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What is the role of a Catholic theologian in the Church? What is the relationship of a theologian with the Teaching Office of the Church? It’s a perpetual topic, but John Henry Newman, whose feast day fell two days ago (October 9), is perhaps the best example to look to for understanding. Although he actually never referred to himself as a theologian, he saw his research as a service to the Church, a service subject to the discernment of his bishop.

Recent documents address these questions in Newman’s spirit. In 1990, the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of a Theologian described the freedom of a theologian: “The freedom proper to theological research is exercised within the Church’s faith. Thus while the theologian might often feel the urge to be daring in his work, this will not bear fruit or “edify” unless it is accompanied by that patience which permits maturation to occur.”

That same year the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae on Catholic higher education reasserted the requirement that those who teach theology in institutions of higher learning should have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority. Those who oppose a mandate see it as a limitation to academic freedom.

But this is an impoverished understanding of freedom. The theologian exercises his freedom by receiving a mandate and accepting his office in the Church. He does not work on his own. He serves the Word in collaboration with the Magisterium. The Instruction explains:

Collaboration between the theologian and the Magisterium occurs in a special way when the theologian receives the canonical mission or the mandate to teach. In a certain sense, such collaboration becomes a participation in the work of the Magisterium, linked, as it then is, by a juridic bond. The theologian’s code of conduct, which obviously has its origin in the service of the Word of God, is here reinforced by the commitment the theologian assumes in accepting his office, making the profession of faith, and taking the oath of fidelity.

Through his research and writing Newman collaborated with the bishop of his diocese (Birmingham) and the other English bishops. He carried out his theological work within the Tradition of the Church and at the service of the Church. When there was a misunderstanding he was ready to explain his views to his bishop or the Holy See, and to retract anything that was judged to be incorrect. His writings on the development of Christian doctrine, the importance of “consulting the lay faithful in matters of doctrine,” and papal infallibility show how Newman conjugated academic freedom with ultimate submission to the Teaching Office of the Church.

In light of Newman’s example, how can we doubt that academic freedom is compatible with a mandate to teach theology?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez is author of Passion for Truth, the Life of John Henry Newman (TAN/St. Benedict’s, 2012).

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