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David S. ToolanOctober 07, 2012

According to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's recent instruction on my calling, we theologians are not to be seen or heard in the public media. We are to carry out our squabbles in code, in the pages of esoteric journals. If we have any complaints with official doctrine, we are to communicate them to the proper authorities behind closed doors, in secret. That's the theory. But on Dec. 13, for the second time this past year (see AM., 8/18/90, pp. 76-77), members of my professional group, the Catholic Theological Society of America (C.T.S.A.), spoke out, inevitably on the airwaves, criticizing Vatican actions and procedures in four areas of concern—the collegiality of bishops, the relation between the magisterium and theologians, women in the church and ecumenism. Provoked by Rome's treatment of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and the Curran case among other incidents, the C.T.S.A. censure had been brewing for some time—but the incentive to go public came from the other side of the Atlantic.

Background. At the C.T.S.A.'s annual meeting in St. Louis, Mo., in June 1989, the major topic of conversation outside the formal sessions was the Cologne Declaration, a widely publicized manifesto, issued the preceding January by some 163 German-speaking theologians, that protested current Roman centralization and Pope John Paul II's alleged authoritarian style of leadership. The declaration had touched off a storm—essentially over the letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the question of whether Rome was breaking the compact. One hundred and thirty French theologians immediately endorsed it with their own document, and similar outcries followed from large groups of Belgian, Spanish and Italian theologians.

The European uproar was the catalyst for the behind-the-scenes question at the 1989 meeting of the C.T.S.A. What should the North American response be—to echo the Europeans, remain silent or issue an independent statement on the issues raised? It was felt that many of the European complaints (e.g., regarding the cathedral chapter selection of episcopal candidates or the "canonical mission" of theologians at state universities) did not apply to the North American situation. Moreover, we had specific concerns of our own—the women's issue, for instance, or ecumenism—that were not at the top of the European agenda. The decision, therefore, directed the C.T.S.A. board of directors to draw up a document that spoke from the distinctive experience of the North American church—and which the members could then sign, or not, as they chose.

When the board's statement, titled "Do Not Extinguish the Spirit," was ready this past November (after going through nine drafts), it was sent to the C.T.S.A.'s 1,400-member constituency and we were ballotted. Discretion being the better part of valor, the signers remain name-less (and I will not say how I voted). Of the 544 dues-payers who cast their votes by the very short Dec. 1 deadline, 431 approved the statement as "generally accurate," 91 rejected it and 22 abstained. Strictly speaking, it does not represent an official C.T.S.A. statement. On Dec. 8, the 25th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II, the document was sent to all the bishops of the United States and Canada. Wrote C.T.S.A. president Walter H. Principe, C.S.B., in his covering letter to the bishops: "The concerns we express come from our loyalty to and love for the church….They do not focus on doctrines but rather on certain actions, policies and interventions that appear to us to be harming the good of the church in the United States and Canada. The council and canon law invite the faithful to 'disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers (and sisters) of Christ.' We think it a part of our role as theologians to respond to that invitation."

The Issues. As intrachurch memos go, this one is not windy. In fact, it is little more than a check-list of problems of church order calling for resolution, sooner rather than later. It opens by invoking Pope John XXIII's hope that the council would mean a "new Pentecost" for the church. We theologians think it has been, the document says. Yes, our North American culture suffers from an excessive individualism, a consumerist lifestyle and ugly racism, but the renewal of the church "has taken hold among our people"; the church here is "in many respects healthy and vital"; and relations between bishops and theologians in our countries are "generally good." The statement confesses the signers' failures ("We theologians have at times fallen short in our duty in these years of renewal"), and then appeals for the Holy See to acknowledge it may be in the same boat.

The trouble, a conflict of cultural styles if not strictly of fundamental doctrine, emerges when the document begins to speak of an immigrant church treasuring religious liberty, pluralism and an "open and participative style" in social and political life that finds an "arbitrary and authoritarian style of leadership" repugnant. This leads to the first major issue—the perception that Rome seems to be reneging on Vatican II's vision of episcopal collegiality. "We are concerned," says the statement, "that the role of the local churches, of their bishops and of the bishops' conference is being diminished"—by the narrow criteria the Curia uses in selecting bishops, by "humiliating" visitations to dioceses, by impugning the authority of bishops' conferences and by rejecting the pastoral judgments of the local church on religious education and sacramental life. The footnotes provide instances of these allegations.

