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Haight silencing feeds theologians’ fears

NCR Staff

Reports that Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight, a professor of systematic theology at Weston Jesuit [School of Theology], has been barred from teaching while the Vatican scrutinizes his views made headlines recently around the country. Haight, in fact, has been on leave from teaching at Weston for the entire academic year, while he responds to questions about his newest book.

The investigation was prompted by Haight’s book, Jesus, Symbol of God. Winner of the top prize in theology from the Catholic Press Association, it was published in 1999 by Orbis Books.

The Vatican’s criticism turns on Haight’s attempts to separate Christology from Greek philosophical concepts, on which many of the traditional doctrines on the role and nature of Christ depend. Specifically, the problems relate to formulation of the mystery of the Trinity, an interpretation of Christ’s divinity and the role of Jesus in salvation.

The investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was reported in the Aug. 11, 2000, issue of NCR, but did not gain wide publicity until an article appeared a week ago in the April 24 issue of The Boston Globe.

In response to the recent news reports, Jesuit Fr. Robert Manning, Weston’s president, released a written statement saying Haight was on leave at the request of Archbishop Zenon Grocholewski of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Haight has not responded to inquiries from the press. In July, he told NCR, “I want to handle this like Jacques Dupuis did and not comment.”

Dupuis is a Jesuit who taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome until the fall of 1998, when he came under Vatican investigation for his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. Dupuis was later cleared.

Franciscan Fr. Kenneth Himes, a professor at Washington Theological Union and president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, said he found the sudden storm of publicity about Haight’s silencing to be curious, given that the Vatican intervention had happened months before. The silencing is unfortunate, he said, because it is “a preemptive strike that short circuits the give and take of theological conversation.”

“Roger Haight is a well-respected theologian among his peers,” Himes said. “When he writes something, it gets noticed. That is what was happening to his book. It was being read. It was being commented on. But many people were expressing some substantive disagreements with the book. The reviews were saying this was a fine work, but he was not getting unqualified support.” The Vatican’s move, he said, is causing both supporters and critics of the book to draw back from further discussion of it.

“I accept as a church we have a teaching office,” Himes said. “The question is how it should operate. The Vatican should intervene in this directly only when they see a position that is being held persistently, which is clearly erroneous and which is clearly undercutting the unity of the church position. I don’t see this as happening here. This was not a popular book. The Vatican jumped in when there was no need to.”

Himes said the Haight case is not directly related to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 papal document, or its requirement that theologians seek a mandatum, or approval, from their bishop. The document calls for Catholic universities to strengthen Catholic identity. However, the intervention makes upcoming discussions of the Ex Corde Ecclesiae more difficult, Himes said.

The Haight investigation “is precisely the sort of thing that will make theologians very nervous about the mandatam,” Himes said. “It only adds more worries and concerns. This kind of thing thrown into that mix only makes the atmosphere more tense and makes people more worried.”

Because it is a fully accredited graduate school of theology with a pontifical faculty, Weston Jesuit Theological School is governed both by the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Vatican.

Fr. Jose de Vera, spokesman for the Jesuits in Rome, said that in February 2000 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked the Congregation for Catholic Education to intervene to prevent Haight from teaching while a scrutiny of his work was underway. The Congregation for Catholic Education grants teaching permission to teachers in pontifical institutes.

The clarifications Haight provided at that time were judged unsatisfactory by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in January 2001 the congregation proceeded to a formal investigation.

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001 [corrected 05/18/2001]