When Cardinal Avery Dulles died in December 2008, a distinguished German theologian friend of mine who had known him for many years told me that Avery was “one of the noblest men” he had ever met, blessed with a holy readiness to listen to every side of an argument or discussion. Neither my friend nor I knew at the time of a “discussion” Dulles had had with certain diocesan authorities shortly before the publication of his influential 1974 book Models of the Church. The case may offer a useful object lesson regarding the relationship between official teaching and theology—an issue raised recently by two controversies to which I shall later return.

In 1971, then-Fr. Dulles had published The Survival of Dogma: Faith, Authority, and Dogma in a Changing World, a book that aimed “to achieve a general vision of the dialectical interpenetration between stability and change, fidelity and initiative, in the areas of faith, authority, and dogma.” The Survival of Dogma had borne a nihil obstat and an imprimatur, and when preparing to publish Models of the Church, Dulles expected to follow the same procedure. With his superior’s permission, in January 1973 he again negotiated a contract with John J. Delaney at Doubleday. He asked Francis A. Sullivan, SJ, the distinguished professor of ecclesiology at the Gregorian University in Rome, to read the manuscript. Sullivan made some useful suggestions, and after revising his book accordingly, Dulles suggested to his provincial superior that Sullivan might serve as the censor for the imprimi potest appropriate for a Jesuit—which Sullivan agreed to do, writing his positive assessment of the manuscript the following August.

Preparing for diocesan approval, and having been asked to expedite the publication of his manuscript, Dulles wrote to Msgr. Daniel V. Flynn of the Archdiocese of New York to suggest that Sullivan might serve as the censor for the archdiocese, as he had for the Jesuits. The suggestion was rejected, and Dulles was informed that a censor from the archdiocese would be given the assignment. On October 18, 1973, Flynn wrote John Delaney at Doubleday to tell him that neither the first reader of Models nor a second had approved the book. He enclosed the first reader’s comments, which asserted that “the tenor of the entire work and especially the ambiguity of many statements call into question certain fundamental teachings of the church concerning her own nature, her divine constitution, her relation to other Christian Church and ecclesial communities.” Citing basic truths found in the documents of Vatican II and represented by Mysterium ecclesiae (1973), the censor faulted “statements of the author… [that] appear to question or leave ambiguous” these truths.

Read today, the criticism clearly seems to misunderstand Dulles’s style of presentation; the censor demanded of the book precisely the kind of definitional approach whose limitations the book set out to explain. Though the censor does not deny the importance of historical variability, open dialogue in the church, or the ecumenical imperative, his sympathy for the text is clearly minimal. Some statements are startlingly authoritarian. “A distinction between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church is implied here (and throughout the work),” he writes, “and is unacceptable in Catholic doctrine.” And: “It is positively taught that the church of Christ is essentially complete in the Catholic Church in which it subsists.” He disputes Dulles’s suggestion that the thesis of vicarious satisfaction needs reexamination, insisting that it is simply biblical and traditional doctrine, and wonders what could be meant by saying that “it is anomalous for the Eucharist to be celebrated in solitude.” To Dulles’s view that Modernism began as an effort “to bring the church abreast of the times,” he responds: “It was a heresy.”

The censor did not see how the book’s inadequacies could be remedied “unless an entire chapter be included expounding the Catholic position.” Dulles demurred. As a result, Models was published in 1974 with neither a nihil obstat nor an imprimatur. The book’s reception was enthusiastic, and Dulles pronounced himself “very pleased...though of course there are a few shrill voices on the extreme right who find all sorts of errors in this as in anything else I write.”

The years after the publication of Models of the Church saw several milestones in the evolution of church censorship. In 1975 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the decree “On the Vigilance of the Church’s Pastors Regarding Books” (Ecclesiae pastorum), which radically narrowed previous legislation on prepublication censorship of printed material. (The Index of Prohibited Books had been abolished in 1966.) Ecclesiae pastorum served as the basis for much of the treatment of “Instruments of Social Communication and Books in Particular,” canons 822–832, in the new Code of Canon Law of 1983. Regarding permission to publish, the Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, published in 2000, notes that the operative canon (827 §2) “envisions manuals or texts which are written and structured so that they serve as the framework and basic reference for courses in these subjects. It does not include other books written on these same topics, even if they are occasionally referred to or assigned as required readings in school courses. The operative category is ‘textbooks.’ The vast majority of theology-related writings are neither published nor actually used for textbooks.” It is not enough, then, that a book happens to be used as a textbook; it must have been written for use as a textbook, created expressly to serve as the framework and basic reference for a course.

This distinction was more recently confirmed in 2004, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine issued “The Permission to Publish.” That document draws on the 1983 code, a circular letter of 1990 from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and a 1992 Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It identifies two primary forms of authorization, permission (licentia) and approval (approbatio), and notes that while the term “imprimatur” has become “customary” in the United States, it is not used to express either form of authorization in the law of the Latin Catholic Church. The writings that require permission include catechisms and books on “Sacred Scripture, theology, canon law, ecclesiastical history, and religious or moral disciplines, if they are to be used as texts upon which instruction is based.”

Against this background, two recent cases put the question of censorship in a new light. As is well known, in 2011 the USCCB Committee on Doctrine issued a statement, declaring that Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God “does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.” There followed significant public criticism of the statement as a misrepresentation of Johnson’s book—a misrepresentation published, moreover, without prior discussion with Johnson herself (see Commonweal, June 3, 2011). These points were included in a response on April 9 from the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which also noted that the committee’s actions raised troubling issues “for the exercise of our vocation as theologians.”

