How Should Church Authority Treat Innovators?

Dogma has become an unpopular word nowadays. Uneasiness is caused at the thought of having to render a condemnatory judgment on positions which even twenty years ago could have been labeled heretical. A sort of neutral territory between dogma and heresy seems to have grown up, the exact border of which no one is able or willing to spell out, yet everyone is clearly on guard against getting caught slipping across.
Good reasons justify this changed mentality. We have been forced to cope with the historicity of revealed truth. “Hermeneutic” is now seen to call for a nuanced interpretation of the content of any apparently objective statement. Above all, we now no longer consider the logical coherence of a system to be more important than the opening out of its truths toward the give-and-take of concrete daily living and the expanding of a wider cultural horizon.
Effectiveness of Christianity in today’s secularized world is going to depend largely on the image of unity in faith which it can present. The many partial churches have come to be recognized as a legitimate vector of total Christianity, from which even the non-European culture patterns can no longer be excluded. Recognition of all this at Vatican II amounted to the creation of a “zone of tolerance,” within which disturbing novelties can be worked out and observed and assimilated instead of being nipped in the bud.

Truths Are for Living
Chesterton said the world is full of good old Christian virtues gone berserk. Heresy is in fact a truth gone berserk. So nowadays we just wait for the patient to recover, instead of being cast adrift on the high seas in a “floating insane asylum” which was Renaissance society’s psychotherapy. The cleavage between truth and sophistry is in fact a pathology affecting the whole “communion” or shared living of the faithful. Even heresies which have been diagnosed and treated still had to be put in the isolation-ward called excommunication to be kept from subtly infecting the community.
Heresy is not only the type-case of those breakdowns in unity which no society can take in stride; even more it is the name for any such breakdown, since faith is not a matter only of “truths” which can be wrongly verbalized but a whole way of living in self-giving to Christ and his community.
Hence no Church power against heresy can be utilized except with the positive concrete aim of revitalizing the community and making it function better. This aim includes also the liberation of any individuals or sectors which were being prevented from the attainment of their authentic role. The greatest obstacle to this aim is the tolerance or canonization of a dualism between faith and secular thought. Such an attitude degrades theology to an ideology, and Christian symbiosis into a democratic experiment.
History shows how many ways this fatal dissent has been called forth when a secular ideology got the upper hand over the experience of faith. Such was the situation especially in the post-Reformation politics of Europe, at a time when disputes between theologians and Church authorities proliferated. On the one hand we had academic arrogance carrying the banner of various -isms, on the other hand inquisition-style hardheartedness against anyone whose ideas seemed likely to rock the boat. Reassuring balance has been attained only by the firm demonstration of Vatican II that creative theologians have just as much right to be heard as the reiteration of textbook formulas. Transformation of the “Holy Office” into an ostensibly new organ is at least a symptom of moving in the right direction.

Ways Theologians Act
Theologians today show two chief tendencies. One is to mobilize all possible ecclesiastical competencies in view of getting a more favorable hearing for our faith in the widest and deepest circles of modern cultural outlook. The other is to replace the old “vertical” clericalism with more phenomenological and statistical soundings thus far admittedly often with the peril of unduly anti-metaphysical methodologies.
Fourteen hundred theologians in 1969, by demanding new procedures for Congregation of the Faith inquiries into dubious theologians, made a valid and constructive contribution to clarifying and transforming the relations between academic theology and Curial power. This contribution was recognized and welcomed by the Curia, though at first it bore some signs of a rebellion which in certain circles have continued and even heightened.
For the last ten years a branch of the theological fraternity has been acting upon a wrong understanding of collegiality, in striving to transform the traditional “synod” into a kind of “parliament,” with the support of the more sensational press. Neither group has ever professedly taken as its basis of discussion the nature of the Church as communitarian; rather they set out from experiences of democratic conquest of the power in secular societies.
The image they project is that of a theologians’ special interest group determined to make its elected board of directors successor to the Magisterium. Sensational newsletters even of theological scope contribute daily to this image of a “Third Estate” of university scholarship exempt from tyrannies of either Church or state. They skim the real facts and quickly resort to those “interviews” which so well serve the commercial mass-media as vehicle for inculcating what the facts oughtto be.

