Thursday, July 29, 2010

Religión Digital Interview with Fr. Jesús Espeja OP

I'm not particularly sure why Vidal is calling Fr. Espeja a liberation theologian but it's still an interesting interview...

by José Manuel Vidal (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Religión Digital
July 17, 2010

We are pleased to present the last, or maybe the penultimate, liberation theologian. One of the great prophets of the Church in Latin America and Spain. He is Jesus Espeja, a Dominican, author of many books, a brilliant theologian, professor at many universities, and who has been in Spain for some time, retired, dedicated to his production. Here is one work, Jesucristo. Una propuesta de vida, published by Editorial San Pablo. A book about the historical Jesus and the divine one, which we will now sort out along with some other contemporary issues.

Jesús Espeja believes that the agnosticism prevailing in the intellectual sector of our societies is due to the fact that the Church remains "the sign of obscurantism, of the past that has nothing to contribute." And he thinks that its duty is "to offer a way of life so that politicians and economists might seek more human paths."

He thinks that the dominant idea of God is of one to whom "we have to offer sacrifices and who is pleased when we destroy ourselves." And he states that we need to exchange that "interventionist, miracle-working God who is waiting for our prayers" for one who, "far from crushing or diminishing our autonomy, expands our horizon."

In his book on Jesus of Nazareth, Espeja wonders whether "we are willing to acknowledge that God has revealed Himself through the historical conduct of Jesus, which is what shocks us." He concludes that "the big news of Jesus Christ is to say that the most transcendent is, at the moment of truth, in the most immanent of the human being."

Don Jesús, it's a pleasure. Welcome.

Thank you.

There are a lot of books about Jesus Christ. Why another one?

Well, this book was motivated by two subjects. First, I realized we're in a society that is not only pluralistic and secular, but also post-Christian. Which means that not only religious indifference is growing, but more people are entering the picture who are becoming more critical, and they have perceived Christianity through a Church that for them is, in some way, the sign of obscurantism, of the past that has nothing to contribute. Even as a sign of death and repression.

Is that image real?

That image is real to many people. I am convinced that many of those who now say they are agnostic, at the bottom are struggling against a Christianity that they have forged through an evaluation of the Church.

And that does not correspond to the whole reality of the Church?

Obviously. So here comes the question. When I read, for example, the book by Victoria Camps and Adela, two professors who say they are agnostic, I see they are fighting against a God and against a religion in which I do not believe. Therefore we must turn again to Christ. Not so much to prove anything, but because His offering can open a way to this world that, on the one hand, has regained freedom in the economy, and, on the other hand, is repressed by transcendence. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth offers a transcendence that, far from crushing or minimizing that autonomy, expands the horizon.

The second subject deals with the Church. I happened to be working with Mr. Tarancón during the Transition [Translator's Note: "La Transición" -- the Transition -- is the period of Spanish history after the death of Franco, when the country switched to a constitutional, democratic government], at those phenomenal times.

Were you a close associate of Monsignor Iniesta, too?

Yes, I worked at the Episcopal Commission, on those documents that we the "Builders of Peace" put out, etc.. There we saw a model of Church that did not identify at all with power, either politically or economically, that was really offering a way of being, a lifestyle. Nothing more. But, of course, moving from that public presence of power to an evangelically significant presence was very difficult. And I've seen that in the years of the Transition there were a series of useless tensions.

But at a certain time, it almost happened? That is, at the time of Tarancón there was a mutual independence, healthy partnership, but each in its place. One never went into the streets like nowadays, for example?

Theoretically. But in practice, lust for power gets mixed in, and that's not easily fixed. It is very easy to talk about the conversion of the Church. But instead of wasting time taking stands and being against things, they should have tried to get people to believe with mature faith.

The intent of the book, then, is to present a Jesus who can give meaning to modern man?

That's right. In the Church itself, we have wasted much time on simple internal conflicts and tensions. And we have lost sight of the real tension, which is how to serve and help this world that is animated by the Spirit. I believe that at the moment of truth the figure of Jesus is what will get us all out of this struggle for power, this defensive attitude, and make us recognize the theological dimension of the world so it doesn't stop halfway.

