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Theologians challenge bishops on the public role of Catholicism

NCR Staff
San Jose, Calif.

Just a few days after getting the word that the Vatican had approved new norms for Catholic colleges and universities, Catholic theologians meeting here addressed a variety of controversial topics as they relate to the public agenda of the church.

The delicacy of some of the issues, ranging from homosexuality to the church’s public stand on abortion, was underscored by conflicts looming between theologians and bishops as they prepare to implement those norms. The thorniest of those, the topic of two meeting sessions, requires theologians to ask for certification from bishops.

The theme for the convention, the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, was “Catholicism and Public Life.”

In her presidential address, Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, ethics professor at Yale, praised U.S. bishops for their broad goals goals that, as expressed by the bishops themselves, include providing a “community of conscience” within the larger society and reflecting the church’s commitment to the quest for the common good and “the dignity of every person.”

Unfortunately, Farley said, the bishops themselves have created two “serious obstacles” to their own credibility, undercutting even their praiseworthy aims. Those obstacles, she said, are the bishops’ “overwhelming preoccupation with the issue of abortion,” to the diminishment of many other important issues on their public agenda, along with “the scandal of repression of thought and discourse” within the church itself.

In other major talks, Mary Hines of Emmanuel College, speaking on internal church life in relation to its public role, also said the church’s repression of dissent had undermined credibility. For example, cutting off dialogue with such groups as Call to Action “goes counter to the freedom of the gospel and the spirit of Vatican II,” she said.

Members of Call to Action, the Chicago-based organization calling for modernization of church teaching in many areas, have been excommunicated in the Lincoln, Neb., diocese.

As a way of boosting inclusion, Hines [proposed a Plenary Council, engaging nonordained religious and lay persons as the new Code of Canon Law allows. Hines, theology professor at Emmanuel College in Boston, noted that that the Third Plenary Council in 1884 had less inclusive effect, contributing to “an increasing marginalization of the laity as a voice in church affairs.”]

Michael J. Perry, who holds a distinguished chair in law at Wake Forest University, argued that faithful Catholics, while having a responsibility to engage the magisterium’s teaching in forming opinions on such widely controversial subjects as same-sex marriages, are not obliged to concur with that teaching in making political choices.

Leslie Griffin, who teaches law at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school, concurred. Catholics in democratic societies go awry, she said, by assuming that their moral law, because it is derived from natural law, should be universally applied. In truth, Griffin said, Catholics have much to learn from the modern and even the post-modern world.

Perry, who formerly taught at Northwestern University, has written five books, all published by Oxford University Press, including Religion in Politics: Constitutional and Moral Perspectives (1997). Perry writes often about the relationship among religion, morality and politics.

The convention also featured two sessions where theologians voiced concerns about the Vatican norms, particularly the certification process for theologians. The norms were developed by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in response to the pope’s 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (NCR, June 16). Farley said the board had approved plans for the theological society to host regional discussions between bishops and theologians during the coming year. As those discussions get underway, a bishops’ committee will be developing strategies for putting the norms into effect nationwide.

Among issues voiced:

  • The norms call for theologians to be “in full communion with the church,” yet some bishops may require oaths that go beyond the creed. Some theologians feel strongly that “full communion” should be presumed for theologians, thereby requiring no proof unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.
  • The “mandatum” -- that is, the bishops’ certification -- could prompt graduate students and faculty to gravitate to non-Catholic schools.
  • Mandatums will diminish the prestige of theology faculty in academia generally and at some institutions may become a negative factor in granting tenure or promotion.

“The bishops are not aware of all the problems,” Farley said. “That is why we have been pleading for dialogue.” In response to Jesuit Fr. David Hollenbach of Boston College, an outspoken opponent of the mandatum, Farley noted that, while some theologians regard it as a given, others favor pressing bishops to rescind the requirement.

“That’s not a closed issue with the board, nor in regional discussions,” she said.

As is the custom, Franciscan Fr. Kenneth Himes, who assumed the society’s top post at the end of the convention, selected its theme. Himes said he did not expect the controversial nature of some of the talks to interfere with the upcoming dialogue with U.S. bishops on the new Vatican norms.

Himes said he is confident that bishops and theologians will be able to separate the controversies evoked by convention speakers from the discussions ahead on Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Himes, a professor of moral theology at Washington Theological Union, noted that divergence of opinion on the church’s public stance on issues “not simply about doctrines or matters of moral wisdom” is to be expected and, provided discussion is “civil and respectful,” even welcomed.

“I think the airing of some of these legitimate differences in regard to the church in the public square stands on its own merit,” he said.

Farley lamented in her presidential address that the bishops’ strong emphasis on outlawing abortion is troubling to many people in the context of the church’s opposition to contraceptive pills and devices. Further, she said, the church’s many failures in upholding the rights and dignity of women -- failures noted by Pope John Paul II himself in his March 12 “Service Requesting Pardon” -- have created a “tremendous credibility gap, not only with the general public but with American Catholics.”

Among criticisms of bishops’ relations with women, she cited “gratuitous condemnations of what church leaders call radical feminism.” However, she said, “Documentation of failures in the church’s relations to women has been provided for so long and from so many sources ... that it is unnecessary for me to repeat it here.”

Farley noted that, while the bishops have been concerned about many other issues not only other life-and-death issues such as capital punishment and euthanasia, but also racism, immigration and welfare reform it is on abortion alone that bishops have made strong efforts to engage and mobilize faithful Catholics. The title of Farley’s talk was “The Church in the Public Forum: Scandal or Prophetic Witness.”

Pamela Schaeffer’s e-mail address is pschaeffer@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000 [corrected 07/14/2000]