WASHINGTON — Jesuit Father Peter Ryan has been named the new executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs.
The selection of a Jesuit spiritual director, teacher and scholar, who has defended Church teaching in his academic work, will draw renewed scrutiny of the U.S. bishops’ efforts to address problematic theological texts, while also recruiting academics to help advance the New Evangelization.
Father Ryan’s primary responsibility is to serve the USCCB doctrine committee, which provoked a furor among some American theologians after it issued a 2011 statement strongly criticizing a popular undergraduate textbook written by Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University and the former president of the Catholic Theological Society.
The USCCB announced on May 28 that Father Ryan would replace Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, who had signaled his decision to resign earlier this year.
Archbishop John Nienstedt of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the chairman of the doctrine committee, told the Register that Father Ryan first came to his attention "eight years ago, when we worked on the Vatican seminary visitation together. I have been impressed with his scholarship, his teaching abilities and his organizational skills."
Archbishop Nienstedt also underscored the distinctive mission of the committee: "Unlike other USCCB committees, doctrine is less proactive in terms of initiatives, serving, rather, as a resource to the bishops in clarifying doctrinal issues."
However, the committee has also reached out to scholars, organizing a March 2013 exchange between bishops and academics that addressed the need to promote the New Evangelization and focused on potential areas of collaboration.
"Father Ryan’s work as a moral theologian will prepare him for his duties as the director of the committee on doctrine of the USCCB. Much of the committee’s work will deal with questions emerging from the field of moral theology," Brian Benestad, a professor of theology at the University of Scranton, told the Register.
"He is a very fair person who will listen carefully to what theologians have to say about their approach to theology and to the various theological issues that are being discussed today. Thinking with the Church will always be an important source of guidance for Father Ryan," added Benestad, who has served with the Jesuit on the executive board of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
Education and Experience
Father Ryan is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, and he will leave his post at Kenrick-Gennon Seminary in St. Louis, where he served for the past year and a half as the director of spiritual formation and a professor of moral theology.
From 2001-2011, he was a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., after serving as an assistant professor of theology at Loyola College in Maryland since 1994.
After graduating from Loyola College in Maryland, he earned a licentiate and doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a licentiate in philosophy from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.
His scholarly work has been published in Theological Studies, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, the National Catholic Bioethical Quarterly, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, American Journal of Jurisprudence and Gregorianum, the journal of the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Father Ryan has also delved into the field of bioethics, working as a senior fellow with The Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person, which seeks to promote a strong moral framework for evaluating new technologies like human cloning.
During an interview with the Register after his appointment was announced in late May, Father Ryan noted that the bishops’ concerns, rather than his specific scholarly interests, would drive the committee’s agenda.
Still, he suggested that the conference was eager to foster dialogue with theologians, while also dealing with theological texts that pose a threat to the integrity of the faith.
"Naturally, certain issues will arise, and theologians will have different ways of looking at those issues," Father Ryan said.
"One document that should be given special attention is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s ‘Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.’ The document explains very well that theology is a wonderful enterprise that should be a creative matter, and there should be genuine freedom — but that freedom is not meant to operate independently of the faith that has been handed down."
"To do theology properly is to work within the body of believers founded by Our Lord himself — the Church," he added.
That understanding of a theologian’s vocation has shaped Father Ryan’s scholarly focus and, at least in one instance, stirred controversy.
In 2011, he and co-author Germain Grisez, an influential theologian and colleague at Mount St. Mary’s, published a critique of an article advocating changes in the Church’s "pastoral" response to divorce and remarriage.
Published by the prestigious journal Theological Studies, their paper, "Indissoluble Marriage: A Reply to Kenneth Himes and James Coriden," challenged the arguments outlined in Himes and Coriden’s 2004 article, "The Indissolubility of Marriage: Reasons to Reconsider."
After "Reply" was published, one news story suggested that the Vatican had forced the editors of Theological Studies to publish Ryan and Grisez’s article, thus bypassing the normal peer-review process.
Ryan and Grisez countered that their article had been twice submitted for review, and they had made extensive revisions in response.
The authors acknowledged, however, that the Vatican had intervened after proposed editorial changes would have sharply reduced the cogency of their critique.
Asked to comment on the dispute, Father Ryan said, "I would simply encourage people to read both articles, setting aside the fact that higher authority had to mandate publication of the unexpurgated version of our article, and judge each article on its merits."
The Gift of Salvation
During his interview with the Register, Father Ryan said he did not know what specific issues he will tackle when he takes up his new position in August.
But he said that his work with students, as both a spiritual director and professor of moral theology, had inspired his decision to accept the USCCB position.
"Evangelization is a central concern of the Church, though it is very difficult in this secularized culture to hand on the faith. Students need to be able to rely on what is being said as fully supporting the faith we have received," he said.
"I don’t think the answer is to soft sell difficult teachings," Father Ryan said. "We need to show that this gift of salvation is stunningly wonderful — namely the Kingdom of God, the community of saints, each one unique and loved by God and fulfilled in all aspects of their being, in the very presence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Added Father Ryan, "The gift of salvation is magnificent, but it is not automatic."