Sizing of Functions Needed
The proper function of the charisma of theologians is to use their own intelligence in order to given a convincing even if not authentic interpretation of the truths of revelation. This already lofty competence tends to overextend itself into appropriating those areas which the Magisterium, according to Paul VI, can, if necessary though with very great difficulty, determine without their help, with the charisma only of divine assistance and not of either revelation or inspiration.
It is a strange thing that we have no special professional discipline – neither theology itself, nor except in a rather limited technical way canon law – concerned with the basic rights of a Christian as such and distinct from his rights as a human being. The consequence is that when with the best will in the world theologians get to talking about freedom of teaching and research, they tend to take over their ideas uncritically from civil society. They are thus exposed to the danger of conceiving their function as a guardian against state bureaucracy and tyranny in favor of the absolute value of the individual over against either state or Church.
The situation is complicated by the fact that professors of other science have fought for their status independent of the state on their own, while theologians have at best been protected by concordats. Even now no other scholar speaks in the name of any state, but the theologian still owes his job solely to the fact that he is speaking in the name of the (or some) Church. Even if he has no teaching job, and is thus a theologian simply by preference or inclination, he has nevertheless a charisma which makes sense only insofar as it tends to buildup the faith-community.

Power-Vacuum Threatens
The Church in Gaudium et spes acknowledged academic freedom even for theologians, but has not yet implemented this freedom with concrete regulations. From this it does not follow that we need not be concerned about it yet. Rather we must be doubly attentive against infringement. On the other hand, as long as the academic relations to authority have not been spelled out, the theologian too must beware of acting as if he had no more commitment to the Church than any expert in a secular science. Any theology without its particular horizon of a believing community would be an intellectual luxury doomed to sterility.
In the present vacuum of a clearly defined faith-committed academic commitment, we have anomalies like the Switzerland synods in which nominally any believer at all, but in reality theologians dissociated from decrees of the Magisterium, can concern themselves with things rather remote from the real concerns of the pastoral community.
The real point at issue is discontent with the measures which the Roman Congregation for the Faith has seen fit to take, and which are met with protest or accusations of lack of scholarship. The fact is, however, that much as we may value a critical outlook on reality, which characterizes also theology, nevertheless the competence of the Magisterium is not of critical but of charismatic character, dependent upon the assistance of the Holy Spirit. It is not of course thus excused from taking every rational step to consult theologians and present its verdicts in a maximally believable way.

No Curia Theology
Theology itself is getting so subdivided and specialized that the hierarchy and Curia cannot be expected to have the same level of specialization, or even enough to choose among the varying legitimate theologies. Indeed they must avoid the temptation of creating a particular theology of their own – which would be no less inappropriate than if academic theology would create an authority independent of the hierarchy. But faith as an assent of the intellect includes in some measure the gift of being able to accept the Church’s officialdom.
The world has come of age. Theologians want all Christians to be adult about their faith; they back all sorts of novel views provocative of creative reflection. But to be an adult does not carry with it the ability to resist any kind of aggression on one’s own, or to work out from reason alone the implications of living one’s faith. Rahner is wrong in making an ideal of irreducible antagonism (Schriften 7, p. 86) as a kind of loyal opposition needed to conduce the Magisterium dialectically to a proper stance. That is an ideal borrowed from capitalistic laissez faire. Theology’s function is to build up constructively, not to flaunt shocking paradox.

