We think highly of our legal system. We may criticise the detail, and it continues to develop, but it never loses touch with the principles of Magna Carta. Justice is paramount and the rights of the accused are always respected. But in fact many of us are also under a rather different system. I am thinking of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Anyone who publishes work under Catholic auspices is likely (as happened to me on one occasion) to be subject to its authority.
We might ask why it matters so much? We are not speaking of the gallows but only of writings which we may be required to correct or withdraw. But for people of standing – whether theologians or holders of church offices – it can be serious indeed. Not only may it destroy reputations, but it may require removal from office. And, since the procedures can be endlessly lengthy it can in effect destroy lives or damage at the level of mental and physical health.
Here are some of the worrying elements.
The individual being considered it not allowed to meet or speak to his accusers;
The doctrinal office often acts as “investigator, accuser, judge and jury” and also imposes any penalties and hears any appeals;
The accused is often not in direct contact with the authorities — the doctrinal office works through the person’s religious superior or bishop.
As an example, I quote from an account I wrote sometime ago.
“A recent account of a number of individuals who have come up against the Church’s discipline suggests that its grasp of good employment practice, to say nothing of basic human rights, leaves a great deal to be desired. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought in discussing the case of Father Balasuriya describes the authorities’ response as showing an ‘extraordinary disregard for natural justice and due process of law.’ Michael Walsh reports himself as struck ‘by the plain and simple discourtesy displayed by the CDF. The books which are under censure are not properly read; letters go unanswered; those accused are rarely approached personally, but through their superiors. Balasuriya learned of his excommunication when he heard a BBC broadcast.’
For a Church which is centred on the message of love for God and man to have to look outside at secular practice to learn how to treat people with basic human decency seems , to say the least, odd. The lack of respect for the rights of individuals is a characteristic of an organization whose management has not learnt to respect its subordinates.”
My own case was much less dramatic – it cost me, at best, a few hundred pounds in royalties as my imprimatur was removed. (And never restored — despite modifications to the text agreed with an appointed suffragan bishop.) I was amused at my attackers who even went as far as inventing quotations from the book to make their case. And I was interested that the CDF took particular exception to one paragraph which had in fact been drafted for me by an archbishop, For obvious reasons I cannot tell you who.
Of course many senior people have asked for a complete revision of these methods which appear to descend from the Inquisition. And a current attempt is being made. When will the Church move forward from the 13th century?