Religion: Taming the Theologians

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Of all the beneficiaries of the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic theologians were among the most blest. Before the Council, most of them seemed to be little more than academic valets to the Popes, limited to being apologists for the fixed doctrinal formulations laid down by the 16th century Council of Trent. When Vatican II opened the doors to modern scholarship, especially biblical research, theologians were quick to seize their new opportunities. Within a few short years, some of them were questioning everything from the church's teachings on sexual ethics to papal infallibility —even such root doctrines as the nature of the Eucharist and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

The era of such unfettered speculation seems to be coming to an end —at least for theologians who want to be considered believing servants of the church. Last month in Rome, 27 members of the Vatican's international Theological Commission used their fourth annual meeting to discuss how theologians could keep their intellectual pluralism within a unified faith. The trend was centrist. The conservatives were less conservative, the liberals less liberal than the year before. The commission's consensus: diversity can be allowed in forms of expression and formulation, but not in basic belief. The church needs a "missionary and pastoral pluralism" that allows for a "translation of the faith for diverse cultures," said Commission Secretary Philippe Delhaye, of Belgium's Louvain University, but it cannot tolerate a "pluralism of rupture" that challenges faith and church authority.

Commission Member Yves Congar, a French Dominican whose own works were under suspicion in preCouncil days, emphasized that even a broadened Catholic theological spectrum cannot mean "the coexistence of persons holding contrary views." Catholic diversity can only embrace those who share "identical basic views but express them differently." Roman Catholicism simply cannot afford the kind of theological pluralism that liberal Protestantism has enjoyed, says Congar—a limitation, he admits, that is both a strength and a weakness. "My Protestant friends at the World Council marvel that we were able to achieve so much in four sessions of the Vatican Council, while it takes them ten years to produce one document. We were able to do this because of our doctrinal unity. On the other hand, we will never have the 'spread' theologically that they have had with Earth, Tillich, Bultmann and others."

Some Catholic theologians including Moralist Bernard Haring have argued in recent years that they are part of the church's evolving magisterium, or teaching power. Theological Commission members—who range from Bishop Carlo Colombo, Pope Paul's favorite theologian, to progressives like Congar and German Jesuit Karl Rahner —now seem willing to accept a more tangential role. The Pope defined that role for them last month when he addressed them as "specialists of the science and of the intelligence of the faith." As for the magisterium, Paul VI has made it clear over the years that he considers only the bishops and himself to possess the power "to tell the people what God asks them to believe."

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