I think in the book there is much about the liberating Jesus. You are one of the representatives of this theology so beloved by some and so maligned and abused by others.

Sure. It's that we have made Jesus of Nazareth into an image that appears to be offering Himself as a sacrifice to appease God. That is false. It is an image created by us. Actually, the liberating, encouraging word -- perfecting what is human -- is really the tradition of the Gospel. And we have stayed with the sacrificial tradition, thinking that God is up there (an idea that we have fabricated, that is a lie), that we have to offer sacrifices to Him and that He is pleased when we destroy ourselves. And we've forgotten what matters: God is not up there; He is within every human being, giving them strength and encouragement to be themselves.

But it doesn't seem that the institution is going that way, at least in recent years. Or those who run it.

I believe that when one reads, for example, Chenu [Dominican theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu], one notes that Pope Benedict XVI is deeply concerned that we are leaving this hypothetical God separated from us and discovering the God within us. I'm even more radical in the book, saying that we can't make concepts or categories about God. That is not God. God can only be known through the experience of the heart. And, consequently, every human being has, in some way, the echo of that God. We need that change. To move from an interventionist, miracle-worker God, who is waiting for our prayers, to believing that in Him we exist, we move and act. The only essential thing is that He emerge through our lives.

So Pope Ratzinger is not as conservative as they say?

No. When one reads his theology books, what he is currently saying within the logical concern that the Church retain its identity, is actually right on target. When he said, for example, at Aparecida, that the Christian God is not imaginary and hypothetical, but someone with us, someone who created us ... it coincides, for example, with the view of the philosopher Zubiri [Xavier Zubiri].

Are theologians afraid of the church today, of the institution?

I'm not afraid of it at all. Never have been.

You've never received warnings, monitions ...?

Well, I've seen some things, conflicts ... but when I read the dogma of Jesus Christ, I feel that, basically, what it's saying is: "Neither God at the expense of man, nor man at the expense of God." And the biggest conflict that Jesus of Nazareth had was with religion. The inhuman devout religious people killed Him because He had the experience that God loves life, and that a religion that is on the margins of life and that does not serve life is not tolerable. We have forgotten that, and thus have made the Christian religion one more religion, with a fabricated God. I think the great news of Jesus Christ is saying that the most transcendent is, at the moment of truth, in the most immanent of the human being.

Then what does the punishment of your friends such as Boff, Sobrino, Gutierrez ... mean?

I truly feel that one can't speak about liberation theology out of hand.

Are there many?

Yes. And the theologians you cited, Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino ... do not have anything against them dogmatically. Those of us who have read their writings have to give thanks because they have uncovered for us, and have stressed a lot that one cannot speak of God apart from the story of Jesus.

And there are many of its fundamental concepts, of liberation theology, which have already been adopted?

Sure! Starting because no one has seen God. And the only way for Christians to discern what God is is through Jesus' historical behavior. Outside of it, we have no fundamental reference point. This is absolutely essential. Then there is the question of Pagola's book [Jesus: An Historical Approximation by José Antonio Pagola], on which I reflect in my own book, as well as Benedict XVI's. What Pagola does in his book is nothing more than collect -- very well written and pastoral in a sense -- what had already been historically researched. The hard part, what I fear is in the background, is that we ask which God we are talking about when we say that Jesus Christ is God. Are we talking about the God that we have forged in the mind, or are we willing to recognize that God has revealed Himself in the historical behavior of Jesus, which is what is scandalous to us?

So Pagola is not a heretic?

A heretic? Not at all. He also states from the beginning that he wants to get closer to faith. And according to what Benedict XVI says in his book (although he downplays the historical methods, of course), at the moment of truth, you can not speak about faith without history. For me today, in Spain and in every society, it is absolutely imperative that we realize that the great danger for the Church is in creating a spirituality that avoids this world, around a God that does not exist. What is important is believing that this world is already animated by the Spirit. God reveals Himself to every human being.

