Doctrinal Committee Adopts Procedure For Responding to Theologians’ Work

by Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine has developed a protocol to respond to questions raised about the work of theologians.

Approved provisionally in September, 2011, the protocol outlines various steps that committee members and the staff of the Secretariat for Doctrine at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can take when evaluating the work of theologians to ensure that the material in question conforms to church teaching.

The six-page protocol states that the committee reserves the right to “seek authorization to publish its statements without the prior consultation” with a theologian or the theologian’s representative “if it judges that intervention is needed for the pastoral guidance of the Catholic faithful.”

Publication of any comment, however, must be approved by the Bishops’ Administrative Committee.

The protocol was approved after the Committee on Doctrine issued a critique of the book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God by Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph who is a professor of theology at Fordham University. After a yearlong review, the committee in March, 2011, criticized the 2007 book for having “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors” related to the Catholic faith.

The committee did not meet with Sister Elizabeth prior to issuing the critique.

In subsequent written responses in 2011, Sister Elizabeth defended the book, saying her work was “thoroughly misunderstood and consistently misrepresented” by the committee.

A statement from the Secretariat for Doctrine introducing the protocol in Origins, the Catholic News Service documentary service, said the Committee on Doctrine does not consider the protocol as a replacement for the 1989 document “Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians.” That document calls for a bishop to seek an informal conversation to discuss concerns with a theologian during any review of work.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Thomas G. Weinandy, executive director of the Bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine, maintained in December that the doctrinal responsibilities document was never intended to apply to the Committee on Doctrine and instead was written for diocesan bishops who wanted to talk with theologians in their respective dioceses.

The new protocol was developed to explain the various options available “when diverse requests and issues arise,” according to the introductory statement.

“This protocol is a working tool for the Committee on Doctrine, one that the committee is free to update, modify or elaborate at any time, and one that gives only a general description of the steps that the committee might take in the process of investigating a theological work,” the statement said.

The protocol calls for the executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine to begin proceedings by preparing for the committee chairman a written preliminary analysis of a work in question that considers the origin of the request; the “nature and gravity” of the doctrinal issues in question; whether the committee is able to take action; the intended audience of the writing or statement in question; distribution of the writing or statement; pastoral implications of the writing or statement; prior attempts by ecclesiastical authority to address any concerns; and published scholarly reviews of the writing or statement.

After the preliminary analysis, the committee may decide that a more thorough evaluation of a writing or statement is necessary and could then ask two or more experts to submit written evaluations.

The protocol includes a series of options for response including:

• Offering its own evaluation or an evaluation prepared by the Secretariat for Doctrine staff to the appropriate diocesan bishop, who can issue the statement in his own name.

• Referring the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican if the concerns are serious enough or if the impact of the theologian’s writing or statement extends beyond the territorial boundaries of the USCCB.

• Referring the matter to another USCCB committee that may be better able to handle the concern.