Catholic sackings stir debate on dogma

November 20, 1998

Two academics at Catholic universities in Italy have fallen foul of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a direct descendant of the Inquisition, for expressing doubts over points of the official doctrine.

Luigi Lombardi Vallauri, professor of philosophy at Milan's Catholic University, has been dismissed after 22 years for challenging the established concepts of hell and original sin.

Father Jacques Dupuis, an expert on oriental religions at the Jesuits' Gregorian University in Rome, has seen the course he was supposed to teach this year suspended because in a recent book he dared suggest that salvation is possible for the faithful of religions other than Catholicism, and that religious pluralism, with potential salvation for all, is part of the divine design.

A third case is not confirmed. But according to gay rights organisations, a lecturer at one of Rome's Pontifical universities is under pressure to resign because of his homosexuality.

Professor Lombardi Vallauri has been prosecuted by a tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith because in his teaching of philosophy he expressed doubts over the official version of hell, of the plausibility of original sin and its possible contradiction with the concept of personal responsibility for sins. He was never informed of the proceedings against him and thus denied the right to a defence. He was told by letter that his sacking was because of "errors" regarding certain points of church doctrine.

Father Dupuis spent 34 years teaching in India and was a consultant of the Vatican Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is an expert on "inculturation," - the use of, say, Indian vestments in Indian churches or of dancing during mass in Africa. The cancellation of his course is seen as a crackdown on the idea, simmering among Catholic thinkers, that other religions should enjoy equal legitimacy with Catholicism as paths to salvation.

It is the first time for many years that the Vatican has intervened so strongly in academic issues. Giorgio La Malfa, secretary of the Italian Republican Party, questioned premier Massimo D'Alema about the concordat between Italy and the Holy See under which a teacher in a Catholic university, which receives state funding, can be dismissed by the Vatican simply for disagreeing with church dogma.

The moves contrast with the Vatican campaign to make amends for the Inquisition and with the opening of the Inquisition's secret archives (up to 1903).

Emanuele Severino, who teaches at Venice University and was at Milan's Catholic University until 1969, when he was forced to leave over philosophical divergences, said: "We are witnessing an intensification of the Church's temporal power in Italy... it abhors all teaching, in both schools and universities, which is not controlled by itself."

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