Some years back when you were still the head of the Holy Office (“of the Sacred Inquisition” is, as you know, stilled chiseled in stone over its dark building immediately next to St. Peter’s square), I wrote you an open letter concerning the role of women in the Catholic Church. At that time I addressed you with a familiar “Dear Joe,” relying on our relationship from the late 60s/early 70s when I was frequently a Visiting Professor at the Catholic Theology Faculty of the University of Tübingen, and you were Professor Ordinarius there. I did so in the thought that this form of address would tell you that I seriously hoped you might open your mind and heart to hear what I wanted to say to you. I have no way of knowing what success I may have had, if any, in that regard. However, relying on our former “collegiality,” I am approaching you once again in this fraternal fashion.
I am disturbed that especially of late you have been giving signals that are in opposition to the words and spirit of Vatican Council II, during which you as a leading young theologian helped to move our beloved Catholic Church out of the Middle Ages into Modernity. Further, while a professor at our Alma Mater University of Tübingen, you, along with the rest of your colleagues of the Catholic Theology faculty, publicly advocated 1) the election of bishops by their constituents, and 2) limited term of office of bishops (see the book Democratic Bishops for the Roman Catholic Church).
Now you are publicly rebuking loyal Catholic priests for doing precisely what you earlier had so nobly advocated. They, and many, many others across the universal Catholic Church, are following your youthful example, trying desperately to move our beloved Mother Church further into Modernity. I deliberately use the word “desperately,” for in your own homeland, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, the churches are empty, and also are so many Catholic hearts when they hear the chilling words coming from Rome and the “radically obedient” (read: “yes-men”) bishops. In my own homeland, America, the birthplace of modern freedom, human rights, and democracy, we have lost — in this generation alone! — one third of our Catholic population, 30,000,000, because the Vatican II promises of its five-fold Copernican Turn (the turn toward 1. freedom, 2. this world, 3. a sense of history, 4. internal reform, and above all, 5. dialogue) have all been so deliberately dashed by your predecessor, and now increasingly by you.
Joe, you were known as one of the Vatican II theologians who promoted Pope St. John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento (bringing up to date) by the reforming spirit of returning to the energizing original sources (resourcement!) of Christianity (ad fontes!—to the fountains!). Those democratic, freedom-loving sources of the Early Church were exactly the renewing “sources,” the “fountains,” of renewal that were spelled out in detail by you and your Tübingen colleagues.
I am urging you to return to that early reforming spirit of your youth. I am reminded of that spirit now in preparation for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (JES), which my beloved wife Arlene and I launched in 1964. There in the very first issue of JES are articles by your friend and fellow Vatican II theologian Hans Küng, and yourself (!), looking to bridge over the isolating Counter-Reformation gulf that divided the Catholic Church from the rest of Christianity, and indeed the rest of the modern world.
Joe, in that spirit, I urge you to return to your reforming fountains: Return ad fontes!
Leonard Swidler, Ph.D., S.T.L. email@example.comProfessor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue, Temple University