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Vatican’s veto is no laughing matter

News that the Vatican has blocked an attempt to honor Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx by naming a chair after him at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands seems, at one level, fairly comic, because this sort of intervention is almost always self-defeating.

It is reminiscent of similar maneuvers in 1990, when Rome prevented the Swiss University of Fribourg from giving an honorary degree to Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee because it didn’t like his listening sessions with women on abortion, or 1995, when the Vatican prevented Gustavo Gutierrez from addressing students at the Gregorian University in Rome because of his advocacy of liberation theology. In both cases, the controversy generated favorable publicity for the intended targets, and far more meaningful honors resulted; Gutierrez, for example, came to Rome anyway and spoke at the Brazilian college, where scores of students from the Gregorian turned out and applauded.

In the case of Schillebeeckx, however, the rebuff is no laughing matter. He has been investigated three times by Rome over three decades, and in each case Vatican officials found they could make no case against him. This favorable verdict on Schillebeeckx’s work has been well received by the Catholic faithful; his insights in Christology and in ministry have been central elements of the renewal that followed the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, and his books have sold well in dozens of languages.

Yet while Schillebeeckx has been judged orthodox, he is obviously not in alignment with the Vatican’s own theological views. He once called papal infallibility “plain heresy,” he has sharply criticized the appointment of conservative bishops in the Dutch Catholic church, has predicted that in 50 years “you will no longer find a single bishop who is against optional celibacy” and has called opening ministerial roles to married men and women a matter of “basic human rights.”

Moreover Schillebeeckx, though Belgian, was a central figure in shaping the progressive consensus in Dutch Catholicism after the council. Seemingly overnight Holland was transformed from one of the most traditional Catholic churches in the world to a stronghold of reform. Its crowning achievements were the National Pastoral Council, an experiment in shared governance among priests, religious and laity, and the Dutch catechism, which presented a version of the Catholic faith fully engaged with modern thought. Many observers believe the powerbrokers in Rome never forgave Schillebeeckx for his part in all of this.

So while the Vatican has not moved against Schillebeeckx in any overt fashion, they have in various ways made their disapproval clear. From criticism of the Dutch catechism under Paul VI, for which Schillebeeckx was the final censor, to the latest rebuff on the theology chair, the Vatican has surrounded Schillebeeckx’s theology with a patina of suspicion.

Even now, with Schillebeeckx at 85 and battling prostate cancer, the Vatican’s low-key campaign continues. It is evocative of what Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian liberation theologian, said when he left the priesthood in 1992 after enduring two doctrinal investigations of his own: “Ecclesiastical power is cruel and merciless. It forgets nothing. It forgives nothing. It demands everything.”

Any Catholic university would honor itself, and not just Schillebeeckx, by naming a chair for him. One hopes the honor is not long in coming.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000