A chorus of protest, both here and in Europe, has attacked recent Vatican efforts to whip Roman Catholic theologians back into the fold of doctrinal orthodoxy.
The focus of much of the protest is the summoning to Rome earlier this week of the widely respected Dutch theologian, the Rev. Edward Schillebeeckx. The Dominican author and teacher was ordered to report to the Vatican for questioning by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, more popularly known by its older name, the Holy Office.
As is customary, the Holy Office did not notify Schillebeeckx of the specific charges against him, until they were presented in secret sessions, expected to last for 10 days.
Schillebeeckx had collapsed with fatigue and exhaustion a few days before the start of his trial and was ordered by his doctor to cancel all appointments.
Both the interrogation of Schillebeeckx and the secrecy surrounding it have been protested by a European-based organization of Catholic theologians, whose membership list reads like a who's who of Catholic thinkers today.
"It is unacceptable for Rome to make unilateral decisions concerning the necessity of condemming a theologian, still less so . . . concerning the taking of measures with respect to his status within the church," said the protest from scholars on the editorial board of the international theological review, Concilium.
In an apparent jab at Pope John Paul II's defense of human rights in the political realm, the statement added; "Church leaders who publicly defend human rights should also respect these rights within the church."
The Schillebeeckx situation also prompted a petition from 144 American Catholic theologians calling on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to conduct a dialogue instead of an interrogation.
The petition called on the Vatican office to "eliminate from its procedures 'hearings' and the like, substituting for them dialogues that would be either issue-oriented, or, if it is deemed important to focus on the work of a particular theologian, would bring together not only the theologian in question and the consultors of the Congregation, . . . but also a worldwide selection of the best pertinent theological scholars of varying methodologies and approaches."
The theologians' petition reminds the Holy Office that such an approach "is precisely the procedure utilized at the Second Vatican Council."
The Schillebeeckx case has also caught the eye of non-Catholic theologians. The Dutch Protestant Union, in an unusual intervention in a Catholic dispute, issued a public statement urging Catholics to oppose the Vatican's questioning of the theologian since it endangers the "development and quality of present-day religious experience."
In Britain, Anglicans and other Protestants joined Catholic theologians in a protest statement. A message signed by 83 British theologians charged that the measures employed by the Vatican "are inconsistent with fundamental human rights, gravely threaten that freedom of interpretation and research which is an indispensable feature of the human quest for meaning and truth, discredit the authority which employs such measures and imperils that fragile climate of mutual trust between the churches which has developed in recent decades."
Schillebeeckx is at work on a massive three-volume study of Christ, involving critical doctrinal questions of the nature of his mission, His divinity and His Resurrection. Only the first volume has been published.
It is generally assumed that this work has led to the Holy Office's concern. In addition, Schillebeeckx played a major part in writing the controversial Dutch Catechism several years ago.