Doubting Theologians

It would have been a truly startling headline in June 1997 if it had read: “Two Hundred Theologians Believe, With Whole Hearts and Minds, Leader Says.” Instead it was another stale repetition: “216 Theologians Endorse Doubts.” The story beneath the headline said that at the June meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), by a vote of 216-32 (including ten abstentions), those present endorsed a scholarly report expressing “serious doubts” concerning the authority of the Vatican’s decision that the question of women’s ordination is closed. The obvious effect of this vote is to assert that the question of women’s ordination is still open.

Moreover, the scholarly report thus endorsed plainly implies that it would have been unjust for the Church to exclude women from ordination on her own authority, apart from the will of Christ. It further suggests that Christ could not have done justly what it would have been unjust for the Church to do. In short, the current position of the Church is portrayed as seeming to be unjust.

Explicitly and on its surface, the CTSA report claims to be limiting itself solely to the question of the Vatican’s authority in the matter, not at all to the substantive question of whether women should be ordained priests. But this is more than disingenuous; it is posturing. All arguments, as a French proverb suggests, embody a latent will as well as an express intention. In this case, the will moving the scholarly paper is as palpable as that of a student at the end of the term who requests an extension for the completion of his term paper, not because he put it off to the end—actually, he insists, he began reading and taking notes weeks earlier—and not because his parents have invited him for a week’s vacation in Bermuda, but honestly because he has gotten so interested in the subject that he would really like to do a great job on it. He doesn’t want to rush it just to meet a bureaucratic deadline, and never in his life has he become so interested in writing a really good paper, so could he please have a little more time.

Paragraph after paragraph in the scholarly report knocks down selected reasons from Scripture, tradition, and the ordinary Magisterium for barring women from ordination. Not one single line in it offers support for that ban, except on grounds that are immediately and explicitly rejected by the paper’s authors (an anonymous committee, so far as the public is told). Taken as a whole, every paragraph in the scholarly paper moves toward the conclusion that it would be morally wrong to bar women’s ordination. Any claim that the paper can be read as leading to any other conclusion defies reason.

True, the paper never presents a full set of reasons why women ought to be ordained priests. In that sense, it falls short of making the affirmative case on the question fully and forthrightly. But the paper does advance at least two powerful substantive points on the negative side of the question.

First, it argues that the nonordination of women cannot be a matter of divine revelation if nonordination is an immoral practice. Second, it argues that since males and females undeniably have equal dignity before God, it follows that the ordination of males and the nonordination of females may well be a case of unjustifiable discrimination. If so, then in line with the first argument this practice must be judged immoral and foreign to the deposit of faith.

This is a long step beyond saying that the question is still open. The paper does not shrink from putting this foot forward where the attentive reader cannot miss it:

The implication is that were any practice to entail unjustifiable discrimination, it would be judged immoral and foreign to the deposit of faith.

The report goes on to say, further, that the argument that “Christ established things this way,” made by Pope John Paul II in 1995, “is not in itself sufficient to satisfy questions of unjust discrimination.” This insufficiency “lies not so much in the fragility” of its scriptural and historical warrants, the theologians say condescendingly, “but in its failure to meet the demands of traditional Catholic moral theology,” including nondiscrimination.

With this vote, the theologians of the CTSA look into Narcissus’s Pool, and find themselves more Catholic than the pope. With this vote, the CTSA has declared its independence.

In addition, this vote plants the unmistakable impression that Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the head of the Holy Office, whose instruction the society’s report explicitly rejects) may be guilty of immoral behavior, of two sorts. First, the vote suggests that these two may be guilty of collusion in an immoral practice. Second, this vote implies that these two are guilty of arrogantly claiming for their teaching a degree of infallibility to which (the Society has voted) they are not entitled.

Piously, the theologians present their report to the bishops of the United States and Canada “in a spirit of cooperation and ecclesial communion” with the pope. They intend it as a “positive contribution to the maturing of reflection on the deposit of faith.” This is to distinguish their posturing from “the public stance of opposition to the magisterium, which is described as dissent; the latter tends to set up a kind of counter-magisterium, presenting believers with alternative positions and forms of behavior.”

Thus, the American theologians would have us believe that they are not presenting alternative positions and forms of behavior. Oh no! The pope and Cardinal Ratzinger are supposed to believe that the American theologians are not in dissent from them, but in cooperation with them.

Will the Catholic Theological Society of America next file a lawsuit alleging unjustly discriminatory practices against the pope and the cardinal, purely to help the pope understand traditional Catholic moral theology?

Not an impressive piece of work. Not the best day in the history of the CTSA. Not a good “sign of the times.”

Do we need a new association of Catholic theologians, eager to be in communion with Rome, thinking with Rome and with the tradition, and not so eager to placate the local gods of time and place? It may, indeed, be time to call for a new National Association of American Catholic Theologians. Its purpose would be integration with, not separation from, Rome. Its sense of role would not be to act as a teacher to Rome (Magisterium over the Magisterium), but as a student of what and why the Holy Spirit is teaching through Rome. It would do what the CTSA was founded to do but seems no longer to have the will to do.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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