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Commentary

The Vatican's Unnecessary Roiling of the Waters on Dissent

Catholicism: Short-term, the statements seem provocative; long-term, the next pope may not feel bound by them.

July 06, 1998|RICHARD P. McBRIEN | Father Richard P. McBrien is Crowley-O'Brien-Walter Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the watchdog Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have once again stirred the Catholic waters with their recent statements on dissent in the Roman Catholic Church. The pope's apostolic letter Ad tuendam fidem ("For the defense of the faith") adds to the profession of faith adhered to by bishops, theologians and others who teach in the name of the church, and it amends the Code of Canon Law to include theological dissent from "definitive" but noninfallible teachings under the heading of actions deserving of punishment by a "just penalty."

In doing so, the pope may have unwittingly intensified the conflict between the church's official teachers in the hierarchy and its vast theological and scholarly community.

Before last week's papal action, theologians had been warned, scolded and admonished about their obligation to toe the magisterial line in their writings and public utterances, even on matters not infallibly defined by a pope or an ecumenical council. However, there was never mention in church law of formal punishment for dissent against noninfallible teachings.

How did this change occur? John Paul II in his 1994 letter on the ordination of women and in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae ("The Gospel of life") and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its various directives have been smudging the theological distinction between infallible and noninfallible teachings. For decades, the word "definitive" had been reserved for teachings formally declared by a pope or an ecumenical council to be divinely revealed. The pope and Ratzinger now seem to be insisting that noninfallible but "definitive" teachings are to be regarded as if they, too, were infallible.

The papal letter formalizes this new approach by incorporating it into the Code of Canon Law as well as the Profession of Faith. An important second section has been added to canon 750 to the effect that theologians (and any Catholic) can now be "punished with a just penalty," not only for dissenting from infallible teachings, but from any "definitive" teaching.

And this is where the accompanying doctrinal commentary by Ratzinger comes in. In it, Ratzinger goes well beyond the papal letter. He asserts that theologians and Catholics generally would "no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church" if they fail to give "firm and definitive assent" to these "definitive" but noninfallible teachings. These are truths, he writes, that are "necessarily connected with revelation," either historically or logically. The fact that these truths are not divinely revealed, he insists, "in no way diminishes their definitive character."

Ratzinger provides specific examples of such teachings: the restriction of priestly ordination to men, the illicitness of euthanasia, prostitution and fornication, the legitimacy of the election of the pope or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonization of saints and the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in 1896 that Anglican ordinations are invalid.

The last example is astonishingly insensitive and provocative, coming less than three weeks before the Lambeth Conference, a meeting of every Anglican bishop from around the world, held every 10 years in Canterbury. What is equally astonishing is that the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster, whose diocese is located at the center of the Anglican Communion, was caught by surprise. Not even Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was informed until just before its release. Cassidy, who will be at the Lambeth Conference, is likely to have a chilly reception unless some credible explanation or, better, the promise of a retraction is extended to the bishops.

Should the terms of Ratzinger's commentary be enforced, Catholic theologians who question the prohibition of women's ordination or who favor a reconsideration of the validity of Anglican orders would be subject to "a just penalty" and would even risk breaking communion with the church itself. Such an outcome would surely be in marked contrast to the approach of John XXIII, who said in his celebrated address to the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that while the church in the past condemned errors "with the greatest severity," it prefers now "to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity" and to demonstrate the validity of its teachings rather than attempt to enforce them under threat of punishment by a "just penalty."

What are the likely short- and long-term effects here? Short-term, canonists are likely to be irritated by the pope's unilateral amending of the Code of Canon Law so soon (15 years) after all the major revisions were completed. Theologians will also be distressed by this latest evidence of the lack of respect and even hostility that the Vatican bears toward them.

But if anyone is likely to pay a price for this, it will be the Catholic bishops, who will be badgered by ultraconservative Catholics to use this new canonical authority to secure for them a few prominent theological scalps. The bishops will be about as eager to do that as the congressional Republicans are to open hearings into the impeachment of President Clinton. Even conservative bishops are wise enough to know that they can't afford or manage a war with theologians and the Catholic intellectual community.

Long-term, this development is likely to have little or no effect. The next pontificate will not necessarily be bound by it. That's the nature of the papacy. It has almost unlimited power to do whatever it wishes, short of promoting heresy itself.

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