Doctrinal Jousting: Theologian's Work Raises Ire of Vatican, as Well as Questions about Authority, Process and the Limits of Scholarship

Article excerpt

For Christians, there is no more fundamental question than that posed by Christ to his disciples in Caesarea Philippi: "Who do you say that I am?" The specialized doctrines developed over the course of church history to answer that question, known in theological language as "Christology," touch the very core of the Christian faith.

It's no surprise, therefore, that efforts to reformulate these doctrines have always generated tensions, and few attempts in recent years have spawned more widely varying reactions than Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight's 1999 book, Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis).

In addition to an animated debate among theologians, the book was recently the object of a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's chief doctrinal authority, citing "grave doctrinal errors" (NCR, Feb. 18). The notification banned Haight from teaching Catholic theology, a largely symbolic gesture given that Haight is now an adjunct professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a non-Catholic institution. Nevertheless the notification reawakened stereotypes of Vatican authoritarianism.

Yet unlike previous cases in which Rome disciplined an American theologian, reaction this time does not break exclusively along predictable liberal, and conservative fault lines. Precisely because Haight is exploring central questions of Christian identity, those troubled by his approach include some who on other matters have been critical of Vatican. interventions on both process and substance. The theological community appears divided between those who see Haight's work as a courageous exploration of new horizons, and those who regard it as a cautionary tale about what happens when the culture becomes the lens for reading the Gospel rather than vice versa. Reluctantly, some in that second camp seem prepared to concede that the Vatican notification was warranted, or at least predictable.

There's little argument that Haight, a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, is a serious theologian and that Jesus Symbol of God is a work of vast erudition. Among other distinctions, it was named theological book of the year by the Catholic Press Association in 2000. A Feb. 15 statement from the board of the Catholic theological society, reacting to the Vatican notification, called Haight "a person of the highest character as well as a respected theologian and teacher who pursues his theological vocation as a service to the church," and said that his book "has done a great service in framing crucial questions that need to be addressed today."

In general, Haight's aim is to express the church's teaching about Christ in language accessible to a postmodern readership that has trouble with universal, exclusive claims for any one religion, and with "metaphysical" assertions that smack of mythology. The book is an exercise in "Christology from below," starting with the historical Jesus of Nazareth rather than the cosmic Christ. Jesus, according to Haight, is the "central symbol" of God for Christians, though only "one of many symbolic actualizations of God's loving presence to humankind." Haight treats the Trinity and the preexistence of Christ as "symbols" of God's activity, remaining tentative about whether they are actual persons or states of being.

Value in other religions

In one sense, Haight's book is part of a broad movement within Catholic theology to interpret doctrines about Christ in ways that ascribe positive value to other religions, both as modes of revelation about God and systems of salvation for their followers. Vatican concerns with this movement have resulted in previous disciplinary moves against theologians such as Sri Lankan Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, German layman Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Indian Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello, and Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis. Those concerns also gave rise to the controversial September 2001 document Dominus Iesus, which proclaimed that non-Christians are in a "gravely deficient situation. …