Haight Redux

Earlier this month, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) barred the theologian Roger Haight, SJ, from teaching Catholic theology until he corrects “grave doctrinal errors” put forth in his book Jesus: Symbol of God (Orbis, 1999). Among the issues in dispute are Haight’s presentations of Jesus’ divinity, the Trinity, and the Resurrection. Haight, former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, is a respected scholar, especially for his efforts to reconcile traditional Catholic ideas about the universality of the Christian revelation with the fact of religious pluralism and the moral imperative of religious tolerance. “My fear is that educated Catholics will walk if there isn’t space for an open attitude to other religions,” he has said. It is important to note that Haight, though barred from teaching in a Catholic institution, remains free to publish. He has not, in other words, been silenced.

When the CDF first suspended Haight from teaching at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in 2001, Commonweal raised objections to the Vatican’s secretive procedures in which the CDF “serves as prosecutor, judge, jury, and defense counsel” (May 18, 2001). This way of adjudicating questions of theological fidelity is an invitation to mischief or worse. The CDF’s treatment of the late Jacques Dupuis, SJ, who was eventually exonerated, was widely seen as crude and ill-conceived. There is no indication that the CDF has undertaken any procedural reforms to better protect the reputations and dignity of those under scrutiny. If the CDF wants to safeguard the credibility of Catholic teaching and the integrity of the church, the first thing it should do is accord the “accused” greater rights of due process.

“Beliefs count,” is how Roger Haight himself has explained the actions of the CDF. “It makes a difference what you believe. There’s a tradition to be guarded. There’s a tradition to be protected....These misunderstandings, it seems to me, are the price for a church which protects its inheritance and resists the proposition that Catholics can publicly proclaim anything they want in the name of the church” (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Vol. 29, No. 4, 2000/01). Haight went on to say that he sees the theologian as being “on the boundary between the religious and the secular. Between belief and unbelief.” In responding to the challenges presented by our culture, Haight rightly thinks that some reinterpretation of traditional doctrines is necessary.

Commonweal’s reviewers have not found Haight’s interpretive efforts persuasive. John Cavadini raised serious questions about the Christological implications of Jesus: Symbol of God (October 8, 1999), and recently Luke Timothy Johnson found Haight’s approach to ecclesiology flawed (January 28, 2005). Haight’s work is not, and does not claim to be, infallible. The manner in which the CDF conducts its investigations of theologians is as important as the defense of the tradition itself.

Published in the 2005-02-25 issue: 
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