Editorial: Time to reform doctrinal investigations

Charles Curran, Roger Haight, Margaret Farley. What some of this country's most prominent theologians share in common, sadly, is a history of investigation and censure by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And it's not just an American problem. Consider Switzerland's Hans Küng, Brazil's Leonardo Boff or Sri Lanka's Tissa Balasuriya.

Now some theologians and two bishops are calling for Pope Francis' spirit of openness and transparency to be extended to Catholic theologians under investigation by the doctrinal office. In a letter sent to the congregation and Francis last month, a prominent group of church men and women are recommending that the current procedures be updated and reformed. The most basic demands are that the curtains of secrecy that envelop this process be lifted and that all parties involved engage in open, civil discourse.

The new approach should aim "to reflect the attitude of Jesus and to integrate values that the world sees as basic to a functioning, civilized society," says a copy of the letter obtained by NCR.

Reforms should make the process "just and equitable," with presumptions of "sincerity, innocence, and loyalty to the church on the part of the person being investigated," the letter said.

We agree. While we have seen time and again church authorities giving the benefit of the doubt to those who prey on children or reject the Second Vatican Council, the treatment of theologians whose job is to wrestle with the tough questions of our faith hearkens back to the doctrinal congregation's origins in the infamous medieval Inquisition. Such unjust practices are more befitting countries headed by dictators than the church founded by Jesus.

For example, current practice does not allow people under investigation to meet or speak to their accusers, since the doctrinal office often works only through a religious superior or bishop. In many cases, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acts as "investigator, accuser, judge and jury," according to the letter, and procedures can "drag on for years, with sometimes negative consequences for the mental and physical health of the accused."

The letter writers know from personal experience. Organized by two men who have been investigated by the congregation, Irish Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery and Australian former priest Paul Collins, the letter was signed by other high-profile Catholics who have suffered similar investigations, including Roy Bourgeois, Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and Australian Bishop William Morris.

Reform of these procedures would be a smart public relations move for the Vatican, since such investigations inevitably draw much negative media attention that portrays the church as backward and outdated. A case in point is how ordinary Catholics and the general population rallied in support of the U.S. sisters during the recent Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. (Remember that Congress even passed a resolution in support of the U.S. sisters.)

More important than public relations, though, is reform of a system that -- according to people who have experienced it firsthand -- doesn't reflect "the gospel values of justice, truth, integrity and mercy that the church professes to uphold." This reform is the morally just thing to do.

Theologians deserve to have their work properly presented, without bias, and examined by competent professionals. The process must be completed in a timely manner and with sincere charity. At a bare minimum, those under investigation must be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ when questions arise about their work.

But it will take more than reformed procedures on the books; such procedures must be implemented. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case. For example, the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine has ignored procedures it agreed to follow when investigating theologians, most notably in the case of the 2011 critique of Johnson's book Quest for the Living God.

In Johnson's case, the bishops said the 1989 "Doctrinal Responsibilities" guidelines, which called for dialogue with the theologian before public criticism, were optional. The Catholic Theological Society of America and the College Theology Society, which had been instrumental in creating the guidelines, supported Johnson and criticized the bishops for not following their own rules.

If Küng is correct, and "Francis has set no restrictions" on discussions, then the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must reform its investigative procedures. Theologians, who have dedicated their lives to serving the church, deserve as much.

This story appeared in the May 6-19. 2016 print issue under the headline: Editorial: Time to reform doctrinal investigations .

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