IN 1414, the Bohemian heretical reformer, John Thisk, was persuaded to attend the Council of Constance to defend his beliefs and was given safe-conduct for his journey there. He found, however, that the authorities had already made up their minds about his teachings. He was accordingly condemned and, as one account of the affair delicately puts it, he was "given over to the secular authorities for punishment." In other words, he was burned. One of Huss's last efforts was to try to persuade the Church to distribute Holy Communion to the laity under both species.
Nowadays those holding unapproved views — the word "heretic" generally being eschewed — are not burned but it can still happen that they can be judged and virtually condemned in advance. It may well all depend on the general atmosphere prevailing at the seat of authority before any specific case comes up for further consideration.
Fr Leonard Boff, for example, will, from September 7 onwards, be answering questions in the Vatican about his views on liberation theology. Meanwhile, however, a document condemning certain aspects of liberation theology has already been approved and will be promulgated by the Holy Father in the near future.
This by no means implies that any injustice will be suffered by Fr Boff, but in view of such enlightenment to all concerned, including the inquisitors, as might well come out of the investigation of Fr Boff's views, it would surely have been better to have held up the condemnatory document until such views had had a chance of fuller exposition.
We thus return to a subject which has caused widespread interest and concern, having, last week, expressed apprehension as to the manner in which liberation theology is interpreted officially at the Vatican. We have now been assured by Fr Thomas Herron, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that "the importance of a theology emphasising liberty is accepted" in Rome and that "it is nonsense to say otherwise."
In re-emphasising, moreover, that the conquest of social misery cannot be given priority to the conquest of sin he was paraphrasing the important distinction editorially made last week between liberation theology as an end in itself for Marxists but, for Christians, only as a means to an end which must always be spiritual.
His mention, however, of Medellin and Puebla has inevitably raised fears that, if a statement of the "limits" of liberation theology can be definitively made (as in the document already approved) before a hearing has been given to a man of Fr Boff's standing, some of the politics surrounding Puebla, 1979, may still be at work.
The conference at Puebla, Mexico, was, as may be remembered, the successor to the historic meeting of the Latin American Bishops at Medellin in Colombia in 1968 which was a turning point in the modern Catholic history of that continent. Then came Puebla which was delayed from October 1978 in order that, after the sudden death of Pope John I, could be attended by his successor. During the run-up to Puebla, however a conservative counter-reformation had already got under way as a result of which liberation theology was translated by the Europeans into their own economic and political language, and thus, from the Latin American viewpoint, basically misconstrued.
"Latin America," said its own Bishops at Puebla, "faces a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalised violence_ We should not be surprised, therefore, that the 'temptation of violence' is surfacing in Latin America. One should not abuse the patience of the people."
Those who have acted on what was implied by this statement of the Latin American bishops have been accused, in certain cases, of being identified with Marxism, but only because of an inevitable similarity, again in certain cases, of the means necessary to root out evil at its source.
Going beyond this, however, liberation theology helps the Chruch to be more than merely defensive and negative and enables it to be positive and prophetic. This can only involve an active fight against institutional violence and injustice, Such a fight finds its justification on the same principles as those used by the Church since the days of Constantine to define the "just way." The vital question now is whether Rome can see the overall position in Latin America with as keen a sensitivity as those who have been involved with it longest at first hand. Let there be no possibility of any pre-judgment on a matter so vital, both humanly and spiritually speaking.