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Theologians opt for diplomacy in dispute

NCR Staff

Catholic theologians attending the national meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America here June 5-8 struggled to broker theology with an invisible but powerful presence: Rome.

In intermittent business sessions, scheduled among talks on theological perspectives on the Eucharist, theologians debated the implications of a cautiously worded resolution aimed at the church's ban on women priests.

Looming in the foreground, though little discussed, were the Vatican's just-released criticisms of proposed U.S. guidelines for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's 1990 Apostolic Constitution on Higher Education (see NCR's June 6 issue and an editorial in this issue, page 28).

The demand for more work on the guidelines came just a week before the theological society's meeting opened here and took many participants by surprise.

The resolution on women's ordination, passed 10 to 1 on the second day of the convention, says that, given widespread disagreements among theologians and faithful Catholics about the church's ban on women priests, the matter should remain open to debate. That position addresses the Vatican's assertion that the doctrine is "definitive" and "infallibly taught" and requires the assent of the faithful.

The resolution is essentially the conclusion to a 4,500-word paper, Tradition and the Ordination of Women, which reviews and questins scriptural and theological principles that underlie the ban. At issue is Pope John Paul II's assertion that the church lacks authority to ordain women because there is no basis for the practice in scripture or tradition (set forth in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994) and a claim by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that the prohibition on women priests belongs to the “deposit of faith” and has been infallibly taught (Responsum, 1995).

Neither the theological society's paper nor its resolution advocates ordaining women, although a strong majority of theologians at the meeting clearly would favor such a change.

The paper has been under revision since last June when it was sent to the society's 1,300 members for criticism and reflection.

Jon Nilson of Loyola University, Chicago, moderator of the task force that prepared the society's paper, said the goal was to lay out questions as "a starting point for more reflection.

"This is a major issue in the church today," he said. "It's not a time to shoot from the hip."

In a preamble to the resolution, the theological society's board stressed the intention of making a "positive contribution" to the church's "maturing of reflection on the deposit of faith" rather than to oppose the magisterium in a spirit of dissent.

The resolution, approved by a vote of 216 to 22 with 10 abstentions, will be sent to presidents of national bishops' conferences in Canada and the United States.

In a small group discussion of Ratzinger's Responsum, Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., said theologians had been put in an awkward position with regard to the doctrine. "Cardinal Ratzinger has said we have the conclusion, now we need the reasons," he said. "When we face that, we realize we have very serious problems. How can we support that which has no reasons?"

The society's paper notes a shift in recent Vatican documents in arguments supporting the ban. "Some arguments which have been used in the past do not appear in recent official statements," the paper says. "Other reasons are now being proposed as the basis in revelation for the church's belief that women cannot be ordained priests."

One of the strongest critics of the document and resolution was Fr. Matthew Lamb of Boston College, who argued in a two-page statement of his own that the society's paper was "inadequate and misleading" and "drifts into a clear advocacy position by failing to communicate clearly" the church's arguments against ordaining women.

Forthright discussion of the Vatican's response to implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States was short-circuited by a plea from Monika K. Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Addressing the full assembly of theologians, Hellwig asked them to avoid portraying the development as a showdown between U.S. leaders and the Vatican. "Blowing it up in the press or elsewhere" could cause more trouble for the project, she said.

As a result, responses were muted. Jesuit Fr. Leo O'Donovan, president of Georgetown University in Washington, said only, "It naturally concerns me that a document the American bishops overwhelmingly approved has raised concern at the Congregation for Education." O'Donovan has been integrally connected to the bishops' work.

The Vatican Congregation on Catholic Education, headed by Cardinal Pio Laghi, notified U.S. bishops that officials were expecting more attention to Canon 812, a church law dreaded by many U.S. theologians and university leaders. The canon requires theologians teaching in colleges or universities to have a mandate from "the competent ecclesiastical authority," understood to mean the local bishop. U.S. academics have been deeply concerned in recent years about the canon, arguing that its application in the United States would undermine the academic enterprise by violating principles of academic freedom.

Laghi also said the revised U.S. guidelines would now be handled by the Congregation for Bishops, headed by Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, rather than by Laghi's congregation, as it has been from the beginning.

Hellwig told theologians the transfer of authority was "worrisome." It was unexpected and had not been explained, she said.

Further, she said the Vatican wanted clarification of U.S. bishops' 1989 document "Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians." Specifically, officials want to know what happens if, after guidelines are followed, the result is a deadlock between bishop and theologian, she said.

O'Donovan, one of few university administrators at the meeting, said he was attending because a good friend, Sr. Anne Carr, was receiving the society's John Courtney Murray Award for distinguished achievement in theology. Carr, a member of the Sisters of Charity and professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has struggled in recent years with a recurring, nonmalignant brain tumor and recently returned to teaching after a year-long medical leave.

Carr is author of Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women's Experience and The Search for Wisdom and Spirit: Thomas Merton's Theology of the Self, both published in 1988.

Looking back on her career, which began with graduate study of theology in the early 1960s -- a time when women were often discouraged, if not actually barred, from studying the subject -- Carr recalled that, after she heard theologian Bernard Cooke deliver a series of lectures, her mother superior had asked her if she'd be interested in studying theology with him.

Carr said she instantly replied in the affirmative. "And then," she said, "I went to the dictionary and looked up theology. We called it religion then."

In a talk on the Common Ground Initiative, Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., said the search for truth "should lead to respect for others." He urged theologians to set aside defensiveness and "seek common ground within the academy." Common Ground is a project started by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin shortly before his death, as an effort to breach divisions in the church.

Lipscomb said, "What I fear is a hardening of positions ... an acrimony much like that which existed between Jesuits and Dominicans of old. Do any of us look back on that era of mutual excommunication as a high point of the church's history?" he asked.

He referred to heated controversies between Jesuits and Dominicans in the 17th century over grace and free will.

Lipscomb's view was echoed by Sr. Mary Ann Donovan, installed here as the new president of the society. "My hope for this society is that we would mirror the larger church, which includes people of many different opinions," she said. "It would be a terrific loss if a society like this didn't have room for a variety of voices." Donovan is a Sister of Charity and professor of historical theology at Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.

Fr. Robert Imbelli, theology professor at Boston College, said there is "no doubt" that the theological society, the leading organization of U.S. Catholic theologians, "is 'liberal' in its theological orientation and its ecclesial politics." Nevertheless, he said, "those of us who are perhaps more conservative in those regards feel it's important that we continue to participate."

Theologians at the meeting chose Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley of Yale as president-elect. She will assume the presidency next year.

For full text of the society's resolution and paper "Tradition and the Ordination of Women" see "Documents" on NCR's home page http://www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 1997