But that disembodied spiritualism that you are talking about, doesn't it appear that it's the one that's winning at the moment? In the large movements (Communion and Liberation, the kikos [the Neocatechumenal Way]... that appear to be the ones steering the ship of the Church at the moment).

Yes, unfortunately. We must realize that in '69 the Spanish bishops had already released a document on the first communities, in which they said: "Beware of spiritualist evasions and sectarianism." Because the Church is going to change into a bunch of movements coming from the stratosphere. And that's not the Church. The Church is part of humanity, one that has become aware that Jesus Christ is the reference point.

Have the great religious orders, like yours or the Jesuits, lost influence? Do they no longer set the pace of the institution?

I think they've lost power. They have realized that they can't shoot off. That they are within the Church, neither more nor less than other movements, like the one who is married or the one who is single. I believe that these orders have reacted very well, because they have realized the incarnation and have come out of their ghettos to say: "Gentlemen, this is not about defending our groups, but to see how we can serve the Church."

But the imprint of the great religious orders seems to have been somewhat left aside?

Depends. If by imprint of the Church we mean that it was considered something with a lot of social prestige and that had a lot of power, of course. We have lost it and we have to lose more of it. But if by imprint, we mean that ways have been opening up gradually, not separate from the world, but receiving the new that the Spirit is suggesting in the world, I think those are more relevant.

So you don't like that image of Rouco [Archbishop Antonio María Rouco Varela] and the bishops in the streets protesting and aligning themselves against something?

I don't like all that is tension or direct intervention in politics by the Church. The Church has to offer a way of life so that politicians and economists, within the political and economic mindset, will seek more humane ways.

You lived through that Tarancón stage...Has the Spanish Church -- the hierarchy -- lost its image and social credibility?

I think so. Because there are two evils, dangers, or tremendous temptations. First, believing that the world is still synonymous with sin. The world for me is a place of salvation, as was stated at Vatican II. We have not accepted this. And second, believing that the Church is reduced to the clergy. And in the tradition of Spain, since Recaredo, the clergy is a sign of power. That's the biggest drawback we have, that people identify the Church (the bishops' interventions, for example) with power. And everything that is not dialogue, that denies that you not only have to teach but also learn, is not the way of the Church.

What about "the Church that proposes, that never imposes", as Benedict XVI talked about? The one with the kindly face rather than the "no" one.

Exactly. My experience with socialist Marxist professors -- and, therefore, non-believers -- is that they've broken with God and religion because they've perceived that, in history, religion, namely Christianity, since the 19th century already with Niezstche, with Marx and Freud, has been contrary, in opposition. It has not let human beings be themselves. I think what is happening here is partly that. The Church speaks, politicians feel cornered, and all react with tension.

You have been in Cuba a while, you ran the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Institute there... Have you ever met Castro?

Well, I have known him as the Cubans do. I haven't met him personally.

And with any other Latin American celebrity you have dealt with? Monsignor Romero, Casaldáliga ...

Yes, in Cuba I met the great poet, who died recently, Cintio Vitier. That man called himself a Christian and a revolutionary to the end. In Cuba there are lucid thinkers who are Marxist socialists, tremendous humanists who dialogue, who sometimes don't agree with other very closed people in the same regime.

Real socialism has failed, not only in Cuba, but everywhere, and capitalism seems to have as well. What's next?

Not only seems to. Clearly the ideology of this system, which is unable to eliminate world hunger, is a total failure. What is happening now is that the economic crisis is a crisis of greed. A few have wanted to own the world, have broken with the transcendent, and have failed.

But is it coming back stronger? Is capitalism being reinvented?

Obviously. This is the problem, that it is being reinvented in a very particular way. And it's terrible because there's no alternative. The only alternative that seems to exist is the grassroots movements, the international social forums, which converge on the criticism that the system's being imposed on us in such a way that it's weakening people. This post-modern movement is very important in my opinion.

How do you feel about the phenomenon of pedophilia in the Church? Is it hurtful, embarrassing ...?

