Haight on Trial

The news is pathetically familiar-yet another theologian barred from teaching, and set to writing a take-home exam for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

According to Robert Manning, S.J., president of the Weston School of Theology, Roger Haight, S.J., professor of theology at the school, "has begun the work of clarifying his book," Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis), by responding to questions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (Boston Globe, April 24). Catholic belief and practice are a great gift handed down from generation to generation and rightly guarded by the faithful and their bishops. But the secret process by which the CDF begins its investigation and then alone serves as prosecutor, judge, jury, and defense counsel is shameful, inviting subterfuge and hypocrisy. Its process is the antithesis of the careful discernment of teaching that the church needs today.

Catholics everywhere must grapple with the challenges of religious pluralism-as Haight, and others recently scrutinized, have been doing. When theologians struggle with questions about Jesus, about salvation, and about the worldwide role of the church itself, how can silencing and harassment possibly advance our understanding? What is required is dialogue, conversation, criticisms, countercriticisms, prayer, and Christian charity. This may not be easy, but it is absolutely necessary.

Haight’s book was reviewed critically in Commonweal by Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini (October 8, 1999), while a more positive review by Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., appeared in America (November 6, 1999). Other reviews have appeared in more scholarly venues. Haight has debated his ideas with his theological peers, some of whom strongly disagree with his conclusions. We do not suggest that book reviews or theologians’ discussions alone can settle the matter of church teaching. Yet these are one step in the process of clarification.

Another step might be a Vatican-sponsored public examination of the state of the question, drawing in theologians, philosophers, missiologists, and others. How does Haight’s work (and that of Jacques Dupuis, S.J., for example) fit in with the work of other Catholic and Christian theologians? How do the novel elements of their theology relate to classic formulations? What impact do their conclusions have on other areas of church teaching and on church practice? This is a long process that should engage theologians, bishops, pastors, and indeed, at some level, the whole people of God.

What does the church teach? How does the church teach? These are critical matters. Who could deny that? But the CDF’s secretive methods do nothing but undermine the very teaching role of the church. Neither by popular vote, nor by curial fiat will these matters be resolved, as the history of theological silencing shows (in this regard, Bernard Doering’s report on the correspondence of Jacques Maritain and Charles Journet is instructive; see page 17).

Another process is needed-one that honors both the struggle of theologians to clarify and enlarge our knowledge and the responsibility of the church for right teaching. If the CDF cannot do that, the church should devise another means.

Published in the 2001-05-18 issue: 
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