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From censure, uncertainty


Last August I was summoned to our provincial headquarters where I was given a 14-page communication from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It had judged that my writings contain “various doctrinal problems, in particular concerning original sin and connected articles of faith.”

The general minister of my order was given three mandates from Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone to be delivered to me through my provincial. The mandates state that I am not allowed to have either of my books reprinted (both are now out of print); I am to complete my theological formation; and finally, I am forbidden to publish anything without the permission of a trustworthy theologian, while also acquiring a nihil obstat and an imprimatur. While these mandates came as a shock, they were not altogether surprising.

Ever since my ordination in 1974, I’ve encountered those who proclaimed me a heretic. While many appreciated what I had to say, there was always a band who would deem my message heretical. It wears down the soul to be continually labeled in such a way. I have always loved the church. I have been quite happy serving the church as a pastor.

I could have avoided the censures had I not decided to write exactly what I believed. My first book, Shaping a Healthy Religion, Especially If You Are a Catholic, was published by Thomas More Press in 1985 and went through four printings. I received many letters from people who were delighted to read what I had to say. What I attempted in Shaping and its sequel, Fashioning a Healthier Religion (1992), was to make accessible what I had been taught in my theology studies and subsequent readings. It is true -- as the report from the congregation points out -- that I am a “popularizer.” I didn’t think that was a bad thing until the report from the anonymous congregation reviewer. In the review of Fashioning, I was accused of the following: hubris; blasphemy; theological haute vulgarization; a cavalier approach to the language of Christian revelation; a supercilious attitude; ignorance about the church’s sacramental dispensation; a flippant attitude; ignorance; approximating Marcionism in my views of the early books of the Old Testament, and being part of a new Modernist crisis.

As one of the conclusions states: “Without too much exaggeration, one may compare the present circumstances in the United States with those prevalent during the modernist crisis in Western Europe, especially France, at the end of the 19th century. At the time, the theological misdirections of a small group of authors in England and on the continent threatened to unsettle the faith of the Catholic faithful. Authors such as Fr. Aldworth disseminate to large numbers of Catholic faithful half-truths about the church and her mysteries and promote skeptical attitudes toward the pastors of the church, as well as toward the magisterium.”

I am, of course, left with three possibilities. The first is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s pronouncements are true -- in which case I am unfit for ministerial leadership in the church. The second is that the pronouncements are wrong, and I am not what the congregation claims me to be. The third and most likely possibility is that the pronouncements are a mix of what is true and what is not. The dilemma I face is how to unravel truth from untruth. How can I prayerfully decide if my ministry is beneficial to the people of God or not? I do not relish being at odds with such an official arm of the church.

The congregation’s censures came just as I was completing six years as pastor of St. Peter’s Church in the Chicago Loop. I had been graciously granted a yearlong sabbatical to travel and write another book. During this year I have spent untold hours pondering what the congregation had to say to me. I am still at a loss as how to respond. Do I humbly accept my castigation? Do I stubbornly refuse its imperious pronouncements? Does my obligation supersede my rights as a person? Is my writing an affront to God or a gift from God? Is my search for truth subservient to my search for ecclesial acceptance? Where might God be in all this? Is censure by the congregation the movement of the Spirit or a penalty for upsetting an anonymous hierarch?

I have not found clear answers. Some consider my censure to be a badge of distinction or even honor. I find it to be neither. I do not wish to be a thorn in the side of my church. I do not wish to “unsettle the faith” of my fellow believers. It is certainly true that I am a “liberal” -- such is the language I was taught in theology and developed in almost 30 years of pastoral ministry. I seek God with all my heart and soul. I know how deeply God’s love has penetrated into the core of who I am. I seek to defend that love from anything that would despoil it. I write this little essay not to become a cause célèbre but to humbly admit my own uncertainty.

The communication from the congregation sought nothing from me. No dialogue was initiated. So I am left speechless. What shall I do with my new manuscript? How does one find a “trustworthy theologian”?

I am now -- as always -- ready and willing to have my errors pointed out to me. I am inherently fallible. But I do not believe myself to be a contagion in the church. My first two books were written under the auspices of what I can only call grace. Now I am told by the congregation that what I believed to be the workings of grace were nothing of the sort. My acceptance of this is painful because it runs counter to what I know of the ways of God. Yet I will gladly consume this harsh purgative if it be God’s will. For a year now I have held it in my hand. Both my hand and my heart have grown weary. Is the voice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the voice of God?

Fr. Thomas P. Aldworth, theologian, author and pastor, is a Franciscan friar of the Sacred Heart Province.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002