The most recent scandal in American academia is the firing of Dr. Norman Finkelstein by De Paul University, despite the recommendations of his colleagues and peers, students, and his publishing record, all of which would normally assure academic tenure to someone in his position. It seems therefore, that Dr. Norman Finkelstein application failed not because of any professional or personal failings, but rather because of considerations external to his person, none of which have been explained.
To date, the only apparent reason for this outcome is the unremitting public, and no doubt, private, campaign against Dr. Finkelstein’s competence by Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, and one of the leading apologists for Zionism, which, appeared to be motivated by personal pique after Dr. Finkelstein’s painstaking analysis revealed the legal invalidity of Dershowitz’ arguments which support Israeli violations of international law. One would suspect that because De Paul is a Catholic university, continuing charges of anti-Semitism together with the Holocaust culpability accusations, were not left out of this offensive. Those who find Dr. Finkelstein’s firing shocking have attributed weakness of character to the officials at the University for yielding to these pressures.
Before I adduce what I think are other unmentioned, if not hidden, seminal factors contributing to this dismissal, I think it might be worth while to elaborate for purposes of a better understanding of the issues involved, on the work of Dr. Finkelstein and the position of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the world today. Dr. Finkelstein has made significant contributions in the fields of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and established, almost single-handedly, the field of critical Holocaust studies, work which required considerable courage as it is contrary to the political position of the
His critique connected anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to Zionist protectionism with respect to Palestinians. For decades
There are however, another three factors connected to this scandal which bear mentioning as they might indicate what might develop from the Church, which could have enormous bearing on the political environment of both Europe and the
A point to be emphasized is that De Paul Catholic University is not an independent institution of higher learning. In the Catholic world, there are two types of universities: a pontifical university which falls under direct control of
However, this is no longer the case. In 1991, Pope John Paul II issued his Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, known by its introductory latin phrase, Ex Corde Ecclesiae–from the heart of the Church. This has proven to be a telling phrase, as the Constitution subjugates a Catholic university to Rome ¬ no doubt the heart of the Church– concerning faith and morals, i.e. doctrine, thus undermining, if not removing entirely, that exercise of freedom necessary for a university to retain its integrity qua university. And it is precisely in those fields which are controversial that controversy is likely to be stifled. This constitution was received with much trepidation in the
The Finkelstein affaire seems to justify the deep felt fear of those who were originally against Ex Corde Ecclesiae and in a manner possibly more insidious than originally suspected or foreseen. I shall argue that
It is my contention that the dismissal of Dr. Finkelstein, concerns the fundamental question of how the Church leadership is positioning itself in this changing world. Dr. Finkelstein’s work, both academic and political, relates indirectly to the doctrinal issue of liberation theology, a subject which was deemed almost dead until very recently.
What was and is Roman Catholic liberation theology? And how does it affect Dr. Finkelstein? Historically the Roman Catholic Church, as a state church, or church of the empire, has been aligned with the rich and the powerful, or what is called at times “law and order”. With respect to the poor, the underprivileged and the oppressed, it developed the giving of alms or charity in order to relieve their suffering. With the development of sociology in the nineteenth century by Marx, and the modern phenomenon of an urban proletariat in the industrializing cities, a social phenomenon dependent upon capitalism, a new understanding of what it meant to be poor came about. The official Church never chose to understand the poor either as a class, or as a level of society that was the outcome of particular political and social powers, institutions and structures. While Popes have condemned capitalism and communism verbally, they have completely shied away from taking any positions that would either undermine, or at least confront, the human misery that results from particular institutions in the capitalist West, although they did vociferously condemn the atheism of the Soviet bloc countries. For the upper hierarchy, the poor have always just been poor people or individuals. Furthermore, the upper reaches of its hierarchy are completely out of touch with the suffering of hundreds of millions of people in the world. As an institution, it is not democratic, does not hold itself accountable to the masses of Catholics, has a celibate priesthood that functions not unlike a closed and secretive brotherhood which swears loyalty to the Church, and not the Truth. In the West, the vast majority of this class has its material needs and wants satisfied without experiencing any of the agonies of either holding on to, or losing a job, and the need to support a family. Thus its experience differs radically from that of the ordinary person. Furthermore, the Church also exists, and functions, as a political entity, the
In contrast to this detached stance, liberation theology began to flourish after Vatican II, which seemed to signal the Church’s confident entry into modern life breaking with its traditional, conservative, pre-modern, pre-industrial and pre-urban past. It also seemed to be a break with the feudal exercise of hierarchical power and authority over its adherents, and gave indications that the laity would take a much greater part in Church life, rather than being the mere recipients of Church favors. It does not seem accidental that Vatican II took place both in the wake of, and during the time which the liberation movements in Africa and Asia brought about the dismantlement of the old empires, followed by the creation of new nation states, in which surged visions of freedom and development for the newly enfranchised populations which had previously experienced oppression, deprivation and dispossession under the yoke of colonialism.
