The Scandal Behind an Electronic Edict

By Hebblethwaite, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Scandal Behind an Electronic Edict


Hebblethwaite, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


Dominican denied job; Rome won't say why

OXFORD, England -- The Vatican entered the modern age with its first recorded edict by fax. A process that normally takes months was reduced to a week.

Sept. 4, 1992, Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Congregation of Catholic Education, faxed Charles Amorin Brand, arch-bishop of Strasbourg, France.

Sept. 6, Brand whizzed a fax to South Africa for the attention of Belgian Dominican Philippe Denis, 40, informing him that he would not be allowed to take up the post of professor of theology in the University of Strasbourg. In July, Denis has been chosen by the Catholic faculty to succeed Rene Epp, who had reached retirement age.

What had gone wrong? Brand's Sept. 6 fax threw no light. He explained, "According to Sapientia Christiana (the 1979 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities), the congregation does not have to give reasons for its decisions." Brand advised Denis to withdraw his candidacy "so as to maintain the strictly confidential nature of Rome's refusal, for the present and the future."

Somewhat bemused, Denis replied by fax Sept. 8, requesting clarification on two points: Rome's reasons and the recommendation to hush up the news.

"I am more than ready," Denis wrote Brand, "to submit to fraternal correction according to Our Lord's teaching in Matthew's Gospel. I have before me the examples of my Dominican predecessors, Fathers (Albert) Lagrange, (Marie-Dominique) Chenu and (Yves) Congar, who, in another context, accepted in obedience decisions which seemed to them unfounded if not unjust."

Brand replied by fax Sept. 10, "I can well understand the shock that the refusal of the nihil obstat caused you." Once again he urged Denis to withdraw his application: "It still seems to be if not the least painful solution for you, then at least the most elegant."

As for Rome's motives, Brand merely said that the letter from the congregation had a short paragraph on the "obligations of the office" of theology professor, with reference to Sapientia Christiana 26,2 and 8,1 of its recommendations. These say that teaching must be "in full conformity with the authentic magisterium of the Church, chiefly that of the Roman Pontiff, so that the fullness of Catholic doctrine should be integrally preserved."

Denis found this too vague to be helpful. Brand's next fax, Sept. 11, half let the cat out of the bag. "You should perhaps ask yourself," he paternally advised, "whether there is not something in your attitudes or ecclesial options that could raise a question specifically about your fitness to be responsible for priestly formation, especially of diocesan priests."

Since 1989, Denis had been teaching the history of theology at the Theological Institute of St. Joseph at Cedara, Natal, where his classes included religious women and men, some of whom were priests.

From Durban, the recently retired Arch-bishop Denis E. Hurley sent a glowing testimonial to the Strasbourg faculty: "I am very impressed by the candidate's historical competence and learning, by his enthusiasm for exploring different aspects of the history of the church in South Africa, and by his ability to set this history in a wider and deeper context.

"Besides his academic abilities, he has a winning and engaging personality which has stood him in good stead in his relations with his colleagues. …

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