Bishops Correct Theologian

MILWAUKEE — In a rare move, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has publicly corrected an American theologian on his opinions regarding life and marriage issues.

The bishops’ Committee on Doctrine publicly declared that two pamphlets published by Marquette University moral theology professor Daniel Maguire on contraception, abortion, and same-sex unions “do not present authentic Catholic teaching.”

Maguire told The New York Times March 23 that he had sent his pamphlet on same-sex “marriage” to members of Congress and state legislators in Wisconsin. One member of the bishops’ committee, Cardinal Avery Dulles, said Maguire wanted to convince politicians that the Church has no unified position on these issues and that that was a reason for the bishops to quickly issue a statement about his writings.

In a statement and in an interview with the Register, Maguire showed no sign of backing down. In addition, Marquette University showed no indication of disciplining its professor of theology.

The bishops’ committee, which was comprised of eight bishops and two cardinals, made its announcement March 22, responding to a letter that Maguire had sent to the U.S. bishops last summer. The Committee on Doctrine wrote the statement; it was approved for publication by the U.S. bishops’ administrative committee, which was made up of the bishops who are present chairmen of the various committees.

Last June, Maguire said that the U.S. Catholic bishops needed to “get off … the pelvic issues” and address issues of poverty, peace, justice and the environment. Maguire sent a letter to all 270 U.S. bishops, including two pamphlets — The Moderate Roman Catholic Position on Contraception and Abortion and A Catholic Defense of Same-Sex Marriage.

“Since there is no infallibly defined position on either abortion or same-sex unions, a similar modesty would enhance episcopal teaching,” wrote Maguire in his letter. “That teaching ministry would best be conducted by recognizing that modesty is called for when one teaches in areas where infallibility is not an issue, where the teachers have no privileged expertise, and where good people from all faiths reasonably disagree.”

Maguire told the Register that what prompted his letter to the bishops was his belief that the bishops aren’t open to talking about the issues.

“It’s my belief that the bishops aren’t open to dialogue,” said Maguire. “Theologians have largely written off the bishops.”

He argued that according to what he called the Church’s “criteriology,” not everything is de Fide, but that most issues are debatable. In his letter to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Maguire cited a condemnation by Pope Alexander VIII, saying, “this condemnation said that when there are good reasons supported by reputable scholars, the most restrictive opinion should not be enforced.”

 “The main point of my letter was not the issues in the pamphlet, but that they are debatable,” said Maguire. “The bishops would be the most effective leaders in the world if they would go on board with issues such as poverty, the unjust war, and the double basting of the planet.”

Maguire said that his great regret during his 40 years as a theologian is that 90% of the calls he receives from politicians are questions on what he terms the “pelvic issues.”

“They [the politicians] have judged that those are the only issues on which the Church is serious,” said Maguire. “My friend Charles Curran once received a telephone call from Jimmy Carter. He was being called on the issue of abortion.”

Used to Be Anti-Abortion

Maguire said that he used to be against abortion.

“The more I studied it, the more I realized that it can be a proper choice,” he said. “Very few hold that it’s a negative absolute. The majority of theologians agree.”

As examples, Maguire pointed to cases where a bipolar woman who is on lithium becomes pregnant, or where a woman who is pregnant has cancer and needs immediate chemotherapy.

“As soon as you allow some cases, it moves into the realm of the possible,” said Maguire. “I teach students that both positions are perfectly defensible.”

On the issue of same-sex unions, Maguire said, “It’s a harsh judgment to say that one should never express their sexuality whatsoever.”

“I find the bishops guilty of theological autism,” said Maguire. “They are in a small universe and are not communicating with others.”

But the bishops take a different view.

 “We … concur that, despite his claims to authority as a Catholic theologian, the views of Professor Maguire on contraception, abortion, and same-sex ‘marriage’ are not those of the Catholic Church and indeed are contrary to the Church’s faith,” said the bishops’ committee. “We deplore as irresponsible his public advocacy of his views as authentic Catholic teaching.”

