Doctrinal congregation head finds his work mostly behind the scenes
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2005, U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada has found that most of his work is behind the scenes.
The recent action against Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino was an exception: He was the first theologian to be publicly censured during Cardinal Levada's tenure, and the case immediately brought the doctrinal congregation into the media spotlight.
Although some critics described the Vatican's action against Father Sobrino as authoritarian, for Cardinal Levada it was an example of how carefully and cooperatively the doctrinal congregation operates.
"I think we work in a more collegial fashion than in most instances in the church," Cardinal Levada told Catholic News Service in a wide-ranging interview in mid-March.
"We take into account all the relevant data before articulating our position," he said. That means thorough reflection and discussion by groups of theological peers before decisions, reprimands or decrees are handed down, he said.
Cardinal Levada, 70, is the first U.S. prelate to head the doctrinal congregation, which is the oldest of the Vatican's nine congregations and considered primary in responsibility and influence.
The study of Father Sobrino's works began well before Cardinal Levada arrived at his position, at a time when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- was at the helm of the doctrinal congregation.
On March 15, the congregation said some of Father Sobrino's writings on the nature of Christ were "erroneous or dangerous" and conflicted with church doctrine.
Cardinal Levada said Father Sobrino was given ample opportunity to consider and respond to the critical review.
"The congregation works very slowly in reviewing a theologian's work, perhaps too slowly in many respects. It attempts to guarantee fairness for the theologian and put aside any idea that somebody is being railroaded," the cardinal said.
Theologians under review can have their own theological or canonical adviser. Any critique is based not on anonymous accusations but on the theologian's published works or public statements.
"Often the question is whether a theologian really believes something that is contrary to the faith, or whether he has expressed his thinking badly or partially," Cardinal Levada said.
Ultimately these questions are examined by a group of theological peers that routinely advise the congregation, then by the cardinal and bishop members of the congregation, and finally by the pope for his final judgment, the cardinal said.
"We don't publicize this process, because in some instances, I say gratefully, we have not had to come to a public notification. If a theologian acknowledges an error or a too-partial presentation and agrees to make an adequate correction in a subsequent book or article, then we'll consider the matter closed," he said.
So far, the cardinal said, that has not been the case with Father Sobrino, and so a public warning was necessary. Although Father Sobrino is 69 and currently not teaching, he remains an influential voice in Catholic theology, Cardinal Levada said.
"New generations of theologians and young believers need to have an accurate understanding of what the faith is. And here is a well-known, prominent Catholic theologian who does not give an accurate understanding of the faith, and we think someone has to correct it," he said.
Vigilance over theological publications is only one of many tasks carried out by the doctrinal congregation, which is responsible for safeguarding and promoting doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.
That can touch upon a wide spectrum of topics: same-sex marriage, Marian apparitions, women's ordination, healing prayers, religious pluralism and many, many others.
With a permanent staff of only 36 people, the congregation is limited in what it can tackle at any one time. That's one reason documents and decisions are not churned out quickly, but take years to develop.
Currently, for example, the congregation is re-examining bioethics developments with an eye to updating its landmark 1987 instruction, "Donum Vitae" ("The Gift of Life").
"The principles of 'Donum Vitae' remain entirely valid, but there are new questions posed by technology and research -- in stem cells, to give just one example," Cardinal Levada said.
A separate question under study by the congregation is natural law, the term the church uses to describe the set of universal ethical or moral truths that form a common ground for all religious faiths and political systems.
Rather than embark on a new document, the congregation wrote to Catholic universities around the world asking them to focus their academic resources on the question of natural law, by sponsoring symposiums and other events. The idea was to get centers of Catholic learning involved in promoting a concept that is essential to understanding the church's position on issues like abortion, marriage, human rights and religious violence.
In dealing with fundamental issues of faith, Cardinal Levada said, the congregation must look sometimes at questions related to evangelization in the modern world: Is announcing the Gospel of Christ somehow an imposition on people?
Cardinal Levada said the doctrinal congregation has to set its priorities by evaluating the queries it receives from bishops, theologians, theological faculties or even individuals.
When the questions reach a critical mass, then a systematic response may be issued. The form can vary, from full-fledged instructions or declarations to less formal notes, commentaries, letters, responses, suggestions or observations.
Pope Benedict, of course, can help set the agenda. Cardinal Levada meets with the pope almost every week, and said he finds the pontiff "keenly interested" in details of the congregation's affairs. But the pope also respects the autonomy of the prefect, he said.
"He's very interested in these things, but he does not try to micromanage in any sense. I take into consideration any indications he wants to give. But it's not like I'm looking over my shoulder," the cardinal said.
