‘Doctrinal Responsibilities’: evenhanded, open and fair

After the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine had delivered its criticism of Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God by St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, theologians and boards of theological societies in the United States contested the content of the criticism and protested the manner of its formulation (NCR, April 15). In particular, the regret was widespread that the committee had ignored the protocols of “Doctrinal Responsibilities,” a set of guidelines approved by the U.S. bishops in 1989 on how to handle doctrinal disputes with theologians. This regret was answered by the president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who contended that it was in its expectations “somewhat inaccurate.”

Dolan framed this central judgment clearly, publicly and graciously. It seems only appropriate, then to respond by citing his position and by indicating policies that might stand in need of further consideration.

In a July 7 letter to John E. Thiel, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Dolan wrote: “The document [“Doctrinal Responsibilities”] does not address the particular role of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine and its specific obligations. As you probably know, this document guides rather the work of individual diocesan bishops and does not presume to offer guidance to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. That having been said, we bishops should always be mindful of improving the manner in which we engage theologians in a necessary discussion of their work.”

I would offer the following reflections.

Certainly, “Doctrinal Responsibilities” makes no attempt to address the specific role of the Committee on Doctrine as such, but it necessarily touches upon its concerns insofar as it explores the proper functions of and the relationships between theologians and bishops (the magisterium) — both to encourage positive collaboration and to resolve any problematic areas.

[Jesuit Fr. Michael J. Buckley is professor emeritus of theology in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University.]

Additional reading

News category: Features.

Tags: , , , ,