‘Tis the season for misunderstanding in the popular perception of theological inquiry.
It began a few weeks back with the scandalous and quite shameful rescinding of British theologian Tina Beattie’s visiting fellowship by the University of San Diego (read about this here), a move that has led to serious allegations of abuse of power on the part of the University’s president, Mary Lyons, who has subsequently received a faculty vote of no confidence in light of this academic-freedom infringement.
This continues this week with the news that the well-respected theologian (particularly on the subject of the diaconate) William Ditewig, who is a Roman Catholic deacon himself, was “disinvited” from a speaking engagement to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia deacons because of his co-authorship of a small scholarly book on the theological possibility of women deacons.
In an article in the National Catholic Reporter, “Former Bishops’ Staffer Banned Over Women Deacons,” we learn that, “William Ditewig, a theologian and deacon who previously served as the head of the bishops’ secretariat for the diaconate, has been told his public presence in the archdiocese would cause ‘doctrinal confusion.'”
The NCR story continues, highlighting the fact that Philadelphia has a “speaker’s commission” that is tasked with evaluating proposed speakers for Archdiocesan events, such as the diaconate meeting at which Ditewig was slated to speak. Additionally, as the article explains, leading church officials — Cardinal George of Chicago and, as some have noted, Pope Benedict XVI himself (particularly with regard to his adjustments to the Code of Canon Law concerning the diaconate), as well as bishop Emil Wcela in an America magazine cover story: “Why Not Women?” — have spoken out about this topic in ways far more publicly and directly than Ditewig and his fellow scholars.
Kenneth Gavin, the archdiocese’s associate director of communications, said in an interview that the commission is tasked with reviewing speakers to ensure they “are going to be presenting material in a manner that is clearly and fully in line with the magisterium of the church.”
“The speaker approval commission is really very aware of Deacon Ditewig’s national reputation and his service to the [bishops’ conference] and the diaconate within the church,” said Gavin. “But they felt that for this particular workshop because of some of the things that are out there that he speculated on … he might not be the best fit.”
The issue of the ordination of women to the diaconate has received increasing spotlight in recent weeks. One visible Catholic archbishop, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, has been quoted as saying the possibility of ordination of women to the diaconate is still an “open question.”
Asked about George’s position on the question of women deacons, Gavin said that since the matter is still considered unanswered Ditewig’s presence for the deacon event wasn’t appropriate.
“This wouldn’t be the best setting for an open question or something that is a matter of debate theologically at this point in time and how the diaconate is structured within the church itself,” said Gavin. “It wasn’t the setting for discussion on theological debate-like topics. This was ongoing formation. It’s educational for the deacons and their wives.”
Ditewig told NCR: “I was invited to come and just give an update on the state of the diaconate, which I have done quite a bit of work on. I had no intention to do anything in regard to the ordination of women as deacons. That was not the point of the talk.”
Although the speaker commission did not mention the women deacons book in its statement on the cancellation by name, it vaguely references Ditewig’s “publications and blog postings.”
“While the Magisterium had not made a definitive pronouncement” on some of Ditewig’s positions, the commission states, “an argument can be made that the ordinary universal magisterium has moved against the positions of Deacon Ditewig.”
“Approving him as a speaker would introduce the possibility of doctrinal confusion rather than helpful instruction so the Commission holds that it is more prudent to give him a negative recommendation,” the commission alleges.
The members of the Philadelphia archdiocese’s speaker approval commission, said Gavin, are appointed by the archbishop. None of the current members, he said, were appointed by Archbishop Charles Chaput, who was installed as Philadelphia’s ninth archbishop in September 2011.
Speakers for archdiocesan events, said Gavin, are supposed to be reviewed by the speaker commission before an invitation is extended to them, which did not occur in Ditewig’s case.
Asked if the commission would seek to consult with proposed speakers regarding their theological positions before making a ruling, Gavin said that the commission “would not have interaction with suggested speakers.”
“They form their recommendations based on the public writings, speeches, and curriculum vitae of proposed speakers keeping the nature of the workshop or conference in mind,” he said.
I will admit that I’m concerned about the process and efficacy of this form of “vetting” as demonstrated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The veil of anonymity of the reviewers, the lack of engagement with speakers for clarification or additional information, the ambiguity of its theological qualifications to properly adjudicate such speakers, all bespeak an uncomfortable dynamic that reflects an ostensibly wider trend that does not adequately take into consideration the purpose and practice of theology as an academic discipline. Furthermore, there is little awareness, it would seem, between the popular and broader presentation offered by theologians (such as Ditewig to a crowd of deacons) and their technical, scholarly work, which is intended to constructively further dialogue and inquiry.
I would venture a guess that members of this Philadelphia speaker’s commission have not, in fact, read Ditewig’s work, but merely offered a summary judgment from conjecture based on what they think it is about. And that is a shame. I guess Cardinal George, Bishop Wcela, and even Pope Benedict XVI are also not welcome to speak in the Archdiocese…where does it end?
UPDATE: There is a new article published today on the University of San Diego’s faculty and its decision to formally rebuke the university president, Mary Lyons, for her treatment of Prof. Tina Beattie (see above): “Catholic University Faculty Rebukes President over Academic Freedom.”