7 - The Inquisition Today

As an antidote to the spreading 'infection' of Modernism, Pope Leo XIII, in 1902, had created the Pontifical Biblical Commission to supervise and monitor the progress (or lack thereof) of Catholic scriptural scholarship. It consisted originally of a dozen or more cardinals appointed by the Pope and a number of 'consultants', all deemed to be experts in their fields of research and study.


According to the New Catholic Encyclopaedia, the Commission's official function was (and still is),

'to strive... with all possible care that God's words... will be shielded not only from every breath of error but even from every rash opinion'.1

The Commission would further undertake to ensure that scholars 'Endeavour to safeguard the authority of the scriptures and to promote their right interpretation'.2

As we have noted, Father Lagrange, founder of the Ecole Biblique, was one of the earliest members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. The Ecole Biblique's journal, Revue biblique, was also, until 1908, the Commission's official organ. Given the close affiliation between the two institutions, it is clear that the original Ecole Biblique was an adjunct of the Commission's propaganda machine -an instrument for promulgating Catholic doctrine under the guise of historical and archaeological research, or for enforcing the adherence of historical and archaeological research to the tenets of Catholic doctrine.

One might expect this situation to have changed during the last half-century, and especially in the years since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s. In fact, it has not. The Ecole Biblique today retains as close an association with the Pontifical Biblical Commission as it did in the past. Degrees at the Ecole, for example, are conferred specifically by the Commission.


Most graduates of the Ecole are placed by the Commission as professors in seminaries and other Catholic institutions. Of the Commission's nineteen official 'consultants' today, a number are influential in determining what the general public learns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thus, for instance, Father Jean-Luc Vesco, the current head of the Ecole Biblique and a member of the Revue biblique's editorial board, is also a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


So, too, is at least one other member of the journal's editorial board, Jose Loza. So, too, is a prominent writer on the scrolls, a Jesuit named Joseph Fitzmyer, who has compiled the official concordance for much of the Qumran material.3

In 1956, the name of Father Roland de Vaux, Director of the Ecole Biblique, appeared for the first time on the list of the Commission's 'consultants'.4 He would have been appointed the year before, in 1955, and he continued as a 'consultant' until his death in 1971.


The timing of de Vaux's appointment is interesting. In 1955, it must be remembered, much of the crucial and controversial 'sectarian' material from Cave 4 was still being purchased and collated. In December of that year, indeed, the Vatican laid out money for a number of important fragments. In 1955, too, the 'Copper Scroll' was unrolled in Manchester, under John Allegro's auspices, and Allegro himself was beginning to go public in a potentially embarrassing fashion. The Vatican thus became aware, for the first time, of the kind of problems it might have to face in connection with the Qumran material then coming to light.


The ecclesiastical hierarchy almost certainly felt the need of some sort of 'chain of command', or, at least, 'chain of accountability', whereby some measure of control could be exercised over Qumran scholarship. In any case, it is significant, if not particularly surprising, that from 1956 on, every director of the Ecole Biblique has also been a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


When de Vaux died in 1971, the Commission's list of 'consultants' was updated to include the name of his successor at the Ecole, Father Pierre Benoit.5 When Benoit died in 1987, the new director, Jean-Luc Vesco, became a 'consultant' to the Commission in turn.6

Even today, the Pontifical Biblical Commission continues to supervise and monitor all biblical studies conducted under the auspices of the Catholic Church. It also publishes official decrees on 'the right way to teach... scripture'.7 In 1907, adherence to these decrees was made obligatory by Pope Pius X. Thus, for example, the Commission 'established', by decree, that Moses was the literal author of the Pentateuch.


In 1909, a similar decree affirmed the literal and historical accuracy of the first three chapters of Genesis. More recently, on 21 April 1964, the Commission issued a decree governing biblical scholarship in general and, more specifically, the 'historical truth of the Gospels'. The decree was quite unequivocal, stating that 'at all times the interpreter must cherish a spirit of ready obedience to the Church's teaching authority'.8


It further declared that those in charge of any 'biblical associations' are obliged to 'observe inviolably the laws already laid down by the Pontifical Biblical Commission'.9 Any scholar working under the Commission's aegis - and this, of course, includes those at the Ecole Biblique - is thus in effect constrained by the Commission's decrees. Whatever conclusions he might reach, whatever the revelations to which his research might lead him, he must not, in his writing or his teaching, contradict the Commission's doctrinal authority.

The head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission today is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger is also head of another Catholic institution, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This designation is fairly new, dating from 1965, and probably unfamiliar to most laymen; but the institution itself is one of long-established pedigree. It has, in fact, a unique and resonant history behind it, extending back to the 13th century. In 1542, it had become known officially as the Holy Office.


