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Chair will not have famed theologian’s name

NCR Staff

Acting under Vatican pressure, a Catholic university in Holland has withdrawn plans to name a chair in theology after Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx in honor of his 85th birthday.

The Dutch bishops’ conference has also asked Schillebeeckx to meet with two prelates to clarify comments made in recent media interviews. Reached by phone at the Dutch monastery where he resides, Schillebeeckx told NCR that this is the first time he has been subjected to review by his own bishops.

Schillebeeckx (pronounced Skill-uh-becks), one of the world’s best-known Catholic theologians, has faced three Vatican investigations for his progressive views on matters ranging from Christ’s divinity to the ability of lay people to celebrate the Eucharist, but he has never been silenced nor have his works been condemned.

The University of Nijmegen announced May 25 that the new chair will be dedicated to theology and culture in honor of Schillebeeckx’s interests, but will not bear his name. It is sponsored by the Foundation Edward Schillebeeckx, a private group.

Schillebeeckx said that while no date has been set for his session with the bishops, he expects an “amiable” dialogue.

Nijmegen, where Schillebeeckx spent most of his career, first announced the “Schillebeeckx chair” last November, although plans had been in the works for three years. It is to be filled on a rotating basis by a different scholar from outside the Netherlands.

The first occupant will be American Precious Blood Fr. Robert Schreiter of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. Schreiter completed his doctorate on Schillebeeckx at Nijmegen in the 1980s.

Conservative Catholics raised objections to the honor, pointing to interviews Schillebeeckx gave in conjunction with his birthday. The controversial points revolved around the resurrection of Christ and the doctrine that Christ has two natures but is one person.

Schillebeeckx told the press that while he upholds the substance of the two natures/one person formula, he believes it needs to be rephrased -- otherwise modern people will see Christ “as a kind of mermaid.”

Some conservatives complain that Schillebeeckx treats Jesus so much as a human being that his divinity is eclipsed, a charge Schillebeeckx dismissed as “nonsense.”

The conservative Catholic newspaper Katholiek Nieuwsblad editorialized: “How can such an apostate be honored with a chair? Incredible!” A well-known economics professor and conservative Catholic activist in Holland, Frans Rutten, acknowledged that he wrote letters of complaint to the Vatican.

“It is quite clear that Schillebeeckx is a heretic,” Rutten told NCR in a telephone interview. “Without any doubt, he denies the divinity of Christ.”

Rutten said that in Dutch theology departments the “science of Schillebeeckx” is dominant. “I would say that 50 percent of the priests and almost 100 percent of pastoral workers are indoctrinated into his theology,” Rutten said, arguing that because Schillebeeckx has argued for expanded ministerial roles for laity he is partly responsible for the drop in priestly vocations in the Netherlands.

Peter van Zoest, spokesperson for the Dutch bishops’ conference, said the bishops “have great respect for Fr. Schillebeeckx as a theologian,” but also have “doctrinal questions that worry them arising from the interviews.”

The two prelates who will meet with Schillebeeckx are Antonius Hurkmans of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and Joseph Lescrauwaet, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem.

Schillebeeckx said some bishops scolded him when reports of his remarks appeared. “They told me I had caused some uncertainty among Catholics,” he said. “I told them the cause of the uncertainty was the conservative reaction, not me.”

Van Zoest told NCR that the decision to ask the university to withdraw Schillebeeckx’s name from the chair came from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. “It was not just an order from Rome,” he said. “This was negotiated.”

Nijmegen professor A. Plasschaert, head of the Schillebeeckx foundation, told NCR that be believes the Vatican acted not to suppress Schillebeeckx’s theology but “diplomatically,” in an effort to moderate divisions between left and right in the Dutch church.

“From our perspective this is a minor issue,” Plasschaert said. “Our objective is to extend the horizons of our students and continue Schillebeeckx’s scholarly interests. The name is irrelevant.”

To date there has been little public protest. Schillebeeckx, who called the Vatican intervention “childish,” said he was not surprised.

“I’ve received many, many letters of sympathy,” he said, “but to everything coming from Rome now people here are indifferent.” He said the days of massive resistance among Dutch Catholics to Vatican decrees “have passed.”

Dutch Catholics were so rebellious in the years after Vatican II (1962-65) that John Paul II convoked a special synod on Holland in 1980 to bring the church back under control.

Schillebeeckx was first targeted by the Vatican in 1968 for his views on the virgin birth of Christ and his role in producing the post-Vatican II Dutch catechism. In 1979, Schillebeeckx was summoned to answer questions about his book Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. The issues ranged from whether Jesus was conscious of his mission as messiah to whether Jesus’ tomb really was empty.

In the mid-1980s, Schillebeeckx was interrogated for his views on ministry. Based on historical study, Schillebeeckx had concluded that the church always gives itself the ministers it needs, hence the ordination of married men and women “cannot be excluded.”

In each case, no condemnation followed.

There is no sign that Rome’s surveillance of Schillebeeckx is diminishing. He said that the master general of the Dominicans, English Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, told him the Vatican has expressed concerns about Schillebeeckx’s new book on the sacraments even though it has not yet been published.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000