America's Roman Catholic bishops will be asked next month to adopt formal procedures for improving their often stormy relations with theologians.
The 50-page proposal asserts theologians' "paramount" right to "freedom of inquiry and expression of scholarly opinion" while reminding them that "their prime responsibility is a critical fidelity" to the faith. It also says that as teachers of the faith, bishops have the right "to judge whether some opinions endanger or are contrary to faith and the Christian life."
The draft document is especially important in light of a Vatican proposal that would greatly expand bishops' authority over the teaching of religious subjects in Catholic colleges in their dioceses.
Theologians, who sometimes act as the church's research and development division, have come increasingly under fire as they reexamine the faith's tenets and traditions amid sweeping changes in the church and the world.
The document upholds "the right of the theologian to a good reputation and, if needed, the defense of that right by appropriate administrative or judicial processes within the church."
To minimize misunderstandings between theologians and various Catholic groups, the document says theologians should "prudently" tailor their teachings to an audience's ability to comprehend. It counsels "pastoral discretion in dealing with the communications media to reduce any harm to the unsophisticated from premature or inappropriate dissemination of their thought."
Among the criticisms of the Rev. Charles E. Curran, ousted last year from the faculty of Catholic University when the Vatican challenged some of his teachings on sexual morality, was that while his questioning of orthodoxy might have been permissible in scholarly dialogue, it misled the faithful when oversimplified in the public news media.
While affirming bishops' duty to judge the appropriateness of some scholarly opinion, the document says bishops also must recognize theologians' contributions and encourage them "to pursue a deeper understanding of the gospel and its meaning for contemporary life."
And while encouraging bishops to seek "the collaboration of theologians," the document states that the prelates "also have the right to teach without . . . exaggerated criticism by theologians or others in the church."
The document was drafted for the bishops by a joint committee of scholars from the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Canon Law Society of America. The bishops will vote on it at their annual meeting here Nov. 16-19.
The Rev. James Provost, professor of canon law at Catholic University and one of the draft's authors, said in answer to a question that the document would not have been helpful in the Curran case because that dispute involved the Vatican rather than a local bishop.
Nor does the document deal with the question of dissent by theologians, a key issue in the Curran controversy.