Religion: Not Quite a Heresy Trial

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But Holland's leading Christologist is called in for questioning

They met in the same gray Renaissance palace where the Inquisition put Galileo on trial. But the Vatican called last week's meeting a mere "series of talks." Over coffee, a Dominican priest- theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, 65, clad casually in a tweed sports jacket, sat answering respectful questions from three other theologians. In case of need, a theological counsel for the defense, Schillebeeckx's dean at Nijmegen University in The Netherlands, stood by in an adjacent room.

The nine items on the agenda were hardly trivial. Among them: Schillebeeckx's views on whether or not Christ personally gave orders to found the church, and whether Christ actually rose from the dead. But the interrogators, representing the Vatican, were concerned about an equally fundamental question: the divinity of Jesus Christ as it has been decreed by the church for 15 centuries. One member of the panel, Jesuit Jean Galot of the Pontifical Gregorian University, had gone so far as to accuse Schillebeeckx, via .Vatican Radio, of the ancient heresy of Arianism, the belief that Jesus is less than God because he did not exist eternally with the Father in the Godhead.

Like other modern Catholic theologians, as well as Protestants, Schillebeeckx emphasizes the humanity of Jesus far more than his divinity in order to make the Saviour easier for believers to identify with, more relevant to daily life. He told TIME that he does not deny the ancient Trinitarian dogmas, but seeks to explain "the deeper sense of what was meant in the old days, in a modern way."

But to the Vatican, the belief in Jesus as fully God and fully man has helped hold the church together since it nearly split over the issue in a series of early and acrimonious councils. The two-day Schillebeeckx hearing marked the first time any theologian, much less one of international stature, had gone to the Vatican for questioning since Pope Paul VI modernized the once dreaded Holy Office into a "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" in 1965. Dozens of prominent Catholic and Protestant theologians had signed protest petitions over the Schillebeeckx hearing, fearing that the speculative freedom enjoyed since the Second Vatican Council is in danger.

A native of Belgium who has taught in The Netherlands for 22 years, Schillebeeckx (pronounced Skhill-uh-bakes) served as the Dutch hierarchy's top theological adviser during the Second Vatican Council. He is in the forefront of modern Christologists who are re-examining the doctrinal interpretation of Christ. The Vatican has had him under scrutiny at least since 1968. Schillebeeckx journeyed to Rome for the confrontation despite a flare-up of heart trouble.

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