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Two European scholars under scrutiny for heresy

NCR Staff

Two European Catholic intellectuals face separate Vatican heresy probes, according to recent Italian news accounts.

Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis is on leave from his teaching position at the Pontifical Gregorian University while he responds to Vatican objections to his book on religious pluralism, while law professor Luigi Lombardi Vallauri has been suspended from Milan’s University of the Sacred Heart for questioning the reality of Hell, the extent of papal authority and the doctrine of original sin.

The 74-year-old Dupuis, who spent 36 years teaching theology in India before joining the faculty at the Gregorian in Rome, told the Italian news service ANSA Nov. 7 that he had received an interrogative survey from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal watchdog agency, about his book Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis Books, 1997). The book draws on Eastern religions to argue that salvation may be found outside the Catholic church.

The survey is the first step in a heresy investigation. Dupuis said he had three months to respond.

Reached at his university office in Rome, Dupuis told NCR that he could not reveal the specific grounds for the Vatican action. “The contents of the survey are strictly reserved,” he said. “I cannot enter into the details without making the case worse.

“I cannot discuss the matter even with my colleagues or my students,” Dupuis said. “The only thing I am able to acknowledge publicly is the simple fact of my being questioned.”

Dupuis said the the accompanying letter from the doctrinal congregation instructed him, while the investigation is pending, “not to spread the ideas for which I am being questioned in my teaching, writing or public lectures.”

On Nov. 11, the university issued a statement saying that Dupuis would be relieved of his teaching responsibilities for the next three months. Jesuit Fr. General Hans-Peter Kolvenbach, who is also vice-chancellor of the Gregorian University, said the action was intended to free Dupuis so he could prepare his response.

Dupuis told NCR that the decision should not be understood as a “suspension,” and that it was made with his consent. “It is the only thing to do,” he said. “How can you teach if you can’t say what you think?”

Taken in concert with the recent censure of the late Indian Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello as well as rifts between Asian bishops and the Roman curia that appeared in last spring’s Synod for Asia, the action against Dupuis seems to reflect Vatican concern with the impact of Eastern religious thinking on Catholicism.

In his book, Dupuis argues that Christ should be understood as the “universal” but not the “Absolute” savior -- “who is God himself” -- and hence that other religions can lead to salvation. He invokes concepts such as the Hindu mystical notion of saccidnaanda, a spiritual experience of God’s perfection, to suggest that other faiths recognize truths Christians have traditionally affirmed.

The book drew wide praise when it was published by Orbis last year. Among other honors, it received the second place award in the category of books on theology from the U.S. Catholic Press Association; judges cited its “clarity and respect.”

The hardcover edition of the book carries a blurb from Bishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. “A masterful presentation of the history of Christian attitudes towards other religions,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Dupuis has provided a general theology of religions at the same time sure and stimulating.”

Lawrence S. Cunningham, former chair of the Theology Department at the University of Notre Dame, echoed the sentiment, writing in Commonweal in June 1998 that Dupuis’ book “should become a standard study on this most pressing question in theology.”

Even The Thomist, a theological journal edited by Dominican Fr. Gus DiNoia, the U.S. bishops’ chief theologian for doctrinal affairs, gave Dupuis’ book cautious praise. Its April review said the book was “a major achievement” that “will be an essential point of reference on the topic for a long time to come.” It said Dupuis’ book should be “widely read.”

The review, written by Paul J. Griffiths of the University of Chicago Divinity School, also found three problems in the book. First, the review suggested that Dupuis confused the theoretical possibility that other religions may be vehicles of salvation with the empirical question of whether any of them actually are; second, Griffiths charged that Dupuis did not warn against the dangers of Christian use of texts and practices drawn from other religions; and third, Griffiths said Dupuis may be wrong in concluding that the Catholic church is not the logical “fulfillment” of other religions, whose purpose in God’s plan is to prepare people for Christianity.

Dupuis told NCR he could not comment on whether these are the grounds upon which the Vatican launched its investigation.

As for Vallauri, he said in an interview Nov. 8 with the Italian newspaper La Stampa that the Congregation for Catholic Education told him he was under investigation for his views on Hell and papal authority, as well as for questioning the necessity of the sacraments for salvation. Vallauri said the Vatican was also irked by his challenge to the doctrine of original sin as “contrary to the principle of personal responsibility.”

Vallauri said that the charges had been communicated only orally, not in writing, and that he has been given no chance as yet to respond.

Vallauri asserted that the Vatican had exceeded its authority in targeting him, since in Italy teachers at Catholic universities are salaried by the state. It is unfair, he said, that Catholic teachers do not enjoy the same job protections as other civil servants.

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998