Role of the Theologian
The issue of dissent raises an important question: What is the role of the theologian in Roman Catholicism today? Is a scholar theologian one who pushes boundaries, and at times steps over them, in order to discover new vistas and religious understandings, or are these academics people who through their research find their raison d'être in support of magisterial teaching? Forces stand arrayed on both sides of this contentious issue. A significant percentage of theologians who write on this subject today stand on the more progressive side, believing that the only way to further theology is, in a professional and courteous manner, to challenge noninfallible teachings, seeking dialogue with those on the other side of the divide. Inevitably, such a position generates pluralism.
The position of those who believe the theologian's role is more to articulate and make clearer magisterial teaching is best represented by a document published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1990. The “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” (paragraph 6) states: “His [the theologian's] role 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. He does this in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith.”
The question at the heart of this debate is: What freedom does the theologian have to dissent against noninfallible teaching? Both sides of this debate acknowledge that dissent against infallible dogmatic teachings is inconsistent with the role of the theologian, but the issue with respect to noninfallible teaching is more open to debate. The more conservative position holds that, while not infallible, all church teaching is authoritative and, therefore, only open to debate and dissent along lines issued by the NCCB in 1968. The more progressive camp, however, while offering deference to the magisterium, seeks greater independence of thought, research, and inquiry. This difference of opinion has led, unfortunately, to some celebrated breaks between the institutional church and specific theologians. Thus, efforts must be made to bridge this divide and bring greater unity to Catholicism, both on the local and universal levels.