Rome hits back at dissenters
by Peter Stanford THE Vatican has published an instruction on the role of theologians which severely limits their freedom to question official teachings. The document, released in Rome this week, contains a series of thinly veiled rebuffs to groups of theologians in Germany and in the United States who have criticised the authoritative tone and content of many of the directives emanating from the Vatican during the pontificate of Pope John Paul [I.
Divided into four sections, with an introduction and conclusion, the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, signed by Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, begins by stressing the importance of theological study. The role of the theologian, it states, "is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the word of God found in the inspired scriptures and handed on by the living tradition of the church". In this search, the theologian is right to use history, science and philosophy, it says.
Analysis, page 9 Comment, page 4 However, the most contentious sections of the Instruction come in its attempt to draw parameters to the freedom of theologians to dissent from the magisterium of the church. The magisterium "is the sole authentic interpreter
of the word of God, written or handed down, by virtue of the authority which it exercises in the name of Christ", and is entrusted to the bishops as successors to the apostles.
The pastoral task of the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the church, is defined by the Instruction as "one of vigilance". Theologians and magisterium should work together at "preserving the people of God in the truth which sets free".
However, when such harmony does not exist, the Instruction makes it plain that "willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule". The theologian can question teachings, and the Instruction admits that "it could happen that some magisterial
documents might not be free from all deficiencies". A certain tension can be constructive on individual points of dispute, it concedes. However "it would be contrary to the truth, if proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the church's magisterium can be habitually mistaken".
And that tension between individual theologian and magisterium must not "spring from hostile and contrary feelings", the Instruction insists.
The document reserves its most severe criticisms for groups of theologians who get together to raise questions with the magisterium and who make public their doubts in the media. While "personal difficulties" of individual theologians are a potential source of dialogue, group protests cause "serious harm to the community of the church".
It is thought here that the Instruction is referring to the 1988 "Cologne Declaration" when some 500 European theologians expressed their discontent with the authoritarian stance of Rome, and to similar dissent within US and Italian scholarly ranks.
Such dissent is condemned by the Instruction on several counts. Reliance on "philosophical liberalism" means, it states, that the church is pressed to express her judgement only "on those issues which public opinion considers important, and then only by way of agreeing with it. The magisterium could intervene in economic or social questions, but ought to leave matters of
conjugal and family morality to individual judgement".
Appeals to conscience likewise receive harsh treatment. "While the theologian like every believer must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it."
The Instruction condemns "polling public opinion to determine the proper thing to think or do, opposing the magisterium by exerting the pressure of public opinion, making the excuse of a 'consensus' among theologians, and maintaining that the theologian is the prophetical spokesman of a 'base' or autonomous community which would be the source of all truth". All such practices, the Instruction is emphatic, "indicate a grave loss of the sense of truth and of the sense of the church".