On 31 May 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. History records it as the first beginnings of the Reformation. Up to 1517, at least, Luther's intent was reform rather than revolution. And reform was overdue. The theological doctrines which led ultimately to the final schism Luther developed later.
The excuses which can be made for Luther cannot be made for the 163 European Catholic theologians who, on 27 January 1989, published their collective attack on Papal authority. Luther's theses were an individual protest. Theirs is a carefully prepared and organised enterprise. That they are still considered faithful members of the Church, while the unfortunate Archbishop Lefebvre is excommunicated, proves that there are limits to logic. Their attack on Papal authority, which two Vatican Councils had defended, both in the ideas which it expressed and the calculatedly confrontationist language which it used, was a far more significant attack on what remains of the unity of the Catholic Church than anything contained in Luther's 95 Theses.
"The Pope lays claim to the ministry of unity", the European theologians declared in their concluding paragraph. "It is thus part of his ministry to bring people together in cases of conflict, as he has done to an excessive degree with regard to Marcel Lefebvre, despite their fundamental calling into question of the teaching office (sic!).
"It is not part of his ministry to intensify secondary conflicts without any attempt at dialogue, to decide them one-sidedly by an exercise of the teaching office and to make them a subject for exclusion.
"If the Pope does what does not belong to his ministry, he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicity. In such a case, he must expect opposition".
Well, who is to be the judge of whether the Pope exceeds the limits of his ministry? Theologians? Really!
What the learned gentlemen mean is, of course, that they are determined to continue to oppose the authority of the Papacy, unless and until it weakly concedes their demands.
The never-ending discussions, accompanied by the repeated unpunished denials of the most sacred doctrines of Christianity - including the Resurrection - over the past twenty- five years hardly demonstrates a lack of "dialogue". "Dialogue" in this case is not a method of discussion, but a strategy of trial by exhaustion. It is not designed to reach agreement but to enforce compliance.
What were the theologians' complaints?
"Various events in our Catholic Church cause us to issue a public declaration.
"Three areas in particular we find depressing:
1. The Roman Curia is energetically filling episcopal sees throughout the world without respecting the suggestions of the local Churches and neglecting their established rights.
2. Throughout the world qualified theologians are being refused official church permission to teach. This is a significant and dangerous intrusion into the freedom of research and teaching and into the dialogue-like structure of theological thinking which the Second Vatican Council emphasised in many passages. The granting of official permission to teach is being abused by being made a means of discipline.
3. We observe an attempt, theologically highly questionable, to enforce and overstep in an admissable way the Pope's competence in the field of doctrinal teaching alongside that of jurisdiction."
What is directly attacked is the "Pope's competence" in the field of doctrinal teaching - as though the declarations on this subject of Vatican I and II had never been written; the Holy See's decision to indicate that certain theologians who have repeatedly taught unorthodox, and not infrequently heretical, doctrines should not be recognised as authorised Catholic teachers (none, as far as one can recall, having been excommunicated, a fate reserved for Lefebvre). Also under attack is the jurisdiction of the Pope in the appointment of bishops when it is obvious that certain appointments in earlier pontificates have brought the Church in their respective countries to the verge of schism. Holland is a particular case in point and doubly instructive on the dangers of intervention left too late.
Why did the theologians make their statement specifically at the beginning of 1989?
The answer to this question is obvious. In recent times the Pope has insisted on the appointment of his own particular choices to the Archbishoprics of Cologne and Salzburg, following on his earlier disputed appointments to Vienna. Recent appointments to the ranks of the US Hierarchy have been restoring a situation which had seemingly been beyond repair. The theologians - or whoever organised them, since 163 signatures do not converge spontaneously - had come to the conclusion that if John Paul II were given another ten years of life, the appointments made over that decade would settle the issue against them. Hence the call to rebellion.
The rebellious theologians are actually in a far stronger position than their obvious anxiety would indicate. To a substantial degree, they, their disciples and supporters are in effective control of what one of their associates, the feminist theologian, Rosemary Ruether, has called the "switch-points" - that is to say the effective as distinct from the nominal government of the Church over the seminaries, the education offices, the teachers' colleges, the schools, the media.
It is difficult to see how that situation can be repaired simply by the appointment of bishops closer to the Pope's mind. As Archbishop Cassidy, the former Papal Nuncio to Holland pointed out not long before his appointment to the position as Assistant Secretary of State to the Holy See, said: "If the present chaotic situation continues, at the end of the century, only a tiny remnant of the Catholic Church will remain. It is disheartening to see how here the Church is declining so rapidly."
Nevertheless there was every sign of desperation in the theologians' attack on the Papacy. There was also every sign of low dialectical cunning.
The protest centred around the Pope's alleged refusal to recognise the unequal importance of different teachings.
"... the Pope," they said, "without consideration for the degrees of certainty and the different weight of church statements, has linked the teaching on birth control with fundamental truths of the faith like the divinity of Christ and salvation through Jesus Christ."
A "cute" presentation of the essential problem!
In the epoch of the sexual revolution, to attack the Papal teaching on contraception is calculated to win considerable support, perhaps even majority support. One of the signatories of the general Declaration, Fr Bernard Haring, in a separate statement of his own, had said of this teaching that it had "already taken the form of a psychological schism", that it had ushered in "a conflict of epoch-making proportions no less than that between Peter and Paul at Antioch."
But of course the conflict is not about contraception at all. Imagine the Pope backing down on the question of contraception as peripheral in the hierarchy of truths. Among the signatories are there no theologians who have denied the doctrine of the Resurrection as it is understood by the Church? None who have denied the Divinity of Christ? None who have denied the Church's teaching on Transubstantiation? None who have opposed the Church's teaching on intercommunion, although it automatically involves a different teaching on the nature of the Eucharist and of the ordained ministry. None who have denied the Church's teaching on the Virginity of Our Lady confirmed at the Council of Ephesus? These denials - presented as "optional" interpretations - are today common in most of the "switch-points".
If the signatories to the Declaration were prepared to face the truth, they would admit that contraception is a side issue compared with the essential issue: their own determination to substitute professional theologians for the Pope as the centre of authority in the Church. It is a recrudescent aspect of the ancient Gnostic heresy.
The Catholic Theological Association of Australia repeated its support for Dr Coffey's earlier interpretation of the Resurrection, after the Holy See had stated that it was inadmissible. As far as one knows nothing was done. In any case how can professors of theology really be ordered to teach that in which, on their own statements, they do not believe?
How the Church can meet the challenge of the rebellion is unclear. Perhaps it is too late to meet it at all. Rosemary Ruether's point that it is those who control the "switch- points" who effectively control the Church happens to be true. Otherwise how can one explain the catechetical catastrophe of the last twenty-five years?
The Holy See may or may not be able to quell the latest rebellion. But it is something to understand its significance.