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Letter to Father E. Schillebeeckx


November 20, 1980

Reverend Father,

For some time now, our Congregation has been in contact with you to clarify the Christological positions you have set forth in your book, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology.

On Oct. 20, 1976, through the intermediacy of Cardinal Willebrands, whom it informed of the examination under way, the Congregation, having noted that the book contained ambiguous propositions which could be dangerous for your readers, addressed to you a list of questions dealing with the content of the book and the method used.

On April 13, 1977, you answered these questions in a letter which provided various explanations; these did not eliminate all the difficulties, as was explained to you in an "appreciation of the response," which our Congregation sent to you July 6, 1978.

In the meantime, you had published Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, the second book of the trilogy on Christology which you had announced. Several months later, you sent to the Congregation your little work, Intermediate Discussion Concerning Two Books on Jesus, accompanied by a card which said: "In this little book, I explained some passages that are a bit obscure or disputed on Jesus Christ..."

An attentive examination of this last publication showed that it indeed contained some interesting precisions, but that nevertheless your own position remained ambiguous on fundamental points of the Catholic faith. Thus, in view of the gravity of the questions under examination, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided to invite you to a colloquium for final clarifications, in conformity with Articles 13-15 of its program of operation. Through the intermediacy of Cardinal Willebrands, you were asked July 6, 1978, to come to Rome, in order to clarify your Christological position in a discussion with representatives of our Congregation. The same letter indicated to you also the essential points which this colloquium would cover.

After further contacts, delayed among other things by the deaths of Popes Paul VI and John Paul I, Cardinal Willebrands informed the Congregation (letter of June 30, 1979) that you agreed to participate in the colloquium. So, after exchanges of letters that were indispensable for determining the time and the procedure of the colloquium, it took place Dec. 13, 14 and 15, 1979, at the offices of the Congregation with the participation of Msgr. A. Bovone, moderator of the discussions, and of Bishop Albert Descamps, and Fathers A. Patfoort, O.P., and J. Galot, S.J.

At the time of a meeting with the authorities of the Congregation which immediately preceded the colloquium, you were reminded that its purpose was not to proceed to a judgment, nor to take decisions, but to complete the information about your Christological position. They told you finally that at the end of the colloquium a report would be drawn up, which, once accepted by the two sides, would then be submitted to the examination of the cardinals who are members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Having met in Ordinary Session, the Cardinals proceeded to this examination in the light of the explanations you gave in your written response of April 13, 1977 and the colloquium of Dec. 13-15, 1979.

They noted that the procedure followed showed its utility since it permitted you to explain the goal, method and literary genre of your writings and to clear up a certain number of ambiguities.

In formulating their conclusions, which were approved by the Holy Father, the cardinals emphasized that these were valid solely for the three works indicated at the beginning of this letter.

Consequently, speaking in their name, in my capacity as Prefect of this Congregation, I want to communicate to you what follows:

— 1. The Congregation takes note of the clarifications, precisions and corrections that you made at the colloquium and in your letter, in relation to your published works (cf. attached document, pp. 1-4).

— 2. It judges nevertheless that on certain points the explanations provided have not sufficed to do away with the ambiguities (cf. attached document, pp. 4-5).

For this reason, I ask you:

1) To make known to the public which has access to your works the clarifications, precisions and corrections which emerge from the recent explanations that you have given to the Congregation. It must in fact be kept in mind that the book, Jesus... is known to a vast public. Therefore, your explanations which, on decisive points, go further than the affirmations of the published books, are important not only for the ecclesiastical Magisterium, but also for your readers who have the right to be informed about indications of such importance.

2) To review in the light of Catholic doctrine the points on which a certain ambiguity still weighs, and to manifest publicly your intention to comply with this request.

Furthermore, it must be recognized that, despite the extent of its program, the colloquium was not able to press far enough the clarifications which would have been required, on the one hand, by the manner in which you consider the relations between revelation and experience, and on the other hand, by the role which you attribute in theology to a manuductio (leading by hand) of an apologetic type. By reason of that and of the doubts which still remain, the Congregation, which abstains for the moment from forming a judgment on this subject, cannot dispense itself from stressing the necessity of a perfect conformity to the principles to which any theological work must adhere. As far as the relation between revelation and experience is concerned (with its consequences for the normative role of the formal teachings of the Bible and the documents of the Magisterium), it particularly draws your attention to what is set forth in the "Declaration in Defense of Catholic Doctrine on the Church Against Certain Errors of the Present Day," 5 (AAS LXV, 1973, pp. 402-404).

I would be grateful to you, Reverend Father, to let me know what means seems to you most effective for satisfying the requests I have expressed. For its part, the Congregation would have in mind an article that you would prepare in accord with it, taking as a guide the document attached to the present letter. But it is ready to consider any other means that you could propose.

We are sending a copy of this letter to His Eminence Cardinal Willebrands, who is following this affair in his capacity as Chancellor of the University of Nijmegen, and another to the Most Reverend Master General of the Dominican Order, your Superior.

In the expectation of a favorable response on your part, I beg you to accept, Reverend Father, the expression of my sentiments of respectful devotedness.


Cardinal Franjo Šeper