e-mail us
Seminary professor gets settlement, still hopes for theological debate

It has been nearly two years since Aaron Milavec, a theologian who has devoted much of his life to teaching in Catholic seminaries, was fired from his teaching post at a seminary in Cincinnati after a conservative student with no formal training in theology accused him of teaching heresy. Although the school, the Athenaeum of Ohio, recently paid Milavec $72,000 to settle a breach-of-contract suit, he continues to cry foul. Seminary officials had earlier tried unsuccessfully to have the suit dismissed on church-state grounds.

Milavec, 59, a former Marianist brother, adamantly defends his orthodoxy, as do colleagues and friends who credit him with a deep love for the church. He insists that his book, a series of scriptural “case studies” called Exploring Scriptural Sources (Sheed and Ward, 1994) is rooted in content and methodology widely accepted in Catholic circles today. He is deeply disappointed, he said, not only that he lost a job he loved but that he has been unable to engage Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, seminary chancellor, in dialogue under guidelines established by U.S. Catholic bishops for theological disputes.

Many scholars who know Milavec’s story find it baffling, like a puzzle with missing pieces. One Cincinnati theologian who sympathizes with both sides describes it as a “medieval tale,” a story rich with innuendo and intrigue but lacking a resolution that satisfies either justice or common sense.

In the often elitist world of academic politics, where who likes you can be as important as who or what you know, Milavec gets mixed reviews. Some, who have asked not to be identified, said that he is a mediocre scholar, a guy who doesn’t “get it,” who brought his troubles on himself. Others describe him as a man of character, an inspired and innovative teacher, an eclectic thinker who loves to startle and is committed to showing how doctrines developed over centuries. He was also, they say, someone who procrastinated under attack because he expected to be supported by administrators he considered his friends.

“He has a heart of gold,” said Arthur Dewey who teaches New Testament at Xavier University in Cincinnati. “I’ve seen him do mental gymnastics to make church doctrine meaningful to people.”

If nothing else, events leading up to Milavec’s job loss in June of 1996 illustrate the perils of operating as a theologian with post-Vatican II training in a climate increasingly influenced by the Catholic right. The story highlights how tenuous a theologian’s status can be in the atmosphere of fear and retrenchment that prevails in the church today. It also underscores the power that even a theologically unsophisticated conservative can wield when administrators become sensitive to pressures from outside.

Milavec’s troubles began in fall of 1995 when Thomas J. Ruwe, a Cincinnati lawyer with a history of making news as an apologist for conservative Catholic views, enrolled in Milavec’s class “The Church” and began openly accusing him of deviating from Catholic doctrine, eventually prompting an investigation of his book. Milavec, professor of church history and historical theology, had taught at the Athenaeum, which includes Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West, since 1984, and at five Catholic colleges and seminaries before that.

Milavec’s actions in his time of trial are hard to understand. Even his friends are hard-pressed to explain why he ducked when they say he should have fought, failed to defend himself when his reputation was on the line.

When asked by then-seminary president Fr. Robert J. Mooney (a priest who has since resigned to marry) to respond to two negative assessments of his book, Milavec delayed for five months until his three-year contract was up for renewal. At that point, Mooney fired him, saying he could not “in conscience” do otherwise.

Milavec, however, points out that Mooney, who holds no advanced degree in theology, admitted in court depositions that he had never set a deadline for a response, never warned Milavec that his job was on the line and never read his book. Mooney also barred Milavec from the school’s grievance process through an interpretation of seminary guidelines that Milavec and his lawyers argued was unfair.

Officials at the seminary, which is sponsored and subsidized by the Cincinnati archdiocese, have also drawn sympathizers who say the school is retreating from a liberal posture as bishops from dioceses outside Cincinnati have begun sending seminarians elsewhere. (NCR noted in its Sept. 12, 1997, issue that the Athenaeum is sometimes listed among the nation’s five more progressive seminaries.) From a financial point of view, charges of heresy made by a man with a history of going public were just what the school did not need.

Both Terrance D. Callan, seminary dean, and Mooney, the former president, reject characterizations of the school as liberal. Callan acknowledged, though, that this year, all but one of 26 seminarians enrolled are from Cincinnati. “In the past we had more students from other dioceses, and we would like to return to that situation,” he said. In all, Callan said, the school has about 250 students, most of them in lay ministry programs and “special studies” -- the area in which Ruwe had enrolled.

