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Two more scholars censured by Rome


A German Benedictine who is also a Zen master has been ordered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, to cease all public activities, including lectures, courses and publications.

At roughly the same time, the Conventual Franciscans have relieved a theologian of teaching duties at Rome’s Bonaventura faculty of theology. His writings have been under review by Ratzinger’s office.

The action against Benedictine Fr. Willigis Jäger, 76, also known by his Zen name of Ko-un Roshi, was made public Feb. 5 by the Würzburg diocese, where Jäger’s Münsterschwarzach Abbey is located. Benedictine Fr. Nokter Wolf, the abbot primate of the Benedictine order, confirmed in response to an NCR query that the decision came from Ratzinger.

Jäger has been faulted for playing down the Christian concept of God as a person in his work as a spiritual guide, and for stressing mystical experience above doctrinal truths.

Meanwhile, Franciscan authorities say Fr. Josef Imbach, 56, has been assigned a year of “reflection,” amounting to a suspension. Though a Franciscan spokesperson would not elaborate on the motive for the action, Imbach had revealed two years ago that Ratzinger was carrying out an investigation of his 1995 book on miracles.

Imbach said at the time that he was accused of not believing in the divinity of Jesus, of refusing the magisterium of the church, of describing the gospels as teaching texts rather than historically reliable accounts, and of excluding the possibility of miracles. He denied holding these views.

Imbach described the investigation in an October 2000 article published by the progressive Austrian journal Kirche Intern, under the provocative headline of “Joseph versus Josef.”

For his part, Jäger has indicated he will accept the verdict, which caps a yearlong investigation led primarily by his Benedictine abbot and the local bishop of Würzburg. He has begun a period of silence in an abbey in Einsiedelei, Germany, expected to endure several months. He did not respond to NCR requests for comment.

Jäger is well-known in the German-speaking world as a spiritual teacher.

In 1972, he met the Japanese Zen master Yamada Roshi of the Sanbo Kyodan school. In 1975, he moved to Kamakura in Japan and spent six years studying Zen, a body of spiritual techniques derived from the Buddhist tradition. In 1981, Jäger was authorized to train students in Zen.

In 1982, Jäger began offering courses in Zen, using one wing of the Münsterschwarzach Abbey for his “St. Benedict’s House.” It offers a center for Zen study as well as a residential community where Jäger lives with a group of lay students. His courses are popular, according to sources at the abbey, and daily Zen prayer can draw as many as 150 people.

Those sources said that Jäger does not take part in the daily prayer of the Benedictine abbey, and lives a relatively separate life with his own community.

In an interview published on the Web site of the Würzburg diocese, Jäger complained of “a lack of directness” in the process against him.

“Personally, I would hope for an open discussion with the prosecutors and judges in Rome,” Jäger said. “The prosecutors I do not know, and I know only the names of the judges. I’ve never spoken with Cardinal Ratzinger. The entire controversy has developed as a kind of disciplinary procedure by means of the abbot.”

Jäger said that he found the behavior of Bishop Paul-Werner Scheele of Würzburg and his vicar general, Karl Hillenbrand, “very fair.”

“I feel like someone who has been silenced by the doctrinal congregation,” Jäger said. “In my opinion this is counterproductive and causes people to pull away from the church. In the long run of history, every such condemnation has done more harm than good.”

Imbach voiced similar grievances in his October 2000 article, complaining of “methods of the secret services” such as withholding the names of those who complained about his work, use of anonymous experts, and non-transparent methods that reflect an absence of separation between powers.

“I hope that the ‘maximum possible transparency’ that the Holy Father insists upon (in reference to the counseling of pregnant women in Germany) will one day be applied also in the Palace of the Holy Office,” Imbach wrote.

The move against Jäger builds on longstanding concerns expressed by Ratzinger about the doctrinal consequences of dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism.

In a Dec. 14, 1989, document, “Some aspects of Christian Meditation,” the doctrinal congregation urged caution in the use of techniques of prayer and meditation drawn from Eastern religions. Such methods, the document says, must be “subjected to a thoroughgoing examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism.”

The Münsterschwarzach Abbey is home to another Benedictine well-known as a spiritual guide and author, Fr. Anselm Grün. Though Grün draws on modern psychology, his work is also regarded as grounded in the Christian fathers and hence relatively uncontroversial.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002