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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 theologians work, but sanctions have not been imposed. The CDF has also issued statementslike Dominus Iesuswhich 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 CDFs 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 crasez l'Infme! 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 couldto use a set of terms borrowed from the foreign policy fieldrely 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 dont 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?


Commenting Guidelines

Peter, you hit on something when you noted that theologians on the receiving end of the CDF's corrections universally criticize the procedures--and sometimes the approach. Their testimony provides ample reason for readers of "notifications" to desire more argument and demonstration from the CDF as it exercises its role. The document on Sobrino clearly tries to strike a different tone, and it would be fascinating in this regard to see a copy of the draft the current prefect inherited when he took office (the document on Sobrino began under Ratzinger's tenure). And Levada has tried to make clear that his notification against Sobrino is about the theology and not the man. All good things. But there remains the problem of the text itself, which, I'm afraid, doesn't clarify much for the reader who lacks the time or resources to read Sobrino for himself. Sobrino has complained that the CDF misrepresents his work (he's not the first to make that claim). I found the CDF's translation of the one Spanish word they included (which itself sends up a flag) questionable at best. Given the nature of the document--to criticize as "dangerous" some of Sobrino's theological language--wouldn't it have made sense to provide more of the original wording? If, as the document claims, the CDF intends to aid the simple faithful in more fully understanding the truths of Christianity, then why not provide a fuller account? As has been pointed out by others, the lack of transparency hinders the CDF's credibility. Why, such critics have asked, does the U.S. Supreme Court enjoy respect even when large swaths of the public disagree with its verdicts? The process is open. What would be lost if the CDF had made available Sobrino's long response, which is judges for the reader as "unsatisfactory" (and that's all)? That would be unprecedented, of course, but improper? (If Sobrino disallowed it, that's another matter, but I find that unlikely.) There is also the matter of whom the CDF chooses to correct, the question of whether their actions are finaly counterproductive to their aims, as they describe them, and many others. But I've already gone on too long.

NCR has what is to my mind a balanced editorial about the CDF/Sobrino matter. There is recognition that a policing function is necessary in the Church as a whole, but that so is due process for an individual under investigation. As to the Sobrino case itself, the editorial notes his lifelong commitment to the poor, and it suggests that a creative solution might have been the issuance by the CDF and liberation theologists of a "joint document about the dangers to be avoided in Christological exploration."

I agree, this is an excellent question...Herewith a few rambling thoughts:For one thing, there will always be a keeper of rules, an institutional guardian (and this is not just the Catholic Church) and that is necessary. Unfortunately, that guardian will tend towards a rigid, reflexive conservatism that drives younger (usually?) creative (or so they believe) thinkers outside the power structure crazy with frustration. Hence the reaction of one young Father Ratzinger, who used to sit around with his mates during Vatican II in full Guy Fawkes mode, wishing the could "burn down" the Holy Office. But I agree with Grant, and Peter, that there could be better ways to do this. One request I could add to Grant's admirable wish list is that the "experts" who are charged with reviewing and--inevitably--finding heresy be identified. It is clear that the CDF is often out of its depth when reviewing many theologians. I also think Grant makes a good point about having the responder's full text out there, or at least citing it more liberally in any condemnation. Origen cited more of Celsus that the CDF does of Sobrino. Of course, if it weren't for Origen we'd know nothing of Celsus. So maybe the CDF is on to something...Style and process is important, and perhaps Cardinal Levada can improve that: E.g., the US bishops' note on Daniel Maguire--it didn't ocassion too much sturm und drang (though more than Sobrino's) and I thought was well done. Maguire clearly seemed to have gone beyond a line, and the bishops said so. The CDF and the Vatican will have to patrol those frontiers. But my final point (for now) is that this is also not all about theology, much as we would like it to be. It is very much about power and personalities. Ratzinger doesn't like liberation theology, and casts that in terms of ecclesiological and Christological concerns, rather than his personal preferences and experiences, which are very much at play. As are Sobrino's, and my own. But Ratzinger held, and Benedict holds, all the cards. I think as many concerns could be raised (as Sobrino has) about the CDF's Docetistic tendencies as about Sobrino's purported Arianism (or whatever he was accused of). Who guards the guardians? (Or, as Cathy Kaveny would have it, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?). This should be an open dialogue more thean a court proceeding with a pre-ordained verdict. As Paul VI (I think) said, the way to counteract bad books is to write good books. Basta.

