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Bishops have last word on faith, Vatican panel says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Theologians and bishops have complementary roles in furthering understanding of the Catholic faith, but the former must ultimately defer to the latter on questions of definitive interpretation, according to a new report from a Vatican panel of theological advisers.

“Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria” is the latest report from the International Theological Commission, a group of theologians appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to study themes of current interest and offer expert advice to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The final text of the 38-page report was approved Nov. 29, 2011, but was scheduled to appear for the first time in English in a forthcoming issue (Vol. 41, No. 40) of Origins, the weekly documentary service of Catholic News Service. It is based on discussions held in Rome over the period 2004-2011.

The report acknowledges an inevitable tension, while emphasizing a need for harmony, between the practice of theology and the exercise by the pope and bishops of the magisterium, the church’s teaching authority in matters of faith and morals.

“Bishops and theologians have distinct callings and must respect one another’s particular competence, lest the magisterium reduce theology to a mere repetitive science or theologians presume to substitute the teaching office of the church’s pastors,” the theologians write.

“Theology investigates and articulates the faith of the church, and the ecclesiastical magisterium proclaims that faith and authentically interprets it,” the report says.

In their pronouncements, bishops should draw on the work of theologians in order to demonstrate a “capacity for critical evaluation,” among other virtues, the report advises.

“On the other hand, the magisterium is an indispensable help to theology by its authentic transmission of the deposit of faith (‘depositum fidei’), particularly at decisive times of discernment,” the authors add.

The report is unequivocal in stating where final authority lies:

“When it comes to the ‘authentic’ interpretation of the faith, the magisterium plays a role that theology simply cannot take to itself. Theology cannot substitute a judgment coming from the scientific theological community for that of the bishops.”

Yet the authors note that “not all magisterial teaching has the same weight,” and that theologians should apply “constructively critical evaluation and comment” to the statements of their bishops.

“While ‘dissent’ towards the magisterium has no place in Catholic theology, investigation and questioning is justified and even necessary if theology is to fulfill its task,” they write.

Pope Benedict struck a similar note when he addressed the commission late last year.

“Without a healthy and vigorous theological reflection, the church risks not expressing fully the harmony between faith and reason,” the pope said Dec. 2. “At the same time, without faithfully living in communion with the church and adhering to its magisterium as the vital space of its existence, theology cannot give an adequate explanation of the gift of faith.”

The commission is currently preparing at least two other reports: one on the Catholic understanding of belief in one God, and another on the relation of Catholic doctrine to the church’s social teaching.