Prior to that, it was called the Holy Inquisition. Cardinal Ratzinger is, in effect, the Church's modern-day Grand Inquisitor.

The official head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is always the reigning Pope, and the executive head of the Congregation is today called its secretary, although in earlier times he was known as the Grand Inquisitor. Of all the departments of the Curia, that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the most powerful.


Ratzinger is perhaps the closest to the Pope of all the Curia cardinals. Certainly they have many attitudes in common. Both wish to restore many pre-Vatican II values. Both dislike theologians. Ratzinger sees theologians as having opened the Church up to corrosive secular influences. A deeply pessimistic man, he feels that the Church is 'collapsing', and only the suppression of all dissent can assure its survival as a unified faith. He regards those who do not share his pessimism as 'blind or deluded'.10

Like the Inquisition of the past, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is in large part a tribunal. It has its own judges, the chief of whom is called the 'Assessor'. The 'Assessor' is aided by a 'Commissar' and two Dominican monks. These individuals have the specific task of preparing whatever 'investigations' the Congregation chooses to undertake. Such investigations generally pertain to breaches of doctrine on the part of clerics, or anything else that might threaten Church unity.


As in the Middle Ages, all investigations are conducted and pursued under conditions of total secrecy.

Until 1971, the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were supposed to be separate organizations. In reality, however, the separation between them was little more than nominal. The two organizations overlapped one another in a multitude of respects, ranging from their functions to the membership of their governing bodies.


In 1969, for example, eight of the twelve cardinals presiding over the Congregation also presided over the Commission.11 A number of individuals acted as 'consultants' for both. At last, on 27 June 1971, Pope Paul VI, in an attempt to streamline bureaucracy, amalgamated the Commission and the Congregation in virtually everything but name. Both were housed in the same offices, at the same address - the Palace of the Congregation at Holy Office Square in Rome. Both were placed under the directorship of the same cardinal.


On 29 November 1981, that cardinal became Joseph Ratzinger.

Numerous contemporary priests, preachers, teachers and writers have been muzzled, expelled or deprived of their posts by the body over which Ratzinger now presides. The victims have included certain of the most distinguished and intelligent theologians in the Church today. One such was Father Edward Schillebeeckx, of the University of Nigmegen in Holland.


In 1974, Schillebeeckx had published a book, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. In this work, he appeared, in the eyes of his adversaries, to be questioning the literal truth of certain dogma, such as the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. In December 1979, Schillebeeckx was hauled before a tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where one of his judges publicly accused him of heresy. He survived his investigation by the tribunal, but in 1983 he was again summoned to a tribunal of the Congregation, this time for his latest book, Ministry: A Case for Change.

What were Schillebeeckx's transgressions?


If only tentatively, he had questioned the Church's position on celibacy. He had sympathized with arguments for the ordination of women. Most seriously of all, he had suggested the Church should 'change with the times' rather than remaining fettered to immutably fixed doctrines.12


The Church, he contended, should respond to, and evolve with, the needs of its faithful, instead of imposing draconian codes upon them. He had argued, in short, for a dynamic pastoral approach, as opposed to the static one favored by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. Once again, Schillebeeckx survived the Congregation's investigation and interrogation.


To this day, however, he remains under close scrutiny, and his every word, written or spoken, is carefully monitored. It goes without saying that such assiduously vigilant surveillance will exert a profoundly inhibiting influence.

A more telling case is that of the eminent Swiss theologian Dr Hans Küng, formerly head of the Department of Theology at the University of Tübingen. Küng was generally acknowledged to be among the most brilliant, most influential, most topically relevant Catholic writers of our age - a man who, following in the footsteps of Pope John XXIII, seemed to offer a new direction for the Church, a new humanity, a new flexibility and adaptability.


But Küng was also controversial. In his book Infallible?, first published in German in 1970 and in English the following year, he challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility - which, one must remember, had never existed in the Church until 1870 and had only then been established by a vote. 'No one is infallible', Küng wrote, 'but God himself.'13 Further, 'the traditional doctrine of infallibility in the Church... rests on foundations that cannot be regarded as secure'.14


Küng also recognized the distinction between theology and history, and the former's propensity to parade itself as the latter. He attacked the sophistry of such Church 'scholars' as Cardinal Jean Danielou, who, in 1957, had published The Dead Sea Scrolls and Primitive Christianity, a work primarily of theological propaganda:

'Theologians such as Danielou... now bring an aura of pseudo-learning to the role of Grand Inquisitor, are appointed Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church and fulfil its expectations.'15

After the election of John Paul II, Küng was critical of the new pontiff's rigidity in morals and dogma.

