Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, chairman of the U.S. bishops' doctrine committee, reaffirmed the role of bishops as teachers of the faith in an April 18 statement on the work of a controversial feminist theologian. He explained that theologians must accept divine revelation, which is not open to revision.
“In continuing the mission of Christ the Teacher,” Cardinal Wuerl explained, “the bishops in union with the Pope are therefore ministers of a free and wonderful gift of God – the assurance that we adhere to the true faith.” The possession of this truth, he said, is so valuable that “the believer … would be willing to die rather than deny it.”
The cardinal's statement came in response to concerns that some members of the Catholic Theological Society of America raised in an April 8 statement defending the work of Sister Elizabeth Johnson. On March 24, the U.S. bishops' doctrine committee came out with a document stating that her book “Quest for the Living God” did not accurately present or interpret Catholic teaching in key areas.
Members of the theological society cited a 1989 document entitled “Doctrinal Responsibilities,” which suggests that bishops and theologians should resolve their differences through private discussions. But Cardinal Wuerl noted that the document, which addresses disagreements at the local level, clearly affirms the bishops' right to make doctrinal judgments.
“Theologians also acknowledge,” he pointed out, quoting from the text of the document, “that it is the role of bishops, as authoritative teachers in the Church, to make pastoral judgments about the soundness of theological teaching, so that the integrity of Catholic doctrine and the unity of the faith community may be preserved.”
But the cardinal also said that the disagreement between the doctrine committee and Sr. Johnson was not simply a matter of legitimate authority. He explained that both bishops and theologians are, in different ways, servants of God and his revelation to the Church.
“It is the privilege of theologians to delve more profoundly and systematically into the meaning of the faith, according to the ancient adage 'faith seeking understanding.' Since this faith is handed on by the Church through the ministry of the magisterium, the bishop and the theologian have a special relationship that can and should be mutually enriching.”
When this relationship functions well, “bishops benefit from the work of theologians, while theologians gain a deeper understanding of revelation under the guidance of the magisterium … The Church's teaching office, when grasped in the context of faith is a great assistance to the scholarly research of theologians, since its judgments are determinative of good theology.”
But the relationship between bishops and theologians can also break down, tempting theologians to disregard the boundaries set by the magisterium.
“When a theologian does not understand his or her role within the communion of the Church – the role of a servant, like that of the bishop, to the truth – he or she risks usurping the bishop's central role of leading people to salvation.”
“Isolated from the community of faith, the theologian seriously endangers the faithful by proposing 'a different gospel,' which is no longer salvific.”
Cardinal Wuerl explained that the bishops had the good of the faithful in mind, especially young people, when they decided to publish their critique of “Quest for the Living God.”
“The book in question is an already published work, not primarily directed to professional theologians for theological speculation, but rather one used as a teaching instrument of undergraduate students – many of whom are looking for grounding in their Catholic faith.”
He also acknowledged the “generally recognized catechetical deficiencies of past decades, beginning with the 1970s,” which had given rise to “a generation or more of Catholics, including young adults today, who have little solid intellectual formation in their faith.”
“It is in this context that books used in religious studies and theology courses at Catholic colleges and universities must be seen as de facto catechetical and formational texts,” Cardinal Wuerl stated.
“While many of these texts can be quite helpful in presenting the faith and teaching of the Catholic Church, there are others that cause confusion and raise doubt among students. Some texts can even be understood as offering an alternative pastoral and spiritual guidance to students, in contrast to the teaching magisterium.”
“In light of this changed academic situation, special attention must now be given as to how to address theological works that are aimed at students and yet do not meet criteria for authentic Catholic teaching.”
Cardinal Wuerl also responded to Sr. Johnson's own objections to the doctrine committee's statement. She said on March 30 that she “would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points” in her 2007 book, “but was never invited to do so.”
But the cardinal stated that the time for such discussions had already passed.
“Once a theological work is published … it is, by that very fact, open to response,” he observed. “The initiation of dialogue by an author is not only welcome but recommended, before the work is published and the bishop may be constrained to make a public appraisal of it.”