Page 10, 4th February 2000

4th February 2000
Page 10
Page 10, 4th February 2000 — Doubts

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Locations: New York, Cambridge, Rome


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Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions

How can the Church justify its treatment of Sr Lavinia Byrne, one of Britain'sforemost religious journalists and bmadcasters, at a tone when it calls for greater respect for human rights in other parts of the world?

MOST NEWSPAPERS in Britain carried the story Of the departure of Lavinia Byrne from religious life as an instance of "Vatican bullying", words which it SeeTITS she chose to describe her treatment at the hands of the Vatican watchdog on doctrinal purity, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith. It may sound flippant, but there are theologians who would consider it an honour to have received letters from the Congregation on the grounds that they had become important enough for a formal intervention. One theologian told me that if he ever received a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger he would frame it and Put it on the wall as a sign of having achieved theological respectability among his peers. In some quarters they are medals to be pinned to one's chest.

The letters received after the publication of the otherwise unremarkable book Woman at the Altar (1994) were sent to Dr Byrne's Superior, standard practice of the Congregation when dealing with a religious. They requested the Superior to call in the author and ask her to sign a public statement of assent to two documents of the magisteriwn; Humanae vitae (Christian marriage) and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (priestly ordination).

Dr Byrne's book had advanced the theory that the arrival of the Pill in the Sixties empowered women sexually and liberated dun from male dominstion. The theory ventured by Dr Byrne, or rather, received by her. served to illustrate the view that the advent of artificial contraception had to be seen in the light of sexual politics. This position is standard reproductive ideology in feminist circles, but it was difficult to reconcile with the judgrnent of Paul VI that while Christian marriage envisages responsible parenthood and planned children according to economic capability, this should take place with respect for a woman's natural cycle of fertility. She became strident about this issue when she labelled New York's Catholics "hypocrites" because she felt they failed to adhere to Paul VI's policy.

As a Catholic theologian. Dr Byrne's views were not easy to reconcile with the teaching of Hurnanoe vitae. Hence the need for a clarification. Similarly with the ordination of women. Woman at the Altar and the document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis appeared in the same year and in a sense the apostolic letter pulled the plug on her book. This was probably why it was pulped in the States.

In her capacity as teacher to female ordinands in Cambridge, it was clear that sooner or later there would be some conflict between her professed views and the teaching of the magisterium. It is surprising that she adopted the role of victim in her quarrel and departed religious life. If Fr Balasuriya can be reconciled there is hope for harmony in this quarrel. There are of course perfectly respectable churches across the Tiber, as it were, where female ordination takes place on the strength of the view that baptism is the some of Christian ministry. Her logic could take her there.

No doubt the pulping of her hook in the States, a decision taken by the publisher not the Vatican, had a profound effect on Dr Byrne, but on this side of

the Atlantic she enjoyed the patronage and protection of Cardinal Hume. His defence of her in Rome was admirable for the spiritual care it showed on his part, though history may not he so kind in its judgement.

Anyway. the late Cardinal advocated prudence, effectively asking the Congregation to turn a blind eye toward her views. How to explain the indulgence of the Cardinal towanJ Dr Byrne? Agreement with her views? Ilardly. Fear of the reaction of the mass media in Britain? Possibly.

The real explanation seems to lie with the launch of Veritatis Splendor some years ago at which he stated that the English and Welsh bishops enjoyed very good relations with their theologians and that there would be no witchhunt on these shores. At the time this was greeted with a sigh of relief by the more endangered species of theologian and those journalists who had speculated a rearm to the days of the Inquisition were effectively silenced. The papers love to paint the Vatican as retrograde.

As the present pontificate has developed, the heat has been turned on a handful of dissident theologians and pressure brought to bear on a rearguard of freewheeling thinkers who practise the art Of Compassionate casuistry getting themselves and others off the hook when it comes to choosing between dogmatic Christianity and adopting the values of the local zeitgeist.

With the American bishops' ratification of Er corde ecclesiae and its principle that Catholic theologians must have a mandate from their bishops, and the acceptance of the papal terms by the German bishops regarding reproductive counselling, theologians who belong to this rearguard have been marginalised.

Dr Byrne chose the local zeitgeist over the limits as she saw it of dogmatic Christianity. As regards the question of human rights, it is true that the present Pope has turned the Church's international diplomatic activity upon the pivot of human rights. As a member of the Church, however, one's human rights are exchanged for ecclesiastical rights.

Ecclesial rights are to exercised with regard to four conditions; a) a respect for the integrity of faith and morals; b) a reverence for the sacred pastors; c) a respect for the dignity of other individuals and d) a respect for the common good.

Dr Byrne's case erred on the first two conditions. Safeguards do exist for the rights of theologians who fall foul of the CDF but evidently they were not explored by Dr Byrne. The Cf)F procedures envisage a right of defence and the appointment of an advocate (relator pro auctore) whose task is to present the contested work in the best possible light.

Given this protection why did Dr Byrne object to the process? (Aside from questions of orthodoxy sources in the Congregation revealed that this was not the whole story and that only in time would the full truth be revealed. More than this the Congregation's officials were not prepared to say. Dr Byrne's ex-Superior was also reluctant to discuss the full din tensions of the case.) In the last analysis, the Church retains the right to combat erroneous doctrine which it has to he said is more important that the ongoing media career of one freewheeling nun.

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