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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

Shaping the moral landscape

Orbis Books is the book publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Founded in 1970 by Nicaraguan Maryknoll priest Miguel D’Escoto with Philip J. Scharper as its first editor in chief, its initial aim was to amplify theological voices from the Third World. It was in this role, as the primary publisher of liberation theology, that it earned its reputation.

Orbis quickly shaped the theological landscape, bringing to the attention of North American Catholics the revolutionary thoughts of Catholic theologians in Latin America, theologians who had taken their lead from the church reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and a fresh, justice-oriented interpretation of the Gospels. One of the earliest and most widely read books on liberation theology was published in English by Orbis. The work was A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian often called the “father of liberation theology.”

The 1970s and ’80s were years when the Vatican and the liberation theologians were competing for the conscience and future direction of the church. It was also the height of violent conflicts in Central America, during which Catholic activists were often targeted for their support of the poor against corrupt and oppressive civil and military leaders. Robert Ellsberg recalls one day receiving a telephone call from Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, who wanted Ellsberg to know that, while Sobrino was away, his entire community at the Central American University -- six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her daughter -- had been massacred by Salvadoran military forces.

In addition to South American theologians, other prominent Third World writers were being published by Orbis. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then an obscure Haitian priest, was one. Aristide was later elected president of Haiti, only to be overthrown in a military coup.

Ellsberg remembers getting up at dawn one morning to watch a television report of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid activist, being released from prison. Ellsberg recognized two Orbis authors, Allan Boesak and Frank Chikane, both South African clergymen and activists, at Mandela’s side. It was a time when there seemed to be a direct link between Orbis Books publishing and the unfolding of great historical dramas.

Orbis, like the church and wider world, has shifted its focus in recent years. Orbis has retained its emphasis on Catholic social teaching, while expanding its publishing efforts into such areas as ecology, feminist ethics, Byzantine spirituality, Zen Buddhism, African religions and Asian spirituality. “The challenge has been how to remain faithful to our original mission while continuing to respond to new questions, new challenges,” said Ellsberg, who marked his 20th anniversary as Orbis editor in 2007.

-- Tom Fox

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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