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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Theologians' Search for Truth Still Not Free

By James E. Biechler

"Now that the Vatican has come out with a set of procedures safeguarding the rights of theologians who take positions which seem to be at odds with traditional teaching, ARCC must be satisfied on that score. This is one battle you have won. Don't you all feel vindicated?"
--G.C.C., Chapel Hill, NC

Thanks so much for the compliment. We would like to think that ARCC has made a difference. After all, we came into being as a Catholic action group precisely upon the occasion of the Vatican's censure of Professor Hans Küng in 1978. But ARCC does not take credit for the new procedures recently announced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The protest and the discussion has been worldwide. We would like to think that we had at least some small part to play in this recent development.

While we are happy to see some improvement--God knows how long we have waited to see the teachings of the Second Vatican Council taken seriously by the present pontificate--we are by no means satisfied that the new guidelines are adequate to protect the rights of theologians to think, teach and write, or the rights of Catholics to the truth. You see there are several sets of rights at stake here.

As Catholic intellectuals, theologians have the right to be able to develop and express positions which grow out of the confrontation between the gospel and contemporary life. Their work is in dialogue with the work of other intellectuals--physicists, historians, sociologists, psychologists--scientists of all kinds. These disciplines, in dialogue with each other, are self-correcting disciplines. This means that when a dubious position is taken, an error is made or a mistaken conclusion is drawn, the intellectual community is at hand to correct that unwarranted conclusion. In this global intellectual community there are no authorities who sit in judgment with superior insight to correct the findings of science. Science, as a whole, is self-correcting. 'Authority' is a disruptive intruder in the quest for truth.

Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic church's premier theologian, made it clear in the first question of his brilliant Summa Theologiae that theology is a science, and indeed, the most noble of all the sciences. He also emphasized the role of human reason in the understanding, exposition and explication of the Catholic faith. More than any other thinker, Thomas impressed upon Catholic tradition the indispensability of human reason--thought, discussion, disquisition, disputation--to faith. Cut off from reason, Catholic faith is vacuous and irrelevant.

ARCC's problem with the new Vatican guidelines is their heavy reliance upon extrinsic authority--force, to be exact--in dealing with a matter which can be more effectively and persuasively handled otherwise. What good have all the excommunications and censures accomplished in the history of the church? Have any theological "errors" been thereby eliminated? Our position is that theological "errors" are better handled by theologians in the context of the discipline of theology.

What would be the condition of the natural sciences today if some "supreme authority" stood guard over all scientific thought and experiment, suppressing anything judged to be out of conformity with the position taken by that "supreme authority"? In the history of science, theology, philosophy, and culture in general, some of the greatest advances and discoveries were made by those whose work was initially met with suspicion and lack of acceptance. 

Yes, the new Vatican procedure is a definite advance over the tactics used to condemn Hans Kng, Charles Curran, and Tissa Balasuriya. But the mentality behind these new procedures still seems far from the life-affirming teaching of Jesus. Why should not the official church adopt the position represented by Gamaliel the Pharisee in Acts 5:34- 39? When confronted with the novel Christian movement he reasoned: "If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them--in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" Paraphrased for theology, "if what this theologian is saying is the truth--therefore--of God'--no condemnation will overthrow it, indeed any such effort may be--fighting against God.'"

In two millennia of Christianity, haven't we learned that all our language about God is mere stammering, as Augustine so wisely noted? That includes the language uttered by the Vatican authorities. How constructive it would be to see in our church's leaders, an attitude of humility before the unutterable reality that God is truth. Let them affirm whatever grains of truth have been discovered and welcome them as revelations of the transcendent divine. The emphasis should be on welcoming and affirming the positive rather than on stamping out inadequacies and imperfections.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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