e-mail us


Little good results when the thinkers stop thinking

In 1985, Jesuit Fr. Gerald O’Collins, then the new dean of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, lamented to a group of reporters in New York that theologians had begun to fear doing theology because of the threat of Vatican retribution.

Topical at that time were the extended inquiries by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith into the work of theologians Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, arguably two of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century church.

The theological world had also been rocked at the time by the silencing of Brazilian liberation theologian Fr. Leonardo Boff, who eventually left the priesthood.

It was O’Collins, not the reporters, who compared the mid-1980s ecclesiastical chill with the specter of the anti-Modernist campaign earlier in the century.

It was a simple encounter in New York, not widely reported.

Who cares anyway about such people and their discipline? What effect, really, does it have on the average Catholic on any given Sunday?

We might all be surprised.

Because it never was about just theologians. It was as much about an attitude, a governing style and a use of authority that fuels suspicion and that generates fear. It may be merely a theologian or two at first, but the pursuit quickly runs out of control. Bishops, whether newly emboldened by Rome’s attitudes or terrified by the absolutists on the right who see themselves doing Rome’s bidding, take off after speakers and thinkers who have given years to the church.

Our pages in recent years have documented far too many cases in which the reputations of good and holy people have been impugned. We’ve seen it in Denver, in New Orleans, in Pennsylvania, in Washington, D.C., in Indiana, to cite a few places.

The fear apparently has become so great that seminary officials, taking their cues from bishops, see fit to demote and fire longtime theology teachers -- again, people who have given their lives in service to the church -- seemingly because of the loud complaints of a few extreme conservatives.

If the tale of the Athenaeum of Ohio is any indicator (NCR, April 24 and May 1), our seminaries are in danger of becoming hostages to reactionaries. Those in charge, who have offered little if any rebuttal to a shameful tale of bullying tactics, must feel embarrassed. Many of them have attended distinguished institutions of higher learning where professors would never have to fear for their careers because the simplistic views and wild conclusions of overexcited theological neophytes were given credibility.

Any individual incident might be viewed as an aberration to be regretted but best ignored. Year by year, however, the incidents accumulate and, like the mountain trickle that becomes the chaos of a raging river, those who claim absolute knowledge of the absolute truth threaten to bowl over anyone in their way.

The tragedies mount up. Real people, good and holy people, get shunted aside, their careers sidelined and their reputations maligned. The tactics used by the Vatican -- the archaic methods of inquiry, the intimidation, the raw use of power and the silencings -- subvert any real chance of theological dialogues that could lead to valuable insights and correctives.

The thinkers stop thinking.

In 1995, another Jesuit, an academic of some note, was passing through the Midwest. In an almost casual aside he said, “Nobody’s doing moral theology today. It’s too dangerous. They’re all afraid of getting stepped on.”

That has become the new reality, a constant mantra in some theological circles. They’ve stopped doing significant theological work because no one wants to risk being branded by Rome.

Fear-induced compliance might bring, temporarily, a soothing order. Sown into that order, however, is the stifling, choking weed of authority misused. In the end, church leaders lose credibility and the chance, apart from punitive pronouncements, to be a serious part of the ebb and flow of theological progress. Meanwhile, the church at large loses the creative energy of its thinkers.

We’ve seen this too many times in our history. Little good comes from it.

National Catholic Reporter, May 8, 1998