18Apr 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).

6 Responses

  1. Martin

    The Magisterium is the teaching office of the Church. I think the author is confusing the Magisterium with individual disciplinary acts of the bishop or Pope. Persons ought to be respected, but the good of souls is a higher value, and it is no good for the Church to keep silent as a single person, often influential, misleads himself and others. To not act is not an option. Just as young people must be protected in the Church, so to the rights of the faithful to receive sound doctrine.

  2. Pauline Uí Dhuibhir

    The more I learn about how the CDF operates, the more aghast I become. It is ironic that the actions of the CDF in silencing and obstructing the views of Fr Tony Flannery and Fr Gerry Maloney have unwittingly resulted in a Pandora’s box being opened. You might say that the **** (dirt) has well and truly hit the fan and it STINKS!!
    Fr Brian Lennon outlines a depressing catalogue of CDF activities associated with the silencing agenda: anonymous allegations, clandestine meetings and investigations, the denial of representation, secret agendas, silencing orders and threats of expulsion if the truth is ever revealed.
    How in God’s name have we come to such a dark place? Where is the love of Christ revealed in such behaviours? The Beloved taught us to foster compassion, freedom, truth and forgiveness and assured us that we are loved unconditionally. This is the ‘Good News’. The ‘Sad News’ is that the CDF demonstrates little understanding of these teachings and actively pursues the harassment and expulsion of sheep from the fold.
    To the members of the CDF, I plead. Come out from behind your masks and cloaks, come into the light and get a whiff of the stench of oppression that threatens to overwhelm us.

  3. Dairne Mc Henry

    Many thanks for the very clear description of the process used by the CDF, Brian. Maybe some lawyer will read it and decide to make further investigations…

  4. Kate

    How did we get to this place? How far removed from the Gospel values proclaimed by Jesus. Where is the room for the prophetic voice in this Church – it appears that the Vatican is prepared to condemn any voice that seems to dissent from theirs. The prophets have often been ‘voices crying in the wilderness’ – the Church has definately become a wilderness – barren and struggling to support and nourish a vast number of its people – never more have we needed to hear prophetic voices! I urge those with a voice to speak out in support of those who are being persecuted in this way. I urge all who have a voice to speak out so that we can become an inclusive and Spirit filled Church that is able to sustain and nourish and use the gifts of all. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Vatican is frightened of the coming to adulthood of so many people – this is what Jesus wanted – for all to come to adulthood – to grow and prosper in the Spirit – to speak out against injustice and those who oppressed the Spirit of others. Perhaps it is the Vatican hierarchy who should examine its conscience! My heart goes out to Frs Tony Flannery and Sean Fagin -I say to them to keep heart – they have the support of so many people. Remember that the Scribes and the Pharisees condemned Jesus because they could not tolerate listening to what he had to say – which was THE TRUTH!! If the Vatican continues on this very dangerous part they will start a groundswell of dissent that they will find hard to stem.

  5. Eddie Finnegan

    “How did we get to this place?” asks Kate (4 above). “How far removed from the Gospel values proclaimed by Jesus. Where is the room for the prophetic voice in this Church – it appears that the Vatican is prepared to condemn any voice that seems to dissent from theirs.”

    It’s a long story. We probably started to get to this place with the Edict of Milan in the Year of Christ 313 – 17th Centenary coming up soon. Rome-the Vatican-Curia-Inquisition-Holy Office-CDF started to practise the old “we-have-ways- to-get-you-to-sentire-cum-ecclesia” routine long before Patrick or Palladius or whoever baptised his first Christian in Ireland. It’s natural enough that we begin to notice, become aghast, think that Pandora’s box has been opened for the first time, become so convinced that law and logic and the Holy Spirit is on our side that Rome’s Bastille-cum Castle of Dracula-cum-Tower of Babel is about to be toppled in face of our indignant outrage that they’ve picked on one, or five or ten of our own. They’re well ahead of us in this game.
    Maybe Brian Lennon’s clear description of CDF investigation technique needs a “worked example” to let us see the human being these guys are processing.
    Just over five years ago Cardinal Levada (maybe with a prompt from his CDF predecessor) decided it was time to haul in his first big fish. A much admired Jesuit confrere of Brian Lennon’s. They’d been watching him for decades, since long before his friend Oscar Romero was martyred – though in Rome they tend not to use emotive words like ‘martyred’ about Oscar. By the early ’80s, when Joseph Ratzinger was at the CDF, they already had Jon Sobrino on their hook and were just playing him casually towards the net.