Adding greatly to the workload is that Cardinal Levada's congregation is charged with reviewing the documents of any Roman Curia agency that touch upon doctrine. That can mean studies lasting weeks or months.
More than other Vatican agencies, the doctrinal congregation relies heavily on its 31 consultors, a group of theologians or canon law experts who meet once or twice a month to deal with specific questions. Often one or two sessions are needed for everyone to speak, and they end up being a theological "minicourse" in whatever is under study, Cardinal Levada said.
"The point is, the congregation tries to have the best theological expertise and reaches out to specialists, whoever they may be. The work here is not all done by in-house generalists," the cardinal said.
The consultors' discussions are written up in a report, which goes to the monthly meeting of the congregation's cardinal and bishop members. In practice, it's not always easy for distant members to make the trip to Rome for a meeting that lasts only a few hours.
Once every two years, the congregation's full membership meets in a weeklong plenary session to set long-term goals and hear progress reports.
Since 2001, by decision of Pope John Paul II, the doctrinal congregation has been responsible for the handling of cases of clerical sex abuse against minors. That created an enormous amount of new work, and the congregation's disciplinary section had to be expanded.
Cardinal Levada said many cases are still being processed, but the number is finally tapering off.
"I think you could say the crisis dimensions (of the case load), caused by the situation in the United States, are behind us," he said.
A native of California, Cardinal Levada was archbishop of San Francisco for 10 years before the pope called him to Rome. He had one big advantage coming into the job: He had worked on the staff of the doctrinal congregation in 1976-82 and had been a bishop-member since 2000.
The cardinal studied with a language tutor after returning to Rome and found that his Italian came back nicely. That's important, he said, because most of the routine business is handled in Italian.
In contrast with his days as a diocesan bishop, Cardinal Levada said he doesn't get out much for pastoral work in Rome.
"Especially in my first year, I had to be careful that I didn't rob the time needed to deal with the enormous amount of documentation this congregation handles," he said.
But the job is not a lonely one, the cardinal said. He meets with the congregation's other officials at least once a week, with a continual stream of others who bring questions, and with the frequent study sessions of advising theologians.
"I certainly don't feel that I'm sitting on a lonely mountaintop having to issue edicts all by myself," he said.The New York Times
March 17, 2007Beliefs
‘Spiritual Realities’ in Service of Science and Vice Versa
By PETER STEINFELS
When the Templeton Foundation gave its annual prize, now valued at $1.5 million, to the philosopher Charles Taylor, it probably did itself an even greater service than it did the honoree.
And in a simple, almost unnoticed phrase at a news conference on Wednesday when the award was announced, Professor Taylor inadvertently suggested why.
His remarks were impromptu, although the news media packet for the event contained a prepared formal statement. He began, of course, by expressing his sense of being surprised and overwhelmed by the prize, which used to be given for “progress in religion” but since 2001 has been given for “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities.”
Professor Taylor immediately noted that the idea of “discovery” in spiritual matters was “an analogy to scientific discovery in chemistry, physics and so on.” In answering a question later, he went further, worrying aloud that “the notion of discovery here by analogy with natural science a little bit falsifies the picture.”
To many listening, this point about “analogy” might only have been a passing remark, but to a careful thinker like Professor Taylor, it was fundamental. And it showed why giving him the prize this year could be a breakthrough moment for the prize itself and the foundation that presents it.
Established in 1972 to fill what the wildly successful investor Sir John Templeton considered a lacuna in the Nobel Prizes, the Templeton Prize has always been haunted by the appearance of a naïve literalism that basically accepted the natural sciences as the modern gold standard for real knowledge and wanted to put religion on an equal footing, which is why Sir John always insisted that the cash award top the most remunerative Nobel.
Yet the very idea of a prize for “progress” in religion always seemed strange. Surely, some recipients like Mother Teresa might qualify as modern saints, and others certainly qualified as major thinkers. But was this somehow “progress” over Siddartha Gautama, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas or Moses Maimonides?
The Templeton Foundation, founded in 1987 to administer the prize along with a growing array of other programs, has become much more sophisticated in recent years. But in some circles that has only increased, not diminished, suspicions that it wants to harness the cultural prestige of hard science in questionable ways to promote religion.
The ambiguity remains, and the rewording of the annual prize to honor not religion per se, but “discoveries about spiritual matters,” doesn’t really help.
In choosing Professor Taylor, however, the foundation consciously singled out someone who has long argued for the need to distinguish methodologies appropriate to the social or human sciences from those appropriate to the natural sciences.
His first book, published in 1964, was a critique of psychological behaviorism for trying to understand humans while bracketing their internal sense of self, their intentions and their subjectivity.
