Protocols and Theologians

What the USCCB’s new protocols for reviewing theological works aren’t about.

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 Yale—but 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.

• Why this fuss about some protocols?

• What difference 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.

Why 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 rumpus—not unlike the present one.

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 forgone—if, for example, the appearance of a particular book or article touches off a firestorm requiring an immediate response for pastoral reasons.

What 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 pass unnoticed.

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.

When, 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 help solve?

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 their faith.

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 problem—again, thanks in part to theologians—lies 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 way.”

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 rare.”

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.

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About Russell Shaw 275 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).