Rome and the Theologians: Reports of a Grand Inquisitor Are Greatly Exaggerated

The nagging tensions inherent in any attempt to reconcile the demands of academic freedom with a firm commitment to the Church’s official teachings have again been forcefully brought home to us in an important document issued last June by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the title, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. Coming as it did on the heels of the Vatican’s investigation of such well-known figures as Edward Schillebeeckx, Leonardo Boff, Hans Ming, and Charles Curran, the last two of whom were eventually stripped of their mission to teach as Catholic theologians, the new document was bound to make the headlines, especially in a country where most Catholic universities operate under public charters and subscribe to the principles of academic freedom in vogue in secular universities.

The reaction of the liberal press was predictable. Time magazine called the Instruction a thunderbolt, “the toughest and most sweeping pronouncement Rome has made in modern times on the limits of intellectual freedom in the Roman Catholic Church.” Commonweal followed suit, ignoring completely the broad ecclesial context within which the problem of dissent is taken up. It labeled the Instruction‘s overall message “disheartening” and read it as a “sweeping rejection of what constitutes much of the framework of human consciousness in the twentieth century,” thereby implying that this framework should have the same normative value for the Catholic Church as it supposedly does for everyone else in our time. The text, it added, was the latest salvo in an ongoing offensive against dissidents, and it warned that there was more to come — perhaps a new encyclical or apostolic letter proclaiming the infallibility of the norms on which the Church bases its stand on artificial birth control and other matters pertaining to sexual morality. A “major disaster” was in the making. Catholic intellectual life would be discredited and “for great numbers of Catholics of all ranks, the choice would be to fall silent, dissemble, or take their leave of the Catholic Church.”

For weeks, the National Catholic Reporter was its usual strident self. Its Vatican affairs expert, Peter Hebblethwaite, did not have a kind word to say about the Instruction: its content was amiss, its argument flawed or nonexistent, and its spirit anything but Christian. To make matters worse, there is “a lot of anger” in it, more so, it would seem, than in Hebblethwaite’s own article, if that is possible. One can sense this in “the venom with which theological positions are caricatured, the better to be denounced,” and in the allegation that the theologians are trying to displace or replace the bishops as the Church’s official teachers. In the meantime, letters to the editor poured in, the vast majority of them bitterly critical of the Vatican and comparing its tactics to those of the Nazi regime or Stalin’s Great Terror.

Non-Catholics were equally quick to jump into the fray. In a New York Times op-ed piece that verges on the hysterical, Harvey Cox spoke of the Instruction’s “chilling” effect in outer as well as inner Catholic space. The self-censorship for which it calls was sure to “weaken the presently robust level of Catholic biblical and theological scholarship, thus endangering the field of religious studies as a whole.” More than ever, theologians will have to be on their guard, never knowing when a phone call might come from some chancery watchman in response to a casual remark made on a TV panel or in a magazine article. To forestall that dreaded call, theologians will have to abandon their “unflinching candor” and become dissemblers.

Cox saw a good deal of irony in all of this. Catholic theologians will now “have to cope with some of the same numbing prohibitions that Pope John Paul II helped abolish in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.” Whereas they are forbidden to use the mass media to make their views known beyond the narrow circles in which they move, their ecclesiastical superiors, the American bishops, have no qualms about hiring a public relations firm to manage their campaign against abortion. Cox likewise faults the Instruction for its failure to note that today’s heretic is often tomorrow’s saint. The books of Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholicism’s official theologian, were once “publicly burned in Paris by church authorities,” or so Cox would have us believe. In our own day, theological luminaries who had long been out of favor with the Vatican — Congar, De Lubac, Danielou, and von Balthasar among them — were spectacularly rehabilitated and in some cases elevated to the rank of cardinal.

True, says Cox, the document recognizes that dissent is sometimes legitimate, but it will not permit theologians who have serious difficulties with the Church’s teaching to take the matter up with anyone save the responsible authority. Theological discourse is thus reduced to a private enterprise, to be carried on “under the seal of the confessional.” This, for Cox, is “elitism at its worst,” one of the great crimes of our time. The laity is shut out altogether, and theology is left in the sole hands of … theologians!

But why should Cox, a Protestant who teaches at Harvard, a university not known for its close ties to the Vatican and well beyond the reach of its thunderbolts, be so exercised about the internal affairs of the Catholic Church? The answer, we are told, is that everybody stands to lose by the new ban. Even when they go unheeded, gag rules have a stifling effect on life, both for the gagged and for those who are trying to talk with them. Just as theology is too important to be left to theologians, so Catholic theology is too important to be left to Catholics. No, the ban is not a purely internal matter. It affects everyone who cares about the truth: “Ask not for whom the phone ringeth. It ringeth for us all.”

Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxy

The shrillness of these reactions stands in sharp contrast to the tone of the Vatican document, which is hardly inquisitorial or reminiscent of what went on in Germany and the Soviet Union under Hitler and Stalin. The Instruction does not claim to do more than restate for our time the principles by which the Church has long been guided in dealing with the complex issue of theological dissent. Its position is not noticeably different from the one taken by Vatican II and already advocated by Thomas Aquinas, who states flatly that there are times when a subordinate has not only the right but the duty to criticize an ecclesiastical superior, as long as he does so with internal respect, external deference, and discretion (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 33, 4). It was understood that this respect is not limited to the Church’s solemn pronouncements but extends to its so- called “ordinary Magisterium” as well.

What the Instruction rules out is not dissent as such, unless one insists on using the term in a pejorative sense, but organized and public dissent, which nowadays frequently takes the form of an appeal to the media for the purpose of mobilizing popular sentiment in favor of opinions at odds with the authoritative teachings of the Church. But this is nothing new, either. Pope Paul VI had already said as much and for the same reasons. What sets Christianity apart from the religions to which it is most closely related, Judaism and Islam, is that it first comes to sight as a nonpolitical religion or, in St. Paul’s words, a “life-giving doctrine.” It teaches that henceforth one would be justified by “faith” rather than by obedience to a God- given “law.” In its view, orthodoxy is more important than orthopraxy and what one holds as a believer takes precedence over any of the political or legal arrangements by which human beings are wont to order their temporal lives. Accordingly, no other religious tradition has ever placed a greater premium on purity of doctrine. This explains the need for a unique teaching office, known since the nineteenth century as the “Magisterium” and made up of the pope and the bishops, who speak for the Church as a whole in matters of faith and morals.

Hebblethwaite is probably right when he says that few theologians have any conscious desire to set themselves up as a separate Magisterium, on a par with and at times in opposition to the hierarchy. But if, by going over the heads of the bishops and taking their case to the general public through press conferences, TV appearances, interviews, widely circulated petitions, and full-page ads in our national dailies, they regularly succeed in undermining the hierarchy’s doctrinal authority, the effect is much the same.

No one denies that theologians have an irreplaceable contribution to make to the life of the Church. Part of their task is precisely to enlighten the Magisterium and, by so doing, to help everyone else arrive at a clearer or firmer grasp of the divinely revealed truth. Vatican II showed us all that can be accomplished when bishops and theologians collaborate in genuinely collegial fashion. This does not alter the fact that the theologian’s authority is essentially different from that of the Magisterium. It is an “epistemic” authority, based on knowledge alone, as distinguished from the effective or “deontic” authority of the person to whom the governance of the community has been entrusted.

What this means concretely is not that there is never any room for discussion about points of doctrine but only that, when complete agreement cannot be reached, the hierarchy retains the right of final decision. The exercise of that right, an act of the practical intellect (as the old Scholastics would have said), requires that the present and long-range good of the whole community be taken into account. As such, it calls for a prudential rather than a purely speculative judgment on the part of the one who makes the decision. If the originality of the Instruction lies anywhere, it is in the forthright acknowledgment that magisterial decisions of this sort are not necessarily the last word on the subject and need to be interpreted in the light of the historical situation that is being addressed. Church doctrine is expected to remain the same in all essentials, but pastoral considerations dictate that the modalities of its presentation vary in accordance with changing times and circumstances. A prime example of this kind of adaptation is Vatican II’s reformulation of certain well-known nineteenth- and-early-twentieth century declarations concerning religious freedom whose restrictive language was deemed inappropriate to our time. The interesting question, and it is not a question on which we need to dwell here, is whether the new formula does not in effect represent a substantial departure from traditional Church teaching.

None of this is to imply that Church authorities have always demonstrated the proper wisdom in their efforts to implement the foregoing principles. Rome itself has admitted that mistakes were made in the past, that those who acted in its name were occasionally inspired by motives that were more political than religious, and that its procedures still leave something to be desired. The other side of the story is that most popular accounts of the Church’s dealings with dissenters and heretics fail to rise above the level of Enlightenment propaganda. At a distance of several centuries, it is difficult to arrive at a clear picture of the issues involved in any particular case.

What About Galileo?

