Vatican process to examine theologians does not respect persons
Brian Lennon, s.j.
Pope Benedict in his Holy Thursday Chrism Mass sermon rightly called on Catholics to obey the teaching of the Church. Processes exist to establish what that teaching is. There is, however, a major problem with some of these processes and that in turn raises questions about the reliability of the answers they reach about some truth questions.
Over 25 years ago, as editor of Studies, the Irish Jesuit review, I phoned Fr Richard McCormick, s.j., then a leading Catholic moral theologian, to ask him to write an article on family issues. He was unable to do so because his views were unacceptable to the Vatican. Instead he referred me to one of his former students who kindly agreed to write the article.
While there is a need for the magisterium, it is also the case that the magisterium has grounds to be cautious, given that its predecessors silenced many, including Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac, who subsequently became periti or experts at Vatican II, and whose views were adopted by the Council. It seemed extraordinary to me then that such a leading theologian should be silenced. The issue has a particular relevance in Ireland today, given the silencing of Frs Tony Flannery and Gerard Moloney.
In his book Receiving the Council Ladislas Orsy outlines the process used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to investigate theologians. It begs many questions. If theologians are suspected of false teaching an investigation of their work is started, but the person concerned is not told until the investigation is well advanced. People questioned about the theologian’s views are sworn to secrecy. As part of the process, the CDF appoints someone to act on behalf of the suspected author. But this person is chosen by the Congregation, not by the author. With the consent of his or her bishop the author may choose to appoint an advisor. He or she is then given three months to prepare a response. (Most theologians have a busy schedule of lectures, meetings and writing. To prepare a response at such short notice is often difficult).
The Congregation can find the writings defective on the basis of criteria much wider than those for the denial of an article of faith. So the writing could be found to be against ‘definitive teaching’ by a Pope, or even against official pronouncements not intended to be definitive. The author has no right to appear before the Congregation but the Prefect may give permission for a dialogue to take place between the author and delegates of the Congregation. The Congregation then decides if the author is guilty or not. If the Pope ratifies the decision the author is given three months to correct his or her opinions. He or she may ask for permission to make a written submission. If the author has not corrected his or her views and is found guilty of heresy he or she is then excommunicated. There is no right of appeal.
This process shows no respect for the individual concerned. It would not stand scrutiny in a secular legal process governed by the Human Rights declarations of the UN or the EU. The process is secret, unaccountable and clericalist – all aspects which influenced the terrible response of some Church leaders to child abuse allegations.
In 1990 the Vatican argued that while its procedures could be improved they were not contrary to justice and right because its judgments were about the theologian’s intellectual positions, not about him or her as a person. They are correct that error has no rights. But persons have, and lack of due process fails to respect these rights. Serious damage is done to the reputations of Irish people who are accused.
While it is reasonable that any Church community can decide when public statements of its members are in conformity with its teaching, is there not an issue in secular law if a process used by the Church which affects the reputation of Irish citizens is manifestly unjust? Further, do issues of libel, bullying or employment law arise? Irish legal people, especially members of the Church concerned about respect for persons, should look at the secular legal implications of this process. All members of the Church, including papal officials are bound by the values of the Gospel. Central to these is the need to respect persons. It is up to Church members to hold the magisterium to account when it acts in ways contrary to the gospel.
End Note: Brian Lennon’s latest book is Can I Stay in the Catholic Church? (Columba).