I'm sorry. Sorry for the victims, who are the ones who really concern me. We must do everything possible to correct it. I would state, however, that for me the feelings of mercy are essential. When they tell me sometimes about a bishop who hid who knows what I think: "Put yourself in the place of that man who discovered a miserable wretch, who didn't know what to do." It seems to me very good that all these cases pass into civil law. It seems logical. I regret it, but I think that the mystery of the Church is much more than that.

So the institution can come out of this whole crisis purified?

Yes, I'm convinced it can. The Church is a sign of universal communion.

Do you think the access of women to the priesthood is possible in the short term?

I don't see any dogmatic difficulty. Absolutely none. But I think there is a discipline within the Church, and I don't think it can be changed.

Much less married priests?

I don't know. Dogmatically, I would say the same: I see nothing wrong. I even believe that optional celibacy would be very beneficial to the ministry. Unless we continue to think it's better to be celibate than to be married. If we continue with this negative view of sexuality, it will not be possible in the short term.

It was thought that Pope Ratzinger would be a transitional pope. He hasn't really been, has he?

I think the Pope has encountered a serious problem. He is a deeply Christian man with a unique and extraordinary experience. He is a pastor who explains his faith to the people.

Is he a wise man?

Yes, but every wise person is contextualized. He is inspired by Augustine, St. Bonaventure. He is a very logical man who has shown great sensitivity, especially in his earlier books and in his encyclicals, in which he goes to the root of the problem. Now, when he made the Report on the Faith in '75, he found a church that was opening itself to the world, but wasn't prepared. They told me: "Jesús, Gaudium et Spes isn't going to be able to enter the Church." However, we have to go in that direction. Benedict saw that the Church was being mismanaged, and he wanted to put hindrances. From there he programmed all its documents, even the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It was a journey in search of identity. I think it is necessary to draw attention to this. The danger is that, when nothing at all permeated, the revolution the Council was supposed to bring (seeing the world differently, wanting to make the Church be God's people ...) did not reach the people, and it returned to the old model. So what we have to do, and what I'm going to do until I die, the time that's left for me, is to remind that there is no salvation apart from this world. To remind that if the victims do not fall within the historical process of politics and religion, politics has no future, nor can religion be blessed. This is what I mean in this book: that Jesus Christ is the place from which to correct the Church.

Do you see a Latin American pope as successor to Ratzinger? A Pope from the Third World? An Obama in the Church?

I see nothing. I don't see anything because at the moment of truth, one realizes that the crisis we have in the Church is not one of norms (there are more than enough!), or precepts (there are more than enough!). It is of maturing in the faith.

Of structures either?

There are forty thousand structures too many!

Is it of experience?

Yes, of a mature faith. And by "faith", I don't mean beliefs. Most of the intellectuals in Spain, left- and right-wing, call themselves agnostics, and it is normal that they be so. Because they learned a faith made of truths that were put into their heads. And faith is a personal encounter with Jesus. I am persuaded by the attitude, behavior, the historical process of this man, whom I consider a manifestation of God. This is who I love, and therefore, this is my faith. Maturing like this is the future of the Church.

Don Jesús, thank you so very much. "Training, experience, and living", that is your recipe for the future of a better Church. Thank you very much, Don Jesús.

Delighted, thanks.



  1. I'm not particularly sure why Vidal is calling Fr. Espeja a liberation theologian but it's still an interesting interview...

    - Maybe because Jesus Espeja has heard the cry of the poor?

  2. Hearing the cry of the poor is a necessary but not sufficient condition to define a liberation theologian. Pope Benedict XVI would tell you that he hears the cry of the poor. That does not make the pope a liberation theologian. I'm not hearing in this interview the kind of political reading of Jesus' life and actions that would be characteristic of the work of Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, etc...That is why I question Vidal's assertion. It does not mean I disagree with what Jesus Espeja is doing theologically; it's just different.

  3. Jesus Espeja always says he´d prefer people to do not believe on God if that belief is making them unhappy. For me, that´s the more radical reading of Jesus`life.

    For example, J. D. Crossan has a very political interpretation of Jesus´s life, but that does not make him a liberation theologian, either.