The Problematic Theologians of the ‘New Paradigm’

ANALYSIS: Conferences on Amoris Laetitia Highlight Dissenting Scholars

Attendees of the Boston College conference organized by Cardinal Blase Cupich last month.
Attendees of the Boston College conference organized by Cardinal Blase Cupich last month. (photo: Courtesy of Boston College)

In an effort to promote the so-called new paradigm surrounding the interpretation of Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), three seminars were held last month for invited bishops and select theologians at three Catholic universities around the country.

The group of theologians invited is noteworthy not because of their expertise on the topics of marriage and family, but because of their public opposition to some of the Church’s long-taught traditions.

Called “New Momentum Conferences on Amoris Laetitia,” the seminars were spearheaded by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, fresh from his February speech on Amoris Laetitia at Cambridge University in England, and coming on the heels of a conference on the apostolic exhortation at Boston College last October.

Catholic News Agency reported Feb. 12 that it had obtained a letter from Cardinal Cupich inviting some U.S. bishops to the conferences. The gatherings offered a “tailor-made program that goes from why Amoris Laetitia provides ‘New Momentum for Moral Formation and Pastoral Practice’ to how to provide formative pastoral programs.”

The seminars brought together several selectively invited bishops “to have a conversation with the aid of theologians” at Boston College, the University of Notre Dame and Santa Clara University. The events were by invitation only and were closed to the media.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta attended the Boston College event. Cardinals Joseph Tobin and Blase Cupich were to present at the University of Notre Dame, and Bishops Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Robert McElroy of San Diego were to present at Santa Clara University.

Perhaps the reasoning behind the very private nature of the seminars had a bit to do with the invitation list of the theologians who were hand-picked to present on various topics relevant to Amoris Laetitia. Among the select group of theologians were Msgr. Jack Alesandro, a canon lawyer of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, who calls for changes in the way the Church views the validity of marriages; liberation theologian Natalia Imperatori-Lee of Manhattan College, who sees many aspects of helping laypeople form their consciences as a form of colonial oppression; and ethicist Kate Ward of Marquette University, who has been a board member of the dissenting organization Call to Action that advocates for the ordination of women to the priesthood.


Msgr. Jack Alesandro

Msgr. Alesandro holds a doctorate in canon law and a law degree, and he has served as a judge instructor for the Diocese of Rockville Centre since 2011. He has served as a canonical consultant to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and was president of the Canon Law Society of America.

In a 2012 interview with Newsday, Msgr. Alesandro stated his support for the ordination of women as deacons.

“I would like to see women ordained as deacons,” he is quoted as saying. “I think the Pope should consider this very seriously and make a change for the good of the Church.”

Msgr. Alesandro spoke at the similarly private 2017 Boston College conference on Amoris Laetitia, looking specifically at the canonical implications of the exhortation. He declared in his presentation there that the exhortation supports “the idea that, as time passes, sacramental marriages become more sacramental and therefore more indissoluble.” That creates a new set of approaches to determining the validity of consent to sacramental marriage, suggesting, he added, that judges in the tribunal process will need “to discover whether both spouses, including the man, were at the time of the wedding truly capable at the time of tenderness in the sense described by the Pope, the tenderness of a mother cradling her infant.”

“Spouses must be capable of entering a lifelong adventure, and able to renew it constantly, if they are to exchange consent validly,” Msgr. Alexandro said. “It requires that they be friends on the journey. While they do not start out whole and complete, we know that they must at least be able to grow into this vocation. If they’re incapable of that growth, or they’re really not committed to it, I don’t think they’re validly married, at least not the Christian marriage.”


Natalia Imperatori-Lee

Imperatori-Lee, who earned her doctorate at the University of Notre Dame, was a self-declared protégé of the late Notre Dame theologian Father Richard McBrien, who was outspoken in his support for the ordination of women, an end to priestly celibacy and the acceptance of contraception by the Church. She currently serves as associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. Among her published articles is “Father Knows Best: Theological Mansplaining and the Ecclesial War on Women” in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 31:2 (Fall 2015), 89-107.

She was also one of the presenters at the Boston College conference in 2017. During the conference, she considered Amoris Laetitia within the historical legacy of colonialism and oppression and through the lens of liberation theology, especially in the Americas, and proposed that the Pope was trying to end “the infantilization of laypeople and families that is so commonly a feature of colonization.”

