• U.S.

Religion: Not Quite a Heresy Trial

6 minute read

But Holland’s leading Christologist is called in for questioning

They met in the same gray Renaissance palace where the Inquisition put Galileo on trial. But the Vatican called last week’s meeting a mere “series of talks.” Over coffee, a Dominican priest-theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, 65, clad casually in a tweed sports jacket, sat answering respectful questions from three other theologians. In case of need, a theological counsel for the defense, Schillebeeckx’s dean at Nijmegen University in The Netherlands, stood by in an adjacent room.

The nine items on the agenda were hardly trivial. Among them: Schillebeeckx’s views on whether or not Christ personally gave orders to found the church, and whether Christ actually rose from the dead. But the interrogators, representing the Vatican, were concerned about an equally fundamental question: the divinity of Jesus Christ as it has been decreed by the church for 15 centuries. One member of the panel, Jesuit Jean Galot of the Pontifical Gregorian University, had gone so far as to accuse Schillebeeckx, via .Vatican Radio, of the ancient heresy of Arianism, the belief that Jesus is less than God because he did not exist eternally with the Father in the Godhead.

Like other modern Catholic theologians, as well as Protestants, Schillebeeckx emphasizes the humanity of Jesus far more than his divinity in order to make the Saviour easier for believers to identify with, more relevant to daily life. He told TIME that he does not deny the ancient Trinitarian dogmas, but seeks to explain “the deeper sense of what was meant in the old days, in a modern way.”

But to the Vatican, the belief in Jesus as fully God and fully man has helped hold the church together since it nearly split over the issue in a series of early and acrimonious councils. The two-day Schillebeeckx hearing marked the first time any theologian, much less one of international stature, had gone to the Vatican for questioning since Pope Paul VI modernized the once dreaded Holy Office into a “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” in 1965. Dozens of prominent Catholic and Protestant theologians had signed protest petitions over the Schillebeeckx hearing, fearing that the speculative freedom enjoyed since the Second Vatican Council is in danger.

A native of Belgium who has taught in The Netherlands for 22 years, Schillebeeckx (pronounced Skhill-uh-bakes) served as the Dutch hierarchy’s top theological adviser during the Second Vatican Council. He is in the forefront of modern Christologists who are re-examining the doctrinal interpretation of Christ. The Vatican has had him under scrutiny at least since 1968. Schillebeeckx journeyed to Rome for the confrontation despite a flare-up of heart trouble.

The book most at issue is his 767-page tome Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (Seabury; $24.50), published in Dutch in 1974. The writing is prolix, to put it mildly. But Jesus makes clear that the author is heavily influenced by liberal Protestant Bible scholarship of the past century. In this modern approach, the Gospels are not the unquestioned Word of God but collections of competing evidence about Jesus Christ, various layers of tradition subject to interpretation that may or may not bear resemblance to what the historical Jesus did or said. English-language reviewers of Jesus have been less confounded and perplexed about Schillebeeckx’s notion of Jesus’ divinity than about his murky meditations on whether Jesus rose bodily from the grave or merely lived on through some miraculous renewal of faith on the part of his disciples

The report on last week’s hearing will go for consideration to the Cardinals who govern the doctrinal congregation, then to Pope John Paul. A judgment will be months in coming. The Vatican could merely issue a formal warning if it finds “false teachings.” It could also bar Schillebeeckx from teaching at any Catholic university or ask the Dominican order to suspend him from priestly functions, as happened to France’s Jacques Pohier earlier this year for doubting the Resurrection of Christ, among other things.

The Vatican would ponder long and hard before taking these steps against such a major scholar, and Schillebeeckx exuded confidence when the hearing was over. “I do not fear condemnation like Pohier,” he said. “There was no difference between us on the Resurrection,” though at least one panelist was dissatisfied over his handling of Christ’s divinity in the book.

However the case turns out, it is the latest sign that John Paul’s Vatican is determined to crack down on divisive interpretations of doctrine. Evidence of division is plentiful. Just before the hearing, Schillebeeckx won a ringing endorsement from The Netherlands’ Primate, Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, who sits on the board of the doctrinal congregation. Dutch theological students joined the campaign, rounding up more than 60,000 signatures for a petition taken to the Vatican as the hearing began. Willebrands will be back in Rome with his bishops in January for an unprecedented meeting with the Pope aimed at bringing order out of the current doctrinal chaos in the Dutch church. A new poll in The Netherlands shows that only 47% of Catholics there think Christ is the Son of God, compared with 70% in 1966; fewer still be lieve in a personal God or life after death.

In The Netherlands and elsewhere, John Paul plainly seeks to shore up the church through doctrinal discipline. In Germany, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger recently used a long dormant concordat to deny a professorship to Johann Baptist Metz, a leading exponent of Liberation Theology. The Vatican doctrinal office has also just issued a second attack on a liberal study of sexual morality commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America.

The clearest example of Rome’s new policy came when Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the highly influential Society of Jesus, informed his 27,000 members that John Paul has formally directed him to shape up discipline and loyalty among Jesuits. Among the first victims of reform: U.S. Jesuit William Callahan, who is being transferred from the leadership of Priests for Equality, apparently because it has agitated for a change in the Vatican ban on women priests.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com