Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Roger Haight, and catholicity

Book Review Editor

The Vatican's latest -- which, in Vatican time, is not the same as "recent" -- attempt to keep Roger Haight's views from tender Catholic ears seems curiously tone-deaf. (The short story: the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the CDF -- has raised questions about Haight's work for some time now, limiting his ability to work in Catholic institutions. The latest news is that Haight has been asked not to teach anywhere. To read John Allen's analysis, which lays out the specific theological issues, click HERE.)

[UPDATE, 1/8/2008:  Allen adds to his analysis HERE, the title summarizes, "Behind Haight sanctions, pope's fear of relativism."  With regard to the issue of the theology of religions -- see Allen's closing observation -- here's a programming note for local readers: on Wednesday, March 25th, Haight's Jesuit brother Frank Clooney will speak at 8:00 pm in the Dolan School of Business at Fairfield University on "Christian Faith in Light of Hindusim."]

To put it broadly, Roger Haight, a highly respected Jesuit theologian and teacher, has raised numerous questions with his work on Christology and ecclesiology. His work brings forward the intellectual issues of our day, as these pertain to Christian theology -- how can we claim that salvation in Jesus Christ is a unique event? What does it mean to belong to a faith that claims one period as "normative," but also claims that history matters? What does it mean to take seriously the encounter with other religions?

As he thinks carefully about how to articulate the Christian faith in the contemporary milieu, Haight makes claims that go well beyond (some would say, “violate”) what has been held as settled doctrine. In many ways, the problem is as much the first as the second half of the previous sentence -- if he just made up a bunch of wacky stuff, no one would notice. But instead, because he knows the tradition and is thinking in careful, systematic and scholarly fashion with the church and the world, his work is seen as so dangerous that he cannot be trusted now with any students, anywhere.

I think that the CDF has the right, and the duty, to engage directly and publicly with the thought of those who call themselves Catholic theologians, which will occasionally lead to the direct and public repudiation of the work of some theologians.

But, while the Vatican should have a privileged place at the table, their voice should not be regarded as that of a sole regulatory agency – indeed, the CDF itself works in concert with many theologians, though it does not clearly acknowledge this. The faith it protects also has a historical community, of positions and commentary over centuries, though again, the CDF does not clearly acknowledge this.

Moreover, outside those walls, the contemporary community of Catholic theologians constantly engages one another's work, directly and publicly, through academic conferences, through the process of submitting work to peer-reviewed journals, and through the hiring process itself, as other religious scholars and/or Catholic theologians decide who will best serve as their colleagues.

For that community, Roger Haight was considered to be of value on all three fronts. In particular, numerous conference sessions have been devoted to his work, conference sessions that only happen because of a groundswell of interest among those who operate at the highest levels of Catholic theological scholarship. These sessions are not "celebrations," as with any scholar’s work, they bring together a group to pose direct and difficult questions, and Haight’s conclusions – as is true of most scholars who undergo this scrutiny – have met with a mixed response.

So note: The CDF is hardly the only one asking Haight difficult questions. Yet, even among those who publicly disagree with some of his solutions to the questions that challenge us all, his voice is considered, by a wide variety of mainstream Catholic theologians, to be a valuable resource for theologians who take the Catholic tradition seriously. Haight considers himself part of this community, and has been willing, over and over, to submit his work to its scrutiny.

Dangerous? Not so much.

But in this newest move, here’s what I’m curious about: Rather than removing Haight’s voice from the Catholic fold, the Vatican is now saying that Haight should not teach anywhere.

(Can they do that? Well, no, they can’t make a school the Church doesn’t control fire him, but he’s a Jesuit, so if his superiors say no teaching, he doesn’t teach…we note that with lay theologians the whole situation is somewhat more complex.)

On the one hand, perhaps this is simply the semi-fundamentalist arrogance it seems to be. At this point, I usually observe that the Vatican doesn't seem to understand that Catholics all have cable now, by which I mean that the Vatican doesn't seem to recognize that they are no longer the only player in the Catholic mind. There almost seems to be an impression that if ideas or persons are banned, Catholics will simply not hear about them.

On the other hand, I'm wondering now if there's something more afoot, and here's why I think this development bears watching: This notification about not teaching anywhere sounds, to me, like it's part of a story in which the Catholic, or catholicity, in precisely its public and universal character, is now being run up the flagpole, and is posing precisely the sort of problems that have always been latent within it. This is of a piece with the question about reason in Islam raised by Benedict earlier, with the notion of charity found in Deus Caritas Est, and with the sweeping "Ecology of Man" of the Christmas address to the Curia.

So. Stay tuned.

Full disclosure -- I cannot claim a personal friendship with Roger Haight, but I should note that he was kind and generous with his professional time on my behalf, when I was in need of professional generosity. And kindness.

All of which, BTW, does not make me special – he’s like that with everyone.