The problems between the CDF and theologians are likely not of major (or any) concern to the broader Catholic community of folks in the pews. Nonetheless, in the interest of safeguarding official teaching, theological inquiry, and the broader church's right to be informed in this area, I would suggest that theologians and the CDF develop specific procedures that assure transparency, the opportunity for both sides to have their say, and dissemination of a final product that gives interested outsiders the views of both the theologian and the CDF.In practical terms, a theologian might prepare a draft, submit to Rome for comment, review any CDF critique, revise or not do so as the theologian thinks appropriate, and publish the final work, which, in the interest of intellectual integrity, would include the Vatican's comments.Any process should respect the writer, the reviewers, and the final audience.

The first thing I would do is watch my language -- something it looks like Grant Gallicho was getting at with the quotes around "notification" and "dangerous." But in addition to these words there's a whole vocabulary that comes up in these documents that I find counterproductive -- "deficient understanding," "objective moral evil," "purely sociological," "problem," and that's without looking beyond a couple of Sobrino pieces. Plus language infects process -- what do "warning" and "notification" convey to most Catholics except that there's something going on that they're not privy to? And not wanting to harp on the sex abuse scandals or the bishops or whatever, but is Jon Sobrino really the danger to the faith of the simple Catholics in the pews that the CDF claims to worry about? My faith at any rate is far more threatened by looking back over the career of Martin Greenlaw since I first encountered him when we went to the same high school. I think that symbolism is very much a two-edged sword. On the one hand, critics of the all male priesthood are admonished that the modern world has lost a sense of the importance of symbolism (in fact the two areas where I have seen symbolism most overworked are German Geisteswissenschaft and interpretive essays by American undergraduates in Humanities courses) and doesn't understand how the priest has to be male to stand for Christ in his relationship to his bride the church, at the same time as we are told that we can't reduce our understanding of Christ to the purely symbolic or poetic. I don't think that hangs together.I'm am concerned, as I know other people on this weblog are, with the use of "mystery." To me it indicates that we need to humbly recognize that at some very real level our language about God must be inadequate; sometimes I think that some in authority use it to mean that my formulation must be accepted because it describes a mystery.Finally, I have concerns about the overall state of Catholic intellectual life. I first became vaguely and not particularly inelligently aware of serious Catholic debate at a time when one of the issues discussed was the inadequacy of blaming the Enlightenment or liberal Protestantism (a far more potent force it seemed at the time) for the errors of the Modernists, which of course some felt were actually relevant in the sixties. I remember hearing quite interesting and learned sermons attributing our predicament to Rousseau. Now it seems we're getting back to that overgeneralized critique of the modern world, which of course serves nothing so much as the avoidance of self-examination; I look at Cardinal George as the worst offender.But that's a long way from my real question -- which is what, in the life of the church, does theology exactly do? Certainly it has to do something more than police the boundaries. Perhaps the problem is with me -- from Augustine to Benedict XVI I seem to be more comfortable with memoir than tract.

A series of great posts:-initate more dialogue with theologians by CDF; -have CDF made up of not only known but also a respectable cadre of theological experts-keep to "patroling the boundaries" of faith and leave the political warts aside;-stop obfuscating in labelling others as "dangerous" and if "confusion" is raised as a cause for concern, spell out what's confusing and say what is clear;-make the process open (let's have transcripts.)I'd only add two related notions:1) there is currently a pre-CDF problem that is huge in out top-down Church of the North particularly - little dialogue between ordinaries and theologians;-At the Central Vatican level, a certain amount of de-Romanization is called for with lots of respect for, and inclusion of, theologians and theologies from the South and East.-

A quick thing that occurred to me on the difference between the Supreme Court and the CDF: the enforcement power .1. You can disagree, intellectually, with the Supreme Court all you want. You can yell at it, curse it, criticize it, stomp on pictures of the judges. But what you can't do is ACT in a way inconsistent with its interpretation of the law. So, to take a neuralgic issue, no matter how much you disagree, abortion is a constitutional right -- if you kill an abortion doctor you're not engaging in defense of human life, you're committing murder under the law.2. The CDF, with the loss of an established Church, well, it has no physical enforcement power. It doesn't even have much intimidation, at least for non-priests. There's no index of forbidden books, it can''t stop books from being published or read. In Catholic graduate programs, people read Protestant theologians all the time. So they'll probably keep reading Sobrino. In fact, it would be interesting to do a graduate seminar on Sobrino and the CDF statement. The very idea of doing a critical seminar on a condemned writer and the CDFcriticism would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago. Now, I don't think the people at the CDF would mind -- in fact, they might think it's a good thing --we'd inevitably talk about the importance of Christology. So what's the role of CDF, an institution founded in a society where the Church controlled the society, in a new culture that includes free exchange of ideas (which is pretty much expanded exponentially since the internet.)?

