Rome orders Roger Haight to stop teaching, publishing

American Jesuit theologian Fr. Roger Haight, whose writing on Christ and non-Christian religions was censured by the Vatican in 2005 for causing “grave harm to the faithful,” has been ordered by Rome to stop teaching and publishing on theological subjects.

Sources told NCR that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal agency, communicated the restrictions to the Jesuits in spring 2008. They apparently came amid back-and-forth discussions involving the Vatican, the Jesuit leadership in Rome, and the order’s New York province. Among other steps, Jesuit officials in America reportedly had consulted the late Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles in an effort to resolve the concerns.

A Jesuit spokesperson in Rome confirmed the measures, but said that a “final resolution” has not yet been reached in the Haight case, suggesting that the bans on teaching and publishing could turn out to be interim measures.

“The process continues,” said Jesuit Fr. Jose de Vera, who is finishing his term as the order’s spokesperson.

Haight declined comment, but Jesuit sources told NCR that he intends “to comply fully” with the restrictions. Those sources said that Haight has been working with his Jesuit superiors in responding to the Vatican’s concerns.

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News of the recent Vatican action was reported last month by Catholic journalist David Gibson on the web site of Commonweal magazine.

In practice, the order means that Haight, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, will no longer teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he is presently a scholar in residence. It is not yet clear what future role Haight may play at Union Theological, founded in 1836 as a Presbyterian institution which today describes itself as “multi-denominational.”

In its 2005 notification citing “serious doctrinal errors” in Haight’s 2000 book Jesus: Symbol of God, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stipulated that until Haight’s positions were amended, he was barred from teaching Catholic theology. At the time, Haight and the Jesuits believed that teaching at a non-Catholic institution would satisfy that requirement; the recent action by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes clear that he’s not to teach anywhere.

Haight, 72, will also not be able to publish any new writings on theological topics, though he will be able to complete a project on the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.

The Vatican’s original 2005 notification did not restrict Haight’s ability to publish, and since Jesus: Symbol of God, he has produced several other works, including a three-volume study of the church titled Christian Community in History, and 2007’s The Future of Christology. Speaking on background, a Vatican official said these works largely “reiterated” the views which had triggered the earlier censure, and were part of the motivation for the new restrictions.

“We had hoped that Haight would amend his positions in light of the notification,” the official said. “It’s fairly obvious that hasn’t happened.”

Haight had earlier been removed from a position at the Jesuit-run Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education.

Jesus: Symbol of God has been described by Haight as an attempt to express traditional doctrines about Christ and salvation in a language appropriate to postmodern culture. In particular, the book offers a positive theological reading of non-Christian religions and savior figures. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserted that the book endangered traditional doctrines on such matters as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the saving value of Christ’s death on the Cross, and the importance of the church.

Most observers see the action on Haight as part of a broader concern with the “theology of religious pluralism,” referring to various attempts to treat non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation in their own right. Prior to his election as pope, Benedict XVI repeatedly warned that such theologies, if pushed too far, lead to religious relativism – the idea that one religion is as good as another. In particular, critics worry that such approaches may sap the missionary energies of the church.

Since its publication eight years ago, Jesus: Symbol of God has engendered lively theological debate. Some reviewers found it an exciting new Christological approach, while others say that Haight, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, goes too far in jettisoning or reinterpreting core doctrines.

Whatever they may think of the theological merits of Haight’s work, some sources told NCR that they find the recent Vatican action overly “punitive.”

“This is hard for us to get our minds around,” one Jesuit official said, speaking on background. “It’s not clear what purpose is served by making him leave Union, since the point has already been made that his views do not represent official Catholic theology.”

A Vatican spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 2004 notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Notification on the book Jesus Symbol of God by Father Roger Haight S.J.

Earlier NCR reporting on Roger Haight:


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