What if YOU ran “La Suprema?”
Grant and Fr. Robert have re-ignited the discussion about Fr. Jon Sobrino below, so it will be interesting to see where that goes.
But I want to pose a slightly different question. How should the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith exercise its role of doctrinal oversight? Or if you want to ask the question more broadly, how should the Church make clear what its doctrinal boundaries are?
It seems unquestionable that there are times when making those boundaries clear is absolutely necessary. It is hard to see, for example, how Gnosticism or Arianism could have been tolerated as legitimate theological opinions without deforming the faith that had been inherited from the apostles.
It is also unquestionable that there have been times when the boundaries have been drawn too narrowly or prematurely. The actions taken in the mid-20th century against theologians like Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and John Courtney Murray could serve as examples here.
Since the reorganization of the CDF in 1965 (which included changing its name), it has used a variety of means in making its point. The most dramatic cases involve sanctions against individual theologians (e.g. Kung, Curran, Haight). In other cases (e.g. Sobrino, Dupuis) notifications have been issued about the theologian’s work, but sanctions have not been imposed. The CDF has also issued statements—like Dominus Iesus—which do not mention theologians by name, but which seek to define the boundaries of legitimate theological debate on an issue. In some cases, an even higher teaching authority is invoked for this purpose, as when Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which was clearly an effort to narrow the range of permissible views within the domain of moral theology.
Needless to say, none of these approaches has proved particularly popular. No doubt there are many aspects of the CDF’s procedures that could be improved. The fact that theologians who have devoted their lives to the Church emerge from the current process so uniformly embittered should give us pause. The experience of de Lubac, Congar and Murray also suggests that real harm to the Church can come from attempting to suppress theology that threatens merely because it challenges settled ways of thinking about things or the personal views of persons in authority. One must also note the irony that taking action against individual theologians almost always gives them a much broader audience for their work than would otherwise have been the case!
But at some point, the critics of any system must face the inevitable question: what would you do if you were in charge?
There are a few, no doubt, who would echo Voltaire in crying Écrasez l’Infâme! Such a proposal is about the same intellectual level as calls for the abolition of the CIA or the Defense Department and should be taken about as seriously.
But most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, realize that there are dangers that must be faced. I have not read Fr. Sobrino, and cannot comment on his theology. But there is no question that there are trends in contemporary Christology (both Protestant and Catholic) that stand in severe tension with beliefs that are at the core of Christian faith. I, for one, would prefer not to wake up one morning and discover that seminarians and lay ministers in formation are learning their Christology from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
So the question is one of means and the effective calibration of those means. My own inclination would be to rely more on statements like Dominus Iesus than on actions taken against individual theologians. As the discussion between Grant and Fr. Robert about Fr. Sobrino makes clear, the interpretation of the work of an individual author is always going to be fraught with ambiguity.
I also wonder whether the CDF could—to use a set of terms borrowed from the foreign policy field—rely more on “soft power” than on “hard power.” There must be ways to shape the theological debate that do not require the explicit exercise of ecclesiastical authority.
I don’t have a detailed set of answers and I know that this discussion has been going on for 30 years or arguably even longer. But I think we need some creative thinking. What say the rest of you?