Theologians according to the Instruction Donum veritatis”. A rereading useful for the Social Doctrine of the Church

Our Observatory has dealt numerous times with the way the Social Doctrine of the Church is taught in seminaries and theological institutes, and has never ceased to manifest its concerns. Since the Social Doctrine of the Church is formally “moral theology”, how it is taught depends on how people understand moral theology, theology as such and the role of theologians. It might therefore be useful to take a fresh look at the main elements set forth in the Instruction Donum Veritatis published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in May 1990. If a tenured theologian respects those indications, the teaching of the Social Doctrine of the Church – where it is taught – is in good hands, otherwise it is seriously hampered or deformed.

Back in 1972 Karl Rahner wrote that if a certain number of theologians in a diocese propose unorthodox theses, the local Ordinary must not step in with sanctions or outright censure relative thereto because theological pluralism and the requirements of research or inquiry advise him against doing so. In fact, ever since then many theologians have been able to teach unorthodox or at least strange theses without being reprimanded by their pastors. Evident here is the delicate issue of the relationship between theologians and pastors which remains far from being resolved in practical terms, even if the Instruction in question had dealt with it in very clear terms.

Moreover, the selfsame facts that this Instruction signed by the then Prefect Cardinal Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul II was extensively disregarded and that many theologians just did not abide by it make it evidently clear that the relationship between theologians and pastors is a real problem.

It can be said that beginning with Vatican Council II the role of theologians has become preeminent[1], and this to the degree that many pastors live a sort of psychological and cultural subjection situation as far as they are concerned. Therefore, it appears urgent to reconsider the ecclesial role of theologians.


The truth that unites

Even though people nowadays speak a lot about theological pluralism, the Instruction Donum veritatis asserts that the truth unites and frees man from isolation and forms of opposition. Bestowed upon the Church is the gift of the truth, and only under this condition can it be the salt of the earth and light of the world. In other words, only under this condition can the Church honor and fulfill its pastoral mission.

Coming into the picture here is the role of the theologian which “is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church, doing so in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith”.

In order to perform this task a theologian has to assume a correct position in the relationship between faith and reason. The faith calls on intelligence and hence theological science is the intelligence of the faith. This obviously has an apologetic implication as well insofar as it responds to the apostle Peter’s commandment to always have the answer ready for people asking the reason for the hope we have. Moreover, theological science must “recognize the ability of human reason to reach the truth, as well as its metaphysical capacity to recognize God on the basis of creation”[2]. This is an important point. Many theologians teach that metaphysics is not possible,  give no value to the rational demonstration of God’s existence on the basis of things experienced, and ground their thinking in philosophies that do not consider it possible to reach the truth. In so doing, however, they neither expound their field of expertise in a correct manner, nor expedite an ecclesial role.

As we read in Donum veritatis, creditworthy are only philosophies that “may be assumed in reflection on revealed doctrine”. What should therefore be said about the philosophical pluralism heralded so far and wide in theology? The discernment of philosophies “has its ultimate normative principle in revealed doctrine which itself must furnish the criteria for the evaluation of these elements and conceptual tools and not vice versa”. In other words, to discern whether the philosophy of Heidegger is well-suited to the faith I have to begin from the doctrine of the faith and not from Heidegger’s philosophy.  But how many theologians do this?

When theologians and professors at Institutes of Religious Sciences fail to abide by this duty they likewise ignore another grave obligation they have towards their fellow members of the People of God: “nourish respect for them and undertake to provide them teaching in no way detrimental to the doctrine of the faith”.

Theologians must enjoy liberty of research or inquiry, but in the true sense of liberty. Inquiry must respect the method corresponding to the object of inquiry, and the object of inquiry is revealed truth: “these givens have the force of principles. To eliminate them would mean to cease doing theology”.


