Since the end of Vatican Council II in 1965, the Vatican has attempted to silence theologians who dissent from various traditionalist doctrines and viewpoints. For example, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal, successor of the Holy Inquisition, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI emeritus, personally pronounced the excommunication of Sri Lankan priest, Tissa Balasuriya, an 89-year-old noted theologian, economist, and human rights activist who died in January, 2013 . Fr. Balasuriya, the only theologian to have been excommunicated since Vatican Council II, was accused of relativism, i.e., of placing the presuppositions of Christian revelation on the same level as those of other religions, in particular, Hinduism and Buddhism. Fr. Balasuriya denied the charge, asserting that a participant in dialogue presumes the dialogue partner’s right to his or her own point of view without prejudging it. Ratzinger disagreed, however, saying: “There can be no dialogue at the expense of truth.” The future Pope, in short, rejected pluralism, the notion that various religions offer, each in their own way, authentic avenues of access to God, and dismissed Vatican Council II’s assertion that Christ’s salvation was available to all, beyond religion, through the mysterious workings of God’s grace. After agreeing to submit future writings to Rome for review before publication, Fr. Balasuriya’s excommunication was revoked.
Fr. Richard P. McBrien, author of Catholicism; The Church, The Evolution of Catholicism; and Lives of the Popes, moreover, asserts that Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II “betrayed the ‘Spirit of Vatican II,” by, among other things, censuring and/or disciplining liberal theologians like Tissa Balasuriya, Hans Küng, Jacques Pohier, Edward Schillebeeckx, Leonardo Boff, Charles E. Curran, and Matthew Fox. Clearly, Benedict XVI, therefore, continued John Paul II’s traditionalist legacy. Why were these theologians censured and/or disciplined?
Fr. Hans Küng, photo supra, a Swiss Catholic priest, theologian, prolific author, and peritus at Vatican Council II, became the first major Roman Catholic theologian, since the Old Catholic Church schism of 1870, to publicly reject the doctrine of papal infallibility. Fr. Küng also questions doctrines on priestly celibacy, birth control, women in the priesthood and other matters. As a consequence, on December 18, 1979, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on behalf of Pope John Paul II, citing “contempt for Church doctrine” stripped Küng of his canonical license to teach theology in Catholic schools and universities, but he continued to teach as a tenured professor of ecumenical theology at the University of Tubingen until his retirement in 1996. Fr. Küng remains a persistent critic of papal infallibility, which he claims is man-made (and, therefore, reversible) rather than instituted by God. In 2005, Fr.Küng published a critical article in Italy and Germany entitled “The failures of Pope Wojtyla.” In it he argued that what the world expected from Vatican Council II was a period of conversion, reform, and dialogue within the Church; but because Pope John Paul II favored restoration to the pre-Vatican II status quo ante, the Pope was blocking reform and dialogue, reasserting the absolute dominion by the Holy See. Küng wrote:
“This Papacy has repeatedly declared its fidelity to Vatican II, in order to then betray it for reasons of political expediency. Council terms such as modernization, dialogue, and ecumenicalism have been replaced by emphasis on restoration, mastery, and obedience. The criteria for the nomination of Bishops are not at all in the spirit of the Gospel… Pastoral politics has allowed the moral and intellectual level of the episcopate to slip to dangerous levels. A mediocre, rigid, and more conservative episcopate will be the lasting legacy of this papacy.”
Fr. Jacques Pohier, a French Dominican priest, was the first to be disciplined by Pope John Paul II. In 1979 Pohier, the dean of the theology faculty at the Dominican theological school near Paris, lost his license to teach theology and was banned from celebrating Mass or participating in any liturgical gatherings. The Vatican objected to his views on Christ’s resurrection. Pohier left the Dominican Order in 1984.
Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, a Belgian Dominican, was the theologian of the Dutch bishops at Vatican Council II who has endured several Vatican investigations. He was initially investigated in 1968 for questioning the virginity of Mary. The Dutch hierarchy, clergy, and laity rallied to his defense, and Fr. Karl Rahner, who himself would be investigated, convinced the Vatican of Schillebeeckx’s orthodoxy. In 1979, a trial or “procedure” was convened to investigate Schillebeeckx’s writings on Christology. In the face of an international campaign of protest against the trial, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dropped the matter in 1980. He has since received several “notifications” from the Congregation that his writings remain in conflict with church teaching.
Leonardo Boff, a leading proponent of liberation theology in Latin America, was silenced by the Vatican — ordered not to publish or speak publicly for a year, and assigned a personal censor to review his writings. Fr. Boff was accused of having Marxist leanings.
Fr. Charles E. Curran is a moral theologian who currently serves at Southern Methodist University as the Elizabeth Scurlock University professor of human values. Earning two doctorates in theology in Rome, he was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, in 1958. As a young priest, he was a peritus at Vatican Council II. Appointed in 1965 to the theology faculty at Catholic University of America, Fr. Curran was removed from his tenured faculty position there in 1967 for his views on birth control, but was reinstated after a five-day faculty-led strike. His reinstatement proved to be short-lived, however, because in 1968 he, along with a group of some six hundred theologians, authored a response to Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical affirming the Church’s traditional ban on birth control. He continued to teach and write on doctrines concerning various moral issues throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1986, Fr. Curran was again removed from the faculty of Catholic University as a dissident against the Church’s moral teaching. That same year, the Vatican declared him no longer eligible to teach theology at any Catholic university or college, because “clashes with Church authorities finally culminated in a decision by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, that Curran was neither suitable nor eligible to be a professor of Catholic theology. The areas of dispute included publishing articles that debated theological and ethical views regarding divorce, artificial contraception, masturbation, pre-marital intercourse and homosexual acts.
“There is no doubt,” Curran says, “that the strongest opposition to modern liberties and human rights during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and into the twentieth century came from the Roman Catholic Church.” He argues that the Church vigorously opposed all forms of liberalism — political, social, economic and most of all philosophical — because the rise of individualism could be interpreted as being separate or “sovereign from God,” which threatened the existence of the Church. But heading into the mid-twentieth century, individualism, he contends, was not as threatening as totalitarianism, fascism, and communism. And under Pope John Paul II, who grew up in Poland under Communist rule, the Church underwent one of the biggest transformations in its history.
Matthew Fox, a Dominican priest with a New Age bent, was silenced for a year and eventually expelled from the Dominican Order. Now a member of the Episcopal Church, Fr. Fox was an early and influential exponent of a movement that came to be known as Creation Spirituality. The movement draws inspiration from the mystical philosophies of such medieval Catholic visionaries as Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, as well as the wisdom traditions of Christian scriptures.
In 2005 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acting at the behest of Cardinal Ratzinger, effectively removed Fr. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and a Jesuit from his post as the editor of “America,” a magazine published by the Jesuit Order. Fr. Reese had written on Church affairs for years, and continues to do so. His book Inside the Vatican, published before he became editor, is regarded as the authoritative modern account of how the Holy See operates.
On June 4, 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sharply criticized another prominent theologian, Sister of Mercy, Margaret Farley for her 2006 book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. In its formal notification to Sr. Farley, the Congregation said that her book, which aims to apply theories of justice to sexual ethics, “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue,” because its positions on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, and indissolubility of marriage, and the problem of divorce and remarriage “contradicts,” “is opposed to,” or “does not conform to” church teaching.
Does the Church still fear freedom of thought and expression, as it did for most of its history? Time will tell.