Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Roger Haight, Richard John Neuhaus, and Vatican discipline (and my 100th post!)

Roger Haight has been ordered not to teach on Christology or systematic theology by the CDF, a decision some time in coming and preceded by a number of previous statements and examinations. It seems that a committee of three American Jesuits, as yet unnamed, will move forward with further investigation of Haight's work in order to get this whole thing sorted out. The controversy primarily concerns his book, Jesus Symbol of God.

Carl Olson over at Ignatius Scoop offers a decent commentary on another commentary on the issue. Couched in a comparison between Haight and the late Richard John Neuhaus, I don't agree with everything Olson says (I think the Ignatius blog can be rather rigidly neo-conservative/culture-war-apologist), but most of the critique of Haight and some of the defense of Neuhaus is praiseworthy. All of it is worth reading.

The tired idea that ecclesiastical censure is a threat to good scholarly work has surrounded the Haight investigation over the past few years. While in certain instances such discipline certainly does restrain legitimate work, ecclesiastical ruling in itself is simply the hierarchical counterpart to what peer-review is in a system of scholarly work not restricted methodologically by authoritative institutional strictures. When inquiry is determined by particular norms, structures of reinforcement of those norms do not harm inquiry, but rather further it. And while such reinforcement can be too overzealous, this is a particular rather than systemic shortcoming. Such shortcomings are absent, however, from the particular case of Haight; the investigation has been going on for some time and is quite clear, accommodating, and non-judgmental in its treatment. One could only hope for as careful attention as Haight has received.

On Neuhaus, I think that it's quite right to point out- as Olson has done- that a political critique of the man should not cloud his underlying Catholicism or the importance of his work for the faith. The picture of John Courtney Murray as some brave democratic prophet compared to Neuhaus as the Establishment's yes-man is a rather cheap shot (and a rather odd one, for commentary which also tries to acknowledge liberation theology against Neuhaus). But Olson, if not in this particular post, does in a number of other places pursue quite the same line of argument, simply in the opposite direction. If Neuhaus' ministry and scholarship can't be dismissed because of its political commitments, neither can it be beatified because of them.

Here is a good piece remembering Neuhaus- a little more balanced, with a little less hagiography than Ignatius Press.

An old post from Flying Farther discusses Haight's Christology, with which I'm personally not very familiar. (hence my attempts to not nail down anything particular about the case of Haight except my general impression of the tenor of the Vatican's response)


  1. If you read the back of Jesus: Symbol of God, there is a piece required for publishing from the CDF denouncing the book. This is the same piece that it has used else where to address Haight's Christological work. Frankly it lacks a thorough going engagement with the nuances in the book, especially for a book so large.

    There is also a second piece at the end of the book. This piece denounces the work of the CDF in so quickly jumping on Haight's book (which was almost immediate). The problem with understanding the CDF's work as "peer-review" misunderstands the mission of the CDF and the weight that the congregation carries.

    The frustration, by the many who signed the second statement, with the CDF's action is that rather than stimulating discussion, it has shut it down. Effectively what seems to have happened is that Haight has been put in a perpetual holding pattern until now, constantly asked to clarify his position (but only by letter from New York, without seeing the CDF like it used to be). Ironically, as far as I understand it, these newer procedures were put in place by Ratzinger/Benedict in order to streamline the process. So instead of a fast process, this has resulted in a process that no one can see, that has taken a long time, and takes a great deal of time to respond to. I don't mean to be too cynical, but this now seems like a way to "keep Haight busy." Maybe if the CDF would've responded with a lengthy critique, instead of one that trivializes Haight's work, the idea that the investigation has actually been ongoing, rather than stalling Haight, would I think have more merit.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, David, and thanks for the recent post on your blog about this as well. It's good to hear from others that are better qualified than I am to speak on this issue.