Analysis of New Norms
The “New Program” (Nova agendi ratio) promulgated by the Congregation for the Faith in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis 63 (1971) 234-6 does not merely impose a discipline upon that congregation itself as an arm of papal authority. It also raises burning issues of how a theology forced to reckon with being subjected to an authoritative condemnation must see itself in relation to the Magisterium. Reactions to the decree on the one hand show too little care on the part of theologians or public opinion for the real significance and intention of the document; but on the other hand such reactions in themselves show that the Congregation had not made sufficient advance-soundings as to what the public temper in the matter really was. A juridical text cannot be rightly interpreted by any casual layman or even any theologian, especially when it is so obscurely written. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were relentless in their demand for reform of the Roman Curia and above all the Holy Office. But it soon became clear that any reform in the Curia must be the work not of the Council but of the Pope, whose cabinet and staff it is. And in fact Paul VI took cognizance of the demand by promulgating on the very day before the Council was disbanded a decree re-naming the Holy Office and re-determining its functions as a needed first step of wider Curial reform. The wider reform was first decreed two years later (Regimini). Both documents are open-ended and close with foreseeing a further proximate decree regulating details of the previously exasperatingly-secretive Holy Office procedure.

New Powers Spelled out
Somebody blundered when, with the Pope’s explicit advance approval, a decree was promulgated by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith on January 15, 1971, claiming to put into execution one subhead of the Pope’s decree re-naming the Holy Office, when in fact that decree of four years earlier had already been abrogated by Regimini. In fact the cited subhead had promised reforms of a much wider range within the Congregation, whereas the 1971 decree is limited to item 33 of Regimini on the investigation of suspicious opinions. Furthermore, though Nova agendi ratio is unmistakably put in relation to that item 33, it makes sense only as an implementation of item 40, and by that very fact makes item 35 irrelevant.
Despite all these inconsistencies, or because of them, it is unmistakable that the re-structuring of the former Holy Office has left it with more wide-ranging powers than had been imagined. Notably the Council demand voiced by Cardinal Frings for a distinction between administrative and judicial procedure had no precedent in the Code of canon law requirements presumably still being executed by the success of the Holy Office. The new Agendi ratio claims for its promulgators a threefold competence, corresponding to three different types of procedure it outlines.
First, clearly with the intention of improving its image, the new Congregation claims the right and duty of promoting innovations in teaching and research by holding congresses and requiring new courses. When one considers the resources at its disposal and the real job it is expected to do, one must ask whether these claims are not somewhat exaggerated. They might have been made more plausible as an aspect of its undoubted investigative competence, seen not in relation to particular complaints, but to long-range detached clarification of the durability of deep-reaching recent trends in theology.
The second competence claimed for itself by the Congregation is the purely administrative one of deciding whether a given theological view or thesis is compatible with the deposit of faith. Two quite different areas seem to be envisaged, each with its special procedure.

Querying of “Common” Views
Ordinary (allgemein) investigative procedure seems to relate to views which, even if limited to identifiable regions, have become so widespread that the question of who precisely teaches them has become secondary. The more “common” such teaching has become, at least locally, the less any condemnation of it could jeopardize the good name of any of the numerous theologians promoting it. Perhaps the matter ought to be clarified further, especially the surprising parenthesis of Item 32.
But the procedure does honorably recognize that the good name of a whole region as such could be harmed by such verdicts, and therefore requires the advance consultation of the local bishops, not as the negligent donors of an Imprimatur, but rather as authentic witnesses of what the faithful committed to their care really believe.

Not-So-Common Teachings
Individual investigative procedure is what Regimini #33 really required only for “delated books,” but here extended to “other writings and even oral lectures.” Here already an effort is evident to guard against those injustices which Frings had pilloried at Vatican II, there in relation to judicial rather than administrative cases. The individual must even here be granted the advance right to hear the charges and make known his point of view; and furthermore his ordinary must be informed so as to be able to defend not only himself but hopefully in the first place his subject and thereby also his locality.
A few observations may be in place regarding these procedures concerning individuals, and first of all the fact that they seem to be again subdivided into two familiar rubrics, ordinary and extraordinary. The latter case amounts practically to suspending the rules when the persons charged with executing them see fit to do so. Though it is easy to imagine cases so drastic that harm would be done by catering to legalities, in the long run this concession is an outdated paternalism which expressly contradicts the sense of Regimini #33.

