Two weeks ago Madison Bishop Robert Morlino made the news for firing a parish pastoral associate. Predictably, the media storyline was Institutional Goliath Squashes Plucky Feminist David. Ruth Kolpack, the associate in question, claimed to be blindsided by the firing and suggested it was pettifoggery on Morlino's part to check her assurances against her Master's thesis, which, we were given to believe, concerned "the potential harm of non-inclusive language in the Mass."
Did Morlino over-react? You make the call. Kolpack's thesis is now available on-line. It is a 52-page paper in three parts: a Scripture perspective, a Systematic Theology perspective, and -- God help us -- a Moral Theology perspective. It reads to me like the first term paper attempted by a not-too-bright college freshman. It is tendentious, derivative, historically naive. Not every statement she makes in her thesis is factually wrong. What makes it worthless, however, is the complete absence of critical sensibility. Kolpack shows no awareness of the difference between a pose and an argument, no awareness of what requires proof or what counts as evidence in support, no awareness of the existence of scholarly arguments contrary to her thesis, still less of her need to rebut them.
Let's listen to Kolpack at work. First she introduces us to the notion of "religious evil," for which she quotes Charles Kimball: "When zealous and devout adherents elevate the teaching and beliefs of their tradition to absolute truth claims, they open a door to the possibility that their religions will become evil." Got that? Absolute truth claims are dangerous. Next follows Kolpack's own elucidation of religious evil (p. 35):
Anti-abortion zealots are viewed by some as a contemporary example of people acting on claims of absolute truth -- claims that the one and only way of looking at abortion is that it is legalized slaughter of innocents, necessitating taking action against the perpetrators. Other examples of evil manifested by absolute claims of truth are: 1) television evangelists attacking Islam as a false religion and Allah as a false god; 2) Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptists in 1980, claiming that God doesn't hear the prayers of non-Christians since they are not made in the name of Jesus and so can't get through to God; 3) Muslim extremists promising paradise for "martyrs" and carrying out suicide bombings; 4) the Catholic hierarchy's claim that only males were chosen by Jesus to be apostles and so only males can be ordained.
If Kolpack's reasoning in her Master's thesis is not exactly clear to you, consider how she comes across teaching religion to teenagers in a Catholic parish. Religious evil, remember, is Kolpack's term, not Morlino's. And remember that Kolpack, institutional religious evil notwithstanding, was drawing a parish salary. After her firing Kolpack protested that "the Scriptures are my foundation," but in her thesis she would have us remember that the Scriptures include a "patriarchal bias and androcentric traditioning process that can fundamentally distort the revelatory good news of salvation." A fundamentally distorted foundation. Any questions, class?
Bishop Morlino, more graciously than the circumstances required, invited Kolpack to recant the goofier gushings of her thesis, presumably allowing for the possibility that she grew up, or did some wider reading, in the meantime. She answered that she "could not refute the thesis in good conscience, that to do so would risk her reputation as a scholar and academician." Frankly, the fastest way to terminate Kolpack's reputation as a scholar is to keep her thesis on-line and give it the widest possible readership. Don't miss her discussion of her insight -- unbiased by any familiarity with the original languages -- that Second Isaiah was a woman.
A final point. Kolpack's 2003 thesis was accepted for the MDiv degree at Milwaukee's Saint Francis Seminary. That means she accomplished what her professors wanted her to accomplish. And that means Saint Francis Seminary should be replaced by a smoking crater, ad majorem Dei gloriam.
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