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Catholic Education Daily


Bishops’ Internal Policy on Theologians Makes Some Nervous

Mention the fact that Catholic bishops exert any oversight over the work of Catholic theologians, and it’s usually enough to get the rebellious folks at the National Catholic Reporter in a tizzy. Now they have discovered—reportedly with confirmation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—that the USCCB Committee on Doctrine has formulated new internal procedures for addressing theological dissent.

Of course, “internal” means just that—these are procedures for staff employees, not binding on any theologian.  But NCR can’t understand why theologians weren’t notified: 

The existence of new procedures came to light this summer in two academic journal articles by noted canon lawyer Fr. James Coriden. In the latest issue of the theological journal Concilium [NOTE: founded by Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, Fr. Hans Kung, and others with fragile relationships with the Vatican], Coriden writes that he had received a copy of the protocols from the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee, but their existence came as a surprise to several prominent theologians NCR called for comment. 

The protocols state that while theologians being investigated by the committee “may be invited to respond to the Committee’s observations in writing,” the committee “reserves the right” to publish criticism without consultation “if it judges that intervention is needed for the pastoral guidance of the Catholic faithful.” 

Terrence Tilley, head of the theology department at Fordham University, said he was unaware of the new procedures. After reviewing a copy provided byNCR, Tilley said he wondered why they do not make reference to protections found in canon law for those under investigation to defend themselves in a “competent ecclesiastical forum.” 

The concern of NCR and certain theologians is that the bishops might be abandoning the 1989 document “Doctrinal Responsibilities,” which outlines procedures for dialogue between bishops and theologians and protects the rights of theologians under canon law. But the new August 2011 procedures are internal committee policy and do not supersede the 1989 policy, USCCB spokesman Sr. Mary Ann Walsh reportedly assured NCR, and in fact seem quite reasonable. As summarized by NCR

The process for investigation of the theologian, according to the protocols, begins with a review of the works in question by the executive director of the bishops’ secretariat for doctrine, currently Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy. 

After Weinandy submits a report to the chairman of the doctrine committee, currently Wuerl, the protocols mandate that the full bishops’ committee is to then make a determination if further review is warranted. If so, the letter says that Weinandy, in consultation with Wuerl, is to select “two or more experts” who will make another evaluation, addressing, among other things: 

• The “positive aspects of the theologian’s work;

• “Areas where differences of opinion may legitimately exist;” and,

• Places where the writing “departs from the Church’s teaching on faith and morals … through error and/or ambiguity.”

Following the expert review, the letter mandates that the full doctrine committee determine whether to pursue further action. Such action, it states, could include referral to the theologian’s diocesan bishop, referral to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (because of what the protocols call the “gravity of the teachings in question”), or referral to another U.S. bishops’ committee.

The doctrine committee itself, state the protocols, may also take a number of its own actions. Among those possible actions:

• Engaging the author in “constructive dialogue resulting in the publication of required clarifications and/or corrections;”

• Encouraging other scholars to publish a critique of the theologian’s work in a public forum;

•Authorizing publication of a critique in the name of the committee’s executive director, with the approval of the U.S. bishops’ general secretary;

•Publishing a critique in the name of the committee’s chairman, “with the prior authorization of the USCCB president,” currently New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan;

•Publishing a critique in the name of the full committee.

“Because publication of a statement by a USCCB committee is an extraordinary action,” the protocols state, “authorization by the Administrative Committee is needed for its publication.”

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