This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  February 25, 2005

Bullying never brings out the best

The recent Vatican censure of the book Jesus Symbol of God by American Jesuit theologian Fr. Roger Haight highlights anew a persistent and disturbing theme that runs like a connecting thread through the quarter of a century of John Paul II’s pontificate.

From the start, John Paul tolerated the use of a blunt approach to disciplining ideas and thinkers the Vatican finds disturbing, and that approach has had unfortunate consequences for the entire church. Such a judgment of the methods used is not to suggest that the Vatican never has reason for concern.

As John Allen’s interviews with major theologians make clear (see story) some see the Vatican action as a regrettably warranted reminder of key principles of the faith while others see it as another attempt by the Vatican to choke off creative scholarly work.

There’s little question that Haight’s attempt to reformulate doctrines about Christ for a postmodern world touches key issues of Christian identity, areas so sensitive and potentially controversial that consensus about the work eludes top-notch Catholic theologians.

Easier for the non-theologian to understand, however, are the issues once again raised about authority and how it is used, as well as the relationship between church authority and the theological community. The fact that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith chose not simply to denounce the “grave doctrinal errors” it found in Jesus Symbol of God, but to ban Haight from teaching Catholic theology until the “errors” are corrected, begs the question: Is this the best way to settle intellectual disputes in the church?

A lively debate over Haight’s work already existed, and many of the reactions in serious theological journals were negative. One could argue that the Vatican’s censure is, at best, superfluous, and at worst, stifles what had been a vigorous discussion. It is no secret that theologians avoid criticizing peers who come under investigation for fear of “piling on” or of giving the appearance that they approve of a process that many find objectionable.

The Vatican has every right to flag what it considers alarming theological trends. If a Catholic theologian were to argue in favor of racial prejudice, or to develop, for instance, a justification for genocide, Catholics would rightly expect that church authority would publicly say, “This is not our faith.”

Actual cases are never so clear-cut, however, and the proper administrative response is not obvious. Measures such as bans on teaching or publishing, in the vast majority of instances, cannot help but strike most people as exercises in control, premised on a lack of trust in the theological community. Whether or not control is the real motivation of the investigators is almost irrelevant; that’s how it comes across. In fact, the investigations sometimes stop people from listening to the substantive issues the Vatican wants to raise, on the assumption that they’re a smokescreen for the exercise of power.

Such measures also deepen the breach between the authorities of the church and its key thinkers, a dangerous situation for any institution.

* * *

Someone looking for a bright side in the heavy-handed tactics might note that at least Haight is not currently teaching at a Catholic institution, hence the “ban” is largely symbolic. Nor did the Vatican impose restrictions on publishing or lecturing that might have created greater problems. Still, even the symbolism rubs many the wrong way.

The skepticism about the Vatican’s action is rooted, in part, in the fact that historically the church has often acted with haste in condemning someone only to reverse its decision later. In recent decades, theologians once censured by the Vatican, such as Karl Rahner, Yves Congar and John Courtney Murray, have been largely vindicated by the subsequent experience of the church.

Popular perceptions of authoritarianism are also rooted in the fact that in post-Vatican II Catholicism, it wasn’t supposed to work this way. On Dec. 7, 1965, Pope Paul VI issued a reform of the Vatican’s doctrinal office titled Integrae servandae. Paul wrote: “Since charity banishes fear, it seems more appropriate now to preserve the faith by means of an office for promoting doctrine. Although it will still correct errors and gently recall those in error to moral excellence, new emphasis is to be given to preaching the Gospel.”

What might the Vatican have done instead?

First, few would contest the congregation’s prerogative to publish its reaction to Haight’s book, and in fact some theologians say in this case the Vatican intervention was a reasoned statement that paralleled in a number of respects the reviews in major journals. If the Vatican has a concern, it has every right to call it to the attention of the theological world, and no one doubts that it would get a hearing even without a disciplinary “hammer” to back it up.

Instead of the ban on teaching, however, a more imaginative response might have been to convene a summit on Christology, ideally somewhere other than Rome, and to invite Haight alongside figures with varying approaches such as Gerald O’Collins, Elizabeth Johnson, Michael Buckley, Gavin D’Costa and Robert Imbelli, as well as Vatican personnel, to hash out the issues involved. That could stimulate a productive back-and-forth in theological journals and further seminars and become a “teaching moment” for the broader church about core Christological doctrines. Catholics at large, but particularly the church’s theologians, would be the beneficiaries of a process that unfolds in full public view. The Vatican will always have the right to discipline, but public processes and broad discussions might ameliorate the harshest sentences. At least they would provide for the faithful clear rationales for the positions taken.

Such a procedure would seem more in keeping with the spirit of preaching the Gospel first, correcting error second.

* * *

Is it not proper to ask, after a quarter century, what the crackdowns and disciplines, silencings and censorship have wrought? What lasting good? In this age of mass publishing and instant communication, from what harm have we been preserved?

One might argue quite the contrary, that the methods have produced far more harm than good.

Part of the harm results from a kind of trickle-down effect that flows from silencings, book bannings and condemnations. Individuals far from Rome and the rigors of a doctrine office have taken the cause of preserving “orthodoxy,” as they perceive it, into their own hands. Priests and church workers in every diocese have their stories of those who show up at Mass and during parish missions, at lectures and workshops, sometimes boldly interrupting proceedings, because they perceive “heresy” or worse is in the air.

There is a sense afoot in the church that this kind of ecclesial vigilantism is not only tolerated by church leadership but, in some cases, even encouraged.

Too often the result is fear, and preachers, catechists and scholars who self-censor their thoughts and words into blandness.

The same fear stalks our academic institutions. It may be one of the great ironies of this papacy, at least in the United States, that it will be not the Catholic universities but the non-Catholic and secular academies that provide haven for some of the more innovative and creative Catholic thinking.

The significance of Fr. Roger Haight’s work will ultimately be judged in the long haul of history. But his name now becomes indelibly fixed to a distressing era marked by church bullying of thinkers who dared to raise difficult issues.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org