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Questioning is not unholy or disloyal act

Even before members of the Catholic Theological Society of America convened last month, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver was taking pot shots at the very idea that professional theologians might consider whether the church has the authority to claim that women can never be ordained.

Chaput's comments, printed in the Denver archdiocese's newspaper (NCR, July 4), were quickly followed by three other prelates writing similar critiques in their papers -- Bishops John Meyers of Peoria, Ill., James T. McHugh of Camden, N.J., and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.

Their reactions were valuable on several counts, not the least as an example of the kind of open exchange that several of the bishops would no doubt like to see silenced when it comes to matters of theological inquiry.

They were valuable also for dramatizing the dimensions of the breach between some of the bishops on the right and the church's theologians and for raising serious questions about the functions and responsibilities of theologians vis-à-vis the Vatican and papal authority.

The Theological Society will certainly want to respond to Law's harsh characterization of the organization, his impugning of the group's motives and scholarship and his jarring disdain for the credentials of some members. Under the headline "A theological wasteland," Law wrote, "What a pity that those who have a stranglehold on the CTSA are so turned in on themselves. The academic theological community has become victim to the various politically correct currents of academe. A significant number of those claiming the credential of Catholic theologian has not received a graduate education from Catholic institutions. Often lacking an adequate grasp of Catholic thought, they more easily fall into the prevailing intellectual culture of the secular university. It becomes difficult if not impossible for them to evangelize the culture which has formed and which sustains them."

Why all the vitriol directed at theologians?

Some vitriol is simply de rigueur these days among certain segments of the church. The signals from the top are clear -- nothing that can be construed as dissent is to be tolerated; every utterance now out of Rome is given a theological weight once reserved for only the most central tenets of faith. Railing against theologians who ask discomfiting questions can thus be a smart career move in some instances.

The bishops have raised some important issues, particularly about the role of theologians, that beg much deeper discussion. But the overriding tone of the criticisms was narrow and punitive and had little to do with engaging the question taken up by the theologians.

The church has lived through this kind of overriding authoritarianism and fear of questioners before and it will survive the current bout. Papacies change. Attitudes and approaches at the top change. Theologians who are anathema one day are declared saints and fathers of the church another day; ideas that are considered heretical in one generation are embraced as central to the church's life in another era.

Absolutists of different periods have espoused obscurantist views that permitted a justification of slavery, a prohibition against usury, slaughter of the "infidels," persecution of Galileo, condemnation of evolutionary theory and embrace of theologies that viewed women as flawed creations, to name a few.

Institutions and the people who run them, even those in the church, do err. When will we recognize that?

In the meantime, we hope the debate continues, but with certain considerations. First, remember our history and the numbers of people and organizations that have been hurt before they have been rehabilitated because Roman bureaucrats refused to go beyond rigidly applied laws. Remember that some bishops in our own time have raised very pointed questions about papal authority and how it is used. Questioning is not necessarily -- or usually -- an unholy or disloyal act.

We hope that bishops and others opposed to theological questioning desist from slamming theologians for simply doing their work and that they cease belittling credentials and impugning motives.

We also hope those opposed to such theological speculation resist using "the faithful" as a reason for their concern. Worrying -- as did several of the bishops who spoke out against the Theological Society -- that "the faithful" will become hopelessly confused by a little theological wrangling is an outdated and patronizing bit of piffle.

Be assured that we in the pews might be confused at times about why the church resists married priests and ordination of women; we might be puzzled by the way church authorities continue to mishandle the relentless sex abuse scandal; we might be mystified by the church's insistence on an artificial birth control ban even as other "natural" family planning methods are touted; and we might be amazed and angered at the resistance to inclusive language.

We might be confused by a lot, but we won't be confused or troubled by theologians taking on difficult questions. That is what they are supposed to do.

We also know that bishops and cardinals disagree over the very things that divide some of the laity. We find that heartwarmingly human, not scandalous.

Let the discussions continue, with the hope that we all can resist the urge to condemn and excommunicate.

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 1997