Are my criticisms of Ratzinger’s Doctrine rash and disrespectful?

Some persons will want to chide Aaron Milavec by saying, “The manner in which he exposes the defective logic and methodology of Cardinal Ratzinger is altogether rash and disrespectful.”  How so?

First, Milavec is just one theologian in the Church; Cardinal Ratzinger, by contrast, holds an exalted office in the Vatican which requires him to authoritatively decide certain delicate matters and to instruct the worldwide bishops as to what they are to think and to do relative to these matters.  In brief, Milavec should humbly submit himself to be taught by Cardinal Ratzinger.  Worse yet, Milavec takes upon himself the task of publicly correcting Ratzinger.

Second, if Milavec is indeed a Catholic theologian, then his proper role is to defend the teaching magisterium and certainly not to call it into question.  If Milavec notices flaws in Cardinal Ratzinger teaching, therefore, he should humbly and privately bring his observations to Cardinal Ratzinger’s attention and to leave it to him to decide if anything needs to be revised.

Third, it is altogether unfitting to broadcast to the whole Church the manifest flaws within the authoritative teaching of Cardinal Ratzinger since this has the effect of teaching Catholics to disrespect the “holy office” itself.  God himself has set Cardinal Ratzinger over us as our teacher and our guide in coming to arrive at God’s point of view in the matter of homosexuality.  Milavec’s role is to listen and obey.

How would I respond to these charges?  I would, first of all, acknowledge that there is some merit in each of these three points.  But I don’t want to get into an analysis at this point.  It would be non-productive.  Rather, let me tell you a story which will make my possible rebuttal all the more clear.

When I was first hired to teach at The Athenaeum of Ohio, Daniel Pilarczyk was then the Archbishop of Cincinnati and head of the Board of Trustees for the seminary.  At that time, Archbishop Pilarczyk was writing a popular book on key aspects of the modern Church.  One chapter was entitled, “Authority is Good for You.”  In an attempt to garnish feedback for his book, Archbishop Pilarczyk distributed to the Athenaeum faculty a preliminary draft of his chapter that would become the basis for an open discussion.  So, on the appointed day and time, the entire faculty sat in a circle of chairs and awaited the arrival of the Archbishop.  He arrived and warmly greeted the Rector and Dean and those few members of the faculty that he knew due to their long years of service at the Athenaeum.  Since I was a new-comer, I just enjoyed the Archbishop’s charming ways.

The Archbishop summarized his chapter in ten minutes.  He spoke of how every human organization, whether it is for a garden club, a manufacturing business, or a city government, must have a hierarchy of duly appointed officers who were charged with the good management of the whole enterprise.  The Church, therefore, should not imagine that she is exempt from this rule.  Good management requires that the appointed officers achieve the common good by assigning specific tasks to specific individuals.  Offices were expected to give directions and to hold their subordinates accountable.  Subordinates, on the other hand, were expected to serve the common good by obeying their superiors and fulfilling the tasks assigned to them.  Theologians, in this scheme of things, the Archbishop explained, had “the role of explaining and defending the Catholic teaching of the popes and bishops.”  So, then the meeting was thrown open for discussion.

A long and uncomfortable silence fell upon the group.  Our resourceful Dean of Studies broke the ice by applauding the Archbishop for allowing us to notice that the Catholic Church was not an exceptional case of hierarchical office holders demanding obedience.  The same thing also applied to Proctor and Gamble, the great soap company that had its international headquarters in Cincinnati.  Another long silence followed.

Lessons learned from Proctor and Gamble

My mind was racing.  Something was not quite right in the model that the Archbishop was setting before us.  But I was trying to find a way to say it. . . .  So, I threw caution to the winds, and decided to start speaking.  Here is what came out:

Let’s look at the case of Ivory Soap.  Throughout the world, Ivory Soap is being sold to the public as a safe and efficient cleansing soap that is “99 and 44 hundredths percent pure.”  Everyone in the corporation, from the top of the hierarchy all the way down the chain of command, stands behind this product.  The Publicity Department takes great pride in unflinchingly promoting the use of this product and they spend millions of dollars advertising the wholesome benefits of Ivory Soap to the public.

So far so good.  But the management and the Publicity Department at Proctor and Gamble depend very much upon the Research and Development Department.  The task of the R&D people, for example, is to thoroughly test a new product before it is released to the public.  Even after a new product is released, however, the R&D people are keen to keep records of instances when the product failed.  In the files of the Research and Development Department, therefore, there is a file folder with reports detailing the “product failures” of Ivory Soap.

