Thursday, November 4, 2010



"Public relations disaster."

"Scandalously negative attitude toward women."

These and even harsher words are uttered by Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame theologian writing in the National Catholic Register about a recent Vatican document. McBrien, who doesn't agree with the Church's refusal to ordain women as priests, claims that the document defines the ordination of female priests as a moral wrong on par with the sexual abuse of minors.

What the Vatican document actually did was to add several different kinds of forbidden conduct ("delicts") to the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (see link for the full text, or see a letter summarizing the changes.) There are a variety of "delicts" added to the Congregation's jurisdiction, among them possession of child pornography by priests, abuse of a developmentally disabled person over 18, various ways of wrongly celebrating the Eucharist, the recording or divulging of confessions, and the attempt to ordain a female priest.

Historically, wrongful ordination of priests is exactly the kind of doctrinal "delict" the Congregation is supposed to deal with - issues that require the Church to define what is and is not faithful to the Church's teaching. The whole business of having the Congregation take jurisdiction in cases of priests accused of sexual abuse is a recent addition (2001) to their jurisdiction caused by the grave threat to the Church posed by the abuse problem. It was the Pope's way to ensure the cases get handled properly, and not left to kick around at the Diocesan level.

So McBrien's argument actually has the whole thing quite backward, historically and logically. The historically and logically correct argument would be that including sexual abuse cases in the Congregation's portfolio was a bit of a stretch. Doctrinal disputes, like female ordination, are right up the Congregation's historical "alley."

McBrien may have blundered because he actually doesn't understand this. Or he he may be interested in making a propaganda point and figures nobody will call him on the details. Either way, this is a sad performance by a man with a doctorate in theology.

In any event his argument is foolish and ought to be dismissed. If he wants to argue about female ordination, by all means, argue the merits, but don't confuse bogus posturing with argument.

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