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Dominican selection of DiNoia nullified

NCR Staff

When members of the U.S. Eastern Province of the Dominican Order opened their quadrennial chapter June 6 in Providence, R.I., they quickly elected a new provincial.

But when the name of the new provincial, Fr. Joseph Augustine DiNoia, was faxed to the Dominican master in Rome, he just as quickly nullified the selection, a prerogative reserved for the master.

In the words of the order's rule, the election of DiNoia was "cassated" by the Dominican master, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe. According to the rules of the Dominicans, also known as the Order of Preachers, Radcliffe was not required to give a reason for the action and chose not to give one.

Speculation followed. What had DiNoia, executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, done or not done?

Under the order's almost 800-year-old governing structure, set up by St. Dominic in 1217, the master -- or any Dominican superior faced with an election involving subordinates -- has the authority to confirm or cancel. So, for example, when Dominicans in Louisville, Ky., three years ago elected a new prior, the superior cassated that election because the prior-elect was the full-time treasurer at a college, a position where he was needed more.

DiNoia, in addition to his full-time job with the bishops, is a systematic theologian on the Dominican House of Studies faculty here in Washington.

One Dominican, who did not wish to be identified, told NCR that DiNoia's existing workload was the most likely explanation of the master's decision.

DiNoia, reached at the Dominican's Providence College Rhode Island, told NCR he had gone to the meeting not knowing he was even being considered as a candidate for provincial. In all canonically guided elections, he said, there is proscription against politicking, though names do start to emerge the week before the election.

"I'd absolutely no idea my name might emerge, and it didn't really until the day of the election," he said.

Asked if he knew why he had been cassated, DiNoia replied that in the order, the higher superior, "unlike canon law, does not have to provide explanation and that's something we adhere to.

"The reasons, no one knows. People have speculated," he said, "chiefly on my positions with the bishops conference, and the importance of my role as theology professor -- there aren't that many of us -- at the Dominican House of Studies. Certainly I wouldn't have been able to continue to do either of those things."

He said he had not spoken to the master, "and perhaps when we speak he might say things personally to me. But working 'for the good of the church, the good of the order' are standard considerations that would enter in," he said.

Asked if he was disappointed, DiNoia paused, then said, "Well, hmmm, not really." He added, "In this I want to discern what God wants me to do -- and there must be other things he wants me to do. I really do believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in this."

As a leader, Radcliffe, a British Dominican, has a reputation as a personable activist. He travels widely, visiting the 8,000 Dominicans around the world, takes lots of notes during his visitations and is well respected.

DiNoia said he'd heard there had been another cassation in Germany recently but stressed that this information came from hearsay only. DiNoia, who has been at the bishops' conference for four years, handles doctrinal topics that touch both on faith and morals. That work has broadened considerably into ethical areas, such as in health care issues.

He described the work as "more than a 9-5 job. It's all-consuming." In addition to his teaching load, one course a semester, DiNoia edits the quarterly philosophy/theology journal The Thomist.

In the Dominican election process, the election result is first forwarded to the superior to cancel or confirm and then, if confirmed, sent to the elected to accept or reject.

In 1983, Dominican Fr. Albert Nolan was elected master and declined. He chose to remain in South Africa where he had been active in the antiapartheid movement and working on behalf of the poor.

The order then elected Fr. Damian Byrne, the current master's predecessor.

The U.S. Eastern Province, in its second election, chose Fr. Norman Haddad as provincial. The master confirmed the choice.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997