Ah, here’s one of the cases detailed in this folder.  What does it tell us?  It tells us about a little girl of four who decided to give a bath to the two-week-old kittens that were clustered around their mother in quiet corner of the kitchen.  This little girl used Ivory Soap that was “99 and 44 hundredths percent pure.”  After the bath, however, all three kittens were blind.  This was an unfortunate result.  The R&D people decided not to recommend that management withdrawing the product because “most adults would never presume to use Ivory Soap to clean two-week-old kittens.”  However, they did alert management that even a product guaranteed to be “99 and 44 hundredths percent pure” would inevitable, under certain circumstances, end up doing great harm.

So now let’s apply this to the task of theologians.  It occurs to me that the task of theologians is to be like the R&D people and to thoroughly check out a new product before it is distributed to the public.  The Immaculate Conception of Mary, for example, was rigorously investigated by a committee of theologians and historians before it was proclaimed as part of Catholic doctrine by Pius IX.  Once proclaimed, theologians and bishops worked together as a Publicity Department to communicate it accurately to the faithful and to encourage its use within their pious devotions to Mary.  This is the area where our Archbishop focused his attention.

So, now, in keeping with my analogy, I arrive at the point of recognizing that every new doctrine can never be 100 percent pure.  Every doctrine, no matter how pure it seems on the surface, will inevitably result in doing great harm under certain circumstances.  So, I’m asking myself, who are the R&D people in the Church who are responsible for keeping track of the failures of our doctrines.  And once the failures begin to multiply, who are the R&D people who are responsible for alerting the bishops that a particular product may have so many documented failures as to require either that “a warning label detailing dangerous side-effects be published” or that the “product be withdrawn from general use as a hazard to spiritual health”?  And, in the end, if theologians have this task and the hierarchy and the people vitally depend upon us to function in this capacity, then why are we, as theologians, not making this clear in our job descriptions?  And why are our bishops not asking us theologians to keep them informed of the high failure rates of some of our current doctrines?

I’m laughing to myself as I recall and write down this story.  I took the Archbishop’s metaphor and extended it in a direction that, apparently, no one else had been thinking about.  Jesus told disturbing parables.  Now, here I was, creating a parable that both endorsed and challenged the position taken by our Archbishop.  It might also have served to challenge my colleagues to think of their job descriptions in a brand-new way.

But, just as Jesus encountered instances where his parables brought everyone to silence, so it was with my parable.  A long, uncomfortable silence fell upon us.  The Archbishop finally spoke, “Gosh, I never thought about it that way.  I’m going to have to think about what you said.”

When the Archbishop’s book[i] finally came out, I checked his chapter on authority to see whether anything had changed.  Nothing I could notice.  He did change the title though from “Authority is Good for You” to the more neutral, “Authority in the Church.”

So, did I fail?  Not entirely.  For, over the years, I became more and more aware of how some approved doctrines of my Church were causing grave harm to so many people. Only a few isolated theologians and pastors had sufficient love for the Church combined with sufficient fearlessness to perform the very unwelcome task of serving as God’s prophets and whistle-blowers.  So, it is my love for the people of God and my fearlessness that has prompted our Father in Heaven to choose me to write what I have written in this book.

Have I been too hard on Cardinal Ratzinger?  Some may think so.  All I can see is that our children are dying as a result of the toxic side-effects of this doctrine.  Some have taken their own lives out of shame and desperation.  Fathers have disowned their sons.  Mothers are ashamed of their daughters.  Some are cast out–hungry, homeless, and utterly miserable.  Our Church has been savagely torn apart by Ratzinger’s doctrine.  Lesbians in permanent unions have been denied Communion.  Teachers supporting them are being fired from our Catholic schools.

So, as I see it, my task is to write the “WARNING LABEL” that our bishops are unable and unwilling to write.  I pray to God that I will be more successful than when I told my parable during the faculty colloquium with the Archbishop.  But it is not healthy for me to overwhelm myself with self-doubts.  It is too late for that.  Like Jesus, I go forward no matter what the cost.  I leave the outcome in the hands of our Father in Heaven as did Jesus when he, in his day, openly confronted the Jewish Taliban.

Those who want to interact with this blog are invited to “Leave a Reply” below.  A solid way to begin doing this is to offer “readback lines.”  To do this, quickly glace back over the entire blog and pick out the one or two lines that have made a deep impression upon you.  Copy them [CTRL-C] and then paste them [CTRL-V] into an empty comment box below.  If you wish, signal the emotion that you feel when reading your readback lines.  The primary emotions are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise.   No need to further explain yourself.  It is enough to identify the text important to you and to name the emotion(s) that it evokes.  All of this normally takes less than a few minutes.

I and others will “thank you” for your contribution.  If you are tempted to say more, I urge you to hold back.  Your sense of safety and the safety of others is best protected by not getting overly wordy in the beginning.  This will come after a few days or weeks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Endnotes and Leave a Reply~~~~~~~~

[i] Archbishop Daniel E Pilarczyk, Twelve Tough Issues and More: What the Church Teaches and Why  (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1988).

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