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The scandal behind an electronic edict.

Dominican denied job; Rome won't say why

OXFORD, England -- The Vatican entered the modern age with its first recorded edict by fax. A process that normally takes months was reduced to a week.

Sept. 4, 1992, Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Congregation of Catholic Education, faxed Charles Amorin Brand, arch-bishop of Strasbourg, France.

Sept. 6, Brand whizzed a fax to South Africa for the attention of Belgian Dominican Philippe Denis, 40, informing him that he would not be allowed to take up the post of professor of theology in the University of Strasbourg. In July, Denis has been chosen by the Catholic faculty to succeed Rene Epp, who had reached retirement age.

What had gone wrong? Brand's Sept. 6 fax threw no light. He explained, "According to Sapientia Christiana (the 1979 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities), the congregation does not have to give reasons for its decisions." Brand advised Denis to withdraw his candidacy "so as to maintain the strictly confidential nature of Rome's refusal, for the present and the future."

Somewhat bemused, Denis replied by fax Sept. 8, requesting clarification on two points: Rome's reasons and the recommendation to hush up the news.

"I am more than ready," Denis wrote Brand, "to submit to fraternal correction according to Our Lord's teaching in Matthew's Gospel. I have before me the examples of my Dominican predecessors, Fathers (Albert) Lagrange, (Marie-Dominique) Chenu and (Yves) Congar, who, in another context, accepted in obedience decisions which seemed to them unfounded if not unjust."

Brand replied by fax Sept. 10, "I can well understand the shock that the refusal of the nihil obstat caused you." Once again he urged Denis to withdraw his application: "It still seems to be if not the least painful solution for you, then at least the most elegant."

As for Rome's motives, Brand merely said that the letter from the congregation had a short paragraph on the "obligations of the office" of theology professor, with reference to Sapientia Christiana 26,2 and 8,1 of its recommendations. These say that teaching must be "in full conformity with the authentic magisterium of the Church, chiefly that of the Roman Pontiff, so that the fullness of Catholic doctrine should be integrally preserved."

Denis found this too vague to be helpful. Brand's next fax, Sept. 11, half let the cat out of the bag. "You should perhaps ask yourself," he paternally advised, "whether there is not something in your attitudes or ecclesial options that could raise a question specifically about your fitness to be responsible for priestly formation, especially of diocesan priests."

Since 1989, Denis had been teaching the history of theology at the Theological Institute of St. Joseph at Cedara, Natal, where his classes included religious women and men, some of whom were priests.

From Durban, the recently retired Arch-bishop Denis E. Hurley sent a glowing testimonial to the Strasbourg faculty: "I am very impressed by the candidate's historical competence and learning, by his enthusiasm for exploring different aspects of the history of the church in South Africa, and by his ability to set this history in a wider and deeper context.

"Besides his academic abilities, he has a winning and engaging personality which has stood him in good stead in his relations with his colleagues."

Hurley did not mention, no doubt because he thought it irrelevant, that Denis, though a full-fledged Dominican theologian, has chosen not to be ordained a priest. That does not explain why someone deemed fit to teach priests in South Africa should not do the same in Strasbourg.

Enter Denis' Dominican superior, Ignace Berten, Belgian provincial, who acted through the new master of the Dominicans, British biblical scholar Timothy Radcliffe. They asked Laghi to countermand his congregation's ban. He advised them to write Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He has not yet replied.

It seems that everyone is hiding behind someone else: Brand says he is no more than a "letter box" and blames Laghi; Laghi blames Ratzinger; Denis' bishop, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, although a member of the Congregation for Catholic Education, said he "knows nothing" about the affair and so has an alibi; it only remains for Ratzinger to blame Pope John Paul II, which he has not so far done.

However, Roman sources say Brand is not as innocent as he looks. For as ecclesiastical chancellor of the Catholic Faculty of Theology, he himself collected information about Denis and contributed to the file on which the congregation based its decision.

What objections are contained in the Denis file? They will not be divulged "so as not to injure the good name of the candidate and to preserve his academic prestige in case he wants to apply again, after a certain delay and after making, where necessary, the amendments suggested to him."

Wild horses would not drag from the sources the nature of these "amendments." But it is whispered -- wink-wink, nudge-nudge -- that "certain attitudes or declarations -- not necessarily written -- critizing papal infallibility and episcopal authority need attending to."

That deepens the scandal. For there is nothing in the published writings of Denis to suggest that he is so critical of papal and episcopal authority that he is unfit to teach theology to seminarians. And if his utterances over a sundowner glass of South African wine have been reported to Rome, this can only indicate delators at work, as unreliable as they are despicable.

Without speculating about the "real reasons" that Denis was turned down, recall that after his doctorate in 1983 at the University of Liege, Denis began to write a column on religious matters in Le Soir, a Belgian daily, and from 1984 also covered church affairs in Belgium and later in South Africa for the prestigious French monthly Actualite religieuse dans le monde.

Honest religious journalism is a risky business. Criticizing episcopal decisions is often confused with criticizing episcopal authority. Denis' account of the seminary policy of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, was so devastatingly on the mark that one can understand someone's resolving to get his head on a dish.

Meanwhile, the Strasbourg post remains unfilled. The vacancy will be readvertised. There is nothing to stop Denis from applying again, if he thinks it prudent.

His case differs from others in that the question is not about the right of the Vatican to intervene, but about the justice of its intervention.
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Title Annotation:Vatican rejection of theologian Philippe Denis
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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