Repeating the idea of the primacy of conscience, she argued that Francis was calling in Amoris Laetitia for pastors to help laypeople to form consciences, not to replace them. “The replacement of conscience,” she said, “is an act of domination, again colonization. It is an abuse of power.”

Imperatori-Lee wrote a 2016 article in America magazine titled, “Women Priests or Not, Gendered Theology Is Hurting the Church,” in which she asserted that “human biology is infinitely more complex than the ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ statements from new parents (or their doctors or midwives) might lead us to believe. Scientifically, even biologically, there are many factors that contribute to ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness.’ Any claim that there are only two kinds of humans, male and female, is simplistic.”

She is also active with the organization “Future Church” that advocates for an end to the discipline of priestly celibacy, “a return to the Church’s earliest tradition, modeled on the inclusive practice of Jesus, of recognizing both female and male leaders of faith communities,” and is tied closely to Feminism & Faith in Union, an alliance of dissenting groups, including the Women’s Ordination Conference and Call to Action.

Finally, Imperatori-Lee has been a close collaborator with Jesuit Father James Martin in his pursuit to promote a pro-homosexual agenda within the Church and was the moderator of the discussion in September 2017, “Building a Bridge: The Catholic Church and the LGBT Community,” between Father Martin and Fordham University professor J. Patrick Hornbeck II.


Kate Ward

Ward is an associate professor of theology at Marquette University. Her primary focus is on economic ethics and economic inequality. She studied at Harvard College, the Catholic Theological Union and Boston College and was an editor of the Call to Action blog for young-adult Catholics founded in 2008, which describes itself as “a safe space for stories of gender equality, LGBTQ inclusion and other topics that serve to activate and inspire Catholics to build inclusive and creative communities.” 

From 2008 to 2009, she was the chairwoman of the board for Call to Action Next Generation, a youth affiliate of Call to Action. From 2012 to 2015, Ward served as a national board member of Call to Action, which has long advocated for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the acceptance of homosexual behavior in the Church, including support for same-sex “marriage.” 

In 2006, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, declared, “The judgment of the Holy See is that the activities of ‘Call to Action’ in the course of these years are in contrast with the Catholic faith due to views and positions held which are unacceptable from a doctrinal and disciplinary standpoint. Thus to be a member of this association, or to support it, is irreconcilable with a coherent living of the Catholic faith.”


Heralds of the New Paradigm

As a group, the theologians who took part in the seminars are all well-known in Catholic academic circles. Several will be speaking at the upcoming annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society in June, several were presidents of the society, and all of them can be described as active in the most progressive circles of current theological thought.

What this tells us is twofold. First, the radical ideas regarding the sacraments, conscience and morality are very widespread across Catholic institutions of higher learning. Second, the ideas of the “new paradigm” are not exactly new. The interpretations and implementation of Amoris Laetitia that seek to change Church teachings on marriage and divorce, conscience, sexuality, gender and even the sensus fidelium and Tradition have been around for a long time and can be traced to the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that many had hoped were a thing of the Church’s anguished years after the Second Vatican Council. What these Amoris conferences have done, however, is to create a safe space for dissenting theologians and their patrons to place their longtime dissent under the umbra of interpreting a new papal document. And much of it is being conducted behind closed doors, in conferences that prohibit all transparency, virtually all Catholic media and any recognized authorities in the Church on family life, moral theology and sexuality who might challenge the ethos of dissent.

Where can Catholics turn to understand the potential ramifications of this worldview?  Recent commentaries by the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, and moral theologian Christian Brugger provide important and detailed descriptions of where embracing the “new paradigm” offered by the Amoris conferences must inevitably lead.

As George Weigel reminded all of us, the Church doesn’t do paradigm shifts.

“Something is broken in Catholicism today and it isn’t going to be healed by appeals to paradigm shifts,” Weigel said in his trenchant commentary for First Things. “In the first Christian centuries, bishops frankly confronted and, when necessary, fraternally corrected each other. That practice is as essential today as it was in the days of Cyprian and Augustine — not to mention Peter and Paul.”

Matthew Bunson is a Register senior editor.