The National Catholic Review
Ladislas Orsy

The trial (yes, trial in the full legal sense) of Jacques Dupuis, S.J., has been concluded, and the author of a pioneering work, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, has been cleared of the suspicion (or was it a charge?) of having deviated from the Catholic faith. He is free to have his book reprinted and translated. He is merely bound to add an official Notification to his text to prevent any misunderstanding.

A welcome conclusion, no doubt, to a long-drawn-out process. It lasted over two years, a lot of time for a creative scholar to spend in distraction! The investigation was initiated and conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As the notice of the judicial inquiry was spreading the world over, bishops, theologians and Catholic folks (designated by Vatican Council II as blessed with a sense of faith) were first stunned by the news and then waited anxiously for the outcome. The theological acumen and the spiritual fidelity of a person who by all evidence spent his life in the service of the faith was called into doubt.

It all happened, seemingly, to protect the faith. But was it really necessary? If the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had any doubt, why was it not resolved in a simpler and friendlier way? There is nothing to show that Father Dupuis would not have been willing to listen and issue some clarification for those who needed it.

Where are the faulty structures in the church that can cause, or allow, so much anguish for so little?

The faulty structures are in the procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They are unfit for our age, which is increasingly aware of the sanctity of human rights. These structures are survivals from the times when the light of conscience counted for little, error had no right, and men and women in error knew little freedom. Used today, they undermine the credibility of the church in its mission to uphold the dignity of human persons. Further, and no less importantly, they are an obstacle to the ecumenical movement. Christians who do not belong to the Roman Catholic communion fear that our intent is to impose similar structures on the one church of Christ for which we all hope.

These are weighty charges that require substantiation.

For convincing evidence, no more is needed than to recall, point by point, the congregation’s own Regulations for the Examination of Doctrines.

The congregation is entitled, virtually enjoined, to investigate any opinion that in its judgment is erroneous and dangerous. This is a sweeping mandate; its scope goes well beyond safeguarding the church’s beliefs. No definitions of the delicts are given. Hence an overzealous defender of faith may well be tempted to cast the net far and wideespecially if the duties of his office have deprived him of the opportunity to follow new developments in creative theology. Misguided excesses have happened in the past. It is enough to recall how a few decades ago thinkers of the stature of Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and John Courtney Murray were accused of, and disciplined for, spreading erroneous or dangerous doctrines. It took an ecumenical council to restore the balance. There should be no misunderstanding: our Catholic faith must be preserved, but by means worthy of the same faith. If we wish to be a community that lives under the law (including the supreme law of charity), all punishable actions must be defined with the greatest of care. Tyrannical states alone have the habit of using vague determinations.

The congregation takes the first steps in the process within its walls (literally) and in total secrecy. Its office assumes the roles of accuser and defender and sits as the judicial body. It notices no conflict of interest. The author himself is left in ignorance while his life’s work is in the balance. Every trial ought to be a search for truth, and experience going back for millennia has taught the human family that when the roles are divided, there is a better chance to find the truth. Why should the church disregard such practical wisdom?

If the congregation discovers no fault with the author’s doctrine, the process stops there. But, if it finds error or senses danger in his writings, it notifies all the interested ordinaries (bishops and other religious superiors), the competent departments of the Holy See and the person now clearly under a cloud. In our age, of course, any information so widely spread is bound to reach the media. Thus the reputation of the author becomes devastated, well before he can utter a word in his own defense. His peers and friends are usually bewildered and muted. Their testimony is not wanted.

After the notification about his failings, the author must respond to the congregation’s questions in writing. He can either mend his ways (thoughts) and issue an appropriate retraction, or he may try to convince the tribunal that its misgivings are not well foundedno mean task! He has no right to appear before his judges, still less to confront his accusers (who will remain anonymous throughout). If he so requests, however, an audience with a designated official may be granted. He has no right to be defended by a lawyer-advocate, but he may be permitted to have an adviser by his side. This is hardly natural justice. Even the ancient Romans had a different standard in legal ethics. Luke reports in the Acts of the Apostles that when Paul’s accusers demanded that Festus, the governor, sentence him, Festus responded, [I]t was not the custom of the Romans to give up [to sentence] any one before the accused met the accusers face to face, and had the opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him (25:16). Can the measure of justice in our Christian community be less than that of Festus, the pagan?

The rules of the congregation do not permit any appeal against its final decision on the ground that the office kept the pope informed throughout the process and had its final decision approved by him. The fact is, however, the pope’s approval is a routine act, without his infallibility ever coming into play. But if there is a miscarriage of justice, in practice the decision remains untouchable and irreformablenot unlike a papal definition. The scholars mentioned above could not have returned to their teachings and writings but for the ecumenical council!

Our Catholic people are for the most part unaware of these structures and procedures. It is fair, therefore, to alert them that in the beginning of the third millennium some practices of the once dreaded Inquisition are still effectively used. What is the point in offering our apologies for the wrong done to Galileo (and many others) if we do not change our ways?

What should be done? Is there a remedy?

Yes, there is a remedy, and one only: demolition of the offending structures. They are indeed dangerous because they were born from a philosophy that is erroneous. They are not redeemable, not even in parts. They do not belong to the deposit of faith. We should have no fear (the favorite words of John Paul II). Their abolition will not damage our faith. A community supported by the Spirit has enough intelligence to find better ways and means to protect God’s revelation.

If we believe that the church must be light to the nations, as Christ is, then we must make sure that all offices in the church serve the cause of authentic justice, human and Christian. Otherwise our protestations about the sacredness of human rights will have no effect; they will be like the sound of a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal, in the words of Paul the Apostle. We shall be judged by our deeds.

All other Christian churches and communities around us are steadily watching our ways. If they find us wanting in the practice of justice, they will not join us on the path to unity. Further, if we Catholics honestly judge that in the one church of Christ, awaited and hoped for, there should be no room for such punishing processes, we should discard them today. If they will not be needed in the future, they are not needed at the present.

Pope John Paul II, in an apostolic letter issued on Jan. 6, At the Beginning of the New Millennium (Novo Millennio Ineunte), offers some encouragement. He insists on consulting the faithful, recalling the words of St. Paulinus of Nola: Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes. In these practical matters, indeed, it would be right and just to consult the faithful.

Then the pope points out the need for developing forums and structures which, in accordance with the Second Vatican Council’s major directives, serve to ensure and safeguard communion. Such a positive call includes, of course, an unspoken injunction that we should abandon forums and structures that do not serve the cause of communion, such as the Regulations for the Examination of Doctrines of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The pope continues: Much has been done since the Second Vatican Council for the reform of the Roman Curia...but there is certainly much more to be done, in order to realize all the potential of [this] instrument of communion, which needs to respond promptly and effectively to the issues which the church must face in these rapidly changing times (No. 44). There is a beautiful continuity in this project. This is what many of the council fathers asked for at Vatican II. Much has been done since; much more remains to be done. So speaks the vicar of Peter.

Amen is the appropriate response.

Indeed the times are changing rapidly. The human family all over the earth is crying out for justice, and in this movement the church must be leading as the light of the nations in the ministry of justice. It is to fulfill a divine mandate: go and teach all the nations.

Ladislas Orsy, S.J., is a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.