'Doctrinal Responsibilities': Evenhanded, Open and Fair

Article excerpt

After the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine had delivered its criticism of Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God by St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, theologians and boards of theological societies in the United States contested the content of the criticism and protested the manner of its formulation (NCR, April 15). In particular, the regret was widespread that the committee had ignored the protocols of "Doctrinal Responsibilities," a set of guidelines approved by the U.S. bishops in 1989 on how to handle doctrinal disputes with theologians. This regret was answered by the president of the Catholic bishops' conference, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who contended that it was in its expectations "somewhat inaccurate."

Dolan framed this central judgment clearly, publicly and graciously. It seems only appropriate, then to respond by citing his position and by indicating policies that might stand in need of further consideration.

In a July 7 letter to John E. Thiel, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Dolan wrote: "The document ["Doctrinal Responsibilities"] does not address the particular role of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine and its specific obligations. As you probably know, this document guides rather the work of individual diocesan bishops and does not presume to offer guidance to the bishops' Committee on Doctrine. That having been said, we bishops should always be mindful of improving the manner in which we engage theologians in a necessary discussion of their work."

I would offer the following reflections.

Certainly, "Doctrinal Responsibilities" makes no attempt to address the specific role of the Committee on Doctrine as such, but it necessarily touches upon its concerns insofar as it explores the proper functions of and the relationships between theologians and bishops (the magisterium)--both to encourage positive collaboration and to resolve any problematic areas.

The full title of the document, "Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians," bespoke its set purpose: among the bishops and theologians both the promotion of cooperation and the resolution of any doctrinal disputes between them.

Whereas the preface of the document specified and so limited the kind of issues that might occupy "Doctrinal Responsibilities," it made no parallel specification or selection among theologians and bishops. The parties were articulated in the singular as well as in the plural for the sake of these guidelines, but "Doctrinal Responsibilities" did allow for the fact that "several bishops or several theologians may be acting as initiating party or second party." "Doctrinal Responsibilities" applies simply to any doctrinal conflicts that might occur between bishops and theologians in general, and their number was not set by protocol. Nowhere was their number limited to an individual bishop or an individual theologian.

The issues that could arise between theologian(s) and bishop(s) could be profitably considered and fairly mediated if the parties in discussion or dispute have agreed to the procedures suggested by "Doctrinal Responsibilities." The document emphatically does not establish another office or structure of authority figures above the bishops. Rather, it suggests veteran devices by which doctrinal issues could be clarified and resolved.

In this way, and only in this way, can "Doctrinal Responsibilities" "guide" (to use Dolan's vocabulary)--that is, offer suggestions or possibilities for the work of individual bishops and theologians, or for the work of the several persons who are acting in a dispute either as initiating or second party. …