If the discussions between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious are not to end in disaster, there must be concessions on one or both sides concerning the major issue that divides them. The bishops, following the Vatican line, contend they alone are the official teachers of church doctrine from which no one is allowed to dissent. But many Catholic theologians, including leading members of LCWR, argue that theology has a duty to explore doctrine in ways that may benefit official teaching in responding to new developments and discoveries.
In an article for Commonweal, John E. Thiel, past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, presents an example of the kind of impasse that halts progress. He notes how Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who headed the bishops' committee that found grave errors in works by St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, defended the committee's decisions with a quick one-two punch. When bishops as individuals or collectively disagree with a specific theological position, Wuerl said in a 2011 America magazine article, "it is not because they do not understand the task of theology." On the contrary, he stated, the failure in understanding lies on the side of theologians who think authentic Catholic theology can ever deviate from the teaching of the magisterium.
Theologian Richard Gaillardetz responded in America that theology includes a "critical exploratory function" that may yield new insights for development or even a substantial change in the teaching. Wuerl would have none of that. He asserted, again in America, that only the hierarchy can guarantee "that the authoritative teachers of the faith will not lead us into error and away from Christ. Theologians who think that their work can lead to substantive change in church teaching are misguided." Indeed, he added, such a radical approach can lead to claims of a "parallel magisterium" of theologians that would graft on "teachings extraneous to the deposit of the faith."
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Calling for a time out, Thiel quckly denied the "parallel magisterium argument"; he then tried to push forward by reminding everyone that changes in doctrine can and have occurred. Once upon a time, he noted, the church did proclaim that "all those who are outside the Catholic Church ... cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire." Thanks to the work of theologians like Yves Congar and Karl Rahner, he explained, that position was withdrawn at the Second Vatican Council, which, in Lumen Gentium, determined that eternal salvation is open to those, who though they know nothing of Christ and his church, "yet search for God with a sincere heart."
Thiel also noted that Vatican II, largely through the efforts of John Courtney Murray, upended age-old opposition to freedom of religion by proclaiming that the human person has every right to freedom of religion. Vatican II justified this remarkable switch, saying the church examines the sacred tradition "from which it continually draws new insights in harmony with the old."
The issues that the Vatican-appointed investigators and LCWR leaders are considering are different from those studied at Vatican II. But the lessons of history and the principles of common sense remain unchanged. Doctrines change and sometimes may be seemingly contradicted outright. This process has happened before and will happen again. The question is, will change happen now in this critical situation? That is up to the honesty and good faith of everyone involved in the discussions, the prayers of the church and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.