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Good will hunting.

In a thirteen-page letter [PDF], Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, explains his committee's rationale for taking on Elizabeth A. Johnson's Quest for the Living God (blogged abouthere,here, andhere). The wide-ranging letter--while acknowledging the theologian's "legitimate vocation"--re-emphasizes bishops' authority to teach, govern, and sanctify, comparing their role to that of a referee--"it's not the player who calls the ball out of bounds," Wuerl writes, "but the referee." (Mollie takes up that analogy below.)It's a strange document. The letter is addressed to "brother bishops," but it's framed as a response to Catholic Theological Society of America board members, who issued a statement criticizing the doctrinal committee's review of Johnson's book. The CTSA board, according to Wuerl, "seems to misread the legitimate and apostolic role of bishops in addressing the right relationship of theologians and bishops." The cardinal doesn't provide evidence for that claim. Read the CTSAstatement. It explicitly recognizes the "distinct vocations of the theologian and the magisterium."Why, then, does Wuerl spend several pages reminding the bishops of the scriptural and traditional grounding of their office? That is not in dispute. What remains to be seen is why the Committee on Doctrine issued a document that so badly misreads the work of a prominent theologian without bothering to ask whether they read her right.

As the CTSA boardpoints out, the bishops of the Committee on Doctrine failed to follow their own guidelines for handling disputes between theologians and bishops, as set forth inDoctrinal Responsibilities (1989). That document--overwhelmingly approved by the bishops conference--held that when such conflicts arise, "informal conversation ought to be the first step towards resolution." Of course, as Wuerl points out, the bishops weren't required to contact Johnson before condemning her book because the guidelines inDoctrinal Responsibilities are not "obligatory." Besides, "the statement makes clear that these suggested guidelines 'can only serve if they are adapted to the particular conditions of a diocese, its history, and its special needs.'" I don't know what that means or how the cardinal thinks it applies here."Our understanding of the not limited to the explicit teaching and preaching of the bishop," Cardinal Wuerl writes. "The bishop and the theologian have a special relationship that can and should be reciprocally enriching." He affirms theologians' "legitimate autonomy" while emphasizing that their work must be carried out "presuming" the "received faith of the church." A bishop's job is to set the "boundaries of the authentic faith." Sure, there will be times when the "legitimate academic freedom of Catholic theologians" leads to apparent conflict with pastoral obligations of the bishop.

Nevertheless, when good will is present on both sides, when both are committed to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, their relationship can be one of profound communion as together they seek to explore new implications of the deposit of faith.The church, therefore, encourages a respectful dialogue between and among bishops.

Undeniably wise. Yet, reading the Committee on Doctrine's statement on Quest for the Living God, which accuses the book of "completely" undermining the gospel and the faith of those who believe it, I can't help wondering: where was the good will? Lost in the rush of composing and approving a response to a four-year-old book? When the Committee on Doctrine misrepresents important aspects a distinguished theologian's work, why would other theologians submit their work for an imprimatur? (Never mind that imprimaturs are handled locally, not by a USCCB committee.)Cardinal Wuerl writes that his committee "does not wish to stifle legitimate theological reflection or to preclude further dialogue, but it does want to ensure that the authentic teaching of the clearly stated and affirmed." That's reassuring--and who would deny that a bishop's job includes clearly affirming church teaching? But couldn't the doctrinal committee have carried out its task more carefully--by, say, not ascribing to Johnson views she does not hold?Cardinal Wuerl concludes by expressing his committee's hope "that the discussion generated by its statement will help lead to renewal and foster a proper and fruitful relationship between the bishops and the whole theological community." Regrettably, I doubt this discussion will have such a happy ending. Doubling down on a bad bet rarely does.


Commenting Guidelines

David, I think that you really bring the issue into sharp focus. What does it mean for Catholics, who seem to at least need to recognize that bishops have some kind of theological authority, if, as you say, one ought to put more stock in non-episcopal theological opinion than that of the bishops? I can understand saying that they ought to be weighed equally, but if we really think that the opinion of the bishops is theologically illegitimate, then at what point do we decide that we no longer recognize their authority and thus, no longer consider ourselves part of the institution? It does seem to me that whether or not I should care about the bishop's opinion/reading of Johnson's book does depend on what kind of authority I see them as having. If I don't see them as having any authority, then it would be weird for me to get so upset about their misreading of Johnson's book. That would be like getting upset about my mother misreading Johnson's book (with all due respect to my mother!). But, if I expect the bishops to have some theological wisdom in leading the Church, which it seems leaders of a church ought to have, then I would have serious cause to be upset at their clear misreading. I really do have an honest question: If the leaders of the Catholic Church are as theologically mistaken as some take them to be, then at what point does one consider their offenses, to borrow another image, "impeachable"? Luther knew where he wanted to draw the line, where do we draw it? I mean, either theology matters or it doesn't. If I don't think these guys in the funny hats and robes have anything special, then why do we let them play dress-up, administer our parishes, and ordain our priests, who confect our sacraments? When do we call a charade, a charade?

