By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Within Pope Benedict XVI’s broad campaign to affirm traditional Catholic identity, the top doctrinal priority falls in the arena of Christology, meaning the uniqueness of the salvation won by Christ and mediated through the Catholic church. The pope and his advisors fear a sort of religious relativism in which Christ is seen as one among many saving figures, and the church as one among many valid paths of salvation.
The size and scope of this campaign is sometimes difficult to assess, given the Vatican’s preference these days for theological discipline to be meted out at the local level by individual bishops and by national bishops’ conferences. Because the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome is not always directly involved in the investigation of theologians, keeping track of the fallout from today’s enhanced Christological vigilance is thus a bit more complicated.
One recent example came in the United States, with a critical notification from the doctrinal commission of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the 2004 book Being Religious Interreligously by Vietnamese-American theologian Fr. Peter Phan.
Now two more examples have cropped up in Spain, in the form of critical comments from the Comisión Episcopal para la Doctrina de la Fe, or the “Episcopal Commission for the Doctrine of the Faith” of the Spanish bishops, regarding two Spanish-born theologians, both writing in the area of religious pluralism and Christology: Fr. José María Vigil, a Claretian currently living in Panama, and Fr. José Antonio Pagola, who served for 22 years as vicar general of the Spanish diocese of Diocese of San Sebastián.
The Spanish bishops issued their clarification on the work of Vigil, a liberation theologian, in mid-January, in response to his 2005 book Theology of Religious Pluralism.
The notification accuses Vigil, who has coauthored books with the famed Brazilian leftist bishop Pedro Casaldaliga, of “incorrect methodological presuppositions,” including:
•tA rationalist philosophy that denies the possibility of divine intervention in history;
•tMarginalizing ecclesial tradition in the reading and interpretation of Scripture;t
•tReading Vatican II as a “rupture” in church history;
•tDenying the magisterium as the authentic interpreter of the Word of God;
•tA relativistic conception of religious realities;
•tAn ideological presentation of the history of evangelization.
On the basis of those presuppositions, the notification asserts, Vigil reaches conclusions already denounced by previous Vatican declarations on the works of theologians such as the Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis and American Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight. Such points include treating the Incarnation and pre-existence of Jesus as “symbols,” making a sharp distinction between the Kingdom of God and the church, and elevating other religions as valid vehicles of revelation.
On the strength of those points, the declaration warns that Vigil’s book is “especially damaging to the faith of the simple.”
The two footnotes in the notification cite a 2005 address to the Roman Curia by Benedict XVI regarding the interpretation of Vatican II, as well as previous Vatican censures of Dupuis, Haight, John Hick, Reinhard Messner, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino.
The negative verdict on Pagola, meanwhile, came from Fr. José Rico Pavés, secretary of the doctrine committee of the Spanish bishops, in a reflection on Pagola’s 2007 book Jesus: A Historical Approximation.
The book has been a publishing phenomenon in Spain, selling some 40,000 copies in eight editions since its release last December.
Pagola’s book was publicly criticized by Bishop Demetrio Fernández González of the Tarazona diocese, who said that “the Jesus of Pagola is not the Jesus of the church,” and that in Pagola’s hands Jesus becomes “an exceptional man, but not consubstantial with the Father,” invoking the traditional formula of Trinitarian theology.
That statement was followed by the essay from Pavés, who faulted Pagola’s book for excessive skepticism with regard to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Further, Pavés charges that Pagola interprets Jesus’ message too much from the perspective of class struggle, neglecting the dimension of individual sin and redemption.
As was also the case with the notification on Vigil, Pavés asserts that Pagola “silences the historic reading that tradition has given to numerous gospel passages,” while more or less taking on faith the reading of what Pavés calls “liberal exegesis.”
To date, the critique from Pavés has not yet been adopted as the formal position of the Spanish bishops. Spanish media have reported a division of opinion within the conference , with moderate figures such as Bishop Juan María Uriarte of San Sebastián and Bishop Ricardo Blázquez of Bilbao, former president of the conference, taking a more sympathetic view of Pagola's book.
Spanish media sources have also speculated that a formal clarification may be forthcoming from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, owing in part to the commercial success of Pagola’s book – which, according to Spanish sources, is also set for translation into several other languages.