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Daniel Maguire: A Baby Step

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 14, 2007

Daniel Maguire has finally been chastised by ecclesiastical authority. In March, the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a statement by the Committee on Doctrine which detailed the ways in which Maguire’s theological positions deviate from the Catholic Faith. It’s a small step in the right direction.

Maguire received his S.T.D. from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1969 and has been a professor of Theology at Marquette University for much of his academic career. He is widely known as one of the most dissident of Catholic theologians. For example, he is perhaps the best-known proponent of abortion in the Catholic theological ranks. In June of 2006, however, Maguire upped the ante by directly addressing the American bishops on Catholic sexual issues. He sent two pamphlets with a cover letter to each U.S. bishop: (1) The Moderate Roman Catholic Position on Contraception and Abortion; and, (2) A Catholic Defense of Same-Sex Marriage.

It was to this onslaught that the bishops responded. They pointed out that Maguire is just plain wrong in his defense of abortion, contraception and homosexual acts, and they also explained the falsity of the argument Maguire uses to rationalize his dissent.

The Rationalization of Dissent

Maguire’s argument is that there are multiple magisteria (teaching authorities) in Catholicism. The bishops are one magisterium, another is the wisdom of the faithful (sensus fidelium), and a third is the wisdom of theologians. For Maguire, nothing is settled unless all the magisteria agree. While this argument is very common among those who wish to justify their dissent from what everyone else invariably identifies as official Catholic teaching, it fails because it distinguishes neither the sources of human wisdom from Revelation, nor Revelation from the Magisterium. There are indeed many potential sources of wisdom in the Church, and there are even two sources of Revelation (Scripture and Tradition), but there is only one Magisterium, or teaching authority.

These distinctions are critical to Catholic thought. At the end of the day, what separates Catholicism from every other religion is that Catholics claim to have a specific, divinely-guaranteed teaching authority which can decide which statements about faith and morals are consistent with what God Himself has revealed, and which are not. In contrast, Maguire (along with most dissident theologians) holds that as long as one can find significant disagreement among Catholics, including Catholic theologians, a teaching cannot be settled. The only things we can be certain of are the things on which we all agree.

But even this argument, slanted so favorably toward those who continually cry non serviam instead of fiat, is not enough for Maguire (or for many like him). He reveals his own deeper prejudices in his first pamphlet by describing the two available Catholic positions on contraception and abortion as follows. First, there is the “extremely conservative view” held by conservative theologians, the pope and the bishops. Second, there is the “moderate and sensible view” held by other theologians who morally approve of contraception and abortion. The not-so-subtle nuance here is that only those who agree with Maguire are “sensible”, making Maguire and his fellow dissidents pretty much the sole magisterium.

A Much Larger Problem

That those with significant intellectual gifts should be tempted by pride is only to be expected, for Lucifer knows where to attack each of us. The more difficult question is how those who claim to be Catholic theologians can so often serve as fountains of unCatholic ideas with prolonged impunity. As I am fond of pointing out, the first answer to this question is cultural. We live in a culture which lionizes rebellion against all traditions and standards, including the hard-won intellectual achievements of our own civilization. Even if the hierarchy of the Church were not inevitably infected by this same weakness, it would be difficult to correct the problem everywhere at once.

In this context, Maguire’s challenge to the bishops is understandable. First, it was frequently possible in the late twentieth century to intimidate bishops simply by claiming to represent a more “moderate and sensible” position. Thankfully, this is less true now and, in any case, the USCCB Doctrine Committee has done its job. Second, Maguire well knows that the chance of his suffering in any professional or personal way from his challenge is essentially nil. The cases of direct action against wayward theologians at any hierarchical level are few and far between, and Maguire knows he is fairly well-protected at Marquette.

Not long ago a reader criticized me for mentioning how low the Society of Jesus has fallen but Marquette is just one more unfortunate example of a self-proclaimed “Catholic, Jesuit University” (see Marquette’s web site). If you take the time to read the statement of Marquette’s President, Rev. Robert Wild, SJ, on what it means to be “Catholic and Jesuit” you will learn, quite literally, that it means essentially nothing. Wild’s chief claim to Catholicity is that Marquette is not afraid to allow religion into the discussion as many secular universities are. His only citation from John Paul II’s great charter for Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, is used to show the importance of academic freedom, without indicating at all how this is to be understood. Finally, his chief means of clarifying what Marquette means by academic freedom is to recount the fact that Thomas Aquinas was once in bad odor with certain bishops.

Refusal of Correction

When your school thinks, no matter what you say, that you may be another Thomas Aquinas, hubris is inevitable. If you think this is a harsh judgment, consider how Professor Maguire responded to the critique of the Doctrine Committee. It is “arrogant of the bishops,” said Maguire, “to claim a monopoly on insight into the Catholic community.” The bishops, of course, never mentioned “insight”. They well know the difference, as Maguire does not, between insight and Magisterium. In any case, calling the bishops arrogant for doing their job is, to reshape an old expression, precisely like the pot calling the saltshaker black.

Maguire also resorted to the standard ploy used, at last count, by one hundred percent of all dissident theologian criticized by the hierarchy in the last 50 years: he claims the bishops failed to engage his real concern. The self-portrait of a dissident theologian always shows a misunderstood genius surrounded by authoritarian figures too stupid to understand the key issues. Maguire says his real concern was to suggest that, considering our planetary problems of war, ecological destruction and sexism, the bishops are too fixated on “pelvic” issues.

In observing this gambit, one hopes Maguire is joking. His most recent book is entitled Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions (2003). Even his response to the bishops is posted on the web site of The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, with which Maguire is affiliated. Indeed, Maguire clearly spends a far greater proportion of his professional time on the “pelvic” issues than do the United States bishops. Moreover, he fails utterly to make the important distinction between moral issues, on which the bishops have special competence, and prudential issues (such as peace initiatives and the environment), on which they do not.

Speaking of distinctions, it really does seem that Maguire is incapable of making them, even with regard to his own discipline. The very thing that separates Christian theology from a purely natural reflection on human experience is its commitment to Revelation. Without Revelation, theology has no subject matter. Since God has provided not only Revelation but a mechanism by which it may be authoritatively understood, it becomes the task of the Catholic theologian to attempt to deepen our understanding and appreciation of precisely those matters which God and the Magisterium of His Church have guaranteed to be true. A theologian who rejects either the deposit of faith or the teaching authority established by God to conserve and protect it—or both—destroys his craft in one proverbial fell swoop.

Daniel Maguire has removed in his own work the very reason for practicing theology in the first place. In this he appears to have been aided and abetted by the administration of Marquette University. As Maguire requires a license from his bishop to teach theology, one must wonder if he has been aided and abetted by one or more bishops. Moreover, Maguire is clearly a symptom of a far wider academic malaise. For this reason, it is a very good thing that the USCCB Committee on Doctrine took the step that it did. But for this same reason, it would also be an exaggeration to call it more than a very small step.

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