The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions

Letter from a Catholic Theologian to All 270 United States Catholic Bishops

By Daniel C. Maguire, Marquette University.

In what may be considered an act of undefeatable hope, I decided to write to all 270 U.S. bishops. Beyond a doubt they could be among the most influential religious leaders in the nation if only they could get off what I call the pelvic issues and address, in prophetic style, the basic biblical concerns of poverty, justice, and peace on an imperilled earth.

Even though the bishops are not theologians, they pontificate on theology and bring their form of theology into the political arena, forbidding Communion to pro-choice politicians but posing for pictures with war-making presidents and legislators. The pastoral letter on Peace in 1983 "The Challenge of Peace," spelled out the criteria for a "just war." George Bush's invasion of Iraq violated all of its criteria, the pope called the invasion "a defeat for humanity," and yet the bishops and most Catholic theologians and laity stand meek and mute throughout this disaster. The press then consider the bishops' statements to be "Catholic teaching." The press tend not to understand the difference between Vatican theology and Catholic theology---the latter being more broadly based and more infused with the "wisdom of the faithful" (sensus fidelilum).

When Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, over 600 American theologians issued a public dissent to that assault on Catholic consciences, in the spirit of Jesus in Luke 19:40: "I tell you if my disciples keep silence, the stones will shout aloud." Groups like Call To Action and Voice of the Faithful do speak out but mostly "my disciples keep silence." Not wonder in the next verse, Jesus "wept."

In the original letter to the bishops, I enclosed two pamphlets, one of same sex marriage and one on abortion, showing the variety of theological opinion on these issues. I urged the bishops to rise to assume a prophetic ministry on justice, peace, poverty and ecological issues. Three bishops answered. All focused on the two issues on which they are all too impaled and none spoke to their missing voices on issues where the Gospels speak loudly and clearly, especially on the pro-life issue of war.

For the benefit of non-theologian readers, I will offer in brackets explanations of some of the Latin and technical terms of theology. (I did not offer explanations in my original letters to the bishops.)

Professor Daniel C. Maguire
Marquette University
P.O. Box 1881

Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201-1881

June 19, 2006

To the Catholic Bishops:

Given the "great divide" that exists in the contemporary Church between bishops and theologians, I think that communication, even if it leads to little agreement, is a human good.

In this spirit, I am enclosing short pamphlets on two topics on which hierarchical teaching has become impaled, abortion and same-sex marriage, to the neglect of the needs of the increasing militarism of our nation, our neglect of the poor of the world, racism, sexism, and the wrecking of the earth's ecology through greed.

Cardinal Mahoney's recent prophetic intervention on the human rights of immigrants shows that the authority of Catholic bishops is welcomed and respected when they speak out courageously on basic Gospel values. There are other moral issues on which auctores scinduntur. [Catholic theologians are divided on these issues] On those issues, if you do not wish to use the hallowed Catholic expression consulas auctoribus probatis, [check with established theologians] you could well use the model of teaching that the American Catholic bishops used on the life/death issue of the Vietnam War in November 1966:

"We realize that citizens of all faiths and of differing political loyalties honestly differ among themselves over the moral issue involved in this tragic conflict. While we do not claim to be able to resolve these issues authoritatively, in the light of the facts as they are known to us, it is reasonable to argue…"

Since there is no infallibly defined position on either abortion or same-sex unions, a similar modesty would enhance episcopal teaching. The Second Vatican Council wisely said: "Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however, complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission (The Church in the Modern World, n. 43). It should cause no wonder that the laity do not take it as obvious that celibate bishops are necessarily more reliable "experts" on sexual and reproductive issues than the laity, "anointed as [the laity] are by the holy One"(Constitution on the Church, n. 12) and experienced as they are in their grace-filled lives.

This modesty would acknowledge, with the previous code of Canon Law, that "the bishops, whether teaching individually or gathered in particular councils, are not endowed with infallibility" (Canon 1326). The canon asserts that bishops are veri doctores seu magistri. [the bishops are teachers] 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.

Cardinal Dulles made a crucial theological point, deserving close attention at this time. Avery Dulles, S.J., in his Presidential address to The Catholic Theological Society of America said that the Second Vatican Council "implicitly taught the legitimacy and even the value of dissent" ("Presidential Address: The Theologian and the Magisterium," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 31 (1976).

The council, says Dulles, conceded "that the ordinary magisterium of the Roman Pontiff had fallen into error, and had unjustly harmed the careers of loyal and able theologians." He mentions John Courtney Murray, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri de Lubac, and Yves Congar. Dulles says that certain teachings of the hierarchy "seem to evade in a calculated way the findings of modern scholarship. They are drawn up without broad consultation with the theological community. Instead, a few carefully selected theologians are asked to defend a pre-established position.…" Dulles aligns himself with those theologians who do not limit the term "magisterium" to the hierarchy. He speaks of "two magisteria-that of the pastors and that of the theologians." These two magisteria are "complementary and mutually corrective." (He neglected the third magisterium, the sensus fidelium, the experience-fed and graced wisdom of the faithful.) The theological magisterium may critique the hierarchical magisterium. Dulles concludes: "we shall insist on the right, where we think it important for the good of the Church, to urge positions at variance with those that are presently official...[i.e. taught by the hierarchy]." These are not the words of some fringe theologian; these are the words of a theologian who is now a cardinal of the Catholic Church and nothing in his subsequent writings refutes these basic and broadly accepted assertions.

