German theologians demand 'intelligent restructuring' of Vatican's doctrinal office

New York

More than a hundred German theologians have expressed support for a call from an emeritus professor of dogmatic theology from the University of Tübingen, named Peter Hünermann, for an “intelligent restructuring” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal agency.

Hünermann published his proposal in a German theological journal titled Herder Korrispondenz, in response to the recent critical notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on two works by the Jesuit liberation theologian Fr. Jon Sobrino.

Among those who have backed Hünermann’s position are prominent German theologians such as Johann Baptist Metz, Dietmar Mieth, Bernd Jochen Hilberath, and Otmar Fuchs. The response from German theologians was reported by the Italian news agency Adista. In terms of church politics, many of these theologians would broadly be considered left of center.

After criticizing the notification on Sobrino, Hünermann offered a set of general observations about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, arguing that since the middle of the 19th century it has been responsible for a series of “serious conflicts which are damaging to the image of the church and to its journey of faith.”

For one thing, Hünermann asserted, deficiencies in the theological preparation of personnel in the doctrinal congregation sometimes “aggravate the conflicts.”

More deeply, however, Hünermann said the real problem lies with the congregation’s mentality.

“At bottom, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the successor to the Holy Office – has preserved the structure of a censor’s office which it had at the beginning of the modern era.” By way of contrast, Hünermann said, “the guarantee of quality in the scientific field today is structured differently: essentially, it’s a matter of collaboration with the sciences, and possibly includes scientific authorities in the decision-making procedures relative to the politics of scientific research, and in the administration of scientific discoveries.”

For that reason, Hünermann said, the time has come for an “intelligent restructuring” of the doctrinal congregation.

“Today, it’s necessary to elaborate the ratio fidei (“reason of faith”) in a very complex culture, with its grave social, scientific and human problems,” Hünermann wrote. “This presents a degree of complexity which a censor’s office according to old models is absolutely not capable of handling, even on an organizational and technical level.”

This is not the first time a group of German theologians has demanded reform in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 1989, an international group of 163 Catholic theologians, including a large contingent of Germans, signed a document known as the “Cologne Declaration,” sparked by the decision of Pope John Paul II to appoint the conservative Joachim Meisner as Archbishop of Cologne.

The heart of that statement was a defense of the right of free and open discussion in the church. It decried a “new Roman centralism,” and argued that “the church exists for the service of Jesus Christ. It must resist the permanent temptation to abuse its gospel of God's justice, mercy and faithfulness for its own power by making use of questionable forms of control.” With respect to theologians being banned from teaching in seminaries and theological faculties, the signers rejected what they called “intolerable” interference. Among the signatories were famed Swiss theologian Hans Küng, and the Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx.

At the time, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger rejected the Cologne Declaration, stating that “there is no right of dissent” in the church and suggesting that the theologians who signed the declaration were engaged in a “political power ploy.”

Critics of Ratzinger viewed those statements as ironic, given that in 1968, another group of predominantly German-speaking theologians had issued a similar call for reform, known as the “Nijmegen Declaration.” Among the signatories at the time was Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, then a member of the faculty at the University of Tübingen.

The Nijmegen document asserted that “the freedom of theologians, and theology in the service of the church, regained by Vatican II, must not be jeopardized again.” The signatories pledged their loyalty to the pope, but argued that the teaching office of pope and bishops “cannot and must not supersede, hamper and impede the teaching task of theologians as scholars.”

“Any form of inquisition, however subtle, not only harms the development of a sound theology, it also causes irreparable damage to the credibility of the church as a community in the modern world,” the statement asserted.

The document offered seven concrete proposals for reform:

• That the Roman curia, especially the doctrinal congregation, must take into account and express in the composition of its members “the legitimate pluriformity of modern theological schools and forms of mental outlook”;
t• This should apply first of all to the decision-making organ of the doctrinal congregation, the plenary assembly of cardinals, where an age limit of 75 should be imposed;
t• Only those acknowledged as outstanding professional theologians should be consultors to the congregation, with a fixed term of office and no one appointed who is over 75;
t• The members of the International Theological Commission, set up to advise the congregation, must be representative of the different theological schools; the congregation must consult with the commission; and the authority of the doctrinal congregation, and of doctrinal committees within national bishops’ conferences, must be clearly circumscribed and limited;
t• When the congregation feels obliged to disapprove of a theologian, this must be done in an orderly and legal fashion, with the proceedings worked out and published;
t• The defendant should have certain rights, such as to have his thinking judged solely on the basis of his actual published works in the original language, to have counsel from the start of the investigation, to get all relevant documents in writing, to refer any dispute to two more professional theologians (one appointed by the defendant), to be accompanied by a professional theologian and to speak whatever language he or she chooses in the event of a personal interview, to not be bound by secrecy, and to have any eventual condemnation backed up by argument;
t• Concern for truth in the church “must be carried out and fulfilled in accordance with the tenets of Christian charity.”

The statement also said that any administrative or economic measures against authors or publishers “are to be avoided in the present social situation, as they are as a rule useless or even harmful.”

Over the years, Ratzinger has argued that many of these proposals were, in fact, adopted during his term as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, such as the publication of a ratio agenda, or method of procedure, for doctrinal investigations, issued in 1997. Critics, however, contend that the spirit of the reforms proposed in the Nijmegen document has not been embraced.

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