He extended that critique to other approaches in philosophy or the social sciences that modeled themselves on natural science. He insisted that to study humans, unlike planets or sea slugs, one had to take seriously the human drive for self-understanding, identity, meaning and purpose, articulated in language, ritual, habitual practices, social interactions and personal and cultural narratives.
It is this effort to propose an alternative to what has been called scientism that has now projected Professor Taylor as a defender of the spiritual and of spirituality. Strictly speaking, the projection is not inaccurate.
“We have somehow to break down the barriers between our contemporary culture of science and disciplined academic study” and “the domain of spirit,” he said in the statement on Wednesday.
Unfortunately, “spiritual” and “spirituality” are now terms so badly tarnished by association with pop psychology and comfort food for the soul that they do little to convey the body of thought that Professor Taylor has produced.
It includes highly technical philosophical jousting about language and knowledge, as well as political theory, analyses of multiculturalism and, in “Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity” (1989), a large-scale account of how post-Reformation Europe reconfigured a new understanding of the self around calling and family, the ordinary life of productive activity and intimate relationship. Journalists, including this one, should be forgiven for not managing to encompass in brief articles such a range of work drawing as freely on history, sociology and anthropology as on philosophy. Even Professor Taylor’s brief “reflections” on 12 of his major books passed out at the news conference did not do justice to the complexities and subtleties of his thinking.
In addition, “A Secular Age,” Professor Taylor’s weighty (in every sense) account of modern secularization will appear from the Harvard University Press only next fall. This book will be the third but central volume developed from the prestigious Gifford Lectures that he delivered in 1999 in Edinburgh. Some journalists, especially in Canada, have tagged Professor Taylor, who was born in Montreal, a “bridge builder,” the bilingual offspring of a French-Canadian mother and an Anglo-Canadian father. That fact — “It had a profound influence on me,” he has said — certainly explains his deep appreciation of cultural diversity and of finding ways to prevent conflicts of identity from exploding into violence.
Intellectually, he has been a bridge builder in other ways, between academic disciplines, between his Roman Catholic faith and the values of the Enlightenment, between the universal claims that can be made about all humans and the recognition of profound changes that are owed to particular histories.
It is not surprising that Professor Taylor was recently named co-chairman of a commission to examine accommodating cultural and religious differences in the public life of Quebec. And on Wednesday, he voiced alarm at “creeping Islamophobia.”
His political engagements are nothing new, of course. In the 1960s, he ran four times for the Canadian Parliament, coming closest in 1965, when he was narrowly defeated by the future prime minister Pierre Trudeau. After one more effort, in 1968, Professor Taylor devoted himself to philosophy.
Seldom have voters made such a valuable contribution to the world of thought and, in the fullest sense of the word, of spirit. The Sentence Against Theologian Jon Sobrino Is Aimed at an Entire ContinentIn pointing out the errors in two books, the Vatican wanted above all to warn their readers: the bishops, priests, and laypeople of Latin America. It is the prelude to Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to Brazil. At the center of it all is the question on who is the real Jesus
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, March 20, 2007 – Last Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a diminutive friar from Peru in the black and white habit of the Dominicans came before Benedict XVI, who was officiating over the rite in the Roman basilica of Santa Sabina. The pope applied the ashes to his head.
The friar was Gustavo Gutiérrez, author of the 1971 book “A Theology of Liberation,” which gave rise to the theological current of the same name.
In 1984, and again in 1986, this theology was severely criticized by two documents from the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, signed by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. But it still influences large sectors of the Latin American Church, in their mentality and language.
Not all of its major exponents have taken the same path. Gutiérrez has corrected some of its initial positions, has entered the Dominican order, and at the beginning of this Lent he was called to give a theology course at an illustrious pontifical university in Rome, the Angelicum, where Karol Wojtyla studied.
But another famous liberation theologian, the Jesuit Jon Sobrino, a Basque émigré to El Salvador, where he co-founded the University of Central America, UCA, has held firm on his positions even after the congregation for the doctrine of the faith placed two of his books under examination.
And he says that he doesn’t want to fold even today, now that two of his texts have been judged “erroneous and dangerous.”
The sentence was presented to Benedict XVI – who approved it – by his successor at the head of the congregation, cardinal William Levada, on October 13, 2006. It was signed and put into effect the following November 26. And it was made public last March 14.
But already on December 13, 2006, in a letter to the Jesuit superior general, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, who had acted as a mediator between him and the congregation, Sobrino wrote that he could not accept the sentence.