Barbara, I agree with you. I think we are talking about two different issues. You seem concerned with the church articulating its message to those who don't see it as having any special authority on theological matters. And, I agree that the Church should not expect people, whether "insiders" or "outsiders," to believe by fiat. I am concerned with the status of the Church's theological pronouncements vis-a-vis one's relative belief in their authority. If I don't see them having any authority and don't have any other relevant interest in opposing them, then once I decide them to be wrong, I move on with my life. If I recognize their authority and find them to be wrong, then I'll be quite troubled by the incommensurability of the error with the authoritative weight such pronouncements carry, and as many have been doing, will spill a lot of ink appealing to the "authority" to recognize their errors. But, if I don't recognize their authority and find something to be wrong, and yet feel the need to fight, then one might ask (with some suspicion) what other relevant interest I have in setting the bishops straight, or proving them wrong, as it were. Do I just want to embarrass them? Do I want to liberate those who still think that they have some kind of theological authority? Do I just think it's good to have the Catholic Church around, and while they're at it they might as well get it right? What stake do I have in the debate, if I don't think the bishops have any authority?

"Seminarians in Maynooth are now kept from studying theology in the same class as lay people. "To take this unfortunate trend to its absurd conclusion: if I'm not mistaken, at least one diocesan program of diaconate formation (for the "permanent" diaconate) does not let *husbands and wives* take the same theology classes.The instance I'm talking about is directed, I believe, by a guiding document from the Holy See. What Fr. O'Leary is reporting about Maynooth sounds like the same sort of thing.

"If you fear that a nuns book will cause students to lose their faith (as if the drab teaching of the bishops had not already caused thousands of Catholics to leave the Church), why not forbid Catholic students to go to university at all? Or are Catholic universities fake universities where students will be protected from any exposure to debate and questioning?"I have to say, I agree with Fr. O'Leary. Universities should challenge students to think and critique for themselves. I suppose much would depend on which course the book is prescribed for, and how it would be "positioned" and used by the professor.

I made an earlier comment that didn't quite say what I had hoped, so let me try again.Istm that a teaching and publishing theologian has opportunities to develop a real, face-to-face relationship with a bishop. One is in seeking a mandatum to teach theology. Another is in seeking an imprimatur for a publication. I understand that both opportunities are frequently bypassed by theologians. But I don't think bishops are wrong to point out that the avenues exist, and that, in a sense, their door is open. And theologians who do bypass those opportunities, istm, are not arguing from a strong position if they complain that the bishops don't have a good relationship with the theologians.

Kathy thinks the bishops have adddressed a current trend to deny the knowability of God. I understand that Sr Johnson is not guilty of such agnosticism. Perhaps she stresses the divine incomprehensibility -- a topic dear to Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas (who refers to God as penitus incognitus -- totally unknown). Obviously in dogmatic theology the status of our knowledge of God is a quite delicate topic. One Council states that any likeness our analogies have to the reality of God is exceeded by an infintely greater unlikeness. We can make objectively true statements about God -- that God exists, is good, is powerful, created the world, etc., but these statements are very fragile, give no command over the reality of God, and indeed fall so short of their object that they are almost self-annullling.

But I dont think bishops are wrong to point out that the avenues exist, and that, in a sense, their door is open. And theologians who do bypass those opportunities, istm, are not arguing from a strong position if they complain that the bishops dont have a good relationship with the theologians.Jim,An imprimatur is not granted by the USCCB. It is granted by one bishop. I have no proof of this, but I can only imagine there would have been many bishops who would not have hesitated to give Quest for the Living God an imprimatur. Imprimaturs can be, and have been, withdrawn, too. Getting an imprimatur, it seems to me, does not put you in dialog with the American bishops, and it would be no safeguard against this kind of attack. The original Spanish version of Jesus, an Historical Approximation by Jose Antonio Pagola is currently being suppressed in Spain (it was removed from bookstores) even though it had received a Nihil Obstat from a Spanish bishop. It is kind of difficult to follow this story, since the news is in Spanish, but it seems to be even more outrageous than the fuss over Elizabeth Johnson's book.

