Cover story -- Theological Disputes
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Issue Date:  February 25, 2005

Doctrinal jousting

Theologian's work raises ire of Vatican, as well as questions about authority, process and the limits of scholarship


For Christians, there is no more fundamental question than that posed by Christ to his disciples in Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” The specialized doctrines developed over the course of church history to answer that question, known in theological language as “Christology,” touch the very core of the Christian faith.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that efforts to reformulate these doctrines have always generated tensions, and few attempts in recent years have spawned more widely varying reactions than Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight’s 1999 book, Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis).

In addition to an animated debate among theologians, the book was recently the object of a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal authority, citing “grave doctrinal errors” (NCR, Feb. 18). The notification banned Haight from teaching Catholic theology, a largely symbolic gesture given that Haight is now an adjunct professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a non-Catholic institution. Nevertheless the notification reawakened stereotypes of Vatican authoritarianism.

Yet unlike previous cases in which Rome disciplined an American theologian, reaction this time does not break exclusively along predictable liberal and conservative fault lines. Precisely because Haight is exploring central questions of Christian identity, those troubled by his approach include some who on other matters have been critical of Vatican interventions on both process and substance. The theological community appears divided between those who see Haight’s work as a courageous exploration of new horizons, and those who regard it as a cautionary tale about what happens when the culture becomes the lens for reading the Gospel rather than vice versa. Reluctantly, some in that second camp seem prepared to concede that the Vatican notification was warranted, or at least predictable.

There’s little argument that Haight, a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, is a serious theologian and that Jesus Symbol of God is a work of vast erudition. Among other distinctions, it was named theological book of the year by the Catholic Press Association in 2000. A Feb. 15 statement from the board of the Catholic theological society, reacting to the Vatican notification, called Haight “a person of the highest character as well as a respected theologian and teacher who pursues his theological vocation as a service to the church,” and said that his book “has done a great service in framing crucial questions that need to be addressed today.”

In general, Haight’s aim is to express the church’s teaching about Christ in language accessible to a postmodern readership that has trouble with universal, exclusive claims for any one religion, and with “metaphysical” assertions that smack of mythology. The book is an exercise in “Christology from below,” starting with the historical Jesus of Nazareth rather than the cosmic Christ. Jesus, according to Haight, is the “central symbol” of God for Christians, though only “one of many symbolic actualizations of God’s loving presence to humankind.” Haight treats the Trinity and the preexistence of Christ as “symbols” of God’s activity, remaining tentative about whether they are actual persons or states of being.

Value in other religions

In one sense, Haight’s book is part of a broad movement within Catholic theology to interpret doctrines about Christ in ways that ascribe positive value to other religions, both as modes of revelation about God and systems of salvation for their followers. Vatican concerns with this movement have resulted in previous disciplinary moves against theologians such as Sri Lankan Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, German layman Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Indian Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello, and Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis. Those concerns also gave rise to the controversial September 2001 document Dominus Iesus, which proclaimed that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient situation.”

The Vatican notification, published in the Feb. 7 and 8 issue of L’Osservatore Romano, faulted Haight for making the skepticism and resistance to universal claims of postmodernity the litmus test for determining the plausibility of traditional doctrines. It also asserted that Haight undercut such core beliefs as the preexistence of Christ, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the saving value of the death of Jesus, the universality of the salvation won by Christ, and the resurrection of Jesus.

In some respects, the notification echoed negative reviews of Haight’s book published in leading theological journals, such as Modern Theology, The Theological Review, The Journal of Theological Studies, and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. On the other hand, Jesus Symbol of God drew positive treatment elsewhere, including Theological Studies and America.

Haight declined a Feb. 12 NCR request for comment. In September 2003, however, Haight was interviewed by NCR during a conference in Birmingham, England.

“I look at American Catholicism on the ground, with a Catholic population more and more educated in the faith,” Haight said then. “Many, for example college and university students, are used to [religious] pluralism, and are asking how they can square it with the Catholic faith.

“I try to put critical words on their experience, and keep this experience in touch with the tradition,” Haight said.

