Recent crackdowns on Roman Catholic theologians and scholars have the church's academic community worried that the reign of the popular Pope John Paul II may also become a time of intellectural repression.
After more than a decade of relative freedom for theological speculation in the church, under Pope Paul VI, signs of an enforced doctrinal rigidity are again emerging from the Vatican, officials say.
The most celebrated case at the moment is that of the world renowned Dutch theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, who has been ordered to Rome on Dec. 10 for a secret trial by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the antiheresy agency once called the Office of the Holy Inquistion.
The Dominican scholar was given no indication as to what charges, if any, will be lodged against him.
Schillebeeckx's superior was so outraged at the Vatican action against the theologian that he apealed to Amnesty International to intercede. The Nobel Prize-winning human rights organization, which has come to the aid of political prisoners throughout the world, has reportedly declined to intervene.
Closer to home, the Rev. Charles Curran of Catholic University, one of the best-known theologians of the church in this country, also is under investigation by the antiheresy agency.
Twelve years ago, an effort by university trustees to dismiss the popular professor because of his liberal teaching -- particularly on birth control -- touched off a student-faculty strike that shut down the university.
After five days the trustees gave in and Curran was rehired. While one of the best known U.S. theologians in the church, his liberal views on some aspects of sexual morality have become a thorn for church traditionalists.
Curran declined to discuss his problems with the Vatican other than to say is he "in correspondence," with the antiheresy office. Reportedly that means he has been asked to respond to a set of questions about his beliefs.
Curran emphasized that he has not been summoned to Rome for a trial, as Schillebeeckx has. He did say, however, that he has "been in contact with some of my colleagues in Europe about their relationship with the Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith]. Because of commitments made to these people, I cannot add further details as this time."
Earlier this year, the French theologian Jacques Pohier was formally reprimanded for views expressed in his book, "When I say God."
Also censured, in August of this year, was a five-person team of American theologians who wrote "Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Though," published in 1977. Church scholars said it was the first censure of American theologians since the Second Vatican Council.
Until it was reorganized and stripped of some of its functions by Pope Paul VI in 1965, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was known as the Holy Office. Funded in the 13th century as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, its role throughout history has been to combat heresy.
Although it accomplished that task in recent years with tools less bloody than the thumbscrew and the rack, the secrecy of its operations has continued to give it an aura of dread and doom.
The reorganization under Paul VI diminished its role by eliminating its office for censorship of books and the Roman Index of Prohibited Books.
There also are other signs that John Paul's Church will offer little latitude for theological differences of opinion.
In September, in his first formal worldwide meetings with Jesuit leaders since becoming pope, John Paul directed them to use "requisite firmness" to overcome "lamented shortcomings" in the influential Jesuit order. These shortcomings, he said, were "causing confusion among the Christian people and worry to the church, to the hierarchy and also personally to the pope. . ."
Last month a local Jesuit priest, the Rev. William Callahan, was disciplined for alledgedly disobeying an earlier order from Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe to refrain from public advocacy of ordaining women to the priesthood.
Also last month, a group of 180 Chicago area scholars issued a statement mildly critical of the "vision of monolithic church" portrayed by John Paul in his speeches during his American tour, and his failure to respect the diversity of viewpoints among American Catholics.
Although there is a Jesuit theological faculty in the Chicago area, there were no Jesuit signers to the statement -- a direct result, reportedly, of an order to refrain from public criticism of the pope and/or established church policy.
What these incidents apparently add up to is a climate of apprehension within the scholarly community and fears that freedom to theorize, to speculate beyond the bounds of established doctrine -- the very meat and drink of academic freedom is threatened.
"The general reaction to this is very, very negaive," said the Rev. William Hill of the Dominican House of Studies here and the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. "If people of the stature of Schillebeeckx, who is known to be very, very loyal to the church, can be tried, then there is fear that our own work can be called into question."
Theologians are reluctant to say that the Polich-born Pope has issued specific orders to quash dissent. At the same time it is acknowledged that the incidents would not take place if he disapproved.
"There is not any evidence to show that he is directing this, but the people in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must know that they can do these things without incurring his disapproval," said the Rev. David Power, a British theologian and Catholic University faculty member.
Theologians are fighting back with the only weapons at their disposal -- reasoned arguments and statements of protest.
Last week, a group of 30 European and American theologians who make up the editorial board of the distinguished international theological journal Concilium issued a public statement on the Schillebeeckx affair.
"It is unacceptable for Rome to make unilateral decisions concerning the necessity of condemning a theologian; still less so. . . concerning the taking of measures with respect to his status within the church," the statement said.
The international group of churchmen added, with an obvious reference to the pope: "Church leaders who publicly defend human rights should also respect these rights within the church."
Hill, who said he has written his own letter protesting the Schillebeeckx trial, added that a group of scholars from the International Theological Commission, while meeting in Rome, called on Cardinal Franjo Seper, the head of the antiheresy agnecy to protest the upcoming secret trial.
Seper, Hill said, "reportedly shrugged his shoulders and indicated they were making a great deal out of nothing; that there was not a question of charges being brought."
Meanwhile, the trial remains scheduled for Dec. 10.