The second neuralgic point has to do with the relation of theologians to the church's teaching office, which Vatican II had envisioned as collaborative. While praising the procedural rules that the U S. Catholic bishops recently adopted for dealing with conflicts posed by theological malpractice, the statement expresses distress that cooperation has been made more difficult by reckless charges by the Pope and curial officials that theologians are preempting the function of bishops. More, the Curia fails to consult with experts in the preparation of major church documents, prematurely cuts off discussion on new questions and follows procedures of investigation that "fail to honor basic human rights." "As a result, many possibilities for cooperation between the magisterium and theologians in keeping with the teaching of the council remain to be realized.

The third point of contention concerns "the increased recognition of the equality of women and their potential for new contributions to public life." The contrast between the directive and executive roles being assumed by women in North American society and the roles assigned to them by current church teaching and practice, says the statement, is striking. "Theological reflection," therefore, "seeks to explore further the teaching of the Gospel about women and men... [and] the possibility of ordaining women while remaining faithful to the Lord's intention for the church. "The present atmosphere gives cause for concern. Rome appears to regard feminism with consistent suspicion, to identify women's role almost exclusively with motherhood, urges bishops to withdraw "support from groups promoting women's ordination as a way to exercise episcopal leadership," and screens prospective bishops so as to "insure their unqualified opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood." "In the light of the increasing prominence of women in society and the church," this section concludes, "this state of affairs ignores the signs of the times."

Fourth, the theologians express alarm that the church's commitment to Christian unity, one of the central purposes of Vatican II, seems to have diminished. As evidence, the statement cites the slowness with which authorities have
responded to the positive results of ecumenical dialogue, the selection of unecumenical bishops and curial staff, occasions on which church authorities have acted in ways that fail to embody the council's vision of the church as a communion of local churches, and "an authoritarian style of acting and inappropriate interventions that do not respect the distinctive traditions of churches already in communion with Rome." Consequently, fears are rekindled among Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants "that acceptance of the Petrine ministry would mean the destruction of the distinctive traditions of their churches."

Much has been accomplished in the 25 years since the council ended. Much remains to do (ecclesia semper reformanda, "the church must always be reformed"). The statement concludes by pledging its signers to heed St. Paul's admonition not to stifle the Spirit (1 Th. 5:19).

Reaction. In the case of the Cologne Declaration, the Vatican response, at least at first, had been to ignore it. (Neither Vatican Radio nor L'Osservatore Romano offered comment.) Subsequently, after 63 Italian theologians jumped into the fray, both the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger renewed the countercharge that theologians were trying to usurp the function of bishops by setting up a parallel magisterium. In the case of this latest North American statement, so far as I know there has been no reaction from the Holy See. But two U.S. prelates did respond.

Speaking in his own name, the head of the US. bishops' committee on doctrine, Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., regretted that we theologians had dragged up matters that to his mind had been resolved (presumably things like the Hunthausen case), reminded us that bishops alone, and a fortiori the Bishop of Rome, have the responsibility for deciding what's best for the church—and welcomed the opportunity to discuss the issues raised. Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, Calif., a long-time member of C.T.S.A. himself, commented that the satisfaction theologians expressed for their good relations with the hierarchy on this side of the ocean "would be shared by most bishops and is indeed gratifying." He observed, however, the notable failure of theologians to criticize one another, particularly the "erroneous and tendentious views" of some of our better-known colleagues. The C.T.S.A. choice to go public as a "first step" created a "confrontational atmosphere"; in his view a more effective approach would have been to meet directly with Vatican officials. In two recent cases, the lately published document of the Holy See on Catholic universities and the work of the pontifical commission on religious life, direct dialogue of this kind, he pointed out, had brought positive results. On the other hand, he acknowledged, the question of the style and limits of criticism within the church—especially in a world of instant electronic communication and an ever growing appreciation of free speech—is "still in early stages of development" and "remains to be debated further."

That it will be. 

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11 years 10 months ago
Why are you in a national weekly magazine republishing " news" that is 20 years old?

Is there no update? Or are you looking just to make waves and encourage and rehash old debates. Give us new thoughts.
Cody Serra
11 years 10 months ago
Terry Halladay:
The debates seem to continue today, The principal actor is the same in a different position of authority.
I think this article shows us non-resolved issues 20 years later. I consider this sad news, though not the ones I would like to read. We have a church divided and polarized. The Hierarchy's moral authority is weak. Not only theologians are not listened at, neither are the people of God, specially those who would like a more inclusive, pastoral church: a Vatican II Church, where the laity have a role and enjoys freedom of thought and conscience.
Charles McNamee
11 years 10 months ago
In his book "The Miracle of Dialogue", Ruel Howe does NOT list INFALLIBILITY as essential to facilitating the miracle. Rather a humble, docile, open-mindednessand a quality of listening in both participants helps make progress possible. This does not seem to be true in this case. Each problem presents unique difficulties and prejudicial biases are no help. 

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