National Catholic Register


Theological Society at Odds with Rome

BY Lesley Payne

June 30, 1996 Issue | Posted 6/30/96 at 2:00 PM


Special to the Register

THE CATHOLIC Theological Society of America (CTSA) held its 51st annual convention in San Diego earlier this month. The convention left little doubt as to the direction of the Society, making clear its continued trend away from mainstream Catholic theology and toward the increasingly radical theories of feminist and dissenting moral theologians.

Last year the CTSA elected Sister Elizabeth Johnson as its new president. Sister Johnson, author of She Who Is, believes that past ecclesial injustices against women must be amended by re-imaging the Trinity as three female figures.

Jesuit Father John Randall Sachs of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology gave the conference's opening address. In the course of his talk he pointed out that the Holy Spirit arises from human interactions; it is not sent from “on-high.” Father Sachs referred to God in feminine terms, called for women's ordination and the acceptance of homosexuality. Jesus, Father Sachs informed his listeners, is not necessary for the salvation of non-Christians. It is we Christians, rather, who must view non-Christian religions as “necessary, revelatory elements” to our understanding of God. Father Sachs presented Vatican II as a starting point for a new theology, but then conceded that “the familiar way that Vatican II continued to insist on the fullness of truth in the Roman Catholic Church while admitting the presence of truth outside it is no longer adequate. The fullness of truth is not present and realized in the Roman Catholic Church, both because the Church is sinful and because it is not yet truly Catholic.”

At the CTSA business meeting, a resolution was adopted criticizing the U.S. bishops' recent censure of Father Richard McBrien's Catholicism. A statement on the ordination of women, prepared by a previously-appointed committee of three prowomen's ordination members, was presented to the Society. CTSA member theologians are to consider the statement during the coming year, in preparation for voting on it at the 1997 meeting.

The group also voted by a wide margin not to admit Father Augustine DiNoia, O.P., to the CTSA Board of Directors. Father DiNoia is theologian to the U.S. bishops' Doctrine Committee and author of the Committee's “general review” of Father McBrien's book.

After the business meeting a discussion of women's ordination was undertaken. A panel of five professors—four supporting ordination of women, one, Father Avery Dulles, opposing—offered brief opening remarks. Questions and comments from audience members followed. Those who criticized recent Vatican documents on the subject met with loud applause. Those who supported Church teaching met with silence. Some where even laughed at, as was Father Benedict Ashley, O.P.

An Eastern Orthodox nun, Sister Nona Harrison, claimed that the Orthodox Church is reconsidering its position on women's ordination. This was supposedly because of “the attitude the Orthodox generally have to papal assertions of universal authority.” In this case, she said, the assertions “may have the unintended effect of encouraging further discussion of women's ordination in the Orthodox Church.” Cheers and applause followed.

Arguments challenging the Vatican were presented mostly on procedural, not theological, grounds. Speakers questioned, for instance, whether Cardinal Ratzinger had “the right,” according to canon law and Vatican II guidelines, to categorize as infallible John Paul II's 1994 letter barring women from priestly ordination.

The Society's Saturday evening Mass was celebrated at nearby Our Lady of the Angels parish. Father Charles Curran (suspended from Catholic University in 1987 because of his dissenting views) presided over the Mass. Sister Johnson gave the homily.

Father McBrien's case isn't about freedom of inquiry or the right to speak out; it's about the obligation of bishops to safeguard the integrity of Catholic doctrine.

A minority group of pro-Vatican theologians made their presence felt at the meeting. Many of them are affiliated with the journal Communio (founded by the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and Cardinal Ratzinger), including the editor of Communio's North American edition, Dr. David Schindler of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., Sister Agnes Cunningham and Sister Sarah Butler of Mundelein Seminary, Father Matthew Lamb of Boston College and Father Marc Ouellet of St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton, Canada.

The various seminars given by Father Avery Dulles, Father Benedict Ashley, Father Augustine DiNoia, Father Robert Imbelli and Dr. Robin Darling Young were all well attended, especially by younger theologians, who seemed especially pleased with the Balthasar Society's discussion of Schindler's new book, Heart of the World, Center of the Church (Eerdman's), and Father DiNoia and Dr. Young's presentation of the “Criteria of Catholic Theology.”

Asked why he and others like him remain in the Society, Schindler responded that “there are a number of good sessions at the annual meeting of the Society, and it's important to keep alive some of the theological discussion that goes on in these sessions.” But the Society's “increasing ‘proceduralism’— focusing on political strategies and legalistic nuances, rather than on theological issues”—drew criticism from Communio's editor. “The proposal regarding the study of whether the Vatican statement on women's ordination is infallible seems to amount to little more than a kangaroo court,” he said. “They're offering a oneyear study of a 2,000-year-old tradition, and the three members who prepared the statement for study are all on record as favoring women's ordination.”

“As for the letter in connection with Father Richard McBrien,” Schindler continued, “his criticisms regarding the bishops' procedure with respect to the book would be more credible if he had shown a sign of good faith by discussing his revision with the bishops prior to publishing the new edition.”

“Perhaps the time has come,” concluded Schindler, “to consider whether an alternative theological society should be founded. One that could provide for more vigorous and substantive Catholic theological discussion, without spending so much time on political posturing.”

Lesley Payne is based in San Diego.