If a Catholic journal publishes an attack on Church teaching, should the CDF have the right to ask it to publish a reply? The National Catholic Reporter thinks not

The dome of St Peter's Basilica: some Catholic theologians have a negative view of Rome (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Let us begin with a little story about the National Catholic Reporter (which Fr Z calls the “Fishwrap”), a paper which if you judged that paper by the standards of its best-known correspondent, the excellent John Allen, you might have thought a reasonable and balanced paper, rather than what it actually is, a polemical rag dedicated to the undermining of the Magisterium.
The story begins with an article, “Catholic sexual ethics: complementarity and the truly human”  by Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, published in 2004 in Theological Studies, a Jesuit journal in which, according to the Fishwrap, “two theologians argued for a change in Church teachings on divorce and remarriage”. Actually, it argued against a lot more than Church teachings on divorce and remarriage (the Fishwrap reporter doesn’t seem to have read it): it also questioned, among other things, the Church’s teachings on the possibility of marriage between homosexual persons.

Some seven years later, in June of this year, Theological Studies belatedly published a reply: an article upholding, says the Fishwrap, the indissolubility of marriage. That’s what has got the NCR into a tizzy. There has been a conspiracy, they claim:

In a move some theologians say undermines the credibility of the leading English-language Catholic theological journal, the Vatican has pressured it to publish a scholarly essay on marriage, unedited and without undergoing normal peer review.

The essay, which appeared in the June 2011 issue of the quarterly Theological Studies, published in Milwaukee under the auspices of the Jesuits, upholds the indissolubility of marriage….

The Vatican has been pressuring the editors at Theological Studies since not long after the publication of the 2004 essay, according to theologians not connected to the journal or to the Jesuit order. The Vatican aim is to weed out dissenting voices and force the journal to stick more closely to official church teachings.

The theological sources, who asked not to be identified lest they come under pressure from the Vatican, say the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pressured policy changes at Theological Studies.

Now, whether or not there really has been “pressure” for a “policy change” of a permanent kind at Theological Studies (and if there has, one can only say that judging by this story it was long overdue), it is very interesting that the NCR should think that “In a move some theologians say undermines the credibility of the leading English-language Catholic theological journal” it is so reprehensible to ask the journal to publish an article upholding the teachings of the Magisterium in reply to an article questioning these teachings.

And who precisely are the theologians who think that? The NCR actually mentions only one, maybe the only one they could get a suitable quote from: Fr Charles Curran, professor of theology at Southern Methodist [no comment] University in Dallas, who said that what the NCR calls “the Vatican action” “… is the most serious attack possible on US Catholic theology because Theological Studies is our most prestigious scholarly journal.”  Well, if Fr Curran thinks that, it must be true (this is a joke). The CDF, you may recall, as long ago as 1986, removed Curran’s license to teach Catholic theology: he may just not be the best person to fulminate against attacks on US Catholic theology.

The NCR piece is an interesting compendium of the usual back-to-the-wall end-of-an-era anti-Ratzinger ravings. Note that interesting phrase, always used in such pieces, “official Church teachings”, as in “The Vatican aim is to weed out dissenting voices and force the journal to stick more closely to official Church teachings”. The word “official” according to the Oxford Dictionary can have two meanings: it can mean “of or relating to an authority or public body … having the approval or authorization of such a body”.

Well, that’s what the “official teachings” of the Magisterium are there for: the Catholic faith is conveyed by a body of doctrine held to be objectively true: the Catholic Church is, as Newman put it in the Apologia, “the oracle of God”: “official Church teachings” are there authoritatively to define and defend what the oracle says. Those who want to undermine that understanding, however, mean something very different by the word “official”;  they use it according to the second dictionary definition: “often derogatory: perceived as characteristic of officials and bureaucracy; officious…”: in other words having no intrinsic intellectual authority at all, and therefore fair game for such as the Fishwrap and Fr Curran.

As for the original 2004 article ,it’s difficult to quote from because it is so long and its arguments are complex. It proceeds, according to its authors as a “disputatio or teaching by objection and response to a theme… This essay intends a disputatio that seeks to uncover and elucidate… Catholic truth… about moral sexual activity.” Got it? What that turns out to mean in practice is describing an argument designed to support the Magisterium and then knocking it down so that some damnable heresy can be set up in its place (that’s also what Curran and the Fishwrap mean when they talk about “US Catholic theology”.

Here’s just one example from Salzman and Lawler. Beginning from their summary of an article by the theologian James Hanigan, who argues that male and female are complementary and that they are “created to be spousal in that they are ordered towards interpersonal union”, Salzman and Lawler argue that this by no means establishes that a homosexual union is not just as “iconically significant” (Hanigan’s phrase describing sexual relations which are not open to the transmission of human life because the couple are infertile) as a heterosexual union:

A question to be posed to Hanigan is this …. In what way is an infertile heterosexual couple’s sexuality iconically significant in a way that a homosexual couple’s sexuality is not? The most obvious answer is that a homosexual couple does not have the heterogenital complementarity necessary to reproduce. Aside from heterogenital complementarity and potential biological reproduction, however, it is not clear that a homosexual couple’s sexuality cannot be iconically significant. Referring to Paul VI, Hanigan himself notes that marriage is “one way God has of realizing in human history the divine plan of love.” And while there may be other ways to achieve this plan, “conjugal union is the way that fully enacts human sexuality.” (34)

One response to Hanigan’s claim of iconic significance of male and female sexuality is that, while we may agree that conjugal acts of a reproductive kind fully enact human sexuality, it does not follow that acts that fall short of that full enactment, such as nonreproductive heterosexual or homosexual acts, are immoral and, therefore, impermissible. To say that an act is inferior is not to say that it is immoral. (35) One must demonstrate this immorality in terms of personal complementarity and the affective, relational, and spiritual dimensions of the human sexual person. Many would deny that nonreproductive heterosexual or homosexual acts violate personal complementarity and are, therefore, immoral.

There are so many objections to this that one doesn’t know where to begin, and I have no space left: but you can certainly think of most them yourselves. What is really interesting is that the National Catholic Register should think it so shocking that the CDF should want these objections to be elucidated in the Catholic journal where the original attack on the “official teachings” of the Catholic Church was made. Don’t they believe in freedom of debate, or what?  And the answer is…