Peter, I don't know Borg that well but do agree with you on Crossan. Crossan has done some useful work but his worst mistake is that he does not preserve the church or the people of God. He is basically a non-believer who lectures in liberal circles and appears to be Christian. He really does not enter the conversation much and does not make himself available for engagement.Very notable how many of us have listed the many causes of the breakdown of the hierarchy and advancement in Christology to the Protestant Reformation, Rousseau, Voltaire and the French Revolution. We might consider that the invention of the printing press really started it all. Certainly it made the Reformation possible.The 2nd Vatican Council is a creation of democracy. In other times, De lubac, Congar, Rahner, Kung etc would have been jailed or killed.Cathy, you are correct in what you say about the church having no physical enforcement. Nevertheless, before the pedophilia crisis there was a terror in Catholic institutions about pursuing scholarship. The hammer of Ex Corde Ecclesia is waiting for things to quiet down when the pressure is off the bishops. Peter talk to your professors about that.The christological question is important because we are quite ignorant of the humanity of Jesus which Vatican II attempted to correct. If we got that right the rest of it would fall into place.

We tend to think that in the market place of ideas truth will prevail in the long run because it is the truth and falsity is itself only a kind of half-truth--sometimes much less than half. Perhaps that is excessively optimistic but we are very pessimistic about anyone who undertakes to force anyone to believe anything or proclaims something to be true without making a convincing case and rebutting opposing arguments. It seems to me that the CDF or whatever it might be called ought to be above all convincing and clear in what its says. It ought to avoid obfuscating jargon and try to be persuasive. Its members should not merely be well informed, but also convincing. Above all it should be honest.

I suspect that, in most cases, the writings under suspicion have been crafted for the few, the theologically learned, and the rarified thinkers (not a putdown.)If that is correct, then why can't the CDF engage one or more of its best IDENTIFIED thinkers to publish a rebuttal book for the few, the theologically learned, etc.Pronouncements from on-high that do not give the suspect a chance to engage in fruitful conversation and defense of his/her arguments, will ALWAYS be viewed with justified suspicion. The heavy hand of the Inquisition, etc. Just because the Church "isn't a democracy" doesn't mean that it does not owe a reasoned response to ideas reasonably advanced, said response being in the form of a dialogue rather than a diktat.

I agree with Karl Rahner that the Church is not a debating society, but when a declaration suposedly definitive is set out it would help if it were also plausible.

I'm no expert on the ways in which the CDF goes about its business, but openness and transparency do not seem to be among its virtues. Perhaps a good starting point would be for the CDF to dismiss out of hand any examples of anonymous delation, to use that friendly term describing the practice of disgruntled people making anonymous denunciations to Rome, presumably fearing to use their real names. Clifford Longley, former editor of the Tablet, has put it far better than I, in an editorial of 28 August 1999 in the Tablet. If he is accurate, Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was then, defended the practice "on the grounds, more or less, that his was a small department that could not possibly police the whole Church unless there were people prepared to rat on their priests and bishops. (But what does that remind us of?)"Longley's piece is to be found at his website: are many pieces in there, but search for "delation" and you'll find it.Nicholas Clifford

During the Modernist crisis in the Catholic Church (roughly 1890-1910), a French priest got into trouble when he proposed a radical reform of the Roman Curia. He would reduce it all to two congregations. The first would be a congregation for the defence of the faith; the second would be a congregation to defend people from the first congregation!Not too long after the Council, a Yugoslav bishop complained to Pope Paul VI about certain works of theology that were causing harm in his country. The bishop was annoyed at what he thought an insufficient response to his complaint on the part of the pope who said: "The way to respond to a bad book is with a good book." Card. Ratzinger also thought that policy was inadequate as a response to real threats to the integrity of the Church's faith.The issue is crucial because faith in Christ is constitutive and defining of the Church. It's most basic self-designation is that it is the "congregatio fidelium," the assembly of those who believe, as we heard in the Sunday liturgy a week ago, that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." That is the conviction that gave rise to the Church, and it is the fundamental task the Church has to perform in the world, as we will celebrate in a few days, to tell people about this good news.How best to go about preserving and defending and communicating that good news, which no one else keeps alive, is the matter under discussion.

"The issue is crucial because faith in Christ is constitutive and defining of the Church. It's most basic self-designation is that it is the "congregatio fidelium," the assembly of those who believe, as we heard in the Sunday liturgy a week ago, that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." That is the conviction that gave rise to the Church, and it is the fundamental task the Church has to perform in the world, as we will celebrate in a few days, to tell people about this good news. How best to go about preserving and defending and communicating that good news, which no one else keeps alive, is the matter under discussion."The above by Joe K is very well phrased, the substance of which, I believe, we can all agree with. For sure it is a fitting center for the dialogue to revolve around.