What are the qualifications of a good teacher? To know the answer, just look at someone who certainly had them: Jesus of Nazareth. When the law-specialist poses the anxious question, ‘What must I do to have eternal life?,’ Jesus does not simply dump an authoritative answer on him. Instead he takes into account the context, and the situation of the questioner. He prompts the questioner to produce his own answer, out of his own store of wisdom. And the man’s answer turns out to be the core of the New Testament, discerned in the heart of the Old: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God… and thy neighbor as thyself.’ (To be sure, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus does give this answer himself, rather bluntly, but Luke’s portrait of Jesus brings out gracious aspects missed by them. See http://www.2preslex.org/S030316.HTM.)
A bad teacher says to himself or herself: "I have the expertise and I have the objective truth. All I need do is state it unambiguously, and then it is up to my students to subscribe to it, to digest it, and to repeat it." Such a teacher takes the Latin word doctrina to mean ‘doctrine’ rather than ‘teaching.’ His or her idea of intensive teaching would be to clear up students’ confusion by insistent repetition, by indoctrination. Such a teacher does not allow himself to be involved in a relationship of dialogue with his students, whom he in any case despises. But often, such a bad teacher is also one who has not really mastered the subject in depth, and whose show of authority and objectivity is a defense against exposure to dreaded criticism.
The legal specialist is not satisfied with the answer of Jesus. He is perhaps an anxious, scrupulous man. He wants clear guidelines as to how to practice the law. ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Jesus chooses a form of discourse designed to allay his anxiety: he tells a story. A good teacher explains things in the simplest way and in a tone appropriate to the subject. A bad teacher will kill even the most beautiful subject by treating it coldly, bureaucratically, as if the objectivity of knowledge were best served by presenting it in a manner devoid of reference to its human context.
In the story Jesus tells, the two religious experts are so wrapped up in their holy thoughts, their scriptural studies, their clerical egos, that they cannot open their hearts in love to anybody, least of all the sufferers who litter the road to Jericho and many other places in the world today. What has that to do with them? They are employed for purposes of doctrine, not of pious works. The Samaritan chooses to respond to the suffering man, lavishing on him human care. The religious experts may commend him as a do-gooder, but their chief task is to critique his heretical views, which are objectively wrong. In doing so, they may feel that they, too, are being good Samaritans in their own way, saving souls from the pernicious influence of unsound doctrine.’
Jesus does not answer the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ but asks another, ‘Which of these three was a neighbor?’ The answer is easy: not the two clerics, with their hang-ups, but the one who showed compassion. And so the questioning law-specialist has his answer: there is no difficulty finding your neighbor, rather you must find your way to your neighbor, using your creative freedom and your imagination and opening your heart.
Creative freedom? Imagination? Heart? Are these the qualities expected of the forty priests who comprise the staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in their rather grim palace in Vatican City? (I once peeped in the gate there and was chased away by a lady with a sweeping brush.) Most certainly not. Their trade is in objective truth, and these other factors can only detract from that.
That the current CDF is a bad teacher as regards both teaching skills and mastery of its subject, theology, has long been apparent. A group of leading European theologians led by the eminent Peter Hünermann, has issued a timely call for its reform (as another group, including Joseph Ratzinger, did back in the 1960s). The reform concerns not only its procedures, which have sometimes amounted to pure skullduggery, but its theological basis. Theological maturity, and participation in the processes of theological thinking, dialogue and research, is what is demanded of the CDF. They are asked to choose to be neighbors to theologians, not hostile invigilators. But such a reform would no doubt entail cashiering the entire present staff of the corrupt and incompetent Congregation, so it will be hotly resisted. Paul VI's charter for a reformed CDF, issued on the last day of the Council, has been ignored.
These forty priests have to earn their living. They diligently trawl through theological publications in search of dangerous errors. The publications are read diagonally, not in depth, since the readers are not out to learn theology or acquire new ideas, but rather to diagnose diseases, for the treatment of which they themselves are the accredited specialists. If they allowed themselves to enjoy the publications they plow through they would not be doing their job.
But vigilant reading is not enough. They must also produce a quota of reports and documents to show that their office is not an idle one, but a precious organ of the Church. So before they set off on their expensive summer vacations, they issue an important-looking statement on a topic alleged to have caused confusion and to be in need of clarification. Now since they have done no real theological study recently, and since they have no particular gift for theology anyway, they have no new or fresh teaching to offer. In such cases, the best thing is to recycle some tried and trusted number. They reach back to 2000, when they issued statements on the status of the Protestant churches. What better idea than to repeat those statements? And they suppose that this will go down well with their former Prefect, still their boss.
