Art of the possible
New head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the FaithGerald O’Collins
- 14 July 2012
Pope Benedict’s choice of Bishop Gerhard Müller to be his next doctrinal chief means that a tough defender of Catholic orthodoxy has been given the top job. But Müller is no ideologue – could he consider reform? A leading theologian offers his own six-point plan for change
In a celebrated address to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2005, Pope Benedict XVI proposed that the teaching of the Second Vatican Council should be applied through a “hermeneutic of reform” – that is, through a method of interpretation that would continue to reform and renew the Church in different aspects of her life.
Two weeks ago, on 2 July, it was officially announced that Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Regensburg would be taking over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) as its new prefect. Might this change be an opportunity to apply a hermeneutic of reform to the CDF?
Bishop Müller takes the top job at the CDF with an intriguing background. He has been firm in his opposition to the Austrian Priests Initiative which has called for disobedience on issues such as married priests and Communion for remarried divorcees, saying that “disobeying the Pope and the bishops is an evil”. But as a member of the International Theological Commission, he belonged to a sub-commission of seven theologians who produced a 100-page study on the diaconate. Published in late 2002, Le Diaconat: évolution et perspectives, despite some official disclaimers, concluded by leaving open the question of ordaining women to the diaconate. He also co-authored, with his friend Gustavo Gutiérrez, the founding father of liberation theology, the book On the Side of the Poor: the theology of liberation. So what would the CDF look like if Bishop Müller set himself to renew and reform it?
In an article originally published in German, translated into English for Doctrine and Life 48 (1998), pp. 451-66, and summarised by The Tablet (16 January 1999), Ladislas Orsy, a Washington-based canon lawyer, proposed in detail some desirable reforms of the CDF. He argued that its procedures leave much to be desired from the point of view not only of ordinary justice but also of the Church’s own canon law. So far as I know, there has never been an official response to Orsy’s article.
What detailed reforms might one envisage? Let me make six suggestions. First, the CDF is meant to be the last court of appeal and not the first tribunal to handle cases of doctrine. Its workload might be reduced by automatically sending back unsolicited complaints and asking their authors to take up matters with their local bishop. If they remain dissatisfied with their own diocesan authorities, they could appeal to the doctrine commission of the national bishops’ conference. If they are still not satisfied, they have the freedom to appeal to the CDF, provided that they supply a full documentation which proves that their complaints have already been heard by the local and national authorities of the Church and records the response(s) they received from those authorities.
Such a procedure would honour the principle of subsidiarity, one of the 10 principles guiding the composition of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. That principle means that activities and decisions which naturally belong to a lower level of responsibility should not be taken at once to a higher level. The practice of subsidiarity promotes the healthy flourishing of the worldwide Church, a flourishing that can only be harmed when individual Catholics quietly take issues straight to some Vatican office and regularly receive an immediate hearing.
Secondly, as Orsy pointed out, a universally accepted principle of justice supports the right to a fair hearing. That means the right of the accused to be present from the outset, to meet their accusers, to be given the accusations in writing well beforehand, and to be represented by someone of their own choice. Nothing poisons the atmosphere more than a lack of transparency which tolerates anonymous delators and keeps proceedings secret, while for months the accused may know nothing at all about what is building up against them. Everyone, including theologians who may be obscuring or misrepresenting “the faith that has come to us from the Apostles”, has a right to a fair hearing.
A few years ago, the CDF itself may have realised that it was not putting into practice the principle of a “fair hearing”, or at least not practising it fully. Up to 2002 in the “historical notes” that accompanied the CDF, the Annuario Pontificio (Papal Yearbook) carried the observation that “in all the proceedings there is granted the widest possible chance of defence”. But this sentence disappeared in the same section of the Annuario Pontificio for the following year.
Thirdly, a priest who served for many years as a consultor on the CDF admitted to me that he “wondered whether the CDF had done more harm than good”. His hesitancy might have been fuelled by a lack of balanced membership. Faced with a one-sided selection of his fellow consultors, he could hardly describe them as what they are meant to be: “theologians of diverse schools”. Notoriously, when an institution is not strengthened by appropriate diversity, it lacks the internal criticism that can lend more balance and wisdom to what it does and what it publishes.
Recently, with a view to writing a contribution for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology, I was rereading numerous books of the New Testament and commentaries on them. Repeatedly, warnings about false teachers and the harm they could cause, or were actually causing, turned up in the letters of Paul, the general epistles, and elsewhere. At the same time, the authors of the New Testament accepted a healthy diversity. They proved shining models of a principle which Blessed John XXIII retrieved from St Augustine and which found its place in the closing chapter of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “Let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in everything.” Whenever an appropriate and justified diversity of theological views remains unrepresented, those who work at the CDF or act as its consultors run the clear and obvious risk of confusing their personal theological views with matters of revealed doctrine. Peter and Paul differed in secondary matters, but were utterly united in their faith in the risen Christ for whom they eventually gave their lives. They never misrepresented real unity as if it involved a package of uniform opinions.
Fourthly, Pope Paul VI wanted consultors of the various Vatican offices to be changed ever five years or at least every 10 years. Yet some consultors at the CDF have regularly been kept on for many years – a practice that can only encourage investing their own opinions with false authority.
Fifthly, as prefect of the CDF, Bishop Müller will preside over two advisory bodies, the International Theological Commission (ITC) and the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC). Over the years, all three bodies have published documents on a variety of topics: from the ecclesial vocation of theologians to the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures in the Church; and from issues concerned with the person and work of Christ to the new evangelisation. Frequently the texts coming from the ITC and, especially, the PBC have handled their sources more skilfully, argued their case more compellingly, and, in short, produced more convincing documents than those coming from the CDF itself. Would the CDF enhance its standing by authorising and publishing as its own the texts of the PBC and the ITC?
Sixthly, in the past, some at the CDF have promoted meetings on key questions that drew together theologians and other scholars of various (legitimate) schools of thought. The late Belgian Jesuit Edouard Dhanis, for instance, facilitated an international meeting on the Resurrection of Christ and gathered the proceedings in a valuable volume, Resurrexit (Vatican Press, 1970). I would be delighted to see the CDF following such an example by promoting theology that would be both creatively faithful and pastorally effective in the multicultural and fast-changing world of today.
In an apostolic letter of January 2001, Novo Millennio Ineunte, Blessed John Paul II recognised that there was “much more to be done” in “the reform of the Roman Curia” (no. 44). Two years later in Pastores Gregis (no. 59) he reiterated this point, using the same language. The present Holy Father has firmly endorsed a “hermeneutic of reform”. Dare we hope that the new prefect of the CDF might examine critically the running of that institution and implement reforms that would have a healthy and life-giving impact on the Church and the whole theological community?