Liberation theology, the tools of which were developed in Europe, received its huge impetus from Spanish-speaking theologians of Central and South America, many, if not most of whom, were originally trained in
It was this analysis which brought about a new attitude towards and understanding of the class of the poor, seeing them not as backward, incompetent lazy people, who brought their fate upon themselves, but rather as victims of institutional violence. This understanding led to new focus in theology called a “preferential option for the poor” which developed the social doctrine of serving “the poor and the oppressed.” It was both the exposure to the suffering of the poor and the findings of this theology which moved priests to side with the people. The focus of salvation swung from the priest and his administration of the sacraments to consciousness-raising of the poor, to the creation of base communities of support and co-operation in which the poor began to be empowered by running their own lives. They began to read the bible for its message of liberation, and began to understand themselves as actors, to subjects, becoming co-workers with Christ towards their own human salvation within life-giving communities of support. Liberation theology led to an empowerment of the poor, and thus had the potential of confronting the rich and powerful to demand a change in the institutional structures. Given that South America’s economies were dominated by a capitalist United States, working in cohorts with local powerful wealthy ruling groups and manipulating political power in their favor, it is not surprising that such socio-economic critiques of Central and South America would cause more than one confrontation: with the local ruling powers, with the upper hierarchy of the Church, and not far behind, the United States government, which represented big business interests.
Two historical events occurred in the Church to bring to a halt the spread of liberation theology and its political concomitants: the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, and his appointment, in 1981, of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly referred to as the Holy Inquisition. Both men were intractably anti-Communist and identified Marxism with the communism of the Soviet Union: the Pope from his experience living in Communist Poland, and Cardinal Ratzinger as a result of the student uprising in
In the late 1970′s, first under Carter, and then under Reagan, the United States began covert persecutions of political liberation movements, informed by liberation theology, in Central and South America, in particular Nicaragua and then El Salvador. The collapse of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua as a result of the exposure of its huge corruption with respect to the funds that had poured into the country to aid in the reconstruction, following an earthquake that devastated the capital Managua and the failure of a rightist, repressive, pro-US government to take power, occasioned the persecutions. The Sandinistas, with Catholic priests in leadership positions, espoused a political program to benefit the poor through government programs for literacy, medical care, housing, etc. and aided by
Against the background of these struggles to be rid of these oppressive regimes, a fateful convergence took place in the early 1980′s. The Reagan government saw the liberation movements as being against the interests of the
But the official church chose to forego this option, and through its Instructions, which are in essence condemnations, de-legitimized liberation theology. Although it has remained the most vital and meaningful understanding of God for the poor, providing them hope and inspiration, it was relegated to the margins of theological discussion by those in power. This intellectual marginalization however was not accompanied by an inactivity on the part of the Magisterium, the Inquision. It sent out warnings that those theologians who insisted on continuing in this field that could be up for censure. Over the years many theologians were persecuted by the church, resulting, in one spectacular case, in the defection from the order of Franciscan Friars and the priesthood, Leonardo Boff, one of the leading Brazilian liberation theologians, after he was silenced more than once by the Church.
Until very recently liberation theology seemed to have been in the doldrums, but a recent condemnation has broken the silence. It appears that liberation theology has come back to haunt the official Church, and this time, not by theologians, but by politicians. But what the latest event reveals is the continuing rejection of by the present Pope and his Magisterium, or teaching body, reminding those who might have forgotten, that the Roman Catholic Church remains one of the main players on the world stage, which can still, and will, bring its weight to bear where it so desires. Ignorance of its power and interests creates a vacuum in both political analysis and then political programs, which affects profoundly those whose views and visions are in opposition to it, without their even being aware of the source of this counter-point power.
