The teaching authority of the Church is the only guarantee the theologian has for both his academic respectability, and his intellectual freedom.
Over the years, we have printed many articles on the proper relationship that should exist in the Catholic Church, between the Magisterium and the theologians. The problem has been, and is, a perpetual one because the Apostles, and their successors (bishops), have been commissioned by Jesus Christ to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. An important function of the theologian is to analyze the Gospel, question it, probe it, with a view towards understanding it more adequately, and so being able to proclaim it more effectively in each age of human history.
Recently I read a little book on this thorny question by the English thinker, writer and lecturer, Mr. Christopher Derrick. The book is entitled: Church Authority and Intellectual Freedom (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 18990, San Francisco, CA 94118). It is a collection of four talks that he gave at Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1980.
The book is remarkable for a number of reasons. Derrick approaches his subject matter in what seems to me to be a typical English fashion. He lays great stress on the healthy skepticism of the scholar, who requires painstaking investigation of his subject matter, established methodology, and careful verification of all hypotheses and categorical statements. The theologian, according to Derrick, if he is to have academic respectability, and so deserve what is known as intellectual freedom in the university, must abide by the usual norms of scholarship, at least as they apply to his discipline.
The theologian is one who “studies God, and those things related to God,” by profession, making many statements about God—what Derrick calls “transcendental statements.” Such statements about the existence of God, the Trinity of Persons in God, the divinity of Jesus Christ, and so forth, cannot be verified by the accepted canons of human science. Their verification depends on the truth of revelation, which was committed to the Church by Jesus, and has been faithfully transmitted to us by the Church’s Magisterium.
Derrick points out that the Magisterium has two functions: (1) discipline in the Church (e.g., censuring Dr. Hans Kung), and, (2) doctrine. His primary concern in this book is with the second function of doctrine, or truth. Divine revelation comes to us from Jesus through his Church. This means that the theologian receives his subject matter, his method, and the means of verification from the Church. As long as he remains a believing Catholic, there should be no basic conflict between him and the Church.
When the neo-Modernist theologian denies the authority of the Church, or denies certain teachings of the Church, he thereby, in Derrick’s view, not only errs seriously, but also loses academic respectability, that is, he loses the right to be taken seriously by the academic community.
Derrick goes on to show that the teaching authority of the Church is the only guarantee the theologian has for both his academic respectability, and his intellectual freedom. He shows quite convincingly, it seems to me, that there is no such thing as a basic conflict between the authority of the Church, and the intellectual freedom of the theologian.