Some years ago, during a national meeting of Catholic theologians, a group gathered to discuss John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae . The Vatican and the bishops were evidently serious about enforcing its requirement that Catholic professors of theology in Catholic institutions have permission, a mandatum, to teach from their local bishop. One after another, the theologians rose to voice their indignation at the very idea that the Catholic Church had the right to pass any sort of judgment on their fitness to teach theology. One member of the panel, a priest and an accomplished theologian, observed that requiring Catholic theology professors to profess the teachings of the Catholic Church didn’t seem like all that much to ask. An angry murmuring buzz filled the room. Had there been rotten fruit at hand, the theologians would have pelted him with it.

It may be tempting to see this incident as one more piece of evidence that Catholic theology professors see their vocation as drumming up dissent rather than teaching their students how to think about the faith. That would be unfair. Those opposing the mandatum seemed to feel a genuinely distressing conflict between their vocation as Catholic theologians and what the Church was asking of them. Theology, they rightly assumed, is an intellectual enterprise, and theologians are intellectuals. Theology is by nature wissenschaft : an activity of rigorous critical ­reflection, a “science” in the broad sense of an activity for scholars trained in its distinctive requirements. Theologians must therefore be free to follow evidence and arguments wherever they lead, unencumbered by outside interference, especially the interference of those who”like most bishops”are not themselves intellectuals.

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