Dissent in Catholic academia is 'out' says Vatican Instruction

Dissent in Catholic academia is 'out' says Vatican Instruction

B.A. Santamaria

The release of the Vatican Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian on May 24, 1990, marked an important stage in the long-running war of words between Rome and dissenting Catholic theologians around the world. It represented a forthright response to last year's "Cologne Declaration" and to those involved in Catholic higher education who assert that "academic freedom" should take precedence over orthodoxy.

This Instruction has significance for Australia, not only because of doctrinal problems in seminaries and teachers' colleges, but also because of the imminent emergence of the first Catholic universities in this country.

The leadership and theological faculties of most American Catholic universities and other higher education institutions have been in the forefront of dissent since Vatican II. In 1967, led by Notre Dame University's Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the Church's academic elites issued the so-called Land O'Lakes statement which insisted upon "true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical". Since then the Currans and the KŸngs of the Church have followed the logic of this declaration of independence from the Magisterium while sanctions against dissent have been few and far between, mild and usually very belated.

Negative response

That this situation had not altered since 1967 was evident in the overwhelmingly negative response of the Church's academic establishments to the Vatican's release in February 1989 of the "Profession of Faith" and "Oath of Fidelity" to be taken by seminary rectors, teachers of theology and other responsible educational figures. In a recent address Rev. William Byron, president of the Catholic University of America, asserted that "Theology professors must explain and not proclaim the faith." The only excuse for such a statement would be that the faith had been effectively taught at the primary and secondary levels, so that tertiary institutions could presume that that job was already done. Of course, it has not been done, which invalidates the Byron thesis. In effect, he wanted to divorce theologians from any responsibility to pass on the faith of the Church, as distinct from simply examining it critically.

Fr Byron also expressed the prevailing view of Catholic academia when he warned about the likely negative consequences of any episcopal oversight of theology - something already required by Canon Law but rarely practised since Vatican II. In other words, according to Fr Byron, Catholic higher education could not exist unless unfettered "academic freedom" operated in the field of theology; Catholic universities could not be real universities unless effectively independent of Pope and Bishops.

This view is rejected by orthodox theologians in the US, notably members of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a body numbering many hundreds of academics. One of them, Dr William E. May, Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America - one of the very few to support the Vatican's disciplinary measures against his colleague, Fr Charles Curran, in 1987 - argued in a recent article that theologians should have no difficulties with the "Oath of Fidelity" and "Profession of Faith" and should regard the authoritative teaching of the Pope and bishops as "the voice of Christ" (Crisis, June 1990). He described the "academic freedom" espoused by dissenting theologians as narrowly based on secularist assumptions which bypassed faith and Revelation.

In the same journal, Rev J. Michael Miller, chairman of the Department of Theology at the University of St Thomas in Houston, also rejected the consensus view of the theological establishment: "Neither the bishops nor the Pope are at all 'extrinsic' to the study of theology. Theologians depend upon the Magisterium as the very condition of the possibility of doing theology. The 'mind of the Church', which theologians examine, is authoritatively determined and passed on by the successors of the Apostles. Without the Magisterium, theologians would have no content to study!"

The new Vatican Instruction released by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith strongly upholds this orthodox view, reaffirming what the present Pope has stated on many occasions, that dissent against the Church's official teachings on faith and morals must not be tolerated.

While upholding the proper role of theologians in deepening the Church's understanding of Revelation and illuminating "one or other aspect of faith", the Instruction cautions against irresponsible teaching and undiscerning analysis embodying secular disciplines unsuited to Revelation "handed on and interpreted in the Church under the authority of the Magisterium and received by faith." The Instruction continues: "These givens have the force of principles. To eliminate them would be to cease doing theology" (12).

One-third of the Instruction is devoted to analysis of "The Problem of Dissent", including the existence of a so-called "parallel magisterium" of theologians. It systematically explores erroneous assumptions underlying these and affirms the authority of the Magisterium in having the last word: "By virtue of the divine mandate given to it in the Church, the Magisterium has the mission to set forth the Gospel's teaching, guard its integrity, and thereby protect the faith of the People of God. In order to fulfil this duty, it can at times be led to take serious measures as, for example, when it withdraws from a theologian, who departs from the doctrine of the faith, the canonical mission or the teaching mandate it had given him, or declares that some writings do not conform to this doctrine" (37).

Teachers of theology, in other words, have a contract to teach what the Church teaches. Catholic universities and other higher institutions have no legitimate claim to existence outside the framework of the Church and the authority of Pope and bishops. Cardinal Edward Clancy of Sydney, commenting on the Instruction, (Catholic Weekly, 27 June), stated: "It makes no sense for theologians to voluntarily accept the task of teaching the doctrine of the Church in the name of the Church if, at the same time, they do not find themselves in agreement with that doctrine." The ensuing dilemma arises when those "who do not find themselves in agreement" nevertheless accept the position and subvert the Church's teaching from within. It equally "makes no sense" if those who, whatever their personal sincerity, traduce essential doctrines, are not, after careful warning, removed from their positions. The Magisterium has duties as well as rights.

The Vatican has made the position clear. Dissent in Catholic academia is 'out'. It is time the Church's teachers and authorities grappled with this reality and ensured that Catholic higher education is Catholic in more than name. Or is the Vatican's most recent Instruction simply to become another dead letter like Catechesi Tradendae and Ecclesia Dei?

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