Those who have been following WIT’s commentary on the US Catholic Bishops’ Doctrine Committee’s report on Elizabeth Johnson’s book will find the National Catholic Reporter article “Bishops Ignored Own Guidelines in Johnson Critique” to be of interest.

Briefly, the doctrine committee’s choice to publish their statement on Quest without informing Professor Johnson that her book was being investigated or seeking dialogue with her violates the guidelines for handling disputes between bishops and theologians which were drafted by the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Canon Law Society of America and approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1989 by a 214-9 vote (“Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings between Bishops and Theologian“).

Some excerpts I’d like to highlight from the 1989 document:

  • The theologian is a “Catholic who seeks to mediate, through the discipline of scholarship, between a living faith and the culture it is called to transform. … [Theologians] examine the interrelationships of Christian truths and offer interpretations of God’s word in response to the challenges of contemporary society. Though theologians as such share in the Church’s mission to serve the Gospel as effectively as possible and do so through their scholarly work, they are not primarily preachers or catechists. … The constructive critical quality of theological scholarship does not compromise its fidelity to the Church and its magisterium, but indicates the disciplined reflection characteristic of genuine scholarly investigation.”
  • “As they discharge their responsibilities, theologians have the right to moral support from the Church, though they must also expect and even welcome objective criticism of their work. Closely related to that right is another: the right of the theologian to a good reputation. … In cases of dispute, the theologian has the right to expect access to a fair process, protecting both substantive and procedural rights.”
  • “Although bishops and theologians teach in very different ways, nevertheless the position of each can become the target of complaints and charges which have no substance or merit. Although the accuser(s) might be well intentioned, these situations are potentially volatile and enervating for everyone involved. In some dioceses, it may prove desirable to the diocesan bishop to establish a procedure which prevents groundless charges from occupying more time and attention than they deserve. An individual or a small committee recognized by the bishop and the theological community for theological expertise, tact, and pastoral sensitivity could be appointed by the bishop to screen these complaints. All complaints about theological teaching in the diocese could be referred here, after they have been presented to the bishop as well as the theologian in question.”
  • “Collaboration and structured cooperation help to clarify doctrinal positions. Throughout such contacts there is a presupposition of sound doctrine, a presumption which holds unless it is refuted by contrary evidence.”
  • “…if a bishop has questioned the teaching of a theologian, the theologian might request [a formal dialogue]. On the other hand, if a bishop is concerned about the reported opinions of a theologian, he might be the one to request the initiation of formal dialogue. In such cases, initiation of a private formal dialogue would serve the unity of the Church far better than public disagreement. … The process will normally involve meetings, although much can be accomplished by written statements. As a sign of unity and charity, an atmosphere of prayer should mark the dialogue in all its stages.”

The document goes on to describe what such a formal dialogue would look like, depending on who (a bishop or a theologian) initiates the dialogue. Broadly, each party should have experts to assist him or her, and a stage of careful gathering of information would precede communication between the bishop and the theologian. Once information has been gathered, the dialogue itself would include a joint examination of the Catholic tradition and the disputed theological position’s implications for the life of faith.

“Doctrinal Responsibilities” then describes the possible outcomes of such a dialogue — one of which is the issuing of “a doctrinal monitum, i.e., a clear warning of danger to the faith in what is being taught.” Note that this is described as a possible outcome of a process of dialogue between a bishop and a theologian, not the initiating act of said dialogue.

The afterword calls upon bishops and theologians both to “take care that media involvement not render ineffective the opportunity and structure for cooperation and dialogue,” and “be concerned to avoid scandal” : “The attitude of participants and atmosphere for process should blend civility and charity with restraint and, where necessary, that dimension of confidentiality conducive to trust, understanding, and, perhaps, reconciliation.”

I would especially highlight that nowhere in this document — a pastoral letter of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, passed by an overwhelming majority — is it suggested that seeking an imprimatur is the first step of dialogue, or is even expected as a matter of course.

Mutual understanding and charity between theologians and bishops is vital for the sake of the Church. Is such charity served when one party unilaterally changes the rules of engagement?

5 thoughts

  1. Thank you for the attentive, intelligent, judicious and insightful commentary WIT is providing on these matters. Bravo!

  2. Great work by WIT for the wonderful coverage of this. I’m not a huge fan of Liz Johnson (although She Who Is was very important back in its time) but I think WIT has consistently make great points in relation to the USCCB’s problems in the way their investigation has proceeded. Great work WIT and many thanks for it!

    1. Hi, David —

      Thanks for your encouragement, though I would disagree rather firmly regarding the “back in its time” characterization — if anything, in my view, the response of the USCCB indicates that these are, unfortunately, not dated considerations. In any event, thanks for reading and commenting!

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