OFFICIAL Vatican documents are never easy for ordinary mortals to understand with their mixture of arcane language and complex ideas. The new Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian is no exception with its extraordinary contortions of English, and its search for the Truth.
Ye: this time there is an added element. The theologians, objects of the study, are also somewhat confused by the document. And many are angry. The Instruction seeks to define the relationship between the official line emanating from Rome and the theologians. The past decade has seen rumblings in the centres of academic excellence, with popular and widely respected thinkers like Fr Leonardo Boff called to Rome, subjected to a process that recalls vividly that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was once the Inquisition, and then silenced. And then there was the more recent outbreak of widespread dissent in Germany and throughout central Europe and America at the authoritarian tone of much of the teaching coming from the Vatican.
It is to the credit of the Vatican that it has addressed head on this crisis in the church. It is surely sensible to have parameters within which theologians can work, while the reaffirmation of the value of the Holy See places on theological study and the endorsement of the use of science and philosophy will be seen as reassuring and up-to-date.
Yet the Instruction harks back to some dated notions. The repeated insistence on objective truth recalls an earlier pre-Vatican II era. Many churchmen would argue the complexities of our modern society limit the usefulness of such ideas.
But the most difficult aspect of the document to fully grasp is its definition of the magisterium, the teaching authority of the church. Some would hold that this authority is exercised at all sorts of levels from the mother teaching the child on her knee about God upwards. The Instruction alludes to the magisterium as residing with bishops, but the suspicion is that what in effect the document means is that teaching authority belongs to those bishops in the Roman curia. This has been a central complaint of theologians and this confusion is a vital area to clear up. By being vague the Instruction will doubtless provoke yet further controversy among those same theologians with whom it seeks to affect a reconciliation.
What is more the Instruction occasionally descends from its learned tone to hit out at precisely those theologians whom it considers have been taking loyal dissent rather too far. If, as would seem to be the case, the Instruction is intended as a constructive attempt to put an end to this ugly dispute between Rome and the thinkers who are the powerhouse and fount of new ideas in our church, then angry words will not heal wounds.
The apparent relegation, for example, of economic and social matters of concern behind conjugal and family morality in paragraph 32 of section four will dismay many, and seems in its tone to go against much of what Pope John Paul has preached on his travels concerning fundamental human rights, and care for the marginalised. Indeed it is surely the example of Christ's teaching, as we read it in the gospel accounts, that economic and social questions have priority over private morality.
However, it is important not to dwell too much on the potentially contentious aspects from the theologians' viewpoint of the Instruction. Its insistence that bishops and theologians work together will ring true in this country where a good relationship between the two already exists, and will be seen in other countries as boosting the academics.
It would seem whatever that we have not yet heard the last of the debate as to the role of theologians.