‘Protestant approach’

A chronology of events at the Athenaeum follows.

Before classes began in the fall of 1995, Ruwe bought and read Milavec’s book and wrote him a short time later to complain that the book “adopts the Protestant approach to determining Christian truth, namely, if a person, place, thing or event is not reported in the pages of the New Testament, then the person, place, thing or event did not occur.” Ruwe complained, for example, that Milavec’s book, required reading for the class, “makes no mention of the teaching authority of the church” on the issue of whether penance and holy orders are presented as sacraments in scripture. That the church has linked those sacraments to scripture (although Protestants have not) is “defined teaching, infallibly protected by God the Holy Spirit,” wrote Ruwe, who jokingly refers to the Athenaeum as “the anathema” for what he says are its liberal ways.

Ruwe, 44, said in a telephone interview that he is often consulted by Catholic conservatives since he lost a teaching job at a Catholic high school in the late 1970s. The principal declined to renew Ruwe’s contract after he contended that six other religion teachers at the school -- all nuns -- were teaching false doctrine. Ruwe was also involved in a controversy in 1995 over a sex education program adopted by some archdiocesan schools. Both controversies made news in Cincinnati.

Milavec, who holds a degree in physics from the University of Dayton, a degree in theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and a doctoral degree in theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., strongly believes that adult students should be presented with scripture at face value and only later learn to interpret it from the point of view of Catholic doctrines that have developed over time.

Milavec has studied with Michael Polanyi in Oxford, England, and has done extensive work and writing in Jewish-Christian relations, including studies with Rabbi Jacob Neusner at Brown University.

Ruwe describes himself as a theological novice, with only a college minor in the field, but told NCR that Milavec’s errors were “so fundamental” that any Catholic with a high school education would recognize them.

In reply to Ruwe’s letter accusing him of a Protestant approach, Milavec wrote, “For the moment, an intellectual gap separates us. For your part, you rely upon the settled judgments which you have arrived at and assimilated for yourself during the whole course of your training as a Catholic.” Milavec explained that his own “settled judgments” had been transformed through study of historical theology.

About two weeks later, Ruwe distributed to other students a two-page critique titled “The Rest of the Story,” contrasting quotes labeled “Milavec says” with brief statements from the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Although Milavec’s letters to Ruwe early in the semester show that he was straining to be gracious, communications began to break down after Sept. 25, when Milavec, by his own account, slammed his hand on his desk and shouted “No!” in response to Ruwe’s arguments in class. Milavec noted in a letter to Ruwe that he had apologized publicly for the “inappropriate” display. He warned Ruwe in a follow-up letter that his patience was wearing thin. “Any further attempts on your part to erode my authority or to impose your agenda on the class will not be tolerated,” he wrote. Ruwe’s interventions, Milavec said, reflected “the Catholic stance which prevailed up until the ’50s but which is no longer seen as credible or serviceable for the future direction of the church.”

“I warmly invite you,” Milavec wrote, “to alter your frame of mind from that of a staunch apologist to that of a dedicated learner ... to drop your role of public antagonist.”

Conciliatory efforts failed, and Milavec told Ruwe Sept. 28 that he should not return unless invited back.

Subsequently, Milavec changed his mind, but warned Ruwe that his objections would need to be offered “in a dignified and timely manner in accordance with the rhythms and the purposes of our classroom.”

Ruwe then wrote Mooney and Pilarczyk accusing Milavec of “false teachings” in several areas and threatening to sue the seminary for representing itself as faithful to the church. “I intend to defend my rights with every tool at my disposal, including civil court and the court of public opinion,” he wrote. In a separate letter he warned Milavec that he had lined up six witnesses against him. Mooney refunded Ruwe’s tuition with a letter chastising him for his “bullying tone.” A copy went to Pilarczyk.

In a follow-up letter, Ruwe demanded an investigation of Milavec’s teachings. A day later, Mooney replied, expelling Ruwe from class -- but also alerting him that the investigation he requested had begun. Mooney told Ruwe that he had directed Callan, the Athenaeum dean, who holds a doctorate in theology from Yale, to “look into the questions” Ruwe had raised about Milavec’s orthodoxy. He later told Milavec that the request for the investigation came from Pilarczyk.

The expulsion, Mooney said, was based on Ruwe’s “harshly judgmental attitude” toward Milavec and on complaints from other students about disruptions.

