Theologians Challenge Bishops on the Public Role of Catholicism

Article excerpt

Facing new rules for colleges, scholars warn that crackdowns impede the church's message

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 called for a fourth plenary council in the U.S. church, successor to the Third Council of Baltimore in 1884, in which lay people were active participants.

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 postmodern 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). …