Panel says bishops have the last word on Catholic theology

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The task of giving the “authentic interpretation” of the Catholic faith ultimately belongs to bishops, not theologians, a Vatican panel said Thursday (March 8).

A report written by an advisory group of theologians that answers to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said defining Catholic teaching falls chiefly to the “college of bishops headed by the pope.”

The report, “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria,” was prepared by the International Theological Commission but is not considered part of the church’s official teaching. Nonetheless, its publication was specifically approved by the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, Cardinal William J. Levada.

It is aimed at defining the principles of theological research in the Catholic Church and at exploring the limits of theologians’ freedom. The issues raised by the document have recently come into the spotlight after the controversial condemnation of feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson by the U.S. bishops.

“Theology Today” clearly states that “‘dissent’ towards the magisterium has no place in Catholic theology,” but stresses that “investigation and questioning” are “justified and even necessary.”

Bishops and theologians have “distinct callings, and must respect one another’s particular competence,” the panel said. But in the end, the “‘authentic’ interpretation of the faith” is a prerogative of church authorities, namely the bishops, and theologians cannot “presume to substitute the teaching office of the church’s pastors.”

According to the document, theologians play a role in helping church authorities understand and accept historical developments. In the past, the  report said the church has been “overly cautious” toward movements such as the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, women’s emancipation and ecology.


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Tracy Gordon


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  • This is madness. The Vatican and its bishops and most of its priests–and probably most of its regularly attending and active lay people–may really think the bishops have the last word about theology, but that includes two glaring errors. First of all, every bishop has been appointed by the Vatican, and as Bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba, Australia, will tell you, if they even dare to pronounce an opinion contrary to the official line of “theology” or church practice, they will hear Benedict exclaiming, like Donald Trump, “You’re fired!”

    Or as happened to Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois for echoing Morris’ notion that the ordination of women and married people would go a long way in resolving the priest shortage, you’re on the verge of excommunication. I guess Bourgeois was so bold as to actually take part in the ordination of a woman. How sacrilegious! The gender is not fit, like men, for the priesthood. It’s bad enough that the church has so many male pedophiles, do we really want to take a chance on increasing that number with women? Let’s ask Rush Limbaugh about that!

    Does anyone have access to all the minds in Catholicism to really be able to say that everyone believes the same theology about every statement in the creeds that have been rote recited for millennia? Absolute nonsense! Numerous numbers of good and faithful Catholics believe numerous varieties of ideas about the mythology expressed in those ancient creeds.

    If one watches and listens to the new Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, you see and hear a living, talking, walking lackey of the Vatican. That’s the only way you can become a bishop, much less a cardinal–usually in addition to having attended one of the post-ordination, graduate church schools in Rome so that close observation for several years can provide the Vatican with a good notion that you will be a very respecting, reliable, and subservient bishop in later years.

    Only the bishops themselves and the illiterates who warm the pews in spite of the outrage of sins and crimes of pedophilia against their young, and its continuing cover-up by their priests and bishops, including the Vatican, are deluded into thinking the bishops possess or form the last word in any theology. They do not even possess the first word!

    After God is declared infinite, supreme, all-knowing–yes, and all-good–how do humans come by the arrogance of writing buildings and buildings full of books explaining that unfathomable, that inexplicable, that unknowable. Of sure, you can expand upon what was written many centuries ago, even the Hebrew and Jesus stories, but even those were presumptuous. The Epistles were the first attempts at such explanations, rather ignoring the fact that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi even as he drew his last breath on the cross. And one need not join “Jews for Jesus” if they hold that understanding.

    No, the bishops are no different than anyone else. They have more training in the thoughts of others about God and Jesus than most people, about all kinds of theology, but they are not the first or last word. It is appropriate that all followers of Jesus, “The model of the Holy,” continually pursue Jesus in all the stories about him, both canonical and those that were considered less that politically correct enough to be included in the canon.

    There have also been many archaeological pursuits of Jesus, and many writings about him were discovered during the past 50-70 years, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Everything deserves attention. But, if God is infinite, let us not be so bold as to assert we know God, that we know more than others, or submit to anyone like a bishop who has the arrogance to claim that he or the Vatican has the last word. Just bow, overwhelmed by that Infinite, because that Infinite is also all Good!