There was a good deal of justified outrage among Catholics, and presumably among all fair-minded people, when protests from faculty and students at Rome’s La Sapienza University caused Pope Benedict to cancel an academic address he was to give there in January. The protesters claimed that Benedict was an enemy of science and reason, citing a 1990 speech then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave in which he quoted a controversial historian of science who argued that “the church’s verdict against Galileo was rational and just.”

Conservative Catholics were quick to point out the irony of this illiberal resort to censorship by those who think of themselves as guardians of rationality and open debate. Surely liberals and conservatives, both within and outside the church, can agree that it is better for opponents to hear one another out than to foreclose a respectful exchange of views. Whatever the content of his address, Benedict never posed a threat to academic freedom.

Regrettably, however, censorship is alive not only among secularists at La Sapienza, but also among some bishops who seem to think the best way to obey Benedict’s call to strengthen the boundaries of Catholic identity is to marginalize those who question any magisterial teaching.

Commonweal sponsors a speakers bureau that sends a handful of contributors and editors to Catholic and secular colleges across the country. Among our most popular speakers is Luke Timothy Johnson of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. One of the most highly regarded Scripture scholars in the nation, if not the world, Johnson is much in demand as a lecturer and a preacher. But not, we were saddened to learn, in the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois. Johnson recently accepted an invitation to speak at the Newman Center at Southern Illinois University. When Edward K. Braxton, bishop of Belleville, was told that Johnson was to speak, he informed the center staff that he could not grant permission for the talk and the center withdrew the invitation. As Bishop Braxton subsequently explained in a letter to Commonweal, “The reason is quite simple. I do not wish Catholic institutions or organizations to invite speakers into the diocese who have written articles or given lectures that oppose, deny, reject, undermine, or call into question the authentic teachings of the magisterium of the Catholic Church.”

As Commonweal readers know, Johnson is not afraid to take on advocates from any point on the ideological spectrum. He has been an important critic of the historical pretensions of the Jesus Seminar as well as of those who champion the supposedly “revolutionary” nature of certain recently rediscovered Gnostic texts. At the same time, he has argued with great exegetical and theological sophistication that the church should reconsider its teaching on homosexuality. Whatever the subject of Johnson’s lecture (which had not been decided), it is hard to imagine how any intellectually engaged young Catholic would not be impressed and inspired by him, as have the thousands of students he has taught over the years at Candler, Indiana University, and the Yale Divinity School. In short, there should be nothing “simple” about a bishop refusing to give permission for Johnson to speak. It is a sad day for what should be an intellectually confident church when a bishop resorts to the rationale invoked by the La Sapienza faculty, and one can only hope that after his recent brush with secular intolerance, the pope will urge bishops “to be less afraid” when dealing with Catholics who question a teaching of the church.

What is especially disappointing in this instance is that Bishop Braxton has not always been so keen to suppress disagreement on disputed theological or ethical issues. In fact, he used to think a degree of pluralism within the church was a sign of spiritual vitality and genuine faith. “I am convinced that in spite of the real differences between the presuppositions and theological methodologies in the worlds of the church, the university, and ordinary life, these different worlds of religious meaning are the settings for an essentially positive activity,” then-Father Braxton wrote in Commonweal (“Bridge Building,” January 30, 1981). “In the various ‘hermeneutic circles’ in the church there exists more good will and more cogency than outsiders might suspect or admit. In each there is something of substantial value for the church. The moving viewpoint of my different responsibilities has awakened in me the desire to build bridges of meaning across sometimes hostile waters. The hoped-for result of such efforts is that no one of us will take a part of Christian wisdom for the whole.”

Amen. But bridge building is needed as much now as it was twenty-seven years ago.

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Published in the 2008-02-15 issue: View Contents
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