The nuncio in Switzerland and Liechtenstein is trying to send the Church back centuries by talking up a “recourse to approved authors” in theology.

Driving the news

American-born Archbishop Thomas Gullickson dedicated a blog entry January 5 to a glowing review of ex-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s book The Power of Truth: The Challenges of Catholic Doctrine and Morals Today.

“If you are at all distraught these days by the ambivalence communicated by some charged with the teaching office in the Church, I can guarantee this book of Cardinal Müller will be a source of reassurance for you”, Gullickson wrote to his readers.

“It will confirm you in the faith as you know it and as it is still believed and taught. My point would be simply that in Cardinal Müller we still have good, solid folk out there”, the nuncio said.

Go deeper

Never mind that Müller – ever since Pope Francis decided not to renew his mandate at the CDF in 2017 – has been one of the most vocal opponents of Francis and his Church reforms, even going so far as to warn, in a manifesto included in the book Gullickson reviewed, that Francis’ pontificate has raised the spectre of the “fraud of Antichrist”.

Never mind that Gullickson warned that “too many Sunday homilies or too much stuff out there in the media which would pass itself off as Catholic, is anything but what it could or should be”.

What is of great concern in Gullickson’s blog entry is the idea that “the Church has always advised that we have recourse to approved authors”.

“With that expression, of course we mean first and foremost the great fathers and doctors of the Church, but also a whole series of saintly men and women who have faithfully held to the tradition, as well as those who continue to do so in our day”, the nuncio explained.

“The idea of recourse to approved authors from the past and to those who faithfully adhere in their teaching and preaching to that tradition is no more than common sense, or should I say wisdom”, Gullickson continued.

“Reserving the teaching and preaching office to those in Holy Orders was always a reminder that we live not so much from erudition or eloquence as we do from grace”, the nuncio said.

Why it matters

Far from being “common sense” or “wisdom” or even a reminder of the authority conferred by grace, the Church’s system of “approved authors” – as one theologian explains them, “those canonists and theologians who are commonly regarded as reliable and faithful interpreters of the doctrine of the Catholic Church in regard to canon law, belief and morals” – is a medieval invention that was corrected at the great modernising Second Vatican Council.

Dei verbum, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965), taught that (emphasis ours):

The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

The assertion that the Church’s teaching office “is not above the word of God, but serves it” represented a correction of Pope Pius XII, who in 1950, in Humani generis, had written (emphasis ours):

… [T]ogether with the sources of positive theology God has given to His Church a living Teaching Authority to elucidate and explain what is contained in the deposit of faith only obscurely and implicitly. This deposit of faith our Divine Redeemer has given for authentic interpretation not to each of the faithful, not even to theologians, but only to the Teaching Authority of the Church. But if the Church does exercise this function of teaching, as she often has through the centuries, either in the ordinary or in the extraordinary way, it is clear how false is a procedure which would attempt to explain what is clear by means of what is obscure. Indeed, the very opposite procedure must be used. Hence Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Pius IX, teaching that the most noble office of theology is to show how a doctrine defined by the Church is contained in the sources of revelation, added these words, and with very good reason: “in that sense in which it has been defined by the Church.”

In other words: the system of “approved authors” suffers from the defect that it gives more weight to who says what in theology rather than to what is actually said. But as theologian Yves Congar had it: in doctrinal matters, only the truth has authority, not Church office-holders.

For the record

There are all kinds of other problems too with the system of “approved authors” that make Gullickson’s use of the term concerning.

These problems were well spelled-out by theologian John P. Boyle in 1999:

Most of the auctores probati, like most theologians in the church until recently, were priests or members of religious communities. Most were also males. The tests for being “approved” could take various forms, but included were the publication of widely used textbooks in theology carrying the imprimatur, publications of articles in journals approved formally or informally by church authorities, invitations to serve as theological advisors to church officials and/or institutions. […]

Since Vatican II, the decline in the number of priests and seminaries and the increase in the number of Catholic scholars teaching in institutions not directly under the control of church authorities has vastly complicated attempts to identify even auctores probati – to say nothing of a Schola theologorum. Women, including women religious in significant numbers, have entered the professorate, bringing with them new experiences and scholarly interests. Faculties of theology, even in institutions sponsored by churches, are rarely staffed only by persons who are members of the sponsoring church.

Nonetheless, it does seem possible to speak of a body of scholars within the church. Just who they are and what influence they will have in their relations with bishops is undoubtedly one of the issues motivating the efforts by church officials to gain more control over theology and theologians. […]

A look at the list of contributors to influential recent works in theology or other sacred science shows that scholars who are not Catholics are a part of many projects undertaken by Catholic institutions or the Catholic hierarchy.

Is that where Gullickson really wants to take the Church – limiting theology to its ‘official’ form, without the input of laymen, laywomen and non-Catholics – just to satisfy his self-acknowledged need for “reassurance” in the age of Pope Francis?

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