The committee’s statement went on to explain why Maguire’s positions were wrong.

“Pope Paul VI entered into a thorough study of this issue precisely in order to produce a definitive judgment that would bring to an end the disputes among theologians,” said the bishops’ statement. “In the end, he upheld the teaching, consistently taught within the Christian tradition that contraception is intrinsically wrong, for it is not in accord with the purposes of marital sexual intercourse, that is, to express and foster love in a manner that is open to new life.”

Likewise, the bishops wrote, “Catholic tradition has never supported abortion. The Second Vatican Council clearly stated that ‘life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”

Finally, on the subject of same-sex unions, the bishops wrote: “God created men and women for one another, that, in marriage, they might sexually give themselves to one another for the procreation of children.” Because homosexual acts do not result in the loving union of a man and a woman nor are they ordered to the procreation of children, they are intrinsically disordered, they wrote. “It is this intrinsically disordered nature of homosexual acts that prevents a ‘same-sex’ union from expressing an authentic Christian understanding of marriage.”

In response, Maguire said that it was arrogant of the bishops to “claim a monopoly on insight in the Catholic community.”

“Good people from all the world’s religions (including Catholics) differ on the sexual and reproductive issues on which the bishops seem impaled,” said Maguire in a March 23 statement he e-mailed the Register following the bishops’ statement. “The bishops treat them as defined dogmas, and they are not. When I speak, I speak as one theologian. When the bishops (who are not theologians; they are pastors and administrators) speak on moral issues, they pretend to speak for the whole Church.”

Among Theologians

Maguire is not without support.

“What is … interesting to me about this interchange is the different way the USCCB think of what is ‘Catholic’ vs. what Dan Maguire is thinking,” said Vincent Smiles, professor of theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. “They define ‘Catholic’ strictly in terms of recent Vatican pronouncements on the matters in question; Dan Maguire implicitly defines ‘Catholic’ in terms of a much broader and more ancient set of criteria.”

Smiles cited specific examples.

“He [Maguire] appeals to Acts 10 (‘Do not call unclean what God has made clean’), to pre-modern same-sex Church ‘marriage’ rites, and to critical principles of biblical interpretation — all in a manner and quite contrary to anything the USCCB or the Vatican is likely to accept,” said Smiles. “If the USCCB were to try to answer Dan Maguire in detail, it would not be easy for them to do so.

“The magisterium, as in this case, satisfies itself with making pronouncements based on its own perspective, but refuses to engage the more complex questions of the criteria on the basis of which such matters are disputed,” added Smiles.

Others disagree.

“Maguire and his cohorts believe that the Church can teach infallibly on a general plane, but not on specific issues,” said Janet Smith, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “The Ten Commandments are quite specific. There really is a long, unbroken tradition in the Church against these issues. This is what has always been taught.

“Maguire wants to focus on the last 30 years, as if the dissent outweighs all the unanimity of the past,” added Smith. “Certain teachings have been intensely debated at particular times, but that debate does not define the status of the question.”

Cardinal Dulles

In Maguire’s letters, he quotes theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles to support his own points — saying that there are multiple magisteria within the Church, and that dissent can be of service to the Church.

Cardinal Dulles, who served on the bishops’ committee, disagreed with Maguire’s use of his own quotations. He described them as being taken “out of context.”

“My position has distinguished between the magisterium of the official Church and the teaching office of the theologian. They don’t have the same emphasis or function in the Church,” the cardinal told the Register. “Maguire overlooks that distinction and makes them out to be parallel magisteria. On that point we sharply differ.”

On the role of dissent within the Church, Cardinal Dulles agreed that dissent can be justifiable in cases where the magisterium has not clearly resolved an issue.

