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Others see little change caused by dissent decree

NCR Staff

An inspiring champion of freedom of conscience and expression in Eastern Europe, Cuba and elsewhere while an equally staunch opponent of any dissent within the church -- that’s become the usual line on Pope John Paul II.

Perhaps that accounts for the generally ho-hum reaction of many observers to the pontiff’s latest move, writing penalties for dissent from “definitive teaching” into canon law.

At the same time, many on the Catholic right see Ad Tuendam Fidem as an endorsement of their efforts to narrow the range of acceptable theological debate. And some canon law experts believe John Paul’s action may be more remarkable for the form it took -- an ad-hoc amendment to the Code of Canon Law -- than for its substance.

The pope announced June 30 that he was adding a provision to canon law establishing “just penalties” for dissent from teaching that has been “definitively held” by the magisterium, but not proclaimed infallibly or believed to originate in divine revelation. An accompanying letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger listed teachings such as the ban on women’s ordination and the invalidity of Anglican ordinations as falling into this category.

“In the circles in which I move, this is a nonissue,” said Jesuit Fr. Joseph O’Hare, president of Fordham College in New York. “The actual content here is a pretty minor housekeeping action ... it doesn’t call for a rush to the barricades.”

O’Hare said that while the Ratzinger commentary was in some ways more worrisome than the changes to canon law themselves, “his letter has no special papal authority to it that I’m aware of.”

Noting that Avery Dulles, a well-known church conservative, had raised doubts about some of the specifics in Ratzinger’s commentary, O’Hare said, “If even Avery Dulles finds some points debatable, I’m sure most others will find them debatable as well.”

Monika Hellwig, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, agreed that Ad Tuendam Fidem shouldn’t set off any alarms. “It doesn’t introduce any innovations,” she said. “It just underscores some existing provisions. It’s very unlikely that it will have much direct impact on the American situation.”

Hellwig said it’s her “personal conjecture” that the move from Rome was orchestrated with an eye to Austria, where a burgeoning movement in favor of women’s ordination has captured support from some of that country’s leading theologians and even some church officials. “This document could be used to say that anyone who publicly questions the teaching [against women priests] is not in full communion with the church,” she said.

Though Catholic academicians may not see the new papal document as an immediate threat, that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. “It’s an unfortunate development with respect to trying to build a more constructive relationship between scholars and the church,” said Carondelet Sr. Karen Kennelly, president of Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles. “This perpetuates a condemnatory approach.”

Kennelly, like Hellwig, is on a committee with several U.S. bishops attempting to determine how to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul’s 1990 letter on Catholic education, in America. “We don’t seem to get any more comprehension [from Rome] of the U.S. situation as the years go by,” Kennelly said. Expressing frustration at Rome’s intransigence, she said the process “seems to be back where we were in the mid-1980s.

After several years of deliberation, the U.S. bishops delivered a set of principles for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae to Rome in November 1996. In April of 1997, the Vatican rejected the document. The matter is now in the hands of a committee headed by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of the Philadelphia archdiocese (NCR, Sept. 26, 1997).

Still, Kennelly said the present move is not of much significance in the conversations over Ex Corde Ecclesiae. “We already knew Romes position” on dissent, she said.

Despite such equanimity, not everyone in the Catholic academic community is ready to treat Ad Tuendam Fidem as a nonevent. Fr. Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at Notre Dame and a syndicated columnist, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the document will affect bishops, who will be badgered by ultraconservative Catholics to use this new canonical authority to secure for them a few prominent theological scalps.

Many conservative Catholics believe Ad Tuendam Fidem will play a significant role in enforcing greater doctrinal discipline in the American church. I think the pope is trying to close the door on those theologians who want it both ways -- who are counterfeiting a faith that is not recognizably Catholic, said Regis Martin, who teaches theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, an institution widely known for its doctrinal conservatism.

On the July 7 episode of Mother Angelica Live, the flagship program on EWTN -- a conservative Catholic network that claims to reach 40 million homes -- the Poor Clare nun interviewed Msgr. Eugene Clark from the New York Archdiocese about the new papal document. Clark told Angelica that dissident Catholic theologians seek the secularization of the church. The revision to canon law, Clark suggested, might give bishops the tool they need to root out dissent, even if it means “losing a few Catholic colleges -- presumably a reference to the prospect that some institutions might prefer to surrender their church affiliation rather than seeing theologians disciplined.

For his part, OHare said that he did not envision Ad Tuendam Fidem leading to greater doctrinal scrutiny or the use of loyalty oaths at Fordham. Administering an oath has never been debated or discussed here, he said. Some faculty may do it as a matter of private devotion, and I applaud them, but theres no conversation about making it mandatory.”

Msgr. Frederick McManus, professor emeritus of canon law at Catholic University, said that Ad Tuendam Fidem is of interest to canonists even though its substance isnt really new. After the 1917 code, the notion was that curial offices would stop making law, he said. If general edicts needed to be issued, they would be proposed to the pope, who would add them to canon law if he approved them.

“It never really worked out that way,” McManus said. But the present instance may, McManus added, create a precedent for just that sort of process. The lasting importance to this is not really the substance of it, which changes very little, McManus said, arguing that all of the elements in the popes text were already in place with the profession of faith required in 1989. But if it means a return to the process envisioned with the 1917 code, that could be very important.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998