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Paul Collins resigns priesthood amid Vatican probe

NCR Staff

Australian church historian and Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, under Vatican investigation since 1998 for his views on the papacy and other matters, has announced plans to leave the Catholic priesthood.

Collins was to make the announcement in Australia March 10, as NCR went to press. He said, however, that he has no intention of exiting the Catholic church. “I am just changing my status in the family,” he said.

In a statement to news organizations, Collins gave two reasons for his resignation.

The first was that he could no longer play a professional role in the church at a time when “many in ecclesiastical leadership … are moving in an increasingly sectarian direction.” Vatican statements and policies during the current pontificate, he said, are “watering down the catholicity of the church and even unconsciously neglecting elements of its teaching.”

Collins asserted that the thrust of much recent Vatican policy runs counter to the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He cited the 1998 papal document Ad Tuendam Fidem, expanding the range of teachings from which Catholics may not dissent, and Dominus Iesus, a September 2000 document reasserting the superiority of Catholicism over other religions and Christian churches.

Collins also cited Vatican support for so-called “new movements” such as Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenate and the Legionaries of Christ, which he called “theologically reactionary.”

The second reason for his decision, Collins said, is the investigation of his work by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he said is “moving toward an escalation.”

Collins said his religious superior in the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Fr. Michael Curran, had been summoned to a meeting Dec. 14 with officials of the Vatican congregation. Collins said officials had asked Curran to explain why Collins had not responded to a letter from the congregation, dated April 10, 1999, posing questions on three issues. In response, Collins said, Curran passed on to officials a copy of an interview Collins had done with an Australian theological journal, saying it “would go a long way to answering” these questions.

Curran told NCR he did not wish to add anything to Collins’ account.

According to Collins, officials asked Curran about statements Collins had made to the press as reported by the National Catholic Reporter, and published in its July 16, 1999, issue.

In the July 16 article, Collins was reported as saying, among other things, that it is “far too early” for definitive closure on the issue of women’s ordination.

Four days after the meeting, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s doctrinal czar, wrote Curran to say that the NCR article cast fresh doubt on Collins’ “alleged adherence to magisterial teaching.” A copy of Ratzinger’s letter was obtained by NCR.

Ratzinger wrote, “It was also decided to send to the experts an article printed in the July 16, 1999, issue of the National Catholic Reporter. … Because comments that he reportedly made … may put his alleged adherence to magisterial teaching in question.”

Collins’ said his resignation is designed in part to save his religious superiors from being “caught in the middle.”

When its investigation began in 1998, the Vatican charged that Collins:

  • implies in his 1997 book Papal Power that “a true and binding revelation” does not exist;
  • denies that the church of Christ is identified with the Catholic church;
  • holds an erroneous concept of papal infallibility;
  • acknowledges infallibility only in its “solemn and ex cathedra manner,” thus excluding the infallibility of the “ordinary and universal magisterium.”

Collins was also accused of putting forth a “more than nebulous” concept of church tradition and of wrongfully holding the view that a teaching, to be considered church doctrine, must be approved through the sensus fidelium -- the sense of the people -- as well as by bishops and theologians.

Collins has edited a new book titled From Inquisition to Freedom, containing interviews with Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, Fr. Hans Küng, Fr. Charles Curran, Lavinia Byrne, [School Sister of Notre Dame] Sr. Jeannine Gramick, Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent, and himself, describing their experiences with the doctrinal congregation. All have been subjects of Vatican investigations.

The book will be available in Australia in March and in New York and London this fall. Collins said its tone is “respectful and moderate.” At the same time, he said, “I don’t think it will win friends and influence people in Rome.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org. The complete text of Collins’ announcement, along with the Ratzinger letter, may be found on the NCR Web site at www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001 [corrected March 30, 2001]