“On matters where they are definitive, there is not room for dissent,” said Cardinal Dulles. “Even in cases where the magisterium has not spoken infallibly, dissent should be rare, reluctant and respectful. I think his [Maguire’s] dissent is rather brash. Whereas it may be occasionally justified, he takes it to mean that it’s always justified.

“I would think that the positions [taken by the Church on abortion, contraception and same-sex unions] are definitive,” the cardinal said. “They have been called that by organs of the Holy See.”

Prior to the bishops’ statement, Archbishop Dolan responded to Maguire with a personal letter, as well as with a column in the archdiocesan newspaper, the Milwaukee Catholic Herald. According to Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director for the bishops’ Secretariat of Doctrine and Pastoral Practices, the committee wanted to support Archbishop Dolan.

The actions of the bishops, to some, seem unusual without collaboration of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but those involved in the action say that it seems unusual only because it’s so rare. Yet, it’s not unprecedented.

“There are very few precedents for things like this being done,” said Father Weinandy. He alluded to previous statements issued by the committee regarding work by theologians Richard McBrien and Roger Haight. “The bishops felt that they needed to say something because of the widespread distribution of these pamphlets. They were most concerned with him stating that there is no one magisterium — that the bishops are just one voice out there amidst other voices. They wanted to make it clear that the bishops are the authentic proclaimers, interpreters, and defenders of the Gospel.”

“It was felt that it couldn’t be delayed indefinitely,” said Cardinal Dulles. “He was sending these pamphlets to a lot of politicians to try to convince them that the Catholic Church has no unified position on these issues. It was important to state that the Catholic Church has unified positions.”

“The encouraging thing is the statement from the bishops,” said Smith. “It makes one euphoric. They didn’t set up a commission to look into this; they did it on their own. They got the pamphlets and said they were junk.

“This process of looking at these pamphlets says nothing about his status as a theologian, but by implication it does,” Smith added. “It should tell people that he’s not reliable.”

“Aside from the obvious scandal of Daniel Maguire’s false presentation of Catholic doctrine, it seems that the greater scandal is that a Catholic university would hold him out as a Catholic theologian,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. “That fact continues to be absent from the bishops’ chastisement of Maguire. Marquette University, perhaps, deserves the greater censure for giving him the platform to spread misinformation.”

Maguire said that he isn’t planning on taking a next step.

“I have no plan to reengage the bishops. This didn’t turn out to be very fruitful,” said Maguire. “I just plan on continuing my career as a Catholic theologian.”

Marquette University issued a statement March 26 saying it agrees with the bishops’ statement “that the views outlined by Daniel Maguire in pamphlets he circulated to the hierarchy earlier this year do not represent the teachings of the Catholic Church.

“Dr. Maguire circulated the pamphlets as an individual theologian, not in any way representing the views of the university,” Marquette’s statement said. “As a citizen, Dr. Maguire has a right to express his views on the issues of the day. As a tenured professor, he also has rights related to his academic discipline.”

Tim Drake writes from

St. Joseph, Minnesota.

‘Blatantly Erroneous’

In an Aug. 24, 2006, column in the Milwaukee Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Archbishop Timothy Dolan said he had sought advice about what to do about dissenting theologian Daniel Maguire. He explained how he finally came to a decision to write about it publicly:

“He has dramatically dissented from clear Church teaching for decades. After my arrival here four years ago, I sought counsel as to whether or not I should publicly warn the faithful about his erroneous opinions. Voices I considered wise advised me that this was not necessary, since the great majority of our people already recognize his views as clearly inconsistent with legitimate Catholic teaching.
       “Regrettably, he recently has widely distributed two pamphlets claiming that, as preposterous as I know it sounds, abortion and same-sex “marriage” are consistent with Catholic teachings. Because of the response generated among shocked and thoughtful people in the archdiocese, I feel obliged to exercise my teaching responsibilities and say such positions are blatantly erroneous and contrary to the clear teaching of the Church. To claim the acceptability of such opinions is simply wrong and disingenuous.”

— Tim Drake