And so the ‘objective truth’ is trotted out, in the glorious old dubia et responsa format beloved of the old Holy Office. Unfortunately, the resulting document is not long enough, so to avoid the impression of skimpiness they produce as well a longer note commenting on it. The note adds nothing, except to swipe at theologians guilty of sustaining the alleged confusions. The only one named is Leonardo Boff, condemned by them about twenty years ago. Strange that in all their trawling through theological literature they have come up with no new names. They seem to be stuck in the rut of a few obsessive ideas and references, unable to relate to a wider field of interlocutors. In any case, the supplementary note is published on the Vatican website in Italian – no need to translate it – and now the CDF team can happily set off on their well-deserved holidays. It does not worry them that they have dumped an ecumenical stink-bomb that will nauseate the nostrils of Christians everywhere. (Outrage was expressed on their behalf by Cardinals Kasper and Lehmann, the latter accusing the CDF of trying to start a religious war.)
“What stink? Why, we receive letters from all over the world, congratulating us on the job we are doing, as we preserve the faith pure of contaminations and distortions of every kind! You say that Paul VI wanted us to be evangelizers, not inquisitors, to promote theological research, not to stifle it? But, you know, Paul VI wasn’t the full shilling. We see him as dabbling in Marxism, entertaining dangerous and counter-productive ideas of freedom of conscience in the application of moral norms, flabby in his ecumenical overtures to what he falsely called ‘sister churches,’ and naïve in his eagerness to implement Vatican II.”
The teaching role of Jesus brought serenity and confidence to those who were anxiety-ridden and guilt-ridden. The CDF, on the other hand, thrives on anxiety and guilt. Its effect on Catholic theology has been inhibitive and intimidatory. “Ah, but Jesus was not popular, and neither are we, for we teach the truth boldly, even when it goes against all the fads of the age! It’s only the muddle-headed tea-party ecumenists who find us uncouth. People who stand for objective truth agree with our stance, even if their objective truth differs from ours. Yet, the outcry against us only confirms that we are doing a very good job, and well deserve our summer break.”
Is it any wonder that bishops dread the Roman Curia like the plague, and refer to is as ‘the bureaucracy of nothing’?
Supposing that, before composing their most recent pensum, the CDF had really thought about the people their objective truths refer to. Supposing – God bless the mark! – that they had dialogued with them. Or supposing they had consulted with the people in another palace who are devoted to ecumenical affairs. Might they not then have come out with some creative and enlightening teaching, rather than a dead piece of doctrine? Instead of saying, ‘You are not churches in the proper sense,’ might they not have allowed the Protestant churches to utter their own truth, drawing on their own store of wisdom? And might that truth not be that since the Church of Christ is ‘present and operative’ in all Christian bodies (as John Paul II taught in Ut Unum Sint and as the CDF grudgingly admit though it goes against their Scroogian instincts), so Christ can amply supply whatever is missing in the allegedly ‘defective’ churches. Ecclesia supplet. Christus supplet.
“But that is not the CDF’s job. The people responsible for ecumenism can look after that. It’ll give them some extra work and help them justify their existence. To be sure they’re miffed that we made work for them just as they were packing their bags for the summer. And the man on the side of the road? Oh, toss him a coin. The doctrine of the faith, as is well known, has nothing to do with justice and peace issues. Those are for that other department (or has it been abolished?). People who drag justice and peace issues into the realm of dogmatic theology are among our most fruitful targets, you know, ‘political theologians’ like Johannes Baptist Metz and ‘liberation theologians’ like Jon Sobrino. That Notification on poor Sobrino was a cinch – we just recycled the old liberation theology dossier, spiced up with a bit of pseudo-exegesis and charming retro touches like that bit from Pius XII's time about Jesus enjoying the beatific vision immediately after his conception.”
After the summer, what projects have the CDF in mind? “Well, relativism is a bit ambitious – it might involve thinking about obscure philosophical issues. The ordination of women? No, let sleeping dogs lie. What about that old sizzler, sexual ethics? We haven’t said anything about that for quite a while, and it always gets media attention. And it’s so easy as well. Anyway, there’s plenty of work for us to do, and we need never worry about being thrown out on the side of the road.”