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Rome targets another Jesuit

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In its latest attempt to rein in theologians who hint that Jesus of Nazareth is not the exclusive path to God, the Vatican is investigating Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight, a priest of the Weston Jesuit community in Cambridge, Mass.

Haight confirmed rumors that an investigation is under way, but said he had been asked by church officials to refrain from commenting about it.

Haight is the author of Jesus, Symbol of God, a book published last year by Orbis Press. The book has drawn high praise from many theologians for the way the author avoids discussing Jesus in traditional dogmatic formulas, but rather presents an interpretation of Jesus in modern terms. It was a selection of the Catholic Book Club, operated by America Press.

Regarding the investigation, Haight said in a brief telephone interview July 19 from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, the graduate theology school where he teaches, “I want to handle this like Jacques Dupuis did and not comment.”

Dupuis, 76, is a Jesuit who taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome until the fall of 1998, when he came under Vatican investigation for his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (NCR, Nov. 20, 1998).

Dupuis told the Italian news agency ANSA at the time that he had been ordered to refrain from speaking about the investigation, the charges or his theological views.

It is believed Dupuis is under suspicion of heresy for suggesting that salvation can be attained other than through Jesus Christ. No resolution of the case has been announced.

In 1993 and again in 1996, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, warned that the theology of religious pluralism represents a threat to Roman Catholicism today similar to that of liberation theology in the 1980s. In that decade, the Vatican silenced and censured a string of authors in order to impede liberation theology, a popular movement in Latin America. Vatican officials warned that the movement downplayed supernatural elements in Christian theology in its efforts to support social and political struggles of disadvantaged people.

Since Ratzinger issued warnings against religious pluralism, a similar campaign has been unleashed against theologians believed to be diluting the uniqueness of Jesus as the universal savior for all humankind.

Haight, like Dupuis, argues that while Jesus is “normative” for salvation for Christians, other world religions may also offer ways to God and salvation.

That Haight is a target of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith comes as no surprise, even to his most ardent supporters who had expected a challenge almost from the moment his book was published.

John B. Switzer, a Boston College doctoral candidate and a former student of Haight, reviewed Haight’s book on the Web site amazon.com earlier this year. “This work is truly on the cutting edge as it brings Catholic tradition into dialogue with postmodern realities. Haight seems destined to ask the difficult questions, and one worries that this penchant may well find him in ‘hot water’ with those short-sighted minds who claim the prerogative of preserving Roman Catholic doctrine in the curial halls of Vatican City.”

Switzer said in a telephone interview he regretted that he had been so prophetic. He noted that church doctrines had been formulated at a time in church history when “some of the greatest theological minds were among the hierarchy.” That is no longer the case, he said. “The hierarchy is more interested in shoring up edges of the church that they see as tumbling, and I think that is a mistake,” he said, because it prevents the case for Christianity from being presented in a fresh way to modern generations.

Jesuit Fr. David Toolan, theologian and associate editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America, said he was not surprised to learn that Haight had been called on the carpet, given his fresh approach. Toolan, who chose Jesus, Symbol of God as a selection of the Catholic Book Club, said Haight has paved a way for theologians to talk sensibly about the Holy Trinity for the first time in centuries.

“Certainly the dominant interpretation in Christology, the interpretation of Christ, is the one that comes from John’s Gospel -- the eternal Word became flesh. It is what Roger and others call ‘Christology from above,’ the Divine Person sending [Jesus] to earth,” Toolan said.

“Haight’s approach takes from the three synoptic gospels” -- that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke -- “which are very different,” Toolan said. “It is Christology from below with no real reference to [Jesus as] a divine person [but as] an utterly human being raised and glorified by God. It is quite a different approach.”

Matthew, Mark and Luke are called “the synoptic gospels” because they correspond closely to one another in their accounts of the life of Jesus.

“Roger is so respectful of theological tradition,” Toolan said. “He is not denying the Johannine theology” -- that is, the Christology drawn from the Gospel of John -- “but he is emphasizing another motif. I expected it would upset people. It seems to me within bounds of Catholic orthodoxy but somewhat unfamiliar.”

There are reports that Haight is not expected to teach in the coming semester. Toolan said, “I heard by hearsay that the Vatican told the school at Weston he was not to be teaching.” Toolan said he respected Haight’s decision to obey but considered the process to be unfair to Haight.

The Vatican investigation fails to follow due process, Toolan said. “He doesn’t know who his accusers are and probably even what the accusations are. It’s a terrible system and very unjust.”

Fr. Charles Curran, probably the most famous contemporary American moral theologian, fired from Catholic University in Washington for his writings on sexual ethics, said he was surprised that Haight had come under fire so soon after publication of his book.

“Rome doesn’t work that fast,” Curran said from his home in Dallas where he teaches at Southern Methodist University.

Curran speaks from experience. When he was a theologian at the Catholic University of America, Curran challenged Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s document upholding the church’s ban on artificial contraception, shortly after it was issued in 1968.

Nothing was done formally until 1979, a year after Pope John Paul II was installed. The process against Curran began then. He wasn’t ousted until 1986.

“That shows how these things can drag on,” he said.

However, another well-connected theologian, who asked not to be identified, said, “The Vatican has been getting its act together and moves more quickly on these things nowadays.”

As previously reported in NCR, several American Jesuits have been targeted by Vatican crackdowns in recent years. Specifically, the Vatican has refused to approve at least five U.S. Jesuits to serve as administrators or members of pontifical faculties at Weston School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass., or Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, Calif. The Jesuits include: Frs. William J. Rewak, Edward Glynn, Michael Buckley, David Hollenbach and John Baldovin.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000