Three Stages
In “ordinary” (ordentlich) cases it is required that administrative measures in the public domain be preceded by confidential advance consultations. The procedure to be followed for the Congregation or its respective committee to get the facts and come to its own conclusion forms the content of the Agendi ratio #2-10. This first stage must conclude with putting their view of the matter before the Pope; and only after he has approved, then come the “external” administrative measures outlined in # 11-18. It must be noticed however that even Stage One is not private but official, and hence its procedures are wisely regimented. Even so, we cannot escape the impression that too much attention is devoted to Stage One – and thereby too much confidence placed in it.
It should also be noted that a Curial arm like this is not competent either to refute the scientific proofs by which the suspect position is promoted, nor even to evaluate them. This is a matter for the discussions of scholars. All the Congregation has to do is investigate and determine whether and how far specific ill-sounding statements are incompatible with the deposit of faith.
Three steps within Stage One are distinguished. First, a steering committee (congressus) consisting of the prefect and other leading officials makes a preliminary sifting of whether the matter is worth following up at all – but also whether in the regular or the extraordinary way. The same committee has the function of designating two experts to ascertain at first hand what the suspected author really taught, and a third expert whose duty it is in the interest of truth to set forth the general teaching and positive merits of the person in question, and specifically to answer whatever indications of incompatibility with Church teaching may have been put forward by the other two as worth considering.

Defender Allowed to Speak
A further step consists in putting all these assembled documents before the whole closed session of the (34) consultors, where their judgment will be given after allowing the defender of the accused to speak. (Apparently also present are the regular periti or experts of this Congregation, of whom 14 are enumerated in the 1973 annual.)
A third step consists in putting the conclusions so far reached before the Cardinals and other prelates of the whole Congregation for the Faith. These last two steps are not “appeal to superior authority” for possible reversal of decisions already reached, but a simple stage-wise order of the fact-finding. No group up till now can stop the progress once set in motion; only after the Pope has commented on the report of the third step is a decision made as to whether to continue the inquiry in its more public form.
Stage Two is described in the Nova agendi ration as “external” rather than “public” (because it will itself decide whether its conclusions will ever be actually published, and in any case it is no more official than the three internal stages which preceded). The accused author must be invited to express his reaction in writing, possibly also to come around for an informal discussion, or even for several chances to make his point of view prevail if it does not in the meantime win the approval of those to whom it was delivered.
It is hard to see why the accused cannot demand the right of presenting his defense orally, and also of calling two experts capable of defending the legitimacy of his contested view. At any rate, if the author declines to cooperate, measures can be taken against him, but only contingent upon a second explicit approbation of the Pope and communication of the matter to the respective ordinary.

Punitive Versus Factual Role
Quite distinct from the administrative procedures outlined above is the third (and inherited) competence claimed by the Congregation, that of pronouncing a punitive judicial sentence No grievance emerging from the previous proceedings can avail against punitive trial because in this the rights of the accused are protected by general norms of Canon Law.
An undoubted advantage of the new procedure consists in the fact that it clearly separates problems of guilt and punishment from the determination of objective realities in which a particular author is only indirectly involved. Even so, one must wonder whether now that the Congregation for the Faith has discharged its duty in regard to the objective realities, any question of punishment ought simply to be handed over to a real court, the Rota.
In any case, it is hard to imagine that any such incrimination and punishment would do more good than harm to the overall interests of Catholic living. But the possibility cannot be a priori excluded; there can be no “communio” unless protected by the ultimate resource of “excommunication.” The one most aimed to be helped by the dire surgery is the victim of culpable error himself.

Conclusion: Not Just Punitive
Most of the critiques thus far leveled against the new Agendi ratio, especially that of Hans Küng’s book, Infallible? An Inquiry (1973), are vitiated by seeing it solely as a punitive judicial process. Wholly on the credit side is the establishment of a non-punitive administrative procedure minutely regulated and thereby delivered from the suspicion of caprice under the secrecy.

On the debit side, apart from details openly mentioned above, is the omission of any parallel proposals for local investigations which diocesan authorities are still free and competent and in principle obliged to undertake. Bishops’ conferences seem the normal channel. Ultimately, in the local background the contested views stand better chance of being understood and corrected.

* Co-authored with Winfried Aymans, first published in English in: Theology Digest 23 (1975) 45-52.