Beyond specific debates over the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the Haight case throws into relief two basic questions about the theological enterprise in the Catholic church.

First, in attempting to express doctrines in new language, where does legitimate reinterpretation end and doctrinal error begin? How far, in other words, is too far? Second, who should make that decision? Should the “school of theologians” be left alone to sort out the rights and wrongs, or is it necessary for church authority to step in?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to be easier to articulate the limits than to judge when they’ve been breached.

Fr. Robert Imbelli, a theologian at Boston College, told NCR that he falls back on a formula of Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic Biblical scholar and theologian at Emory University: “canon, creed, community,” meaning roughly scripture, the doctrinal tradition of the church, and the sense of the faithful under the guidance of the bishops. Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches at Fordham University, offered a similar version: “It’s a matter of fidelity to scripture, the living tradition of the church (which includes magisterial teaching), and the sense of the faithful, in interaction with contemporary culture,” she told NCR Feb. 12.

“This calls for discernment,” Johnson said. “It’s not just black and white.”

David Tracy, a renowned Catholic theologian at the University of Chicago, likewise told NCR that the ne plus ultra of theological speculation has to be “the central Christian confessions” contained in creedal statements.

“If I thought Roger Haight had repudiated the teachings of Nicea and Chalcedon on Christology and the Trinity, I would be troubled,” Tracy said, referring to two great church councils in the fourth and fifth centuries where doctrines on Christ’s divinity and humanity were formulated. “That’s without prejudice to what Karl Rahner said, which is that Chalcedon is a beginning, not an end. Certainly there are religious thinkers and theologians who would just blithely be untroubled by Chalcedon, or ignore it. But I’ve read Haight’s book, and I don’t see him doing that.”

Inevitably, church politics to some extent clouds such judgments. Many American theologians believe that the Vatican investigation of Haight was an outgrowth of longstanding tensions between his Jesuit community at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Boston and the former archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law. Still-simmering resentments against Law translate in some circles into a reflexive defense of Haight. On the other hand, conservative antipathy toward the Jesuits, and Weston specifically, mean that some see Haight as emblematic of deeper problems of dissent and doctrinal confusion. In both cases, Haight’s book becomes the terrain upon which larger battles are fought.

Trying to focus on the book rather than these other matters, several tough questions come into play:

  • How much can the “essence” of doctrines about Christ, whether conceived in terms of individual ethics or social justice, be separated from historical and metaphysical claims, such as the resurrection or the Trinity, that some modern people find difficult to believe?
  • Who is the Catholic theologian’s audience -- other professional theologians who can handle provocative treatments of delicate themes, or the broader public that might be confused about what Catholicism stands for?
  • To what extent should a particular historical and cultural setting become the optic through which doctrines are interpreted, versus using doctrine to assess the limits and sinfulness of a given culture?

Some well-known Catholic theologians believe Haight is on the wrong side of one or more of those divides.

A merely human Jesus

At a 1999 discussion of Haight’s book organized by the Catholic Theological Society of America, theologian William Loewe of the Catholic University of America suggested that by treating the second and third persons of the Trinity as “symbols,” however much Haight stresses that by a “symbol” he means a participation in divine reality, he ends up with “a Unitarian God and a merely human Jesus.”

John Cavadini, chair of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, offered a similar view in an influential 1999 review of Haight’s book in Commonweal.

“If Jesus is merely a symbol, I have no burning reason to invest the time and energy it takes to pass this faith on to children, or to spread the Word to others when other symbols (even the Roman emperor?) serve just as well,” Cavadini wrote. “I see no particularly urgent reason to take up my cross and follow a symbol (or even to teach for one). Pace Roger Haight, and to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, ‘If Jesus is merely a symbol, I say, the hell with it.’ ”

Imbelli told NCR that although he sympathizes with Haight’s aims, his judgment of the book is closer to that of the critics.

“In the eyes of many, the book is reductive in its presentation of the personal and salvific significance of Jesus, and the reality of God’s Triune identity,” Imbelli said.

