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Donum Veritatis, the Roman Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian?
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What about Donum Veritatis, the Roman ‘Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian’?

The relationship between the Vatican and speculative theology over the last one hundred and eighty years has usually been a fraught one. This is especially true of those theologians who have tried to move the Church beyond accepted establishment positions. The reason for this is quite simple: the papacy has been determined to bring theology under its control and the best way to achieve this is to maintain the status quo.

There have, of course, been discussions and statements throughout this period by both the official magisterium and theologians about their respective roles and the relationship of the papacy to theology. The most recent of these is the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (24 May 1990), signed by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). It is significant that it is signed by someone who himself has practiced as a theologian and who, at first sight, seems to have taken a more open-minded approach.

The Ratzinger Instruction appears to have much to recommend it: there is a clear acknowledgment of the cultural context (including philosophy, history, and even the ‘human sciences’) within which all theological work occurs, and it recommends the value of ‘freedom of research’:

Freedom of research, which the academic community rightly holds most precious, means an openness to accepting the truth that emerges at the end of an investigation in which no element has intruded that is foreign to the methodology corresponding to the object under study.

But this freedom is immediately limited by the obligation to present doctrine with integrity and accuracy. The Instruction argues that the papal magisterium alone is the source of this. And when the magisterium speaks ‘in a definitive way’ the theologian, despite his or her much vaunted ‘freedom of research,’ must firmly accept and hold these teachings, even if they ‘are not divinely revealed [but] are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with revelation.’ They must respond with ‘religious submission of will and intellect’ even when tile magisterium does not act ‘definitively. In case the theologian thought that they might get away with an outward show of submission, Ratzinger’s Instruction insists that the response ‘cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary.’ The consequence of this is that even when the papal magisterium (that is, pope and curia) is not teaching infallibly, or even when the teaching is clearly an exercise of the ordinary magisterium, ‘submission of will and intellect’ is required.

So much for freedom of research! ‘Truth,’ according to Ratzinger, is the final arbiter, but it is ‘truth’ as defined by the papal magisterium. He admits that the Vatican’s ‘truth’ can reflect a particular school of theology, but anything the magisterium says has ‘a validity beyond its argumentation.’ Seemingly this means that whatever the pope or curia says is the ‘truth’ (at least provisionally), no matter how badly argued or how contrary to historical fact. The Instruction explicitly denies that there is a theological magisterium and it comes close to denying the sensus fidei of believers. In the Ratzinger document there is a conflation of the papal magisterium and the curial ‘magisterium’ (especially that of the CDF) and both are equally binding on theologians and believers.

When viewed within the broader historical context of the Church’s tradition, Ratzinger’s Instruction is a remarkable document. It expresses directly and without equivocation the papalist ideology on the role of theology and, as such, is an explicit denial of the long-held tradition in the Church of the role of the theologian and the believing community in the process of discerning and developing the Church’s teaching. It also effectively destroys theology as a discipline. No longer is the theologian judged by peers and by the acceptance of the believing community. The papacy alone is the judge of theological truth. The Instruction’s rhetorical style is also very revealing: it is couched in a prissy style that resembles that of a headmaster lecturing his rather obtuse pupils on the subject of the ‘school rules’ . . .

Ratzinger’s Instruction makes it clear that the papalist ideology does not tolerate any alternative source of inspiration in the Church. In the process of controlling theology, the Vatican has not hesitated to attack some of the most intelligent and creative people in the Church, including some whose sanctity is undoubted. The treatment of theologians is in sharp contrast to that given to priests whose immoral and criminal actions against children have brought disgrace on the Catholic community.

From Papal Power, by Paul Collins, Fount Paperbacks, London 1997, pp. 16 - 18.


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Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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