The most frequently cited examples are those of Giordano Bruno and Galileo, who were dragged before the Inquisition among other things for upholding the Copernican theory. Yet there is mounting evidence to suggest that more was at stake in this matter than the defense of an astronomical system whose non-hypothetical character would not be established to the satisfaction of the scientific community for at least another century. Some modern thinkers, such as Spinoza, descried in the new theory further proof of the spurious character of the would-be miraculous events narrated in the Bible. If the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa, Joshua could not have stopped the sun in its tracks. Another blow was being struck at the Bible, whose credibility was thought to rest in part on the historical truth of such events. The argument was the more telling as medieval theology regarded Joshua’s miracle as the greatest of all possible miracles, one greater even than the resurrection of a dead person. Other segments of the intellectual elite were attracted to the Copernican theory because it symbolically assigned to natural reason, represented in the Western tradition by the sun or the Greek god Apollo, the place reserved for Christ at the center of the universe. It was part and parcel of a powerful movement the object of which was again to challenge the authority of divine revelation. This alone was more than enough to arouse the curiosity of a group of understandably suspicious inquisitors.

Even so, the Church appears to have been slow to take action against philosophers or scientists as long as the discussion of such matters was confined to learned circles. Galileo did not come under ecclesiastical scrutiny until his Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World, a book written for non-specialists, was published. By its own admission, the famous condemnation of 1277 alluded to by Cox was prompted by a concern for the spiritual welfare of the nonacademic community, among whom the censured theses, most of them deeply hostile to the faith, had begun to circulate.

For the record, it should be noted that Thomas Aquinas’s books were not burned by order of the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Templer. Tempier’s list of 219 “errors” does include a few propositions that Thomas, who had been dead for three years, would probably have endorsed, but this hardly amounts to a bonfire of the kind that Cox seems to have in mind. Luther is the one who urged his disciples to burn their copies of Thomas’s works, something they apparently refused to do for reasons over which it is tempting to muse. Tempier’s main target was not Thomas but Thomas’s adversaries, Siger of Brabant and his cohorts in the Arts Faculty, whose radical Aristotelianism threatened to sap the foundations of Christendom.

As for the most common objections to any restriction on freedom of speech — that it smacks of totalitarianism, stifles creativity, and breeds hypocrisy — they are neither new nor very profound. The lesson to be drawn from history is that unlimited freedom of speech is or can be as much of a threat to freedom as its opposite. Our own century has seen how rapidly societies that grant the same privileges to the enemies of freedom as to its friends can lose their freedom. Not entirely by accident did Weimar Germany, the freest society the world had ever seen, become the breeding ground of the most hateful tyranny known to humankind.

Only if one accepts the now largely discredited view that human progress is inevitable and as it were a necessity of nature, as did Spinoza and John Stuart Mill, the two staunchest advocates of free speech in our tradition, is it possible to maintain that absolute freedom of expression always redounds to the benefit of the society that sanctions it. The glory of Christianity is to have introduced into the religious community the spirit of free inquiry — the necessary condition of intellectual progress — by making the study of philosophy a mandatory part of its curriculum of theological studies. Its genius is to have realized that this spirit would die as quickly as it did elsewhere if it were to be cultivated without any regard for the needs of society at large.

We forget too easily that throughout most of history freedom of speech as we now understand it was an unknown commodity, not only because governments did not tolerate it, but because of the restraints that writers who had something of importance to say saw fit to impose upon themselves. St. Augustine went so far as to argue that one “commits a grave sin,” graviter peccat, by revealing certain truths to people who are not prepared for them and liable to misuse them. The “creativity” of these writers does not appear to have been thereby stifled. Many if not most of the great classics of world literature owe their depth and subtlety to the severe constraints under which they were written. None of their authors believed in the possibility of popular enlightenment and most of them cautioned against it. This did not make them any less eager to share their thoughts with others. They solved the problem by having recourse to a dual language the purpose of which was to conceal certain truths from the general public while allowing them to transpire for those to whom it could be of greatest benefit.

Cardinal Newman, who made a special study of that dual language in the works of the Church Fathers, (and got into a lot of trouble with his former co-religionists for defending it, as he tells us in his Apologia) referred to it as the “economy” or the “reserve.” Unlike his nineteenth-century critics, he did not think it would automatically turn people into dissemblers and hypocrites. There is a vast difference between keeping certain opinions to oneself out of a noble regard for the needs or sensibilities of others on the one hand, and doing it out of self-interest or cowardice on the other. In the former case, one exercises prudence, which is a virtue; in the latter, one indulges in hypocrisy, which is a vice. Foreign as it may be to our modern taste, the pedagogy had much to recommend it since it served equally well the interests of the truth and those of the political or religious community.

Not much has been gained by abandoning it. Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill both make the paradoxical observation that there is less freedom of thought in our modern democratic societies than in any of the old aristocratic societies. People today may be politically freer than most of their predecessors, but they are that much more subject to what the popular press has since named the hegemony of “political correctness.” Tocqueville called it the “tyranny of the majority” and added that the American regime had done a better job of preventing the circulation of ideas that ran counter to majority opinion than even the Spanish Inquisition. “Literary genius,” he said, “cannot exist without freedom of the spirit, and there is no freedom of the spirit in America.” The remark may be truer than most of us care to admit.

