Executive Theologian

As executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, he is considered the U.S. bishops'top theologian. Three years ago, Pope John Paul II appointed him as one of only two Americans on the International Theological Commission. A Dominican, he was ordained a priest in 1970. He recently spoke with Register national affairs correspondent Brian Caulfield.

Caulfield: How did your vocation to the priesthood come about?

Father DiNoia: I knew at a young age that I was going to be a priest. As I got older, it became clear that I wanted to be a religious, but I wasn't sure with what community. I had Sparkill Dominican Sisters in grammar school who recognized that I had a strong intellectual bent which was in keeping with their charism. This was what I wanted. My calling was confirmed with meeting a Dominican priest, Father William Wallace, who taught at Catholic University for years.

What attracted you to the order?

The Dominican “thing.” That is, conventual or community life dedicated to study and preaching. I knew it was for me. I never had any doubts once I started.

It seems the Dominicans are experiencing a renewal in recent years.

The order is quite alive. Most provinces are reporting an influx of novices in Africa, Asia, certainly in the United States. There has been a tremendous renewal of interest in [St. Thomas] Aquinas and medieval theology in general. Young people are drawn toward the Dominican commitment to doctrinal integrity for the sake of the Gospel. As I tell people, orthodoxy is not an end in itself. We are true because of the One who calls us to the truth and loves us. Young people also are drawn to the commitment to liturgical prayer, a life lived in common. In our [Dominican] House of Studies, we celebrate all the major hours together and many of the minor hours. Wearing of the religious habit has never been a problem with Dominicans, in general. But the habit is understood as a sign of religious consecration, not as a uniform.

Why the renewed interest in Aquinas?

It's connected to our comprehensive vision of the whole truth which young people like. You can't read Aquinas for long and escape that comprehensiveness. Often people make a distinction between pastoral and doctrinal [theology]. As Dominicans, we do not. For us, truth is important for the soul, in the living of everyday life, not just for abstract contemplation or enjoyment. Some might say that St. Dominic founded an order of preachers and St. Thomas made us into an order of teachers. That's not the right perspective. Even in St. Dominic's day, the preaching had a strong teaching and doctrinal content. He encountered the Albigensians, who were teaching an error regarding the nature of man that had wide-ranging social effects. It showed that the power of a wrong idea about human beings or God can be corrupting of the spirit.

Are there examples of this today?

Well, as we see in the case of dissent from Humanae Vitae [On Human Life, the 1968 encyclical that reiterated Church teaching against contraception], ideas have power. Wrong moral thinking can corrupt the soul.

Some people have criticized Pope John Paul's call for the Church to apologize for past sins. As a member of the International Theological Commission which drafted a document on these past wrongs, what's your thinking?

The chief element to keep in mind is that the Church itself is holy and cannot sin, but she can apologize and ask pardon for the sins of her members. It's a subtle point; most people don't get it. The Church and sin cannot really be in the same sentence because of her total unity with Christ.

The terms “doctrinal” and “pastoral” are united in the title of your office, so you must see the two as working together.

Pastoral has sometimes come to mean lying to people. Sometimes it's seen as pastoral when you don't preach the whole truth, so that the sharp edge is blunted. This is a very self-defeating approach because the truth will set you free. So not telling the truth is constraining, confining.

How is the Church combating theological errors?

Since I have come here in 1993 to work with the bishops’ conference, some of the greatest pieces of magisterial teaching have come through Pope John Paul II. There is Veritatis Splendor[The Spendor of the Truth], Fides et Ratio [Faith and Reason] and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These all hit on themes dear to the Dominicans and Aquinas. Veritatis is a teaching on morals in the light of the life of Christ. It says that morals are not just a matter of keeping the commandments; keeping of the commandments is an invitation to communion with God. They are to transform us into people capable of sitting and enjoying the presence of God. Fides is very much an affirmation of Aquinas that the human mind can grasp the truth.

What is the significance of these teachings in the life of the Church?

I believe this is the most important teaching pontificate in the history of Christendom. It's very hard to find any magisterial output of the quantity and the quality of John Paul II. He has spoken on every major issue. He has made it his life's work to articulate the vision of Vatican II in every conceivable area of the Church. I have been lucky to have a chance to promote it.

What are your main duties with the bishops’ conference?

Our office works with four committees: doctrine, pastoral practices, review of Scripture translations and health care issues. … My job is to work with these committees and advise the bishops. A lot of work is consultation within the conference with all other secretariats. They will ask us to review doctrinal content of documents they're working on.

What's the biggest doctrinal challenge facing the Church?

Sexual morality and morality in general. You can only make sense of it if you see it in the perspective of Christian humanism. None of it makes sense if the teaching is seen as a suppression of the human instead of what it really is — the flourishing of the human good. This is what the Holy Father has been saying in all his writings on morality, especially sexual morality. His whole theology of the body is meant to conceptualize the Christian understanding of sexuality and place it in the perspective of human goods, and as man and woman made in the image of a loving God. There's a lot of confusion over Catholic morality and sometimes theologians make adjustments in an attempt to be “pastoral.” But they tend to drift in the direction of the culture on these issues rather than calling the culture to its truly human possibilities. Our goal is to present the moral life as a consummation of all the human person can be in God.

What is the new evangelization that the Pope has been proclaiming?

It refers to a kind of recommitment on the part of the Church to proclaim the Good News and re-proclaim it to itself. The thrust is ad gentes [to the nations], but also a re-evangelization where the Gospel has declined. The Church needs to be evangelically assertive and culture-transforming. We should not allow the ideology of inculturation to become a one-way street. The Church is itself a culture that can transform the culture around it. Part of the battle in the U.S. is that we've grown so used to the culture framing our agenda that some people have trouble seeing what the Holy Father is saying, that the Church must frame the culture.