The most recent theologian to be condemned is Fr. Jon Sobrino, sj, (a Jesuit) one of older and more prominent liberation theologians who did not stop his work despite being warned repeatedly by Rome. In December, 2006, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under its new prefect, the American, William Joseph Cardinal Levada, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as his replacement, issued a Notification against Fr. Sobrino concerning arcane theological formulations about Jesus’ divine nature, as opposed to His human nature, formulations that have no bearing on the life of an ordinary Catholic, let alone on the lives of those who not only continue to be “poor and oppressed” but to all those who have joined their ranks as a result of the unchecked, rapacious, capitalist imperialist policies of the US, Europe and their client states, such as Israel.
Why was Sobrino censured at the end of December 2006 for some ideas he had originally published in 1992 and 1999 especially since these books are in circulation even now? What served as the provocation at this time? When the Holy See issues such Notifications, it does not explain itself beyond the actual text that it publicizes. The same principle worked when De Paul University gave no explanation for the dismissal of Dr. Finkelstein. I however, would like to surmise, believing that the Church does not act, at least with regard to the Pope, without a policy, even if that policy and vision is not spelled out.
The immediate effect of this censure on Sobrino is that his bishop removed his teaching faculty as a Catholic theologian, but given the historical context, there is a much broader thrust to this Notification. Fr. Sobrino is a Basque theologian who has been teaching in the Jesuit University of Central America in
Therefore the timing of the censure is not accidental. It comes at a period when indigenous governments are actually standing up the
This is what happened with Saddam Hussein who had both modernized and strengthened
Given the attitude of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, it is reasonable to assess that the intention of Sobrino’s censure is to condemn these new leftist leaders in Central and South America, while aligning the Church and its considerable sphere of influence with the
What, it may be asked now, is the connection between Dr. Finkelstein, a Jew, and liberation theology? Well, the problem for Dr. Finkelstein is that in the context of Palestine/Israel, he has addressed the same questions that liberation theology addresses, and has also taken the side of the “poor and the oppressed.” It needs only a small amount of imagination to draw the same damning assessment of
Here, surprisingly, there appears to be a lacuna in global comparative political analysis. It has not been remarked that there is an almost virtual identity of the repressive and violent Central and South American governments and the repressive and violent Israeli government. These governments have not confined their persecution within their own borders, or even the borders of militarily occupied territory, but have not hesitated to conduct attacks in neighboring countries to either undermine or to uphold governments, depending on the particular situations.
At the same time, it would not be unreasonable to expect progressive Arab and Palestinian movements to begin to make common cause with forces with the progressive governments of South America, although one can well imagine that everything will be done to prevent this from occurring by the establishments of the
This nexus continues to maintain that Zionism is not colonialism, is not an integral part of the capitalist-imperialist hegemonic outreach in the
Norman Finkelstein has challenged these positions. He has also challenged one of its supreme spokesmen, Alan Dershowitz. But that he has done this now, at this critical juncture in world politics, is what caused De Paul University, and the Catholic Church, to either go along with Dershowitz or hide behind the proverbial petticoat, achieving, in either case, its desired outcome. Had Finkelstein come up for tenure five years ago, De Paul might not have fired him. Yet timing is all.
The third factor which plays into his firing is one that has not been mentioned at all, and yet, taking the overall position of the Church, it certainly makes sense. It is by now, a well-known fact that “Islamic fundamentalists” were invented originally by the
It should be no surprise that this condemnation of Islam finds a resonance in attitudes towards
Thus we have several interests converging in the demise of Dr. Finkelstein: the loss of autonomy of Catholic universities, the anti-liberationist position of the Church and its lining up with Western capitalist global interests and an anti-Islamic stance which harks back to a xenophobia one would have wished had disappeared from the world. Is it any wonder, then, that Dr. Finkelstein was booted from De Paul Catholic University?
Lynda Brayer is an Israeli human rights lawyer who represented Palestinians in the Israeli High Court of Justice for twelve years. She can be reached at [email protected]