Claiming Vatican II

The odd feature of the contest that has been pitting the Vatican against our dissident theologians is that both sides seek to justify their positions by appealing to the authority of Vatican II, which each side accuses the other of trying to highjack. This has been possible only because of the Council’s ambiguous stand on many of the issues that divide the two groups. A decision was made at the outset that in its deliberations the Council would pursue two different courses of action or move along two different lines. It was to be an effort at ressourcement, that is, a return to the pre-modern sources of Christian life and thought — principally the Bible, the Church Fathers, and the liturgy — and it was to be an updating of the Church’s message or, to use Pope John XXIII’s term, an aggiornamento, by which was meant an attempt to catch up to or come to terms with the modern world. The trouble is that few people bothered to ask how these two lines of attack were supposed to converge. It was taken for granted that they would complement each other and the crucial question of the relationship of modernity to pre-modernity was never addressed thematically. As a result, little serious attention was given to the possibility of a tension, not to speak of an outright conflict, between these two vastly different modes of thought.

The tension or the conflict, whichever it may be, is particularly evident in two of the Council’s most important and controversial documents, the Declaration on Religious Freedom and the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, both of them promulgated in 1965. Among the many examples that one could cite is the Declaration’s teaching on individual freedom, which stresses the fact that “human beings are bound to obey their own consciences” and are to be “guided by their own judgment” and later proceeds to remind them that they are not as free as they may have been led to believe, for the disciple is “bound by a grave obligation toward Christ his master ever more adequately to understand the truth received from him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it” (Declaration on Religious Freedom, 11 and 14). Not surprisingly, a sizable portion of the Catholic population seems to have responded with greater enthusiasm to the first of these two statements than to the second. Over the centuries, the Church had, whenever possible, encouraged the laudable practice of toleration. In a sudden about-face, it now seemed ready to endorse, however ambivalently, the typically modern principle of toleration and its corollary, complete freedom of religion. It is unfortunate that few of the Council Fathers had any deep knowledge of modern thought or much time to acquaint themselves with it, for the Council, already in its fourth year, was rapidly coming to a close. A significant part of its agenda was thus left unfinished, and the stage was set for the free fall into which theologians in increasingly large numbers would be caught.

The consequences were not long in manifesting them-selves. They became visible to the naked eye in the splintering of Catholic theology during the years that followed. Like the proverbial hen that has laid duck’s eggs, the once “liberal” theologians whose views the Council had finally embraced found themselves gazing in amazement, not to say horror, at what their erstwhile disciples were saying and doing and spent the last years of their lives bemoaning the drift of post-Vatican II theological thought. One would like to believe that the dissensions that have been racking the Church ever since are a sign of growing maturity, but they can just as easily be seen as the harbingers of a deepening crisis the full dimensions of which have yet to be revealed.

The fact of the matter is that, for all its penetration, last year’s Instruction adopts the same ambiguous stance as Vatican II toward modern thought, which it courts in one way and repudiates in another. It sticks to the old Roman habit of trading in “isms” — liberalism, relativism, pluralism, positivism, and the like — without probing their different meanings or seeking to uncover the principles that underlie them. It evinces no keen awareness of the reasons that led to the break with pre-modern thought, the force of the arguments in favor of modern thought, and the possible answers to these arguments. Above all, it does not explain how the legitimate insights of modernity might be divorced from their original context and inserted into a more adequate framework. In consequence, it lacks the freshness that one looks for in a document of this sort, which cannot be content with merely reaffirming the Church’s basic teachings but must strive to instill new life into them by means of an invigorating dialogue with their most thoughtful critics. Quite apart from its substantive merits, the Instruction sometimes sounds cranky. It thus unwittingly lends credence to the view that Rome is engaged in a concerted attempt to repeal the modern age and roll back the Council.

Much outstanding work has been done by the greatest minds of our century to bring to light the true character of modernity, to clarify the nature of its break with pre-modernity, and to propose new and better ways of relating them to each other. With rare exceptions, theologians, who have a vital stake in the matter, have yet to familiarize themselves with this work and learn how to use it both to overcome the limitations of pre-Vatican II theology and to curb the excesses of post-Vatican II theology. Only when this task is accomplished will Catholic theology be able to recover its lost equilibrium and turn the stillborn debates in which it has been consuming itself into instruments of genuine intellectual progress.


  • Ernest Fortin

    Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (1923 - 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.

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