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Collins’ views on papacy face heresy investigation

By NCR Staff

Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, historian and radio-television broadcaster in Australia, is being investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for allegations of heresy in his book Papal Power, published last year by HarperCollins in London.

Collins, who contributed to a recent NCR series on the papacy (Oct. 24 issue), put out a news release Feb. 7 rejecting terms of the Vatican’s proceedings, including that of confidentiality. He said, however, that he would agree to discuss and negotiate his theology under different guidelines, which he proposed.

Collins said he had been asked to respond to three pages of “observations” on his book, which is subtitled A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium. The observations were sent by the Vatican congregation to the superior-general of Collins’ religious order, Fr. Michael Curran.

The findings of an anonymous theological consultant assert that Collins:

  • implies in his book that “a true and binding revelation” does not exist;
  • denies that the Church of Christ is identified with the Catholic church;
  • holds an erroneous concept of papal infallibility;
  • acknowledges infallibility only in its “solemn and ex cathedra manner,” thus excluding the infallibility of the “ordinary and universal magisterium.”

The fourth point impinges directly on the Vatican’s proclamation in a November 1995 document on the ordination of women. In that document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith linked the ban on women priests to the infallible teaching of the “ordinary and universal magisterium.”

Collins is also accused of putting forth a “more than nebulous” concept of church tradition and of wrongfully 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 his book on the papacy, Collins strongly criticizes the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for basing its proceedings on anonymous accusations, for rarely dealing directly with accused persons, for using “third rate” theologians to perform evaluations and then demanding retractions and imposing silences on the accused. The congregation “has no place in the contemporary church,” he wrote. “It is irreformable and therefore should be abolished.”

In his news release, Collins described the use of “anonymous denunciation” as “morally irresponsible.”

Collins said the investigation against him is proceeding according to new Vatican guidelines on dealing with allegedly errant theologians -- the “Regulations for Doctrinal Examination” issued June 29 by Ratzinger’s congregation.

In a letter dated Feb. 6 and addressed to the congregation’s secretary, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Collins proposed the following alternative guidelines for a theological assessment of his work:

  • that the consultors who criticized his book be named and their arguments be subjected to critical examination;
  • that the book be assessed by experts representing a “broad cross-section of theological opinion;”
  • that the congregation’s “observations” on his book and any subsequent process be publicly debated; and
  • that the congregation address him directly rather than through the superior general of his congregation.

Collins said he considers his earlier book God’s Earth: Religion as if Matter Really Mattered (HarperCollins, 1995) to be far more radical than Papal Power. Unfortunately, he said, the more recent book represented more of a threat to church authorities who “seem sadly preoccupied with the internal minutiae of ecclesiastical authority” at the expense of “real issues facing the contemporary world.”

Collins writes popular theology and for the past 15 years has worked in both radio and television in Australia, including a stint as director of religious programming for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. His goal, he says, is helping contemporary Catholics to “make sense of their faith in the modern world.”

Collins said he hopes “something good for the future of the church” will result from the controversy over his book.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998