Pope Benedict XVI greets Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington Jan. 16, 2012, at the Vatican. Cardinal Wuerl is the Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
News that the doctrine committee of
the US Conference of Catholic Bishops last year adopted protocols to guide its
procedures and those of its staff set the juices predictably flowing at the National Catholic Reporter. An
overwritten story on the NCR website
let readers know that this particular USCCB committee was “tasked with
enforcing church doctrine.”
Enforcing? How do you do that with
doctrine? This is the way we journalists talk when we don’t like something and
want you not to like it either.
The description of the doctrine
committee on the USCCB website says nothing about enforcing doctrine. The
committee’s main task is providing theological input to other USCCB committees
and staff. In recent years, it has published critiques of books by two women
theologians, Sister Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham and Sister Margaret Farley,
emerita of Yalebut most of its work appears to be of the in-house variety.
(The current chairman is Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. The executive
director is Father Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap.)
Observers rather more dispassionate
than the National Catholic Reporter see
three questions raised by the protocols flap.
fuss about some protocols?
does it make what the USCCB doctrine committee says?
When, if ever,
will academic theologians recognize that bishops face a huge pastoral problem
which theologians of the not-so-distant past helped cause and which most
academic theologians of the present are doing little or nothing to help solve?
Let’s take those questions one by one.
this fuss about protocols? The
doctrine committee’s protocols are described by a USCCB spokesperson as an
internal document for committee and staff. The big complaint with them, it
appears, is that they don’t mandate immediate notification of a theologian
whose work is under review, with opportunity for comment.
But why should they? Reviewing a
theologian’s writing could lead to the conclusion that there’s no need to
pursue the matter further. If the committee nonetheless notified the theologian
right at the start, it might be accused of intimidation. And very likely it
would set the stage for a potentially needless public rumpusnot unlike the
The protocols do allow the committee
to publish a critique of a theologian’s work without consulting him or her “if
it judges that intervention is needed for the guidance of the Catholic
faithful.” This doesn’t say there will never be consultation. It says consultation
can be forgoneif, for example, the appearance of a particular book or article
touches off a firestorm requiring an immediate response for pastoral reasons.
difference does it make what the doctrine committee says? Back in 1989 the bishops adopted
guidelines for bishop-theologian relations prepared by a bishops’ committee in
collaboration with some theologians. The result was a toothless document
tilting strongly in the theologians’ favor. It soon became a dead letter and
nothing has been heard of it since. To cite it 23 years later as a model, as NCR
and some of its sources do, is disingenuous.
In reality, the USCCB doctrine
committee poses no threat to theologians who enjoy academic freedom, tenure,
and the protection of the academic establishment, Catholic and non-Catholic
alike. Nor does it menace book publishers and editors of journals who might
actually welcome free publicity for theological writings otherwise likely to
But the committee’s evaluations may be
of help to the bishops and the bishops’ staff, and, through them, to ordinary
Catholics. This is what the USCCB doctrine committee mainly exists to do, not
play games with theologians and the media.
if ever, will academic theologians recognize that the bishops face a huge
pastoral problem which theologians of the not-so-distant past helped cause and
which most academic theologians of the present are doing little or nothing to
As to the problem’s existence,
consider results of a recent poll.
Among the 19 percent of Catholics who
described themselves as “committed” in their adherence to the faith, 49 percent
said it isn’t necessary for a “good” Catholic to go to Mass weekly, 60 percent
said good Catholics needn’t follow Church teaching on birth control, 46 percent
said the same about the teaching on divorce and remarriage, 31 percent about
the teaching on abortion, and 48 percent about marrying in the Church. A
surprising 39 percent even said good Catholics needn’t give time or money to
help the poor. To repeat: these are Catholics who think they’re committed in
A level-headed friend, looking at
those numbers, remarked, “It seems to me that there is an undeniable and severe
crisis by any measure, at least so long as one thinks of Catholicism as
something to believe in and adhere to because it is true. But so many Catholics
today are universalists who think one religion is better than another only on
subjective grounds of taste, personal history, tribal loyalty, and so forth.”
Much of the problemagain, thanks in
part to theologianslies in the fact that the teaching authority of the Church
is denied or simply ignored by many American Catholics. “I’m old enough to make
up my own mind about what to believe and what to do. I don’t need the Church
telling me,” they say.
This is tragically far from the
position of Vatican Council II as it is expressed in the Dogmatic Constitution
on Revelation, Dei Verbum: “The task
of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God…has been entrusted to
the living teaching office of the Church alone…. At the divine command and with
the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this [i.e., the Word of God]
devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully” (Dei Verbum, 10).
Another dimension of the problem for
which theologians share responsibility is widespread confusion about
conscience. Blessed John Henry Newman memorably skewered it in his 1875 Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “…each to
be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no
one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably
impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition…in his own
And if someone announces that his
conscience conflicts with a non-infallible teaching of the pope, with his
conscience taking precedence? Newman replies: “Unless a man is able to say to
himself, as in the presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon
the papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in
disobeying it…. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the
pope’s authority [and, one might add, the Magisterium as a whole] would be very
No doubt that is so. Yet today “collisions” are
common and Newman’s rule goes unobserved. Partly as a result, the Church in
America is experiencing something resembling an implosion of belief among a
large body of the putative faithful. How refreshing it would be if the
community of Catholic academic theologians could turn their attention to being
part of the solution to this crisis rather than carping about supposed
infringements of their rights. But don’t hold your breath.