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Issue Date:  February 18, 2005

Vatican denounces Fr. Roger Haight's book, bars him from teaching


In a strongly worded “notification,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal agency, has denounced the book Jesus: Symbol of God by Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight as containing “grave doctrinal errors against the divine and Catholic doctrine of the church.”

In consequence, Haight, an American, has been prohibited from teaching Catholic theology “until his positions have been corrected so as to be in full conformity with the doctrine of the church.”

Haight was notified of a review of his work by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000, and shortly thereafter the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education ordered him suspended from the Jesuit-run Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. Currently he is teaching as adjunct professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Haight has described Jesus: Symbol of God as an attempt to express traditional doctrines about Christ and salvation in a language appropriate to postmodern culture. Some reviewers have found it an exciting new Christological approach, while others say that Haight goes too far in jettisoning or reinterpreting core doctrines.

The “notification” presents seven criticisms of the book:

  • Theological method: Haight, the notification says, “subordinates the contents of the faith to their plausibility and intelligibility in postmodern culture.”
  • The preexistence of the Word: The notification asserts that Haight’s book undercuts the doctrine that Christ existed as the divine Word of God prior to his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, a position, the notification said, that “ran counter to the cultural horizon” of the ancient world.
  • The divinity of Jesus: The notification asserts that Haight’s book presents Jesus as a human being who “symbolized” or “mediated” the saving presence of God, as opposed to being truly divine and truly human.
  • The Holy Trinity: Haight, according to the notification, interpreted the Son of God and the Holy Spirit as two different “mediations” of God, and to think that they are different “persons” would compromise the oneness of God. That position, the notification says, contradicts the faith of the church.
  • The saving value of the death of Jesus: Haight, the notification contends, suggests that “to affirm … that Jesus accepted to suffer punishment for our sins, or to die to satisfy the justice of God, does not make sense in the world of today.” That position, the congregation held, is unacceptable.
  • The oneness and universality of the saving mediation of Jesus and the church: Haight, according to the notification, holds that Jesus is “normative” for Christians but not “constitutive” for followers of other religions, and that it is not necessary to believe that God saves only through Jesus. He proposes a shift from Christocentrism to theocentrism, arguing that “it’s impossible in a postmodern culture to think … that one religion can insist on being the center to which all the others have to be brought back.” Such arguments, the notification asserts, contradict the church’s traditional faith in Christ as the lone and universal savior of humanity.
  • The resurrection of Jesus: On the principle that “it should not be supposed that something happened in the past that would be impossible today,” Haight proposes, according to the notification, that belief in an empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are not essential to the faith. Again, the notification asserts, such a position contradicts church doctrine.

Though the notification asserts that Haight’s book contains “grave doctrinal errors,” it does not use the word “heresy.” It also does not prevent Haight from publishing. Because Haight is currently at a non-Catholic institution, the teaching prohibition in the “notification” is expected to have little practical effect.

As opposed to the 2001 “notification” from the doctrinal congregation about Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, who died in December 2004, this time the response from the Jesuit order has been muted. Whereas the head of the order, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, put up a spirited defense of Dupuis, the Jesuits indicated he would have no statement on the outcome of the Haight investigation.

Sources told NCR that Jesus: Symbol of God sold something over 10,000 copies in hardback and paperback form.

In September 2003, NCR spoke with Haight about the Vatican investigation, asking if he saw any legitimacy to their concerns.

“They’re saying that one has to attend to the tradition, to the community,” he said. “I try to do that in what I write. I proceed very, very carefully and responsibly to address issues that cannot go unaddressed.”

Haight insisted that this work is a service to the church.

“My fear is that educated Catholics will walk if there isn’t space for an open attitude to other religions,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2005

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