Eric, a theologian who does not define himself as Catholic can nonetheless locate errors of logic, history, teaching, communication or even vocabulary in pronouncements made by other theologians, or Bishops. Whether or not they are believers they almost certainly have a profound understanding of the subject matter. Yes, they may have another agenda -- and one might conclude, for instance, that their objection is in fact grounded in an alternative vision of the truth, in which case, that can be safely be rejected as an objection. But you can't know that if you won't listen to them in the first place.

The authority of bishops, conferred by office, means they teach and we must listen, but that doesn't mean they may not do it well or even get it right.

Barbara, thank you. I think we are basically in agreement!

It looks as if we have a public-relations battle here. The cardinal is clearly stung by criticism of the initial statement. It seems he is trying not to dignify it by responding directly to his critics. Even though the letter is all about theologians, he addressed it to fellow bishops. Maybe there are some weighty reasons for doing it this way, but I can't think of any. From a PR standpoint, it doesn't work - it seems to reinforce the criticism that the bishops' committee is avoiding conversation with the theologians.

"Communities tend to be guided less than individuals by conscience and a sense of responsibility. How much misery does this fact cause mankind! It is the source of wars and every kind of oppression, which fill the earth with pain, sighs and bitterness." (Albert Einstein, 1934)

David N. --You might be on to something. There is a big difference, ISTM, between the bishops looking around and observing that a certain theological belief is held by all the faithful, including the theologians and 2) their own extending of the deposit of the faith by their own theological enquiries and then pronouncing: this is what Catholics must believe. In other words, the function of the bishops is as *historians* of what the Church has universally taught, versus being the ones who extend the teachings theologically. (The latter would be the functions of the theologians.) That would seem to make sense. Consider that Vatican II says that 1) it is the function of the bishops to say what the teachings are, and 2) that the whole Church including all the faithful cannot be wrong abut what is in fact to be believed. By viewing the bishops as historians of the de facto beliefs of the Church both criteria are met -- they determine (i.e., find out) what all the faithful believe (i.e., what is universally accepted by the Church in its widest sense). It is not their function to necessarily be theologians. Because as a group they oversee the whole Church (which the faithful themselves cannot do) it makes sense that they should be the final arbiters of what is believed. (Note: that said "the final arbiters of what IS believed", not "OUGHT to be believed".

Fr. O'Leary,When introducing your theology students at your Catholic university to literature and art (certainly a laudable endeavor in itself), do you make a strong distinction between the revealed Word of God and these important words of human beings? Is there a revelation? Have we been told something "from above" that we could not have guessed at, much less searched for?

"An imprimatur is not granted by the USCCB. It is granted by one bishop. I have no proof of this, but I can only imagine there would have been many bishops who would not have hesitated to give Quest for the Living God an imprimatur. Imprimaturs can be, and have been, withdrawn, too. Getting an imprimatur, it seems to me, does not put you in dialog with the American bishops, and it would be no safeguard against this kind of attack."Right - both an imprimatur and a mandatum are granted by an individual bishop - who belongs to the college of bishops and is a member of the national conference. I agree that an imprimatur is not a force field that wards off doctrinal concerns by national conference doctrinal committees (or the CDF, for that matter). I disagree, though, that getting an imprimatur would not put a theologian in dialogue with a bishop. I don't see how one can request and obtain an imprimatur *except* through dialogue, even if the dialogue is via email or snail mail. And if the bishop (or, as has been pointed out somewhere in one of these threads, more likely a member of the bishop's curia or a special advisor) has some questions about the book, then - we may hope that real, substantive dialogue ensues.And beyond that: if I write a book and send it to someone to read, and the person reads it and responds, even if the response is just a perfunctory thumbs-up, the basis for a real relationship has been established. If an author sent you her book and asked you to express your opinion about it, with the understanding that your opinion would appear in print, wouldn't you feel a personal connection? The world can be rather small, and were the theologian and the bishop to run into one another at a college function or some such venue, wouldn't it be wonderful if the bishop could say, "Oh - I've read your book! Please, sit at my table during dinner so we can discuss it."And beyond that: suppose that the book had been granted an imprimatur, and the same doctrinal concerns about the book were raised to the committee on doctrine. Given bishops' propensity for collegiality, I tend to think the process might have played out a bit differently: the committee might have checked with the bishop (and/or the bishop's subject matter expert) to ask, "what were your thoughts about these passages in granting the imprimatur?" The committee could not publicly rebuke the author without implicitly rebuking the brother bishop who granted the imprimatur.My concern in this whole kerfuffle is that bishops and theologians build bridges. It's both absurd and dangerous that two such important constituencies talk past one another rather than talk with each other. Processes enshrined in law, like the mandatum and the imprimatur, may not seem like the ideal venues for building a Christian relationship - yet they could be, if the two parties approach them in Christian love and good will. Ideally, the relationship wouldn't be limited to such formal encounters. Real friendship and mutual respect would mean that they could talk frequently and frankly with one another. Well, I'm a dreamer.

