Little-known outside theological circles, the International Theological Commission, or ITC, is one of the Church's more important and innovative postconciliar institutions. The ITC held its annual week-long plenary meeting Dec. 3-7 in the Vatican, discussing, among other items, the state of theological scholarship on the question of the diaconate, as well as how new medical technologies pose challenges to Catholic teaching about the creation of man.

Raymond J. de Souza, the Register's Rome correspondent, spoke with Dominican Father J. Augustine Di Noia of Washington, D.C., an ITC member, at the conclusion of this year's plenary meeting.

Why the innovation, just after the Second Vatican Council, of creating the International Theological Commission (ITC)?

In the preparation for the council, many thought that the Curia consulted too much the theologians who were in the Roman universities. The Curia had produced the schema that was then rejected by the council fathers, many of whom then concluded that the Curia needed to be in contact with theologians from beyond the ambit of the Roman universities. This was particularly the case for the Germans and the French and, to a lesser extent, the Americans, all of whom wanted to get their voices heard. To put it more positively, the idea was to broaden the theological consultation upon which the Holy See depends to include a more international group.

The early ITCs were made up of famous people — Rahner, Congar, Balthasar.

You would have had gathered in that room the most important conciliar and post-conciliar theologians from all over the world. And according to Ratzinger, there were fireworks, because they didn't always agree, and their disagreements were sharp.

Do you attempt to give the best opinion which you hold, or do you attempt to provide a consensus of current views?

That depends. For example, in the case of the diaconate, which is an important issue, that subcom-mission decided to produce a more or less complete survey of the “state of the question.” So, if it is published, it will be extremely useful for that reason. In that case, the goal was to present the “state of the question” magisterially and theologically. That does not mean that ITC members cannot present their own original thinking on the matter.

Certainly, in “Memory and Reconciliation,” the whole topic was new. The Pope was apologizing, and he proposed this as a central part of the Jubilee celebrations. That, as Cardinal Ratzinger said, was the “existential fact” — the Pope was, in fact, doing this, and it was theologically controversial. The ITC therefore had to think through an issue that had really never been thought through before. I think that the document “Memory and Reconciliation” was one of the most important ITC documents ever produced. At the very least, when it was published, it garnered the most attention. And then the Pope was able to use the ITC work in framing how he offered the Church's requests for forgiveness during that famous liturgy of the Jubilee.

What authority do documents of the ITC have?

In general the magisterium is sparing. Even if the encyclicals are long, the actual doctrinal content is modest because it does not want to co-opt the theological act, which is a more ample enterprise. What authority does an ITC document have, which is part of the theological act? It certainly is not a magisterial document. It represents a theological treatise that expresses a consensus amongst a body of theologians who are faithful to the magisterium. If you think of the old “theological notes,” one of the “notes” was the “common teaching of theologians,” and the ITC certainly is that, with perhaps a little added authority because it is approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Is the ITC not an example of the magisterium listening only to those it wishes to listen to? Given that the ITC does not include those who dissent from magisterial teaching, can it be said to be an authentic collaboration with theology?

This is a very good question, but one that emerges from the fragmentation of the theology that has been typical of the last 30 years. Thirty years ago, the question would never have arisen. To be a reputable theologian — academically reputable — was to be one who thought with the mind of the Church. The number about whom that could not be said would have been infinitesimally small. All theologians recognized that one of the pillars of theological reflection is the magisterium. Scripture, tradition and the magisterium define what is the deposit of the faith from which theological reflection is supposed to proceed.

So the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in seeking conversation partners amongst theologians, must by definition seek conversation partners amongst theologians who recognize the magisterium as helping to define what the deposit of the faith is.

For the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to say that it will consult with theologians who dissent on some major topic would legitimate a form of theology that the tradition itself does not legitimate. The question touches on the crisis in theology today. Thirty years ago, everyone understood theology to be fides quaerens intel-lectum [faith seeking understanding].

That does not exclude the possibility that the Church could be interested in what a particular dissenting viewpoint holds. But no organ of the See of Peter could give the same kind of recognition to dissenting theology that it gives to theology that is faithful without shooting itself in the foot.

Practically speaking, all the members of the ITC are well aware of dissenting positions, and they are in dialogue with them in their own work. So, in formulating their research, they are aware of dissenting positions, of course.

What is on the future agenda of the ITC?

For example, the subcommission I work on is dealing with the creation of man. We have a rich tradition in the Church of reflection on what it means for man to be created imago Dei [in the image of God]. But now we have all sorts of new issues in biotechnology, stem cells, cloning and conceptions of the universe that seem to suggest that human beings are insignificant. So what you have here is the effort to bring to bear the tradition on very immediate, pressing problems.

You try to show how a tradition that is alive moves up to the next problem and grasps it.

So it shows you how much the Church depends on theology when there is a sense on the part of theologians that their work is a vocation that is ecclesial.