On the two subjects of these little pamphlets, we have produced an Oxford University press book (Sacred Rights, 2003) on the debated issue of abortion in world religions and I would be pleased to send you a copy if you were interested in further discussion. We will also produce two books, now with publishers, on the sin of heterosexism. These books contain chapters from distinguished scholars in Judaism, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism.


Daniel C. Maguire

Archdiocese of Milwaukee
Office of the Archbishop

July 13, 2006

Professor Daniel C. Maguire
Marquette University
P.O. Box 1881
Milwaukee WI 53201-1881

Dear Professor Maguire,

As the bishop of the archdiocese where you reside, I am obliged to reply to your circular form-letter, sent to the bishops of the country on June 19, 2006.

The opinions expressed in the two pamphlets enclosed in that correspondence are totally at odds with clear Church teaching. Sacred Scripture, the Magisterium, and Natural Law are consistent in opposition to abortion and so-called same-sex marriage.

You speak of your duty to dissent. Well, at least call it such. To claim that support for abortion and same-sex "marriage" is consonant with Catholic moral teaching is preposterous and disingenuous.

I, too, have a duty: to teach what the Church clearly believes. Your opinion on these two matters is contrary to the faith and morals of the Church.

Faithfully in Christ,


Most Reverend Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of Milwaukee

Professor Daniel C. Maguire
Marquette University
Department of Theology
P.O Box 1881
Milwaukee WI 53201-1881

July 18, 2006

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of Milwaukee

Dear Archbishop,

I have received your letter of July 13. I was pleased that you replied even though your message was not as gracious or as pastoral as that of the one other bishop who replied. Terms like "preposterous" and "disingenuous" (the usual code for mendacious) are not the words of a pastor so much as those of a scold. Some of my colleagues-too cynically I believe-said I should take no offense because the letter was obviously written not so much for me as for those with whom you shared it here and abroad. I don't believe that...not for a minute. I think that, in your fashion, your intentions were to help me in matters where you feel I am mistaken and that you wanted to do this for the good of the Church. Therefore, I will continue in the hope that even from such a caustic opener, some fruitful dialogue might commence.

Acting on this belief in your good faith, and in your sense of pastoral mission, I would be much helped if you would explain some things for me:

(1) You speak twice of "clear" Church teaching. To know what is clear and how clear, Catholic theology developed a careful criteriology presented, for example, at the Gregorian University in the 1951 De Valore Notarum Theologicarum et de Criteriis ad eas Dignoscendas. "To teach what the Church clearly believes" (your words) one must know what nota theologica attaches to it. [The Church recognized that not everything is de Fide; most issues are debateable] The possibilities are: De fide divina, proxima Fidei, Theologice certum, Doctrina Catholica, certum, commune et certum moraliter, communius, communissimum, probabilius, probabile. Other negative notes are temeraria, offsensiva piarum aurium, etc. In other words, not everything is taught with equal clarity leaving many things to be debated freely.

It would be helpful to me and to all the Catholic theologians who agree with me on the two issues you address to know which "note" you attach. Do you believe that the issues you address should not be debated by theologians at all? Should theologians who hold the liberal views on these issues be banned as speakers at Catholic parishes? (I suppose I know your answer to that.)

(2) Also, I would be helped to know how your position on these two theologically debated topics relates to the condemnation of "absolute tutiorism" by Pope Alexander VIII on Dec. 7, 1690. [This condemnation said that when there are good reasons supported by reputable scholars, the most restrictive opinion should not be enforced.] It would seem you run afoul of that condemnation thus putting you into "dissent." Of course, as Cardinal Dulles said, dissent is not always bad but is often a service to the Church, in accord with the maxim "dissent in and for the Church."

(3) I was disappointed that your reply to me ignored my concerns about episcopal leadership and prophetic mission in areas such as peace, poverty, and ecological devastation. Let me focus on one question, peace: In the Pastoral Letter of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, May 3, 1983, "The Challenge of Peace," the bishops developed with care the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello criteria. It would be quite a stretch to say that the recent invasion of Iraq complied or complies with those criteria. Have you or other bishops called attention to that? If you approve of that war, do you feel that the decision for that invasion satisfies the criteria developed by the U.S. bishops? If this undeclared war is in violation of those criteria (which would mean the killing in this war is murder), should legislators who support the war be denied Holy Communion? Should citizens be advised not to serve?

(4) Also, on debated moral issues, such as the two you chose to focus on, how do you value the views of Protestant Christians? Recognizing that Protestant Christians differ with many Catholics on dogmatic issues, the Second Vatican Council said that "ecumenical dialogue could start with discussions concerning the application of the gospel to moral questions." What weight do you give to Protestant views on these two issues? If you are, as you seem, dogmatically certain on these two issues, could you enter into "ecumenical dialogue" on those issues? Would you encourage Catholic theologians to do so or simply to announce to these Protestants they are "totally at odds with clear Church teaching, Sacred Scripture, the Magisterium, and Natural Law," to quote you? That would not be a basis for dialogue.

I await your reply, your courteous reply, to these queries. [That reply is still awaited, though I suspect Jesus will return before it arrives.]

Sincerely yours,

Daniel C. Maguire

Back to Top

Send this page to a friend!

Home   About Us   Newsletters   News Archives