What is the difference between a nihil obstat and an imprimatur? As I learned it, a nihil obstat just means that there is nothing *against* the faith in the work. What does an imprimatur signify besides this? That what is in the book definitely affirms Church teaching, as against mere opinion about a disputable Church teaching or a private belief which is simply consistent with Church teaching?

The "nihil obstat" is the declaration by the censor, assigned by the bishop, that he finds no doctrinal obstacles in the book. The "imprimatur" (let it be printed) is the declaration by the responsible authority, the bishop, granting the author permission to publish. The plot thickens if two bishops disagree.

Thanks, Jack, but I don't see any real difference, except the imprimatur says, OK, you many publish. But what does that show besides the fact that the bishop finds nothing to object to?

Dialogue (real!!) around the question of a mandatum:Theologian: The mandatum speaks of teaching "in communion with the Church," yes?Bishop: It does.Theologian: Here's how I teach Humanae Vitae: The class reads the document. I discuss the historical context in which it was written and the process by which it came to be. After tracing the argument of the encyclical, we discuss responsible counterarguments. Is this teaching "in communion with the Church?"Bishop: Don't take this the wrong way, but what are you plotting?So, no, the mandatum doesn't seem to be a good way to strike up a conversation/relationship with a bishop, generally speaking.

Ann O. -The censor here is a technical advisor and not the go/no-go authority found in some censors elsewhere. The bishop has the power to prevent or allow publication because of his Church teaching/governing authority and duty to protect the Faith. The latter is described at some length in CDF INSTRUCTION -- DONUM VERITATIS -- ON THE ECCLESIAL VOCATION OF THE THEOLOGIAN, signed by Ratzinger and ordered published by John Paul II in May 1990. (I'm curious as to why more hasn't been made of that Instruction in ongoing reflections on Johnson and USCCB.)

Lisa - hard to see how anyone could take that the wrong way :-)

Jack --Thanks very much for the link about the functions of the theologians and bishops. The part about the theologians reads like Aquinas, with its assertion that theology, i.e., an understanding of the faith, is extended by the use of reason, thus making it a science. But the section on the bishops is very problematic, especially in the section about relation between the bishops and the theologians. The notion of "the living Magisterium" seems like pure poetry, not an exercise of reason. The sections seem to have been written by two different people or committees, people who really don't speak exactly the same language or even have the same opinions about the answers to their respective questions. No wonder theologians and bishops get along so badly these days, though I guess they always have.

In response to Kathy's question about Revelation, as a student of Karl Barth I make a strong distinction NOT between Scripture and other literature but between the Word of God and Scripture. Scripture attests the Word of revelation, it is its locus or vehicle, but ONLY as it is heard in faith and spiritual discernment in the believing community. Only in the latter use does it begin to make sense to speak of scriptural inspiration and inerrancy. Meanwhile, here is what Henry Crabb Robinson wrote about his visit to Goethe in August 1829: I gave him an account of Lamenais (sic) and of his Ultramontanism. No doubt, said he, but all truth comes from God, but when these people say that it is through theChurch God announces truth, they are not aware that God speaks by and through everything. Every insect, every leaf, has something to say

