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Thinking thoughts about thinking

Leadership needs to show respect for the concerns of the age and engage with them without fear

  • Father William Grimm
  • Japan
  • June 30, 2011
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I once visited a country where the dictator had made it illegal to think that he would die. The main effect of the law was to make people think about the fact that he would die. It might have even given some of them the idea of hastening his demise.

Recently, the pope removed from office a bishop in Australia who suggested that in order to ensure that people have access to the Eucharist we might need to discuss, among other things, the ordination of women. It has been made clear by this pope and his predecessor that even thinking about the possibility of such a thing is forbidden.

The ban on thinking has, of course, provoked thinking.

Since that bishop’s removal, several bishops in Europe have voiced the need to examine the question rather than simply declaring it off limits to discussion or even thought. Most recently, the cardinal patriarch of Lisbon said that the ordination of women is something that will inevitably happen in God’s good time. The patriarch evidently thinks that God does not obey popes. It remains to be seen what sanctions the cardinal (or, for that matter, God) might face.

Clearly, the papal teaching has not yet been universally and wholeheartedly accepted even by dedicated, theologically sophisticated Catholics. Until convincing reasons beyond the appeal to authority are presented, reasons that make sense to intelligent, Spirit-blessed men and women of good will today, there will be dissension, hurt, anger and a further erosion of respect for authority in the Church.

We need thoughtful, open and honest discussion of the issue, not injunctions against thoughtful, open and honest discussion. That discussion must take place especially among bishops, theologians, Scripture scholars and historians, but must not be limited to them. As Blessed Cardinal Newman stressed, respectful consultation with the People of God is an essential element in the development of the Church’s belief.

What will be the result of the thinking? There is no way to know in advance. That is precisely the reason the thought and discussion are needed. Regardless of one’s predisposition on the issue, claiming knowledge without informed exploration in all its aspects is nonsense.

Might the end result be a realization that as the Church has always taught, the ordination of women is impossible? Could be. Might the end result be a realization that as the Church has always taught (Rome does not easily admit to making mistakes) the ordination of women is possible? Could be. Might the end result be a realization that the issue cannot yet be resolved and more time, study, prayer and thought are needed? Could be. After all, the future is a very long time and humility that precludes making pronouncements for all time is attractive, honest and sensible.

What is certain is that the Church will be better off for having leadership that shows enough respect for the concerns of the age, the needs of the Eucharistic community, the faith of Catholics and the working of the Holy Spirit to have a fearlessly thoughtful engagement with the issue.

Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of “Katorikku Shimbun,” Japan’s Catholic weekly.
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