Catholic Cases

Doctrinal discipline in the Catholic Church is represented most visibly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), although local bishops may also take action. The CDF was founded in 1542 by Pope Paul III with the Constitution Licet ab initio, and was originally called the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. It was charged with the obligation of defending the Church from heresy. In 1908, Pope St. Pius X changed the name to the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. It received its current name in 1965 under Pope Paul VI. Today, according to Article 48 of the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus, promulgated by Pope John Paul II on June 28, 1988, "the duty proper to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world." The CDF is currently led by Prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Whereas the 1983 Code of Canon Law deals with most questions of discipline in the Catholic Church, the CDF has its own rules and procedures which are known as Proper Law; appeals against rulings of the CDF may be taken to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome. The CDF has been described as “prosecutor, judge, jury, and defense counsel” (Commonweal, 18 May 2001) and is said to operate in a highly secretive manner. Compared to the non-Roman Catholic world, the Vatican is much more strict with regard to academic theology, and a number of the high-profile cases in the 20th century related to the removal of teaching authority from Catholic writers and professors, including Hans Kung, Charles Curran, and Edward Schillebeckx. The following are cases that have arisen during the past ten years. A prominent source of information on Catholic cases is the web site of the Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club (sic).

The case of Fr Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka gained particular notoriety. In 1971 Balasuriya founded the Center for Society and Religion; four years later he founded the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. In 1990, Balasuriya published the book Mary and Human Liberation. In 1994, the Sri Lankan bishops warned that the book included heretical content because it misrepresented the doctrine of original sin and cast serious doubts on the divinity of Christ. Balasuriya submitted a 55-page theological defense to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which rejected it. In May 1996, the Congregation demanded that he sign a profession of faith, apparently written exclusively for him, stating that he would “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings of the Roman pontiff,” even those teachings not proclaimed as definitive. Balasuriya responded by signing a different profession of faith composed by Pope Paul VI, adding a caveat that he was signing it “in the context of theological development and church practice since Vatican II and the freedom and responsibility of Christians and theological searchers under canon law.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ruled that the caveat rendered the profession “defective.” Balasuriya appealed directly to the Pope, but was excommunicated on 2 January 1997, with the Pope’s approval.

Balasuriya then appealed to the Apostolic Signatura, but was told that his case could not go forward. He subsequently agreed to drop the caveat from his profession of faith, and after intense international publicity and six days of negotiations, the excommunication was rescinded in January 1998. Although Balasuriya did not admit to doctrinal error, he did acknowledge “perceptions of error”, and agreed to submit all future writings to his bishops for the imprimatur.

The only other priest to be excommunicated in recent times was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. He denounced the teachings of Vatican II and finally incurred the ultimate penalty in 1988 for ordaining four bishops to his traditionalist movement in defiance of the Holy See.

Fr Jacques Dupuis is a Jesuit who taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome until the fall of 1998, when he came under Vatican investigation for his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis, 1997). The book had received considerable praise, including the second place award in theology from the U.S. Catholic Press Association. In June 1999, following the doctrinal examination of the book and analysis of Dupuis’ responses to questions regarding the book, the Congregation found that the book contained “notable ambiguities and difficulties on important doctrinal points, which could lead a reader to erroneous or harmful opinions”. These points concerned the interpretation of the sole and universal salvific mediation of Christ, the unicity and completeness of Christ’s revelation, the universal salvific action of the Holy Spirit, the orientation of all people to the Church, and the value and significance of the salvific function of other religions. The Congregation drafted a Notification, approved by Pope John Paul II and accepted by Fr Dupuis, to clarify and correct doctrinal points in the book. In signing the Notification, the author committed himself to assent to the stated theses and to include the Notification in any reprints, translations or further editions of his book.

Death offers no protection against denunciation. In June 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith condemned the writings of the popular Indian Jesuit Father Anthony de Mello, finding them “incompatible with the Catholic faith” and a cause of “grave harm”. De Mello, who died in 1987, was a meditation teacher and writer of stories who drew heavily on stories and concepts of the eastern religions. The Congregation issued a notification that de Mello's writings exhibited a “progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian faith”; they were said to contain objectionable concepts about the unknowability and cosmic impersonality of God and about Jesus "as a master alongside others," a preference for "enlightenment," criticism of the church, and an excessive focus on this life rather than life after death. Bishops were ordered to ensure that the offending texts were withdrawn from sale and not reprinted.

In August 2000, Fr Roger Haight, S.J., professor of theology at the Weston School of Theology in Massachusetts, was relieved of his teaching duties and asked to respond to questions about his book Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis, 1999). The book had been the winner of the top prize in theology from the U.S. Catholic Press Association. The Vatican objected to Haight’s attempts to separate Christology from Greek philosophical concepts, specifically in relation to the formulation of the mystery of the Trinity, the interpretation of Christ’s divinity and the role of Jesus in salvation. The clarifications Haight provided in 2000 were judged unsatisfactory by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in January 2001 the congregation proceeded to a formal investigation. See the fuller report available from the National Catholic Reporter.

In March 2001, the Australian church historian Fr Paul Collins, who had been under Vatican investigation since 1998, resigned from the Catholic priesthood. The Vatican’s investigation centered on his 1997 book Papal Power, which was said to imply that “a true and binding revelation” does not exist; to deny that the church of Christ is identified with the Catholic Church, and to deny the doctrine of papal infallibility. Collins was further accused of holding the view that a teaching, to be considered church doctrine, must be approved through the sensus fidelium—the sense of the people—as well as by bishops and theologians. In explaining his resignation, Collins cited the increasing rigidity and sectarianism of the Vatican, stating that the August 2000 declaration Dominus Jesus expressed “a profoundly anti-ecumenical spirit at odds with the sense of God’s grace permeating the whole cosmos”. Subsequently Collins published The Modern Inquisition (Overlook Press, 2002), containing interviews with Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, Fr. Hans Küng, Fr. Charles Curran, Lavinia Byrne, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent, and himself, describing their experiences with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Michael Morwood withdrew from the priesthood in 1998 following attempts by the Catholic church to silence him. In response to enquiries he has sent the following summary of his case:

I was silenced in February 1998 by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, in the first two years of his appointment as Archbishop. I was silenced, and the silencing made public, without any due process of theological investigation. At a meeting with the Australian Provincial Superior of the religious Congregation to which I belonged (37 years; 29 years as a priest) the Archbishop explicitly refused to consider any theological opinion which contradicted his own opinions.

The silencing arose from the Archbishop's reading of my book Tomorrow's Catholic. Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium. I was told I was not to speak on the topics of Incarnation, Redemption and the Trinity. My religious order withdrew me from Melbourne only to find the the ban followed me to Sydney and I refused to minister there under those conditions. Other dioceses and archdioceses throughout the country then cancelled work for which I was engaged and I resigned from priesthood at the end of 1998.

George Pell subsequently stated his intent to have the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat removed from my previous book, God Is Near. Understanding a Changing Church, published in 1992.

Tomorrow's Catholic carries testimonials from eminent theologians, including the present editor of Theological Studies. No reputable theologian would want any bishop, yet alone George Pell, to be sole prosecutor, judge and jury of orthodoxy. His actions totally contravened the policy of due process which the Congregation for the Doctrine and Faith had in place. Pell at the time was a member of the CDF.

Pell is now Archbishop of Sydney. I am still banned from speaking on all Catholic property in Melbourne (and the ban follows me around the country) The present Archbishop of Melbourne justifies the ban "because of the difficulties you had with Archbishop Pell".

A fuller account of the ban can be found on my website. Readers will be interested to read also the account of 'God Is Near and the CDF'."
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