Relevance over orthodoxy

Jesuit Fr. Gerald O’Collins, who teaches at Rome’s Gregorian University and is widely considered a leading Christologist, said the basic problem with Haight’s approach is that “there’s no difference in kind, only in degree, between Jesus and other religious people.”

“Mother Teresa was also a symbol of God,” he said. “I wouldn’t give my life for Roger Haight’s Jesus. It’s a triumph of relevance over orthodoxy.”

O’Collins is not a knee-jerk defender of Vatican crackdowns; he was the advocate for Dupuis in his lengthy back-and-forth with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was critical of both the process and outcome. Yet O’Collins said he sees major differences between Dupuis and Haight.

“Dupuis took Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, and for him that was not debatable,” O’Collins said. “That Christ rose from the dead was nonnegotiable. This isn’t the case with Haight.”

As a Jesuit, O’Collins said he has been stressed by what he perceives as Haight’s unwillingness to accept “friendly and loving criticism.”

“I pray for Roger Haight every morning,” he said.

Inside the Vatican, negative conclusions about Jesus Symbol of God often seem obvious.

“Any first-year theology student could see what’s wrong with this book,” one official told NCR.

Moreover, the Jesuit order has chosen to make no official comment on the Haight notification, in contrast with the spirited defense put up by the superior of the Jesuits, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, for Dupuis. Privately, sources told NCR that Kolvenbach concedes there are “serious problems” with Haight’s book.

All this suggests that objections to Jesus Symbol of God are not restricted to a narrow band of Vatican disciplinarians.

Yet other theologians insist that even if some of Haight’s tentative conclusions are debatable, his book has opened up a valuable new conversation and should be encouraged rather than condemned.

“I think of Haight as a voice in the wilderness,” Elizabeth Johnson said. “He’s doing the work of a theologian, trying to articulate in new cultural idioms what the faith says. … He’s a faithful man of the church, who ascribes to the Nicene Creed with full-heartedness. He’s not trying to oppose doctrine, but to make it come alive.

“His work on Spirit Christology is like a fledgling,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said that she sees Haight as part of a broader shift in North American theology. “Before the Second Vatican Council, theology here was largely done in a Roman voice,” she said. “In the years afterward, it became a German voice, dependent upon Rahner and von Balthasar and those greats. Now we’re seeing the emergence of a truly American voice.”

Johnson said that Haight is trying to build on the positive aspects of post-modernity, especially its tendency to “dismantle dominations” and to promote justice, human rights and ecology.

Tracy, who supervised the final stages of Haight’s dissertation at the University of Chicago, said that Haight’s book tackles squarely “the greatest lack in Western theology, which is a developed doctrine of the Spirit.”

“A Spirit Christology is a promising approach to resolving the impasse of having a Logos Christology dominate the issue of the relationship between Christianity and other world religions,” Tracy said, referring to the difference between emphasizing the Holy Spirit as operative in other religious figures and traditions in addition to Christ, as opposed to focusing exclusively on Jesus as the preexistent Word of God, a point of departure that some believe makes it more difficult to allow for God’s activity in other religions. “That’s the major issue that theologians today have to face.”

“Haight’s is one of the most impressive contributions in this direction, and he’s rather modest in what he’s claiming,” Tracy said, calling his conclusions “properly tentative.”

“I admire him as a theologian,” Tracy said. “He is an exceptionally fine person, a man of honesty and integrity, and a worthy representative of that remarkable Jesuit intellectual tradition.”

Both Johnson and Tracy said they disagree with Haight on some particulars. Both, for example, believe he relies a bit too exclusively on “Christology from below” and historical Jesus research, though both find his applications of that material impressive. Nevertheless, both said that this is the stuff of legitimate scholarly debate and should not be “stifled,” as Tracy put it, by an intervention from church authority.

‘Policing’ fidelity

This leads to the second issue raised by the Haight case: What is the proper role of the Vatican, or of church authority in general, in “policing” fidelity? The question has a special relevance with regard to Haight, since there already was a lively scholarly debate about his book prior to news of a Vatican investigation.

Johnson said that if Vatican officials have a concern, as they clearly do with issues surrounding the universality and uniqueness of Christ, they should “get into the debate,” but not with condemnations or bans on teaching.