I wonder if Fr. O'Leary has come across this in Newman, and/or what he thinks of it:". It has lately been asked what answer do we Catholics give to the allegation urged against us by men of the day, to the effect that we demand of our converts an assent to views and interpretations of Scripture which modern science and historical research have utterly discredited.As this alleged obligation is confidently maintained against us, and with an array of instances in support of it, I think it should be either denied or defended; and the best mode perhaps of doing whether the one or the other, will be, instead of merely dealing with the particular instances adduced in proof, to state what we really do hold as regards Holy Scripture, and what a Catholic is bound to believe. This I propose now to do, and in doing it, I beg it to be understood that my statements are simply my own, and involve no responsibility of any one besides myself....15. Surely, then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so systematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation? Such is our natural anticipation, and it is only too exactly justified in the events of the last three centuries, in the many countries where private judgment on the text of Scripture has prevailed. The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility.Where then is this gift lodged, which is so necessary for the due use of the written word of God? Thus we are introduced to the second dogma in respect to Holy Scripture taught by the Catholic religion. The first is that Scripture is inspired, the second that the Church is the infallible interpreter of that inspiration.16. That the Church, and therefore the Pope, is that Interpreter is defined in the following words:First by the Council of Trent: 'Nemo su prudenti innixus, in rebus fidei et morum ad dificationem doctrin Christian pertinentium, Sacram Scripturam ad suos sensus contorquens, contra eum sensum quem tenuit et tenet Sancta Mater Ecclesia, cujus est judicare de vero sensu et interpretatione Scripturarum Sanctarum, aut etiam contra unanimem consensum Patrum, ipsam Scripturam Sacram interpretari audeat.'Secondly by the Council of the Vatican: 'Nos, idem Decretum [Tridentinum] renovantes, hanc illius mentem esse declaramus, ut in rebus fidei et morum ad dificationem doctrin Christian pertinentiuin, is pro vero sensu Sacr Scriptur habendus sit, quem tenuit et tenet Sancta Mater Ecclesia, cujus est judicare de vero sensu et interpretatione Scripturarum Sanctarum,' &c.17. Since then there is in the Church an authority, divinely appointed and plenary, for judgment and for appeal in questions of Scripture interpretation, in matters of faith and morals, therefore, by the very force of the words, there is one such authority, and only one.Again, it follows hence, that, when the legitimate authority has spoken, to resist its interpretation is a sin against the faith and an act of heresy.And from this again it follows, that, till the Infallible Authority formally interprets a passage of Scripture, there is nothing heretical in advocating a contrary interpretation, provided of course there is nothing in the act intrinsically inconsistent with the faith, or the pietas fidei, nothing of contempt or rebellion, nothing temerarious, nothing offensive or scandalous, in the manner of acting or the circumstances of the case. I repeat, I am all along inquiring what Scripture, by reason of its literal text, obliges us to believe. An original view about Scripture or its parts may be as little contrary to the mind of the Church about it, as it need be an offence against its inspiration.The proviso, however, or condition, which I have just made, must carefully be kept in mind. Doubtless, a certain interpretation of a doctrinal text may be so strongly supported by the Fathers, so continuous and universal, and so cognate and connatural with the Church's teaching, that it is virtually or practically as dogmatic as if it were a formal judgment delivered on appeal by the Holy See, and cannot be disputed except as the Church or Holy See opens its wording or its conditions. Hence the Vatican Council says, 'Fide divin et Catholic ea omnia credenda sunt, qu in verbo Dei scripto vel tradito continentur, vel ab Ecclesi sive solemni judicio, sive ordinario et universali magisterio, tanquam divinitus revelata, credenda proponuntur.' And I repeat, that, though the Fathers were not inspired, yet their united testimony is of supreme authority; at the same time, since no Canon or List has been determined of the {192} Fathers, the practical rule of duty is obedience to the voice of the Church.18. Such then is the answer which I make to the main question which has led to my writing. I asked what obligation of duty lay upon the Catholic scholar or man of science as regards his critical treatment of the text and the matter of Holy Scripture. And now I say that it is his duty, first, never to forget that what he is handling is the Word of God, which, by reason of the difficulty of always drawing the line between what is human and what is divine, cannot be put on the level of other books, as it is now the fashion to do, but has the nature of a Sacrament, which is outward and inward, and a channel of supernatural grace; and secondly, that, in what he writes upon it or its separate books, he is bound to submit himself internally, and to profess to submit himself, in all that relates to faith and morals, to the definite teachings of Holy Church."

Sorry for the long quotation. Actually, the whole article is interesting:

Kathy --My problem with Newman is that he (and Vat I) goes to great lengths to explain how God's meanings of Scripture and Tradition can be guaranteed (by having the bishops/pope be infallible), as if that solves the problem of the communication of truth to the Faithful.Just as the bishops can, left to themselves, not get the *God's* intended meanings accurately, it is also the case that the Faithful can not-get the intended meanings of the *bishops* accurately. In other words, that whole understanding of the infallibility of Scripture/Tradition by=passes the ultimate problem: how are the Faithful to know the truth as revealed by the bishops? There is no guarantee of that, and the Church has never claimed that there is. In other words, our understanding of God's meanings still cannot claim total certainty for the simple reason that individuals can always misunderstand the bishops..