    On peer-review (my brother brought up some similar criticisms as you in a private conversation, and maybe he'll chime in now)--

    It's not so much that I understand the CDF's work as peer-review, more that it is analogous to it in many ways; certainly while it is review, it is not review from ecclesiastical "peers", this is what I was getting at with describing it as a "hierarchical counterpart". Setting aside any shortcomings from the particular case of Haight, something like this seems to be helpful to the theological task. I find myself looking for something perhaps between the rigidity of the CDF and the sometimes opposite approach in Protestantism, where very little whatever can be said authoritatively. I remember in a theological method class with Dan Treier when he described what the process of ecclesiological censure amounts to in evangelicalism (and likely other protestant traditions as well)... basically it amounts to the gatekeeping of the publishers, and whether and how one's work is successfully distributed. Surely there's something between a Protestant market driven approach and the tight grip of the CDF. I think that's what I look for, and that's probably the reason why I was sympathetic to the CDF in the Haight case. But you certainly know more than I do on the matter- you come to this from a more than theoretical position.

    My background comes mostly from what I've read on the CDF side... the notification on the Vatican site. I imagine if this isn't precisely what's attached to Haight's book, it's something similar. By the looks of this, the notification is obviously not very long, but the detail seems adequate and they outline the correspondence that had occurred. Certainly the response is rigid, and I wouldn't want to be Haight having to justify my theology because I can't imagine that once CDF had made a decision they would be very easily swayed that their decision was incorrect. But the process seemed robust.

    Your points and some that you link on you blog, again, are obviously speaking from a position more knowledgeable than my own. While I tried not to speak specifically on that which I was ignorant, and rather attempted to offer a more general defense of ecclesiastical censure, I should take back my assessment of Haight's investigation. The CDF appears to me to offer more than simply a "trivializing" response to Haight, but there is certainly lacking an adequate amount of respect for his work as an academic theologian or willingness to approach his theology in a more constructive, even if critical, manner.

    Thanks again for your post-- readers should click on David's moniker and follow it to his blog where he offers some more reflections on his personal experience with Haight and this investigation.

  3. Glad I checked back on this - I would like to relay some thoughts that we discussed privately earlier.

    Obviously I'm even farther removed from this process than you guys - but I am certainly familiar with the peer review process. It's brutal, but it's nothing like this - and I think the analogy that you suggest is non-existent.

    The object of a peer review is the piece of scholarship that is produced. It occurs before publication among a select few reviewers - as a "gatekeeper", as you say. It also occurs after publication by a wider community of scholars. This second stage of peer review, rather than determining whether the scholarship is worthy of publication, determines whether it is relevant for future use and review by other scholars.

    This whole Haight affair and the very mission of the CDF seems to me to be entirely different. The object of the CDF review - as you seem to describe it - is not a piece of scholarship, but Haight himself. Peer review seeks to remedy and sharpen a specific scholarly product. The goal of peer reviewers is not to stop publication - but to help prepare a work for publication and disciplinary significance. The goal of the CDF here is to prevent publication and discussion, not just on one piece of scholarship, but all future scholarship, regardless of their merit. What also bugs me about your analogy is the closed nature of CDF review. Peer review is conducted by a wide audience of varying perspectives. The closed nature of CDF may be important for achieving their purposes - but it doesn't seem very relevant as an instrument of "peer" review.

    And I want to emphasize - I'm not commenting on whether the purpose of CDF is useful or not, and I'm not even speaking to Horstkoetter's point about whether they conducted themselves appropriately. I'm not Catholic and I'm certainly not involved enough in theology to be able to comment on that. I do know that this is nothing like peer review. Yes - other informed people are reading and commenting on Haight's work... but you need a lot more than that to make it analagous. The object of their inquiry is entirely different. The product of their inquiry is entirely different. And I would even argue that the purpose of the inquiry is entirely different from that of a peer reviewer who accepts a scholar on his own terms and is simply attempting to help make adjustments to prepare for publication and broader relevance.