Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Colombian Jesuit silenced over critical review of Pope's book

Fr. Alfonso Llano Escobar, S.J. had learned the hard way that it doesn't pay to critique your boss's writings. Fr. Llano, whose weekly column "Un alto en el camino" ("A stop along the road") had appeared in the major Colombian newspaper El Tiempo for 30 years, has been told that his writing career has come to an end.

In a message to the editorial board of the newspaper, Fr. Llano wrote that "Father Adolfo Nicolás, the superior general of the Jesuits, has ordered Father Alfonso Llano to consider his apostolic vocation as a writer to be over, has deprived him of his freedom of speech, and is demanding that he not even say goodbye and that he keep absolute silence."

The priest columnist earned his silencing for a November 24th column in which he offered his views on Pope Benedict XVI's new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, and specifically on the doctrine of the virginity of Mary. The column focuses on internal debate about the subject within the theological community and is worth translating in its entirety:

The Infancy of Jesus. That's the title of the third volume of the trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth by theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. It has been published in nine languages, including Spanish, and will be published in a first global edition of one million copies.

With a series of articles in the press and interviews on radio and television, I would like to guide readers of this book by the Pope, which offers a special difficulty -- the virginity of Mary -- which will give theologians and the media a lot to talk about.

To begin with, the latter are wondering why the Pope is going back to a point that seems now passé, namely, Mary's virginity.

Answer: for three reasons, one of which is obvious, and that is that theologian Ratzinger set out to write a trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth. He had already taken care of Jesus' public life and his Passion, death, and Resurrection. He lacked this third volume, already announced, about Jesus' infancy. And now he does it, a subject that necessarily leads him to talk about Mary's virginity. Second, because Jesus is the central figure in the Catholic faith, and it's the Pope's duty to preach Jesus whether it's convenient or inconvenient, in good times and bad, as Saint Paul advises Timothy (2 Tim 4:2). Third, because the subject of Mary's virginity is being revisited by some Catholic theologians and requires clarification.

Talking about Jesus isn't easy, because he's a mystery, the central mystery of the Catholic faith, which confesses that Jesus is true (son of) man and true (son of) God. This double reality implies a double birth. Saint Paul, in the letter to the Philippians tells us that Jesus was a common man (Phil 2:6-7). Saint Matthew, the same one who tells us about Jesus' divine conception (1:26), presents Jesus as the son of Mary and Joseph (13:53 ff.) and with several brothers and sisters. It's appropriate to clarify that, in the judgment of North American Catholic biblical scholar John Meier, who has studied the problem in depth, in the four Gospels it's about real blood brothers of Jesus (A Marginal Jew, I, 341). It's time to leave behind the fairy tale that they're Jesus' cousins. This assumption is argued to safeguard Mary's corporal virginity. The Pope cites the work of this great biblical scholar several times in his trilogy, without contradicting his interpretation of the corporal non-virginity of Mary.

So that the Pope's position in this third volume can be understood, it's useful to take into account that in theology there are two complementary ways to get to Jesus: a descending way, which is the one the Pope follows, and that the first four councils followed, which leans on John 1:14: "The Word became man", a way that emphasizes Jesus' divinity, as the Pope does; and the other way is ascending, which was the historical way, that starts with the man Jesus and ends with his exaltation as Son of God, according to which Mary had a big family.

In sum: the reader of this work by Ratzinger will find the affirmation of Mary's virginity. Given that the Pope follows the descending path in this work, he emphasizes his divinity, which gives rise to the theological virginity of Mary (Mt 1:26) and silences his humanity, whose origin isn't virginal (Mt 13:53 ff). In other words: Mary conceived the Son of God virginally, in the theological sense, without the intervention of Joseph, as is narrated in Matthew 1:26, by the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, as mother of Jesus the man, just like us, she conceived him through an act of love with her legal spouse, Joseph, with whom she had four sons and several daughters (Mt 13:53 ff).

Let's wait for the book and talk more knowledgeably.

Fr. Llano was told he had to publicly recant before he was completely silenced and he wrote one last column called "Mea Culpa!" on December 8th, in which he apologized to any readers who were offended or confused by his previous column. This final column consists of a series of quotes from Lumen Gentium about Mary and a couple from the Pope's book, which the priest says he hopes will "bring peace of mind and restore the trust of the people of God in the teachings of the Church." It's as notable for what it leaves unsaid as what it says.

And now a great silence descends...


  1. The title of this post strikes me as a bit disingenuous. Was Fr. Llano silenced for criticizing the pope's book, or was he silenced for disputing a dogma that many people, for whatever reason, think is a really important part of the faith?

    I would never defend the silencing of anyone, much less someone challenging a belief that really deserves to be challenged. Silencing theologians is contemptible and it should be criticized whenever it happens.

    But let's not kid ourselves about what is really going on here--he's not in trouble for critizing "the boss," he's in trouble for writing something that might disturb the simple faithful. It's no less scandalous when you state it honestly.

  2. I really think it was for both, but I also think that the fact that Fr. Llano was making these statements about the Virgin Birth in the context of a critique of the Pope's latest book was the deciding factor in the swiftness and severity of the punishment. His views on the subject aren't new. He has been expressing them with impunity for years, as the well-known Catholic writer Fray Nelson Medina, OP deplored in this 2008 column: . This is coming from the Vatican, not the Jesuits.

    It's also counterproductive. Before this incident, I hadn't even heard of Fr. Llano (nor, probably, had most people outside of Colombia). And I would probably not have given him ink on this blog because on most controversial Church issues, this guy is super conservative. Now Fr. Llano will be famous (or infamous) and people will be passing his columns around.