicaragua, the Vatican has long waged a feud with four priests who, in defiance of the Pope and Canon Law, have held ministerial positions in the Sandinista government since the coup in 1979.
Now the Jesuit Superior General, Fr Peter Hans Kovenbach, has dismissed one of them, the Jesuit education minister Fr Fernando Cardenal, from the Order.
Fr Cardenal launched a bitter counter-attack, claiming that the Pope had personally ordered his expulsion, and accused the Vatican of "echoing the politics of President Reagan."
"The Holy See is a prisoner of political concepts reached as a result of the conflicts in Eastern Europe," he said in an open letter.
The Pope, meanwhile, has seemed anxious to press home his message of the importance of obedience, both to delegates of visiting bishops in Rome and to the people themselves during a 24-hour visit to the Dominican Republic in October.
The Vatican is already in the stages of drawing up another document, to stress the "positive" aspects of liberation theology. Many fear a watereddown version stressing the primacy of Rome and the local hierarchies.
If that proves to be the case, Pope John Paul could spark off an acrimonious struggle for the very soul of the Church.