The Vatican yesterday ordered Roman Catholic theologians to refrain from publicly dissenting from church teaching on artificial birth control, papal authority and other controversial matters or face disciplinary measures.
In response to what it called a "climate of conflict" generated by dissident theologians here and abroad, the Vatican issued a 28-page document that was considered its strongest in modern times on academic dissent.
"To succumb to the temptation of dissent . . . is to allow the leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit to start to work," said the report, titled "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian."
Issued by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the report is narrower in scope and authority than a papal encyclical but significant because it carries the pope's approval.
The report said theologians may occasionally question "the timeliness, the form or even the contents" of some church teaching. In these cases, the theologian should talk to his bishop, the report said. But if still unsatisfied, the theologian should keep quiet, even on matters not considered infallible or divinely inspired. The statement warned theologians particularly against advancing their positions in the news media.
One U.S. church expert said yesterday that the report appears to be an attempt to take Catholic theological discourse back to pre-Vatican II days, when scholarly criticism of church teaching was carried on in Latin in obscure journals over long periods of time. "Of course, the whole framework of discourse has changed since then," the expert added.
Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh said he believed that under the new understanding, theologians still will be able to debate controversial issues in journals, books and at symposiums, "as opposed to the freshman class" in theology.
"But when mandated to teach," Wuerl said, bishops "have to present the teaching of the church."
Wuerl, a member of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine, said it is unrealistic to expect that academic discussion of controversial matters will not be picked up by the media.
He characterized the statement as "a positive document" that encourages theologians and bishops to talk to each other about their differences.
West German Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, head of the Vatican congregation, said at a press conference that the declaration was written to address a "climate of conflict" stirred up in recent years by dissident theologians.
During Pope John Paul II's 11 years as head of the Roman Catholic Church, at least six theologians have been disciplined for straying from church positions on birth control and other issues of sexual morality. The best known in this country is the Rev. Charles E. Curran, who taught about freedom of conscience in his classes at Catholic University in Washington and was stripped of his right to teach theology there in 1987.
Academic defiance has been more widespread and persistent in Western Europe. Eighteen months ago, 163 German-speaking theologians issued a widely publicized statement saying that the pope had overstepped his role by intruding in theological matters, stifling a spirit of free inquiry and research on Catholic university campuses. French and Belgian medical schools also questioned the pope's writings on medical technology.
In March 1989, the pope issued a loyalty oath barring certain priests, bishops and college teachers from questioning any church teachings that are considered "definitive," or divinely inspired.
Yesterday's document goes further and addresses another, broader set of church teachings. Even when church authority does not intend to act definitively, it said, "but teaches a doctrine in order to aid a deeper understanding of revelation . . . or guard against ideas incompatible with these same truths, a religious submission of will and intellect is called for."
The church, the report said, cannot be run like a free state. "Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the church," it said.
But Sister Alice Gallin, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that many theologians believe that free and democratic expression in their classrooms and their writing is essential to winning the support of those they teach and furthering the church's understanding of its faith.
"Bishops and the pope have a responsibility to protect the truth," she said, "but theologians have the responsibility to ask questions. The difficulty comes when a question is perceived as a challenge. There's a fine line there, and we're not very good at walking it."