'Is the Catholic theologian', he asked, 'going to be allowed... to ask critical questions... ?'16

Was John Paul II really free, Küng wondered, of the personality cult which had bedeviled earlier popes; and was he not perhaps excessively preoccupied with doctrine, at the expense of 'the liberating message of Christ'?

Can the Pope and the Church credibly speak to the conscience of today's people if a self-critical
examination of conscience on the part of the Church and its leadership does not also
simultaneously occur... 17

Küng's outspokenness made him, of course, an irresistible target for the inquisitional tribunals of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Having evaluated his statements, the tribunal accordingly passed judgment. On 18 December 1979, the Pope, acting on the formal recommendation of the Congregation, stripped Küng of his post and pronounced him no longer qualified to teach Roman Catholic doctrine. He was informed that he was no longer a Catholic theologian, and was forbidden to write or publish further. Küng himself effectively summarized what had befallen him: 'I have been condemned by a pontiff who has rejected my theology without ever having read one of my books and who always has refused to see me. The truth is that Rome is not waiting for dialogue but for submission.'18

Under the directorship of Cardinal Ratzinger, the Congregation, during the last decade, has become increasingly entrenched, intransigent and reactionary. Ratzinger is vehemently critical of all changes in the Church since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5.


The Church's teachings, he maintains, are being 'tarnished' by doubt and questioning. According to one commentator, Ratzinger seeks 'a return to Catholic fundamentalism... and reasserting the literal truth of papally-defined dogma'.19 Through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger's attitudes determine the attitudes of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, of which he is also head, and filter down from there into the Ecole Biblique.

During the course of 1990, these attitudes served to place the Congregation prominently in the news. In May, the Congregation issued a preliminary draft of the new, revised and updated 'Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church' - the official formulation of tenets in which all Catholics are obliged formally to believe.


Allowing no flexibility whatever, the new 'Catechism' definitively condemns, along with a catalogue of other things, divorce, homosexuality, masturbation and sexual relations before or outside marriage. It lays down, as basic tenets of the Catholic faith, papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, as well as the 'Universal Authority of the Catholic Church'.


In one particularly dogmatic passage, the new,

'Catechism' declares that 'the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God... has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone'.20

In June, there appeared a second document, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and written by Cardinal Ratzinger himself. This document addresses itself specifically to the functions and obligations of the theologian, a term intended to encompass the biblical historian and archaeologist as well. According to this document, approved and endorsed by the Pope, Catholic theologians have no right to dissent from the established teachings of the Church.


Indeed, dissent is itself promoted (or demoted) to the status of an actual 'sin':

'To succumb to the temptation of dissent... [allows] infidelity to the Holy Spirit...'21

If a theologian begins to question Church doctrine, he is thus, by skilful psychological manipulation, made to feel morally tainted for doing so. Any propensity to question is effectively turned back on the questioner and transformed into guilt - something in which the Church has always trafficked most profitably.


In the same document, Cardinal Ratzinger states:

The freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent. This freedom does not indicate
freedom with regard to the truth, but signifies the free determination of the person in conformity
with his moral obligations to accept the truth.22

In other words, one is perfectly free to accept the teachings of the Church, but not to question or reject them. Freedom cannot be manifested or expressed except through submission. It is a curious definition of freedom.

Such restrictions are monstrous enough when imposed on Catholics alone - monstrous in the psychological and emotional damage they will cause, the guilt, intolerance and bigotry they will foster, the horizons of knowledge and understanding they will curtail. When confined to a creed, however, they apply only to those who voluntarily submit to them, and the non-Catholic population of the world is free to ignore them.


The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, are not articles of faith, but documents of historical and archaeological importance which belong properly not to the Catholic Church, but to humanity as a whole. It is a sobering and profoundly disturbing thought that, if Cardinal Ratzinger has his way, everything we ever learn about the Qumran texts will be subject to the censorship machinery of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - will be, in effect, filtered and edited for us by the Inquisition.

Given its obligatory allegiance to the Congregation, one is justified in wondering whether, quite simply, the Ecole Biblique can be trusted. Even if the Israeli government clamped down and ordered the immediate release of all Qumran material, how could we be sure that items potentially compromising to the Church would ever see the light of day?


We personally, in this book, should like to pose publicly certain basic questions to Father Jean-Luc Vesco, the Ecole Biblique's current director.

  • If the Ecole Biblique is accountable to the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, what are its responsibilities to scholarship?

  • How can any reputable academic institution function under the strain of such potentially divided, even mutually hostile, loyalties?

  • And what exactly would the Ecole Biblique do if, among the unpublished or perhaps as yet undiscovered Qumran material, something inimical to Church doctrine turned up?

Back to Contents