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Loyalty within the clerical club matters most to Holy Office


I don’t mean to say that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is a sadist or that he leads a band of inquisitors who delight in punishing others. Nor do I want to sound like a whiny liberal bemoaning the clericalism of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But there is something odd about the procedure of the modern Holy Office in its attempts to protect God from erroneous notions about the divinity and to maintain its pure doctrine lest the faithful stray from the path of salvation.

I thought about this as I pondered a statement from Fr. Paul Collins, the controversial Australian writer and media personality, who resigned from the priesthood in the midst of a long investigation by the congregation (NCR, March 16). Collins, the author of Papal Power and other works upsetting to the Vatican, said that he resigned at age 60 to spare his religious order harassment by the congregation. He also spoke about how the congregation did not allow him to face his accusers and similar issues of due process.

As I read Collins’ explanation, I wondered if it was his ideas that mattered most to the watchdogs of the congregation or his status as a clergyman speaking those ideas. My guess is that once he is “reduced to the lay state,” the congregation will quickly lose interest in his erroneous ideas or their pernicious influence. They will turn their inquisitorial attention to another cleric or perhaps a nun. Again, is it theology that mainly interests the congregation or the churchly status of the theologian? Notice that time after time it is clergymen who are investigated: Frs. Charles Curran, Hans Küng, Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight, to mention just a few.

I don’t want to bring the wrath of the congregation down on my friend and esteemed colleague, Rosemary Radford Ruether, by using her as an example of an outstanding lay theologian who has been ignored by the congregation. But if one looked into the vast corpus of her written work, one would find evidence of the same progressive, “erroneous” notions about Vatican power, women’s ordination, the place of Jesus interfacing with world religions, and many other disquieting themes that produce cold sweats in the halls of the Sant’Uffizio. A compelling argument could be made that Ruether, after 40 years of publishing and teaching, is not only the world-respected dean of Catholic and Protestant women theologians, but she is also a lay theologian who has had at least as much influence as some of the well-known priest theologians and moralists like Frs. Edward Schillebeeckx and Bernard Häring.

It makes one wonder why some are chosen for investigation and others ignored. Is it really the ideas or the clerical status of the proponent? Is it more a matter of loyalty within the clerical club, of not overturning the ashtrays in the old boys club and leaving wet rings on the dark wood arms of the overstuffed furniture? NCR’s own John L. Allen Jr. looked up at me over a plate of steaming pasta last fall in Rome to say that if one writes as a Catholic layperson (we were discussing his critical biography, Cardinal Ratzinger) or is published by a non-Catholic press, the writer is virtually invisible to the congregation. He or she doesn’t count in the pursuit of the Oscar for worst performance. Even though laypeople do most of the pastoral ministry in the church today, they constitute a lesser caste. Has the age of the laity really arrived? Since some of the best younger Catholic theologians are now laypeople, it will be interesting to see if their research gets Vatican attention.

One can’t but wonder if there isn’t a touch of sadism involved in investigating only those who can be put on the rack. Sadism is broadly defined as “delight in cruelty.” I acknowledge the good intentions of the inquisitors who see their job as the preservation of true doctrine. But as thought police they are in the business of inflicting punishment on those who stray from conventional ways of presenting theology. They impose considerable suffering on their targets: loss of jobs or reputations with the heavy psychological trauma for some of being seen as erroneous outcasts after many years of serving the church. Do the inquisitors lose heart for the game if they can’t lay a glove on the perpetrator of the error? Is it just no fun for them to go after the heretics who can’t be assailed with severe sanctions?

Take the case of Sr. Jeannine Gramick. By just about any standard, she is far less “heretical” than Ruether. But Gramick, as a nun, can be gotten to. No amount of huffing and puffing on the part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will bring down the walls of Ruether’s Garrett School of Theology and Northwestern University. The archaic mode of the congregation’s disapproval would enhance her book sales.

The accepted way of critiquing theology today is by open peer review. Is punishment, or the threat thereof, a prerequisite to energize the complete inquisitor? Is there some unconscious sadism in this? Perhaps the Ratzinger team can add some of this soul-searching to their Lenten renewal.

Eugene Bianchi, professor of religion at Emory University, is on the board of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church. His e-mail address is releb@emory.edu

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001