Panel says bishops have the last word on Catholic theology

March 9, 2012

c. 2012 Religion News Service
VATICAN CITY (RNS) The task of giving the "authentic interpretation" of
the Catholic faith ultimately belongs to bishops, not theologians, a Vatican
panel said Thursday (March 8).

A report written by an advisory group of theologians that answers to the
Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said defining Catholic
teaching falls chiefly to the "college of bishops headed by the pope."

The report, "Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria," was
prepared by the International Theological Commission but is not considered
part of the church's official teaching. Nonetheless, its publication was
specifically approved by the Vatican's doctrinal chief, Cardinal William J.

It is aimed at defining the principles of theological research in the
Catholic Church and at exploring the limits of theologians' freedom. The
issues raised by the document have recently come into the spotlight after
the controversial condemnation of feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson by
the U.S. bishops.

"Theology Today" clearly states that "'dissent' towards the magisterium
has no place in Catholic theology," but stresses that "investigation and
questioning" are "justified and even necessary."

Bishops and theologians have "distinct callings, and must respect one
another's particular competence," the panel said. But in the end, the
"'authentic' interpretation of the faith" is a prerogative of church
authorities, namely the bishops, and theologians cannot "presume to
substitute the teaching office of the church's pastors."

According to the document, theologians play a role in helping church
authorities understand and accept historical developments. In the past, the
report said the church has been "overly cautious" toward movements such as
the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, women's emancipation and ecology.