A Roman Catholic theologian who has engaged in celebrated feuds with church authorities since 1985 has been expelled by the Vatican from the religious order he joined 34 years ago.
The Rev. Matthew Fox, 52, a popular teacher of a brand of theology he calls "creation spirituality," received notice of his dismissal Wednesday. The Vatican action, sought by Fox's superiors in the United States, means that he is no longer a member of the Order of Preachers--or Dominicans, as the group is popularly known.
The Rev. Donald Goergen, who heads the order's Midwestern Province in Chicago and was one of those seeking Fox's ouster, said Fox will remain a priest but is prohibited from celebrating Mass or performing the sacraments publicly.
Goergen said he received the Vatican's "confirmation of decree of dismissal" Monday. The document, dated Feb. 22, from the Vatican congregation that oversees religious orders, cited "illegitimate absence from his religious community" as a reason for dismissal. The Vatican agency is known as the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Fox is permitted under church law to appeal the decision. His spokesman, Dan Turner, said Fox has not decided whether to take that option but concedes that, if he was to appeal, there is little chance of overturning the decision.
Fox and Goergen disagreed on the reason for Fox's dismissal.
The popular theologian insists that the order took action against him under pressure from Vatican officials upset with Fox's work in creation spirituality. The Vatican investigated Fox in the mid-1980s and ordered him silenced from the end of 1988 through most of 1989.
Goergen is equally adamant that Fox's work had nothing to do with the order's request for dismissal. The Dominican leader said the action was taken when Fox refused, after lengthy negotiations, to return from California to his home province of Chicago.
"I regret this act of institutional violence done me, my person and my 34 years of service in the Dominican Order," Fox said in a statement released Wednesday, just hours after receiving notice of the dismissal. He issued the statement through a spokesman at the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality, on the campus of Holy Names College in Oakland.
Goergen said in a statement released Wednesday: "Once again, I express regret that no other resolution of Matthew's relationship to the province has been forthcoming. Many avenues have been pursued." He said the decision to seek Fox's dismissal "was never a judgment on his theology, spirituality or ministry," but "involved his internal relationship" to the order.
Describing the order's feud with Fox as "a long and painful process," and frequently comparing it to a marriage gone bad, Goergen concluded his statement by saying: "Many feel that Matthew long ago left us."
Fox's battle with the Vatican, which began with an investigation of his work by the Vatican's agency for doctrine, made him a popular figure beyond church circles. He is a prolific writer and much-sought lecturer.
He has a solid following of free-thinking Catholics and others who like the way he blends historical Christianity with Eastern spiritualities, feminism and environmentalism. The mix includes Goddess and Nature religions.
He emphasizes artwork, storytelling and song, and is a proponent of Zen Buddhism, growing flowers, yoga and massage. His faculty members have included a certified masseuse, a Zen Buddhist and a woman called Starhawk, who describes herself as a witch.