A religious educator with decades of experience, hired to write Scripture commentaries for a liturgy training sourcebook, had her writing pulled from the book after the publisher learned that she had presented a workshop at a Call To Action conference.
Liturgy Training Publications, owned by the Chicago archdiocese, had hired Margaret Nutting Ralph to write short daily Scripture commentaries for its Sourcebook for Sundays, Seasons, and Weekdays 2015, a resource for lectors.
Ralph had previously written marginal notes and commentaries on Sunday Lectionary readings for the Advent, Lent and Easter seasons for Liturgy Training Publications' 2011 and 2013 Workbook for Lectors, Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word.
But in January, Ralph was informed in a letter from the publishing house's director, John Thomas, that her work would not be used.
"Our archdiocesan censor has requested that we withhold the Scripture Commentaries that you wrote," the letter stated. "The request was made because of your recent presentation at Call to Action."
Call To Action is a Chicago-based lay organization that works for progressive reform of the Catholic church.
Thomas' Jan. 30 letter to Ralph pointed out that Liturgy Training Publications "retains copyright and ownership of the commentaries per the work for hire contract," and that the publisher "will keep them on file in the event that we are able to publish them at some time in the future."
Ralph, author of Why the Catholic Church Must Change: A Necessary Conversation, presented a workshop at the November 2013 Call To Action conference on how to be a biblical contextualist as opposed to a biblical literalist.
Ralph told NCR in a telephone interview April 17 that the presentation aimed at answering two questions: "If we're faithful to the Catholic church, which teaches us to be nourished and ruled by Scripture, and to interpret Scripture as contextualists, can we continue to use Scripture in the way it has been used in regard to some contemporary issues?" and "How do we interpret Scripture as contextualists?"
Ralph gave the presentation twice. She told NCR that she and her audience discussed Dei Verbum (a Second Vatican Council document that focuses on Scripture and divine revelation), homosexuality and contraception. They also spent a very short time on women's ordination, she said.
After she received the letter, she emailed Thomas and asked to speak with the decision-makers. Thomas arranged for a conference call in February with Ralph, Thomas and Fr. Robert Tuzik, a Chicago priest.
Ralph said she wasn't told if Tuzik was the one who decided to censor her work. She said that Thomas told her he could not reveal a censor's identity to censored authors. According to Ralph, Thomas told her at the beginning of the call that the decision was not up for discussion.
"I would simply receive an explanation. The decision was firm," Ralph said in an email to NCR.
"The priest told me that refusing to publish my commentaries was called for because he wanted to avoid any public perception that the Archdiocese of Chicago is not firm on doctrine, especially the doctrine against women's ordination," she wrote. "He explained that by accepting an invitation to speak at Call To Action, even though my topic was on how to be a biblical contextualist, I had 'passively supported this unorthodox group's whole agenda.' "
In the phone interview with NCR, Ralph elaborated: "He kept bringing up women's ordination over and over and over. And I said my talk was about being a biblical contextualist -- it wasn't about challenging the church on women's ordination. ... He just felt that my name shouldn't be associated with any publication that was diocesan-sponsored because it would make the diocese appear weak on doctrine."
Ralph, who served as secretary of educational ministries for the diocese of Lexington, Ky., for 16 years, said she told Tuzik that she understood the importance of doctrine, and that she could not use her position within the church to say anything contrary to church teaching.
"So we're not having an argument here about whether or not a censor should protect the Catholic church from teachings that aren't faithful representations of what the church teaches," Ralph told NCR. "But the commentaries were [faithful to church teaching]. What [was] censored had nothing to do with the issue that he was so concerned about, had absolutely nothing to do with true doctrine and, particularly, the Catholic church's posture on the ordination of women."
NCR asked Tuzik and Thomas for comment. Each responded with similar, short email messages saying this was a personnel issue upon which they could not comment.
Ralph sent a letter in late March to Chicago Cardinal Francis George, summarizing the event and pleading her case. She received a typed card acknowledging that the office had received her correspondence and forwarded it to the cardinal. No name was included, just "Office of the Archbishop, Archdiocese of Chicago."
[Mick Forgey is an NCR Bertelsen editorial intern. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]