Dissent Into Hell

In November, Peter James Cullinane, bishop of Palmerston North, spoke with refreshingly blunt diplomacy when he addressed the pope on behalf of all New Zealand bishops. "In the manner of God's appointed prophets, you have never hesitated to name those things which distort human life and dignity," he began. "We, in turn, would not wish to be like those false prophets of ancient times who sought their own advantage by telling the people that everything was well."

Cullinane, whose abridged address was reprinted in The Tablet, later exclaimed: "Sometimes we bishops are unable to explain actions which seem inconsistent with the Church's most fundamental commitments" -- one example being the pope's apostolic letter "Ad Tuendam Fidem" (For the Defense of the Faith), which amended canon law to punish theological dissent even from noninfallible teachings. "We simply ask whether it is appropriate," said Cullinane, "to burden further by the threat of penalties those Catholics who try in good faith to combine their loyalty to the Church with integrity of intellect and conscience."

Examples abound. In 1995, tenured professor Sister Carmel McEnroy was dismissed from St. Meinrad School of Theology for signing an open letter to Pope John Paul II asking that discussion continue on the ordination of women. In 1997, Sri Lankan Father Tissa Balasuriya, 72, was excommunicated after applying liberation theology to Asia and writing about the subordination of women. In May 1998, Sister Barbara Fiand was removed from her 17-year teaching position at Mount St. Mary's Seminary after accusations that she did not support vocations to the priesthood as it currently exists (she denied this vehemently). In July, Sister Ruth Schafer was removed from her teaching position in Essen, Germany, because she publicly advocated discussion of women's ordination. In September, the works of Indian Jesuit Father Anthony deMello were denounced, 10 years after his death, as having been influenced by the relativism of Eastern thought and therefore dangerous to the faithful. In November, Father Jacques Dupuis, a moderate and widely respected international scholar, was suspended from teaching and placed under investigation by the Vatican because he wrote Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism.

Here at St. Louis University, theologians say they're not worried, but few speak criticisms freely -- and there's been a resurgence of interest in the relatively safe realm of historical theology.

-- Jeannette Batz