On a forbidden subject.

Our Church, among other things, is an institution, and in that it is structured and authoritative. The institutional aspect of the Church is a precious gift any thoughtful Catholic appreciates, but it also can be a challenge to defend and a burden to carry. It has its quirks and, as everything human, it has its rough edges.

The Teaching Authority of the Church has formulated and reformulated doctrines over its longish history — some at the outset very controversial, even if we now take them quite for granted. They boiled and simmered, they produced splinter groups we now call heretical, they produced great and thoughtful writing from Christianity’s most expansive minds under the pressure of need for precision and depth in defining the undefinable, and they eventually settled into formulas and practices that paint the face of the Church we recognize today. Nothing comes easy if you stand at the very beginning. At the birth.

This is why, when it comes to controversial topics of great importance to the Church and to the world, I try to keep perspective — it’s supposed to be this way. We argue, we write. We are passionate, frustrated, convinced. We speak from the heart, we yell at each other even. Some will leave and perhaps come back one day. But, God willing, through the tears and sweat and burn of this boiling and simmering, we will right what is wrong, figure out the course, define the undefinable, birth an understanding from a shell of limited thinking. Doctrine. Even if it takes a while.

The problem, for me, truly, arises when I am told that there is a subject we are not supposed to discuss. No simmering. No boiling. No discussion.

I am told that the ordination of women to ministerial priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church is such a subject.

Here is the thing: I am a teacher.

You probably already understand where I am going with this, and the Magisterium should know it as well as we do: regardless of my personal opinion or even of my willingness to respect my hierarchy’s directives, I simply cannot stay away from a subject — I am a teacher. No conscientious teacher can promise this. And for me it’s worse: I teach Catholic Studies. We’ve been told that the ordination of women is a settled subject not to be discussed. But it’s not a settled subject — not in the minds of millions and billions out there for whom the word of the Vatican is not an authority. Women’s ordination and priestly celibacy and homosexuality in the Church and the child abuse scandal — those are exactly the questions students ask me. And, Is it true that Jews killed Jesus? This is what I do. This is my ministry.

On the first day of class, as I gather my students and hand out their syllabi and try to describe the semester they are facing — in any course — I promise them three things: that I will tell them the truth as I understand it, that they will always be entitled to express the truth as they understand it to me and to each other, and that I believe that our visions, challenged through debate or intertwined in complementarity, always have a chance to enrich and expand our knowledge, our faith, our skills. Essentially, I promise my students to make them think and to think honestly about everything they offer me. I profess to them my worldview of the University as the Church of Reason. To avoid a subject, to cite a doctrine and cut off the discussion, to designate a topic “forbidden” would be a betrayal. Because I am a teacher.

The Magisterium of the Church calls itself the “Teaching Authority.” It’s a status and a function. It’s a ministry. But teaching — even an authoritative kind — is not a monologue. It was so in the medieval world, whose heritage was mass illiteracy, ignorance, and passivity. Not that we are free of ignorance or passivity today — not that we always resist the temptation to follow the one with the sweetest gift or the loudest voice — but modernity has changed the world. Even five hundred years ago the people literally didn’t know what their preachers were talking about: the Mass and the Bible were both in Latin, and the only understanding of morality, Christianity, or God could come from the Church. It was a monologue.

I fret much and often about the sad state of education in today’s America, but let us keep perspective: we are not yet in danger of slipping back into the Middle Ages. On average, we may not know enough to impress the academics, but we certainly know enough to absorb information independently of authority. To disseminate information. To think for ourselves when we wish to. To talk back. We are independent, argumentative, and demand proof of claims. We are used to disagreement. We have become so used to the availability of any information (thanks, Google!) that we take nothing on faith.

I often fret that we, as a nation, are intellectually lazy. But when something touches us — rubs us the wrong way, interests us, fascinates or scares us, hurts us or captures our fancy — the numbers of The New York Times bestsellers list boggle imagination. Read comments to the articles and blog posts on every conceivable issue in every conceivable journal, newspaper, site, and magazine now always online. We are passionate, we are eloquent, we are rude. We are ignorant, stupid, righteously indignant, sharply witty, irrelevant, racist, vengeful, nuanced… But whatever we are, we are not silent. We are not passive. And we do know how to read and how to write.

Middle Ages have gone, and teaching has changed. Monologue is good for theatre, but it will not do in school. It won’t even do in church. It will not persuade those who disagree. We live in the age of dialogue.

More than one document has come out of the Vatican on the subject of women’s ordination: essentially, the 1976 Inter Insigniores and a couple of restatements of its variously relevant points to underscore the necessity to stop restating it. The Magisterium is repeating itself like an exasperated preschool teacher who can’t go any more basic than the previous explanation. It’s pleading with us to get the point and stop asking stupid questions. There will be no new points. There is nothing more to discuss. It’s not their decision. It’s not up to the Church. They explain why they think so, but they are mostly saying: it’s the Will of God.

Here’s the thing: I am a teacher. My students ask. I can explain to them the contents of Inter Insigniores: its Jesus-centered apostolic Gospel argument, its traditional argument, its theological sacrament-centered argument… All the explanations for why only men can preach in the Church, why only men can stand in for Christ in the moment of mystery. Then my students begin to question those, to poke holes, to demand better answers. They demand dialogue. They do not fall silent at the thought that it be the Will of God. They think the Will of God might be something else entirely. They think the Vatican interprets the reality of God as much as they do — and interprets differently.

Some of them are Catholic. Some of them are not. They all are modern humans — young and unruly and thinking for themselves, God help us. They all live in a diverse society. Some of them consider staying in the Church or leaving it. All of them are judging it by what I say.

So. What do I say?


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    • P Soto on December 12, 2012 at 16:49
    • Reply

    Say what is in your heart as truthful as you possibly can to the best of your ability. The hearts of the learners will interpret what you have brought to the table in the manner that allows for him or her to guide their own lives. Everything else will fall into place.

    1. I suppose, that’s the best we can do, isn’t it? 🙂 We say that the voice of God is the voice of conscience. But there is something about the balance between personal and collective conscience that must be considered. Mutual discernment, if you will. One must be quite very sure that the voice arises from the depths of Universal Love rather than is being stirred by the surface waves of emotion before one comes out and proclaims its words as a principle. You know?

    • Kim on December 21, 2012 at 12:12
    • Reply

    It is good the young people are asking questions. When they are unafraid to keep asking and the holes cause a tear, change will have to be made.

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