Religion: Not Heresy

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Rome drops a tricky case

In two pre-Christmas shots heard round the theological world, the Vatican in 1979 summoned Father Edward Schillebeeckx from The Netherlands for questioning as a possible heretic and then declared that West Germany's Father Hans Küng had no license to practice as a "Catholic" theologian. Since then Küng has been moved from the Cath olic faculty at the University of Tübingen into an unattached religion professorship. As for Schillebeeckx, whose belief in the divinity of Christ has been questioned, the Vatican has quietly decided to take no action, at least for now, thus signaling that there is still some lee way for liberal thinking in the era of Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican's doctrinal office last week refused to admit that anything has been decided. But Schillebeeckx had already announced that he received a letter from the Vatican asking that he make "clarifications" on four matters in future writings — which he intended to do anyway.

As a notable Christologist, Schillebeeckx is a leader in the doctrinal reinterpretation of Christ, in part because he wants to make the Saviour more accessible to modern man. But in doing so, he avoids the words of the Nicene Creed about Jesus being "eternally begotten of the Father . . . true God from true God . . . one in Being with the Father."

Does he feel exonerated? "Well, I haven't been convicted," he told TIME last week. He says it "may take many months" before he gets around to clarifying the Vatican's four points. By then, he may be in trouble over his new book, in which he argues against priestly celibacy and for the ordination of women.

"This time I make it clear I wish to change clerical law," he says. "I consider the matter with Rome closed only as far as my previous work is concerned."

Even so, there are practical reasons for the Vatican to handle Schillebeeckx more gingerly than Küng. Schillebeeckx has come obediently to Rome to discuss the situation. He also enjoys the backing of his influential fellow countryman Johannes Cardinal Willebrands.

Besides, the Vatican faces many deep differences with Catholics in The Neth erlands and would like to avoid any fur ther squabble.