Ruwe retorted by return letter, “You are proving my point for me when you describe the teachings of the church as a disruption.” He had attended five classes at that point, he said.

Subsequently, again in response to a request from Ruwe, another professor, Fr. Richard A. Marzheuser, now dean of the Athenaeum’s seminary division, was asked to join the investigation. Marzheuser holds graduate degrees from Gregorian University in Rome and Catholic University in Washington. Ruwe wrote that he expected all investigators would have “made the profession of faith and taken the oath of fidelity” and submitted to all teachings of “the magisterium, even those which have not been defined ex cathedra.”

On Dec. 8, Ruwe sent by Federal Express a two-page letter to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, along with a copy of Milavec’s book. Ruwe believes the letter was instrumental in getting Milavec fired, although more than two weeks earlier, on Nov. 21, Callan had already turned in a two-page critique. To Milavec’s dismay, it was a narrow critique, addressing only what Callan regarded as doctrinal problems in the book. “In general,” Callan wrote, “This book is concerned with exegesis of scripture and not with defined Catholic doctrine. However, at times the book implies something opposed to Catholic doctrine or even states it explicitly.”

Marzheuser turned in his review about two weeks later, describing problems of “omission” and “commission.” Broadly speaking, he said, Milavec had failed to “balance the historical-critical method with canonical interpretation” -- that is, the church’s interpretation of scripture -- and had insufficiently recognized tradition “as a significant component of revelation.” The text failed to represent Catholic teaching “on several key issues,” Marzheuser wrote, accusing Milavec of being “simplistic, shallow and sometimes sloppy” in his scholarship.

Even before he saw the reviews, Milavec said he became uneasy about the process going on behind his back. He said Mooney did not inform him until mid-January that an investigation was underway. Later in January, Mooney also told him that Pilarczyk had recommended the investigation and was waiting for a response. Mooney sent Milavec the critiques with an accompanying letter. “If there is some explanation for this, I think you need to make it,” he wrote. “I cannot help but have some misgivings about what you are teaching.”

First of four volumes

Milavec sent both reviewers a preliminary theological defense, pointing out that his book was intended as the first volume in a four-part series (as noted in the front of his book), which would ultimately show the authentic development of church teaching from the New Testament era up to modern times. His method, he said, was to help students discover in the first volume that scripture is open to different interpretations and to later reveal Catholic interpretations of the text.

In a document addressed to “My dear brothers Terry and Rick,” Milavec wrote, “It grieves me that you have taken part in a process which is so defective in substance, so unfraternal in form and so prejudicial in its effects.” He complained that the two men had given Mooney the impression “that no other responsible Catholic author has put forward any position remotely like my own. You seem determined to shield him from the hard truth that many of the critiques which you put forward would have to likewise condemn a large number of Catholic authors.”

The reviewers had set up a “fight I couldn’t win,” Milavec told NCR, by critiquing his book from the perspective of “old-time Catholic apologetic ... as a catechism of what we believe now rather than as a historical inquiry into how the church emerged.”

In February, Milavec asked Callan for early renewal of his three-year contract, due for renewal in June, saying he was feeling vulnerable. He did not show his preliminary response to Mooney, nor, in several informal meetings during the spring semester, did Mooney ever inquire about his progress, Milavec said.

Milavec said he interpreted Mooney’s lack of prodding as a sign that he did not consider the issue to be serious.

Milavec said he has also wondered whether his troubles were related to a decision by his wife of 21 years to leave the Catholic church and pursue ordination as an Episcopal priest. Linda Milavec was ordained in February -- a decision Milavec said he fully supports, although the couple has been separated and is pursuing divorce.

Both Callan and Mooney said Linda Milavec’s ordination was unrelated to Aaron Milavec’s troubles.

Callan said problems in Milavec’s book cited by the two reviewers did not substantiate Ruwe’s complaints. Ruwe served only as “the occasion” for an investigation, he said. He reiterated in a telephone interview what he said in his critique: that Milavec “steps aside from a historical approach” and “muddles together exegesis, church history and contemporary theology in a way that isn’t satisfactory.” He noted that the diocese’s theological censor, Fr. Robert Hagedorn had previously declined to give the book an imprimatur -- the church’s stamp of approval. “If we had known that, we would have considered it a problem,” Callan said.

Some scholars interviewed for this story, most asking to remain anonymous, noted that many of the nation’s Catholic theologians avoid diocesan censors, considering submitting books for approval as counterproductive to creative work.

