Rome has issued a new instruction on the role of theologians. Analysing its contents, Michael Walsh is unhappy with its definition of truth.
AT the beginning of the present century the Catholic church was confronted by what became known as the Modernist crisis. The crisis arose from the application of modern methods of historical research to the history of dogma and, more particularly, to the study of scripture. The Biblical Commission, originally established to encourage the scholarly examination of the Old and New Testaments, became the means of killing that examination stone dead. In a series of decrees in the first decade of this century the commission asserted, for example, that the Book of Isaiah was written by one man, and that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, was written by Moses.
All Catholic scripture scholars, indeed all Catholics, were obliged by St Pius X to believe what the members of the commission determined. Not only that. they were required by the saintly pontiff to accept in advance decisions of the commission not yet uttered. Then the Pope went on to approve, at least tacitly, of a Vatican secret police, which reported on any cleric, but especially upon theologians and scripture scholars, who seemed to deviate from the norm of orthodoxy. Even the future John XXIII was delated to Rome. An oath, the Anti-Modernist Oath, was instituted. It was to be taken by all priests on ordination, all bishops at their consecration, all theology lecturers on their appointment. The Jesuits, never a group to do things by halves, made their lecturers take it every year.
It was a shameful period in the church's history and one which, at least for English readers, has not yet been adequately recorded as a warning for future generations. Had over the years the Biblical Commission and the Holy Office (the new title given in 1908 to the Inquisition) been proved right in their decisions, then one might have had a little more sympathy for them. But of course they were not. The positions which once were condemned are now commonly accepted. Their decisions, so firmly expressed, have been overturned. No Catholic is required, or even expected, to believe that the Isaiah of the Book of Isaiah was one man, or that Moses wrote the Pentateuch.
Throughout the document there is an apparent belief that the Truth is a known commodity, not something still to be searched for.
I make no apology for this excursion into recent church history, for it is a story which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor to the Inquisition) in its latest Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian appears to have forgotten. The congregation reminds us that "the theologian, who cannot pursue his discipline with a certain competence in history, is aware of the filtering which occurs with the passage of time". The problem with the Modernist Crisis is that the "filtering" showed the theologians to have been right and the magisterium wrong.
The Instruction, after a brief introduction, consists of four parts and a conclusion all written, one must add, in the discourtesy of exclusivist language. The first part, "The Truth, God's Gift to His People" and the second, "The Vocation of the Theologian", give positive recognition of the role of the theologian it the church. They will be much appreciated for their insistence upon the need for an understanding of philosophy and of history when reflecting upon the word of God.
Practitioners of the sacred sciences will be particularly pleased with the acknowledgement of the necessity for "freedom of research, which the academic community rightly holds most precious". Problems arise, however, when that "freedom" is interpreted in the following two sections, "The Magisterium of the Church's Pastors" and "The Magisterium and Theology".
Throughout the document there is an apparent belief that the Truth (much talked about) is a known commodity, a given, not something still to be searched for. And the possessor of that Truth is the magisterium.
Now what precisely that magisterium may be is never clearly defined. There is a passing nod in the direction of the bishops, but their role is a little iffy, yet to be clarified, as footnote 19 has no hesitation in pointing out. No such doubts about Roman congregations: "All acts of the magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ who desires that his people walk in the entire truth. For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherance of the faithful.
"The Roman Pontiff fulfills his universal mission with the help of the various bodies of the Roman curia and in particular with that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in matters of doctrine and morals. Consequently, the documents issued by this congregation expressly approved by the Pope participate in the ordinary magisterium of the successor of Peter (18-19)."
The church is in the midst of a new Modernist crisis.
We now have theological justification for what used to be called "creeping infallibility".
Dissent is out. The congregation accepts that not all the teaching of the magisterium is "irreformable". Yet even if the validity of the magisterium's view is not evident, or the oppositite opinion is more probable, disagreement cannot be justified. The freedom of research so proudly proclaimed early on becomes a freedom to conform to the "truth" an unexceptionable proposition in itself, were the "truth" not identified with the teachings of the magisterium as interpreted to the faithful by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The meaning of the word "freedom" has been stood upon its head.
There should be no mistake. The church is in the midst of a new Modernist crisis. The Anti-Modernist Oath has been replaced by the Oath of Loyalty to which the Instruction draws attention. The statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are to be embraced as authentic interpretations of the truth which Christ taught just as, 80 years or more ago, the decisions of the Biblical Commission were held to be forever inviolable. And we know what happened to those.
It is the congregation which needs to learn the lessons of history, just as much as the theologians to whom it addresses its strictures.