“The Vatican has not always been right” when it censured theologians in the past, she said. “Sometimes they’ve attempted to block pioneering ways of thinking that turned out to be really valuable,” pointing to Vatican attempts earlier in the 20th century to stop Fr. Karl Rahner from writing on concelebration, or Fr. John Courtney Murray on religious freedom.

Further, Johnson said, the debate over Haight’s book was not one in which “the people in the pews” were much involved. A condemnation is likely simply to give it a wider audience.

Tracy called the ban on teaching Catholic theology “devastating and deplorable.”

“They should be ashamed,” he said, “not for criticizing him, but for that kind of discipline. It doesn’t help anything, including their own reputation.”

“Errors will eventually show up” in theological debate, Tracy said. “After all, there were lots of criticisms of Haight’s book.”

Paul Knitter, a theologian at Xavier University in Cincinnati, and like Haight an advocate of seeing other religions as autonomous systems of revelation and salvation, agreed.

“This notification has not been formulated through communion and dialogue with the rest of the community, especially the broader theological community, as well as the community of the faithful,” Knitter told NCR.

Imbelli, on the other hand, said that because Haight’s book “has had an influence beyond academic theological circles,” perhaps the Vatican felt it had no choice other than to respond. He said he did not find the notification “superfluous, but a call to ecclesial accountability on the part of the church’s magisterium.”

O’Collins said that unlike its notification on Dupuis, in this case the Vatican “didn’t put a foot wrong. They did their homework extremely well,” he said. “It actually reads a bit like the major reviews.”

A related question is whether Vatican procedures against theologians, with the threat of disciplinary consequences, actually impede the self-corrective function of theological debate. In other words, do theologians hold their fire when a fellow member of the club is under investigation?

This possibility was raised by the Catholic Theological Society of America statement, which warns, “Rather than promote greater criticism of the book, the Congregation’s intervention will most likely discourage debates over the book, effectively stifling further criticism and undermining our ability as Catholic theologians to openly critique our colleagues.”

In at least one case, it seems to have worked this way. Dupuis told NCR before his death that he had serious reservations about Haight’s book, but would not voice them publicly out of solidarity with a fellow theologian subject to what Dupuis regarded as an unjust process.

Tracy said he had spoken with Anglican theologians who told him they disagreed with Haight, but would not publish those criticisms because they didn’t want to “increase his difficulty.”

Johnson, on the other hand, said she didn’t see much self-censorship.

“In this country anyway, it hasn’t happened,” she said. “There’s been a lot of discussion.”

Given the obvious divisions within the theological world, and between some elements of that world and the Vatican -- in addition to the central nature of the issues Haight raises, such as the divinity of Christ, the reality of the resurrection, and the nature of the Trinity -- this discussion seems destined to go on, with some people welcoming Vatican attempts to bring clarity, and others chafing against it.

In that 2003 interview, Haight was asked if he could see any value in the concerns expressed by the Vatican.

“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 his work is a service to the church.

“My fear is that educated Catholics will walk out 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

At a glance

The theological community appears divided over the Vatican’s recent censure of Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight. Citing “grave doctrinal errors” in Haight’s book Jesus Symbol of God, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a notification banning the priest from teaching Catholic theology.

While some see Haight’s “Christology from below” as a courageous exploration of new horizons, others see it as a cautionary tale about what happens when the culture becomes the lens for reading the Gospel rather than vice versa. Some who fault Haight have included those who have been critical of Vatican treatment of other theologians, but reluctantly concede that the congregation’s notification of Haight may be justified, or at least expected.

Because the Jesuit’s work was already the subject of scholarly discussion prior to the Vatican investigation, the case raises broader questions about the role of church authority in “policing” fidelity. Some scholars say that rather than issuing condemnations, the Vatican should join the discussion. As the criticisms of Haight’s book have demonstrated, says one theologian, “errors will show up” in the theological discussion. Others, however, point out that because Haight’s work has had an influence beyond narrow academic circles, the Vatican may have seen no other choice but to bring clarity to the Christological issues addressed in his book.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2005

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