In the letter, Sobrino counters the hostile judgment expressed by the Holy See on his books with the favorable judgments that accompanied their publication: the imprimatur of cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who at the time was archbishop of Sao Paolo, Brazil, and the positive reviews of authoritative theologians, including European ones.
One of these, the French Jesuit Bernard Sesboué, a consultant for the pontifical council for Christian unity and a former member of the international theological commission, even criticized – according to Sobrino – the “deliberately suspicious” method with which the Vatican conducts its investigations: a method by which “one would find heresies even in the encyclicals of John Paul II.”
Two of Sobrino’s boks were under scrutiny: “Jesucristo liberador. Lectura histórico-teológica de Jesús de Nazaret," published in 1991, and "La fe en Jesucristo. Ensayo desde las víctimas,” published in 1999, both translated into various languages.
In July of 2004, the congregation for the doctrine of the faith sent to Sobrino a list of the “erroneous and dangerous” theses found in the two books.
In March of 2005, Sobrino sent his responses to the congregation. These were held to be “unsatisfactory.”
But in his December 13, 2006 letter to the Jesuit superior general, Sobrino traces back much further, to 1975, the beginning of the Vatican’s hostilities toward him and toward other theologians and bishops supportive of liberation theology.
He points out as one of his most tenacious adversaries the cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, and complains that the continual delay, in the Vatican, of the beatification of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, martyred in 1980, is partly due to the friendship between Romero and him, Sobrino.
It should be recalled that in 1989, on November 16, another famous liberation theologian, Ignacio Ellacuria, the rector at the University of Central America, was assassinated in San Salvador, together with five of his Jesuit confreres – Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín Baró, Amando López, Juan Ramón Moreno, and Joaquín López-López – plus the cook, Julia Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celina. Sobrino escaped the massacre only because he was out of the country at a conference.
In the letter, Sobrino doesn’t hold back from criticizing even then-cardinal Ratzinger. He accuses him of having misrepresented his thought, in an article against liberation theology published in 1984 in the weekly magazine from Communion and Liberation, “30 Days.”
Among the bishops antagonized by Rome because of their sympathy with liberation theologians Sobrino recalls, apart from Romero, Helder Camara of Brazil, Mexico’s Samuel Ruiz, and Leonidas Proaño, from Ecuador.
Sobrino concludes that submitting himself now to the sentence issued against him by the congregation “would be of little help to the poor of Jesus and to the Church of the poor.” It would amount to surrendering to thirty years of defamation and persecution against liberation theology. It would mean conceding victory to Vatican methods that “are not always honest and evangelical.”
“Extra pauperes nulla salus,” Sobrino writes in the letter, putting the poor in the place of the Church in the ancient saying according to which “outside the Church there is no salvation.”
And this is exactly one of the theses that the congregation for the doctrine of the faith attributes to Sobrino as erroneous: that of having elected the poor to a “fundamental theological place” – that is, as the principal source of knowledge – in the place of the “apostolic faith transmitted through the Church to all the generations.”
The Vatican sentence acknowledges that Sobrino justly takes care of the poor and the oppressed – which is imperative for all Christians – but accuses him of diminishing, in the name of the liberation of the poor, the essential traits of Jesus: his divinity, the salvific value of his death.
“One cannot impoverish Jesus under the illusion of advancing the poor,” wrote the bishop and theologian Ignazio Sanna, a member of the international theological commission, in a commentary on the sentence published on March 15 in the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, “Avvenire.”
And “impoverishing” Jesus means failing to recognize his divinity, considering him simply as a man, even if the exemplary liberator.
The congregation’s sentence ends without inflicting any punishment on Sobrino. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because in effect, more than for the theologian under scrutiny, it is intended for his many readers and admirers: bishops, priests, laypeople.
It’s these that the Vatican document wants to put on their guard.
In mid-May, at the Brazilian sanctuary of the Aparecida, the episcopal conferences of Latin America will hold their fifth general assembly. It will be inaugurated by Benedict XVI in person.
The publication of the sentence against Sobrino thus gives a preview of one of the guidelines that the pope will hand down to the Latin American Church, many of whose leading cadres are influenced by the spirit of liberation theology.
A question that Benedict XVI sees as being of capital importance – as proved by his new book about to be published – is strictly connected to the preceding one. And it is the question of Jesus, true God and true man.
Distorting the truth of Jesus – as occurs, in the judgment of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, in the books of the major author on Christology in Latin America, Sobrino – is the same as distorting the truth of the Church, the meaning of its mission in the world.
This is precisely what’s said in the title Benedict XVI has given to the general assembly scheduled at the Aparecida: “Disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ, that our people may have life in Him.” Together with these words of Jesus in the Gospel of John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”