I was very struck by a comment which was made on another post on this blog by a defender of liberation theology. I’m not going to attempt to speak in this post to what liberation theology is and whether or not it represents a correct understanding of Christ’s message, but what does interest me a great deal is this response to the concerns expressed by Benedict XVI at the time that he was the head of the CDF about liberation theology, and the similar concerns expressed by John Paul II. As has been observed elsewhere on this blog, liberation theology has not been officially condemend by the Church.
However, a number of aspects of liberation theology have been criticized by the Church, and in reponse to the mention of these criticisms, we are given this defense:
I don’t dismiss what they say. If the version of liberation theology that they critique actually exists, then they are right about those versions. But they cite NO ONE and in my studies I have seen no evidence of the distortions that they claim exist. Here they are not distinguishing between the practice of various Christians and liberation theologians. When they critique something called “liberation theology” I assume they mean the latter. But the image that they critique is just that: an image with little reality. In fact many liberation theologians have actually praised the CDF statements on liberation theology, saying that if such a theology existed it should rightly be criticized, but that what they are doing bears little resemblance to those caricatures.
This defense reminded me very strongly of some reading that I did a while back on the Jansenist heresy. (Someone had accused me of being a Jansenist, and since I’m always curious to know more about myself, I set off to learn a bit about them. But that’s another story.) I don’t want to get really in depth on Jansenism, so I’ll simply link to the Catholid Encyclopedia article on the topic and observe that broadly speaking it was a heresy centering around moral pessimism and scrupulosity and came close to, but not quite, asserting predestination and the inability of man to resist sin through free will. Here’s the standard Wikipedia article as well.
What’s interesting is that when Pope Innocent X issued a bull in 1653 condemning as heretical five propositions of Jansenism based on the popular book Augustinus which had been written by Bishop Cornelius Jansen and published after his death, what Jansenist theologian Antoine Arnauld did was: he accepted the bull, renounced the propositions, but denied that Augustinus actually contained any of those teachings. He argued that the pope had mis-understood Jansen’s arguments, and thus that while the pope’s condemnation was correct, it was not actually a condemnation of Jansen’s theology.
A number of French bishops condemned Arnauld’s position and called upon Rome to do likewise. Arnauld proceeded to draw a distinction, arguing that the Church could speak definitively on matters of doctrine (that the five propositions were false) but was unable to speak definitively on matters of fact (whether the propositions were asserted in Augustinus). The majority of French bishops condemned this distinction, insisting that Catholics must accept both the doctrinal ruling and the judgement that the false doctrines were contained in the condemned book. Eventually Pope Alexander VII , at the urging of the French church and monarchy, went to far as to issue an apostolic constitition, insisting that to be orthodox Catholics must be willing to take an oath rejecting the five propositions, asserting that the propositions were in Jansen’s work, and asserting that they rejected the propositions in the same sense that Jansen had meant them.
Reading about the long and painful history of the controversy, I can’t help thinking that Arnauld’s point has a certain validity. I’m not exactly sure it makes sense to say that the Church can authoritatively assert that a work contains a given set of ideas. But at the same time, it strikes me that Arnauld was doing a very dangerous thing in asserting that he agreed with the pope’s correction but not with the pope’s conclusion that the condemned propositions were in Augustinus. When we think that we understand ideas deeply, and that criticisms made by theologians, bishops or even the Vatican are based upon a defective understanding of what people we admire are saying, it’s very tempting to fall back onto the “they just don’t understand us” excuse. And yet, especially to a mind familiar with the fluidity of meaning which modernity is comfortable with, it soon becomes possible to reject any criticism by this method. There is a very great danger of allowing oneself to invent one’s own magisterium, all the while convincing oneself that one is entirely in union with the Church if only the Church were willing to understand what one means.