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Do the Roman authorities damage the Church by exercising excessive control

Do the Roman authorities damage the Church by exercising excessive control?

Let me begin by narrating what happens if there is too much control. The story is not invented; it is history, from within living memory.

After the silences and privations imposed by the second World War, there was a sudden blossoming out of theological research and reflection in the Roman Catholic church, heralding the advent (or so it was thought) of a new theology. In reality, it was not all that new; its roots went back to various biblical, patristic and historical studies carried out (with interruptions and impediments) ever since the beginning of the century. Now, as happens always when there is a true effort to reach the truth, there were exaggerations and mistakes; but on the whole the fields were heavy with the promise of a rich harvest. Then, in 1950 the encyclical Humani generis was published, and in the wake of it (even if it was not so intended by the document) “the disciplining” of theologians began. Books were withdrawn from circulation, translations and new editions of “potentially harmful” works were forbidden (among them such a judicious one as Congar’s True and False Reform of the Church). Some thinkers (Karl Rahner, John Courtney Murray) were ordered to submit their writings to special censorship. Well-known teachers were removed from their chairs, or restricted in some other way. What was the result?

In well-known and respectable theological schools a new climate developed. Some professors (the more creative ones) refused to publish their lectures or to put their thoughts into writing, for fear of being condemned. If someone wanted to know their doctrine, he had to go to “students’ notes.” Stenciled texts travelled from one place to another; I myself remember that when I was studying theology at Louvain (1948-52), some of Teilhard’s (and of others’) writings reached us in this way. Teachers tended to develop a new phraseology that both conveyed their ideas to the initiated and covered it up for all others. The subtle oppression did not really put an end to original thinking (or to the mistakes that accompanied it) but succeeded in creating a climate of distrust and suspicion.

It was a climate totally unbefitting the church of Christ. Fortunately Vatican Council II swept it away, and we have seen (I have seen), not without amazement, several of the theologians who not so long before were “under a cloud” present in Rome and advising the Fathers and helping them to draft the documents by which the church lives today.

If there is a lesson in this experience, it is that well meant condemnations in the interest of truth can create a climate which is destructive for the truth. Then the second evil is worse than the first.

In ordinary circumstances, the church is strong and healthy enough to throw out the chaff, even if the process takes some time. The parable of the zealous servants is as valid as ever: premature weeding may well uproot the wheat. Besides, according to the same parable, the master knows about the conditions of his field, and has every intention to take care of it once the time has come for the harvest.

But this is not the note on which I wish to close this chapter: truth and fairness demand more.

The contribution of Catholic universities (of whatever type) to the progress of religion and culture is well known, no need to insist on it. The more specific achievement of “ecclesiastical universities and faculties” dedicated to “sacred sciences” is less known to the general public and at times is not fully perceived by experts either. To say that Vatican Council II was prepared quietly and unobtrusively in such places would not be an exaggeration—it was prepared by nothing else than the standard and quality of research and teaching. The finest tools in theological investigations, such as the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche, and New Catholic Encyclopedia have been conceived, created and composed mostly by faculty from such institutions. In one way or another, the Roman College (which has become the Gregorian University of Rome), the École Biblique in Jerusalem, the Institut Catholique in Paris left an indelible impact on Catholic theology. To this day, the scientific standards of many publications coming out from such ecclesiastical faculties in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries bear witness to a dedication to the most rigorous standards of scholarship.

This is not to deny that there are institutions which have never reached such a level, perhaps have never come anywhere near it. My intention in quoting the achievements of good years is rather to confirm once again that when right persons are around and they can work in a climate of freedom and trust, there is bound to be a rich harvest. (32)

32. I like to direct the reader’s attention to a recent publication which came to my attention too late to be inserted into the Bibliography: James John Annarelli, Academic Freedom and Catholic Higher Educahon (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987). The book contains ample and important documentation on the history and issue of academic freedom in Catholic institutions in the United States.


There are the paradoxes of the Christian community: it will remain forever a learning church because the depth and breadth of God’s mysteries can never be known; it will remain forever a teaching church also because God’s mighty deeds for our salvation must be proclaimed to the whole creation.

Further, its progress toward the fullness of the truth will be marked always by joy and frustration; it has never been easy for human beings to get acquainted and with divine mysteries. The twelve apostles could testify to that.

Perhaps there is no other activity in the church where the limitations of our human nature can be more strikingly revealed than in our efforts to advance toward the fullness of the truth. But weak as we are, we are not without hope; in our weakness the strength of God can become manifest.

The prayer of the Psalmist may be appropriate for all of us:

“May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” (Ps 29,11)

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 4. Read the whole chapter here.

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