Commenting on the statement when it was made public on March 30, 2011, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who chaired the committee, said that while “an imprimatur is not required for all books that treat Sacred Scripture and theology, it is still a recommended practice (see c. 827 §3). By seeking an imprimatur, the author has the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the bishop concerning the Catholic teaching expressed in the book.” The Committee on Doctrine, Wuerl added, “is always open to dialogue with theologians and would welcome an opportunity to discuss Sr. Elizabeth’s writings with her.” The difficulty between the committee and Sr. Johnson might have been avoided, in other words, had she requested an imprimatur before publishing her book.

The cardinal’s remark seemed implicitly to acknowledge that the range of publications requiring permission had been decidedly narrowed in recent decades, and that since Quest for the Living God was written as a theological exploration, not as a textbook, a request for permission to publish was not required, but merely recommended. The invitation to “dialogue” before publication, however, becomes less persuasive when one reads Johnson’s response to the committee (“Observations,” Origins, July 7, 2011). There she proposed ten issues for a dialogue with the committee, including as a central point the difference between a work of catechetics and a work of theology. Yet no such dialogue ensued. (It is worth noting here as well that according to the norms established by Pope John Paul II in his 1998 Apostolic Letter Apostolos suos, the criticism of Johnson does not have the teaching authority of a doctrinal statement issued by the USCCB but is rather a judgment published by the conference’s Committee on Doctrine.)

The second recent controversy concerning official church criticism is that surrounding Margaret Farley, RSM, the recently retired Yale ethicist and theologian. On June 4 of last year the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a Notification alerting the faithful that Farley’s 2006 book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, had been judged to contain positions not in conformity with the hierarchical teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on five specific issues of personal sexual morality. Reaction to the Notification among American Catholic theologians was again overwhelmingly negative, again raising the question: Is this a book for which an imprimatur would be required? And what sort of dialogue might one hope for between the author and her ecclesiastical critics?

The issue centers on what one considers a theologian’s proper duty. In the Catholic Church theologians are called to interpret the gospel for today’s world and to pursue that calling within a church understood to have a divinely assured teaching office. As the International Theological Commission’s document of 2010 put it, “Dei verbum teaches that the Word of God has been ‘entrusted to the church,’ and refers to the ‘entire holy people’ adhering to it, before then specifying that the pope and the bishops have the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God. This ordering is fundamental for Catholic theology.” “The sensus fidelium,” continued the document, “is the sensus fidei of the people of God as a whole who are obedient to the Word of God and are led in the ways of faith by their pastors.” In their attention to the sensus fidelium, “bishops and theologians have distinct callings, and must respect one another’s particular competence, lest the magisterium reduce theology to a mere repetitive science or theologians presume to substitute the teaching office of the church’s pastors.”

Thus the work of theologians develops within an active, believing community, and does so both from and for that community. Often a theologian is called to interpret past or present official teaching. But often, too, he or she is called to explore questions arising out of new human situations, new understandings of the world of nature and of human personality—and may yield previously unrecognized truths that bear centrally on the conduct of human life. This, I would argue, is exactly what Dulles, Johnson, and Farley hoped to achieve.

The full equality of women in society strikes me as one such revolutionary truth, and the centrality and complexity of human sexuality as another. It is not surprising that such truths spark controversy. Any author who undertakes a creative approach to the sexual sphere of human relationships with an emphasis on how they might be newly understood and enacted through a fundamental understanding of justice is doing something exploratory. The issues dealt with in such an exploration will sometimes be troubling, and any proposed framework for addressing them often tentative. Such work may be accepted by church and society, or not. Yet just as the questions are new, so almost certainly must any answers be new. Only time will tell whether and to what extent they are found to be true. And then reform may or may not take place, guided by the light of a more just and humane future.

Just Love, it seems to me, is such an exploration. Clearly it is not a book to which canon 827 §2 applies. Nor does it claim to represent official church teaching on a number of topics it treats. But shouldn’t the fact that it powerfully treats issues of violence against women and true justice for them in society have found more sympathy with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—after all, who would dare to say the church does not teach these things? While the situations of Avery Dulles, Elizabeth Johnson, and Margaret Farley differ in significant ways (one criticized by diocesan censors, one by an episcopal conference committee for opinions she denies she holds, and the last by a Vatican Congregation offering little if any argument for its Notification), each suggests a significant shift of emphasis and expectation concerning teaching in the church.

Though the controversies stirred up by these two more recent books may look like setbacks, it’s clear to me that a great deal has changed with respect to censorship and the imprimatur in the post–Vatican II era. Despite the long history of misuse of censorship in its various forms, a document such as “Permission to Publish” may indicate a move toward less restrictive approaches not only to censorship, but to teaching altogether. I do not claim that such approaches make the teaching of bishops less valuable or the explorations of theologians less responsible to their communities. But I do believe that the council heralded a new, more pastoral and intellectually agile approach to evangelization—and that such a shift holds the promise of the future.

What seems certain is that if such a course had been followed in 1973, when Avery Dulles dutifully applied for an imprimatur for a book now deemed a classic, a needless rebuke to a man of undoubted orthodoxy—a man later deemed worthy to be a cardinal—might have been avoided. Dulles himself may have been a severe critic of some theological positions later in his career, but he also remained consistently averse to official censuring of theologians. “Flexibility is not the antithesis of structure,” he wrote on the last page of The Survival of Dogma, “but the condition of preserving it in a changing world.” And his book’s warning epigraph came from Alfred North Whitehead: “Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.”


Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, is President Emeritus, Georgetown University, and Director of Mission, Jesuit Refugee Service USA. 

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Published in the 2013-04-12 issue: View Contents
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