Skip to main content

On the 25th Anniversary of the CDF's Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian

On May 24, 1990, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published one of the most important documents of the postconciliar period: the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,or more succinctly, Donum Veritatis.

This carefully written document, undergirded by centuries of prior teaching, not only reaffirmed the obviously important role of theologians in explaining, clarifying, and enriching the Church's teaching, but also called on theologians who disagree with Church teaching not to use the mass media to publicize their views or try to pressure for change in the Church. Could any message be more timely, as we watch the German episcopal faction, standing behind Kasper's pure and simple novelties, continually bombard the media with their dissenting opinions in an effort to strong-arm the conversation and make it seem a fait accompli

This document also contains timely reminders about the real duty of the Magisterium to articulate without hesitation or compromise the truth of the Faith, especially in times of ignorance, confusion, or error. In this way, Donum Veritiats, particularly Part III, could serve as a kind of Speculum Papae, a mirror in which the Pope and other pastors could see reflected their own urgent responsibility to proclaim the one true Faith opportune, importune, in season and out of season.

The whole document is well worth reading (indeed, one could say now more than ever), but here are a few choice excerpts pertinent to our current crisis. We can see that Cardinal Ratzinger, at the helm of the CDF, grasped the very essence of the question and conveyed the mind of the Church with a serene simplicity, in a manner that will never be out of date. Unlike others who counsel us to move ahead into a future of surprises and leave behind the past, Ratzinger reminded us of the timelessness of the Deposit of Faith, its perennial power to judge our own hare-brained ideas, and its normativity for all theological work. For these reasons, one would not be mistaken in seeing Donum Veritatis as a kind of charter of all of Ratzinger's work as a theologian, and his dramatic eight-year effort to steer the Barque of St. Peter into the calmer waters of continuity with the great tradition.

From Donum Veritatis

2. Out of His infinite love, God desired to draw near to man, as he seeks his own proper identity, and walk with him (cf. Lk 24:15). He also wanted to free him from the snares of the "father of lies" (cf. Jn 8:44) and to open the way to intimacy with Himself so that man could find there, superabundantly, full truth and authentic freedom. This plan of love, conceived by "the Father of lights" (Jas 1:17; cf. I Pet 2:9; 1 Jn 1:5) and realized by the Son victorious over death (cf. Jn 8:36), is continually made present by the Spirit who leads "to all truth" (Jn 16:13). ...

6. Among the vocations awakened in this way by the Spirit in the Church is that of the theologian. His role is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith. ...

11. Never forgetting that he is also a member of the People of God, the theologian must foster respect far them and be committed to offering them a teaching which in no way does harm to the doctrine of the faith. ...

It is the mission of the Magisterium to affirm the definitive character of the Covenant established by God through Christ with His People in a way which is consistent with the "eschatological" nature of the event of Jesus Christ. It must protect God's People from the danger of deviations and confusion, guaranteeing them the objective possibility of professing the authentic faith free from error, at all times and in diverse situations. It follows that the sense and the weight of the Magisterium's authority are only intelligible in relation to the truth of Christian doctrine and the preaching of the true Word. The function of the Magisterium is not, then, something extrinsic to Christian truth nor is it set above the faith. It arises directly from the economy of the faith itself, inasmuch as the Magisterium is, in its service to the Word of God, an institution positively willed by Christ as a constitutive element of His Church. The service to Christian truth which the Magisterium renders is thus for the benefit of the whole People of God called to enter the liberty of the truth revealed by God in Christ. ...

What concerns morality can also be the object of the authentic Magisterium because the Gospel, being the Word of Life, inspires and guides the whole sphere of human behavior. The Magisterium, therefore, has the task of discerning, by means of judgments normative for the consciences of believers, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those which, on the contrary, because intrinsically evil, are incompatible with such demands. By reason of the connection between the orders of creation and redemption and by reason of the necessity, in view of salvation, of knowing and observing the whole moral law, the competence of the Magisterium also extends to that which concerns the natural law.(16) ...

27. Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom 14:1-15; 1 Cor 8; 10: 23-33). For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them. ... 

30. If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian's part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments. In cases like these, the theologian should avoid turning to the "mass media", but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth. ...

The weight of public opinion when manipulated and its pressure to conform also have their influence. Often models of society promoted by the "mass media" tend to assume a normative value. The view is particularly promoted that the Church should only express her judgment on those issues which public opinion considers important and then only by way of agreeing with it. The Magisterium, for example, could intervene in economic or social questions but ought to leave matters of conjugal and family morality to individual judgment. ...

Although theological faith as such then cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith. Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith. This is all the more so given that people can be swayed by a public opinion influenced by modern communications media. Not without reason did the Second Vatican Council emphasize the indissoluble bond between the "sensus fidei" and the guidance of God's People by the magisterium of the Pastors. These two realities cannot be separated.(33) Magisterial interventions serve to guarantee the Church's unity in the truth of the Lord. They aid her to "abide in the truth" in face of the arbitrary character of changeable opinions and are an expression of obedience to the Word of God.(34) Even when it might seem that they limit the freedom of theologians, these actions, by their fidelity to the faith which has been handed on, establish a deeper freedom which can only come from unity in truth. ...

37. By virtue of the divine mandate given to it in the Church, the Magisterium has the mission to set forth the Gospel's teaching, guard its integrity, and thereby protect the Faith of the People of God. In order to fulfill this duty, it can at times be led to take serious measures as, for example, when it withdraws from a theologian, who departs from the doctrine of the faith, the canonical mission or the teaching mandate it had given him, or declares that some writings do not conform to this doctrine. When it acts in such ways, the Magisterium seeks to be faithful to its mission of defending the right of the People of God to receive the message of the Church in its purity and integrity and not be disturbed by a particular dangerous opinion.