Milavec told Mooney in June, by letter, that his response to the charge of unfaithfulness to Catholic doctrine -- cause for dismissal according to Athenaeum guidelines -- had been relegated to a “back burner” because of other commitments, including family obligations and revisions of his next book. He had also been preparing for a major theological lecture at Spalding University, a Catholic university in Louisville, Ky., where he was invited to speak by Joseph Martos, sacramental theologian who wrote the widely used Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (Doubleday 1981). Martos, a Milavec defender, said he invited him to speak “because he’s very good.”

Milavec suggested to Mooney that they get together to establish a deadline, though Milavec said he was rushed by plans to attend a biblical conference in Belgium.

Mooney’s response to Milavec’s “back burner” reply was swift and negative. Noting that he and Pilarczyk had been waiting since Jan. 23 for a response, Mooney informed Milavec on July 2, by registered letter, that his contract would not be renewed -- in effect a dismissal, he later said by way of explaining his decision to withhold the one-year notice required in cases of nonrenewal. The basis for dismissal, Mooney said, was Milavec’s “failure to present the tradition of the Roman Catholic church accurately and respectfully” in his book. “I further believe that the publication of this book and your use of passages from it in your classes here has been gravely detrimental to both the academic and community life of the Athenaeum,” Mooney said in his letter.

In further letters to Mooney, Milavec said he was “angry and puzzled” by Mooney’s failure to inquire about progress on the response and also angry that “after 25 years of formation of future priests and lay ministers ... you have the indignity to dismiss me without any face-to-face contact and in a formal letter.”

Mooney retorted that Milavec had forced him into a “very difficult and painful” decision. “If there is room for anger here, I believe that I should feel some,” he wrote. He added, “I simply cannot believe that a person of your intelligence and experience misunderstood the gravity” of the situation.

Mooney said Milavec tried to initiate the seminary’s grievance process too late. Mooney further refused to join in a grievance process allowed by the archdiocese, saying he had learned Milavec considered the process an opportunity for “theological debate.”

A Pilarczyk ‘decree’

Milavec also corresponded with Pilarczyk to little avail. On Oct. 30, Pilarczyk sent him a four-page notarized “decree” supporting the seminary and notifying Milavec of his rights under canon law to appeal. Milavec appealed unsuccessfully to Pilarczyk, then decided to bypass his right to a Vatican appeal and proceed to civil court.

Callan said the seminary found it cheaper to settle the suit and avoid trial after the judge rejected arguments for dismissal on church-state grounds. The seminary offered successively larger amounts, with the judge urging settlement, said Milavec, who had sued for “in excess of $100,000” in damages.

Mooney told NCR he has no regrets about his handling of the case, although he sometimes asks himself, he said, whether, he might have acted differently. He said he operated as a “light-handed” administrator and was never one to prod.

Further, Mooney said, he had always expected that Milavec would be able to clear his name.

Milavec said he had been stymied by the harshness of the critiques and by the “shroud of secrecy” surrounding the investigation’s early stages. “It felt like a setup,” he said. “I felt I was being asked to defend not just what I’d written but an entire movement within Catholic theology.”

Milavec says he still respects the Athenaeum as an institution and misses teaching there. He is seeking another teaching post while working on his books, “putting faith in my future as a professor and author,” he said. Works underway include future volumes in his four-part series on doctrinal development and a book titled The Pastoral Genius of the Didache, scheduled for publication by Paulist Press later this year.

Much as Milavec wants dialogue with Pilarczyk, he fears that the 1989 guidelines, “Bishops and Theologians: Promoting Cooperation, Resolving Misunderstandings,” is a process the bishops “have neither the competence, nor the patience, nor the sense of justice to use.”

The process, widely hailed by theologians, was overwhelmingly approved by bishops in 1989, when Pilarczyk was a top official of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, Dominican Fr. Gus DeNoia, the bishops’ chief theologian for doctrinal affairs, said he knows of no instance in which the process has been used.

Pilarczyk declined to speak with NCR, but said through his communications director, Dan Andriacco, that he does not think the bishops’ procedure for dialogue with theologians applies in Milavec’s case. “This is an issue between a seminary and a theologian,” Andriacco said -- not between “a bishop and a theologian.”

Milavec insists he could successfully defend himself “if I had the chance.”

Said Mooney: “He had a pile of chance.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 1998