    “It is not easy to dialogue with the Congregation for the Faith,” Sobrino wrote in his letter to the Jesuit Father General in Dec 2006, a few weeks after the latter sent him the CDF ‘Notification’. “Sometimes it seems impossible. They seem obsessed with finding any failing or mistake, to find what could be a different conceptualization of some truth of the faith. In my opinion, what we have here is in large part ignorance, prejudice, and obsession with doing away with liberation theology. Sincerely, it is not easy to dialogue with that kind of mentality.”

    Doubtless, Levada or Ratzinger would tell him that their judgments are on his intellectual positions, not of him as a person with rights. But who is this person?
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/people/features/mycentury/transcript/wk48d1.shtml [‘My Century, Jon Sobrino SJ’]
    As I cannot find Jon Sobrino’s full letter to the Father General, I give you substantial extracts and paraphrase from two unlikely sites:
    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/silenced_theologian_foretold_disobedience_of_vatican_order/ – plus five predictable comments;
    and from the SSPX website:
    No, neither the “catholic news agency” nor the Society of Saint Pius X is my usual source of old news, but they dealt with Sobrino’s letter more clearly and fairly than most – SSPX does have a more readably user-friendly website than the Vatican, and it provides an array of pro-Sobrino comments from other theologians and institutions, as well as a strongly favourable statement from Sobrino’s Jesuit order.
    CDF’s ‘Notification on the works of Father Jon Sobrino, S.J.’
    followed by Levada’s more PRO-conscious “explanatory note” in L’Osservatore Romano:
    Explanatory Note on the Notification on the works of Father Jon Sobrino, S.J. (CDF) http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/cdfexplannote.htm

    From Australia, a warm appreciation of Jon Sobrino in the weeks after the CDF move: http://www.eurekastreet.com,au/article.aspx?aeid=2434; with, finally, Robert Mickens in The Tablet trying to weigh up the Levada approach in “Iron fist, but velvet glove”:
    http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/9494 .

    A final thought: Is Rome’s only use of the collegiality & subsidiarity thing these days to get the local ordinary or local country’s primate to wield the final axe? I suppose it helps if they’ve got an Opus Dei man in place to deal with liberation theologians. But who told Veritas in Dublin to clear their shelves of any signs of Sean Fagan? Remember: Veritas like Pravda means the Truth.

  6. Mary O Vallely

    So the CDF fear some of Sobrino’s writings might “damage the faith of the people of God.” I can think of many other ways my faith can be damaged .e.g. by those purporting to be servants of God treating with a complete lack of compassion those who minister to the poor and the downtrodden as the Nazarene commanded, those who have spent a lifetime getting to know and understand the people in the pews and who dare to empathise being silenced; the thought of that enormous wealth in the Vatican in contrast to the huge poverty of places like El Salvador. I could go on.
    I imagine the men who search for minute errors in suspect theologians’ writings to be sitting in salubrious surroundings with no worries about where the next meal is coming from or how to get medicine for a sick child.
    Thank you so much to Eddie for educating me a little on the complicated machinery of the CDF. Is it not time to be looking at new machinery, faster and more efficient? Are there too many people working on the outmoded machines? Do we need ordained men to do this work or could it not be done by lay theologians, many of them women of course. Isn’t there a shortage of priests throughout the world? Why be ordained if you are not going to minister to people? Just my rambling thoughts and I may be entirely wrong here.
    Can I also commend Jo O’Sullivan and the “Lay Woman” for inspiring, beautiful reflections which to me, are truly Spirit-filled.They restore my faith in God and in the Church as well as all the voices here who may take opposing views to me but who care as passionately as I do about the Church. Dialogue is good. Bail ó Dhia oraibh. Mary V