Theologians and the Magisterium

The Instruction Donum veritatis recalls the principles of the doctrine of the faith that concern the role of the Magisterium in the Church. Its aim is “to preserve the People of God in the truth that makes man free”. The new covenant of God in Jesus Christ is definitive in nature. The Magisterium “must protect God’s people from the danger of deviations and confusion, guaranteeing them the objective possibility of professing the authentic faith free from error, at all times and in diverse situations”. This task concerns morals as well as doctrine, and the Magisterium may express judgments that are normative for the conscience of the faithful, and also infallible regarding acts not in compliance with the requirements of the faith. Therefore, the tasks of the Magisterium also extend into the realm of natural moral law. As we know, this doctrine at large was later developed by John Paul II in the encyclical letter Veritatis splendor.

If we just think about how many theologians deny the very existence of a natural law and teach this to young seminarians, and for a moment consider the treatment reserved by so many theologians to Humanae vitae of Paul VI or Veritatis splendor of John Paul II, we realize the extent to which these indications of Donum veritatis are most opportune and timely.

The theologian, therefore, must be at the service of this dynamic of the faith and hence have the correct relationship with the Magisterium of the Church, especially, as the Instruction highlights, when said theologian also has teaching responsibilities. Teaching therefore becomes “a participation in the work of the Magisterium, linked, as it is then, by a juridical bond.

There may be situations of tension with the Magisterium. Situations such as these most certainly cannot concern points on which the Magisterium has already expressed its definitive position, but, if at all, themes under discussion and on which the Magisterium has voiced a prudential position. In such cases the theologian will refrain from voicing his opinions in public and strive to deepen his knowledge of the issue in question, well aware that he cannot trust his own conscience alone. If the divergences of views remain, the theologian – Donum veritatis adds – will take his case not to the mass media but to the Church authorities, also accepting to suffer in silence and prayer.

In this regard as well, what an abyss there is between these instructions and what happens in real terms!


Ecclesial dissent

The final part of Donum venitatis is dedicated to dissent in the sense of organized opposition to the Magisterium and not the opposition of one or another theologian. Prior to Vatican Council II we witnessed numerous expressions of dissent that were then presented as previews of the Council itself. After the Council we witnessed many forms of dissent that were presented as applications of the selfsame Council.

The observations about dissent in Donum vertatis are very important because they clarify the sense of theological pluralism often evoked in this regard: “As far as theological pluralism is concerned, this is only legitimate to the extent that the unity of the faith in its objective meaning is not jeopardized”.  Pluralism is based on the unfathomable depth of the mystery of Christ, but may in no way challenge truths about which the Magisterium has already stated its definitive position. Dissent, however, was based precisely on that unfathomable depth in order to argue that all the affirmations made by the Magisterium are relative.

Theological pluralism is very often taught in Catholic academic institutions in this erroneous sense. Moreover, theology professors at times teach the exact contrary of what the Magisterium has defined in a definitive manner.

It is also of utmost interest to note that Donum veritatis asserts the impossibility of evoking the modern concept of human rights in order to affirm an assumed right to assent in a Church assumed to be plural. In the Church as well there can be freedom of opinion in the modern sense of the expression, and this to the degree that – as the Instruction indicates – the Magisterium can withdraw the canonical mission or teaching mandate from a theology professor.

We are compelled to observe, however, that the rare number of such measures adopted in comparison with the elevated frequency of theological misconduct on the part of professors highlights how from the viewpoint of the Magisterium and not that of theologians, the instructions of Donum veritatis are highly timely and need to be restored to their natural position of dutiful respect.


Stefano Fontana


[1]Cf Stefano Fontana, Il Concilio restituito alla Chiesa. Dieci domande sul Vaticano II, La Fontana di Siloe-Lindau, Torino 2014.

[2] This point – nowadays practically ignored – is a teaching found in the Catechism, and was authoritatively explained by John Paul II in Fides et ratio(1998): “A philosophy which shuns metaphysics would be radically unsuited to the task of mediation in the understanding of Revelation” (n. 83).