The “Controversial” Richard Gaillardetz
A small band of activists are urging Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to skip an upcoming conference at Saint Paul’s University (in Ottawa). Entitled “Vatican II for the Next Generation,” the conference is slated for September and is being warned against on account of its featuring of speakers “strongly opposed to Catholic teaching.”
Among those “controversial,” LifeSiteNews identifies Richard Gaillardetz, a theologian currently teaching at Boston College. Gaillardetz, the article states, wrote an op-ed piece (in 2008) identifying Barack Obama as the “pro-life candidate” in that year’s federal election. Further Gaillardetz has questioned the definitive status of Humanae vitae and the impossibility of ordaining women.
I offer no counsel to Cardinal Turkson (and find it curious that others feel qualified), but I am interested in the identification of Gaillardetz as an object of suspicion or “controversy.” After all, it was not too long ago that Gaillardetz gave two major presentations at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Plenary Assembly. That minute band of activists who succeeded in generating controversy at that time, and who were opposed to Gaillardetz speaking to the Canadian Bishops (bishops who extended the invitation to him), offered no engagement with the actual content of either presentation made by Gaillardetz. At no point did these activists admit that their fears had been unfounded. Instead they became silent and, several years later, have resurfaced with Gaillardetz’ potential return to Canada.
I remember reading that Gaillardetz received a church mandate to teach when he began a ten year appointment at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. This mandatum, it was communicated, was portable insofar as it remained in effect until revoked (which it has not been). Nonetheless, the three strikes LifeSiteNews identifies against Gaillardetz are worthy of consideration.
On one hand Gaillardetz opposes abortion. On the other a 2008 identification exists identifying Barack Obama as the “pro-life candidate” in that year’s federal election. Gaillardetz appears to question the strategy of directing energies towards overturning Roe v. Wade, but it seems to me that these stands deserve to be seen in the context of how Gaillardetz understands abortion as being most practically reduced.
His judgment can be met with agreement or disagreement (as I understand, it has been met with the disagreement of his prior ordinary, Bishop Blair), but to the extent that overturning Roe v. Wade would return abortion to the purview of individual states, argument can be made that there are more effective ways to reduce the number of abortions occurring right now. Gaillardetz, it seems to me, is entitled to hold the argument he does, and his opinion neither besmirches his integrity as a Catholic theologian, nor is doctrinally relevant to the ecclesiology he would communicate in the context of his Fall presentation on the Second Vatican Council.
That Gaillardetz sat on the National Steering Committee of Obama’s Catholic Advisory Board is not bothersome to me. Gaillardetz claims: “I did not support President Obama’s position on abortion and when I was asked to be on his Advisory Board, I made it clear to his senior staff that were I appointed to the board, I would continue to voice my opposition to the Senator on that issue. I was told that such criticism would be welcomed and indeed it was. Several of us on the Advisory Board called time and again for a change in Senator Obama’s positions…” I see no reason to dismiss this testimony as dishonest. Furthermore, at this very site, Gaillardetz commented: “While I do not regret my support of President Obama, I do regret the flippant suggestion that he is pro-life. In the Op-Ed piece in which I made that statement I was referring to a broad range of social policies. I have consistently opposed President Obama’s position on abortion.”
Moving past the irrelevant preoccupation with the politics of Gaillardetz, there are two considerations LifeSiteNews identifies which are relevant to the discipline (ecclesiology) in which Gaillardetz finds himself. When Gaillardetz is identified as questioning the definitive status of Humanae vitae, let us be clear about what is being identified: We are talking about ecclesial weight. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian observes that “one must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged,” and as an ecclesiologist it seems to me that this is what Gaillardetz is doing by investigating and seeking to determine the document’s weight.
As to whether the Church’s teaching on artificial methods of regulating birth has achieved definitive status, consider Monsignor Ferdinando Lambruschinni who presented the encyclical to the press from the Vatican on 29 July 1968. In his formal statement, Lambruschinni claimed that the encyclical contained no ex cathedra pronouncement. Further, he ruled out the possibility that Humanae vitae was a reaffirmation of a teaching already infallibly proposed, and he suggested that if new data appeared in the future, the possibility of a revised statement could not be ruled out.
Simply because the Monsignor said this doesn’t make it true. However, individuals who believe the teaching has been presented infallibly need to explain what has happened in the last forty years to make this teaching discernibly infallible and, also why neither the Church nor the majority of ecclesiologists present this teaching as infallible. While it may be a shock to that band of activists opposed to Gaillardetz, this Catholic theologian exists within the mainstream of Catholic ecclesiology in his evaluation of the status of that which is communicated in Humanae vitae.
The same is true of his questioning of the impossibility of ordaining women. Quite simply this is Gaillardetz offering his professional expertise regarding the weight with which, he believes, a particular teaching has been presented. Even if the assessment is wrong (for example, the CDF’s 28 October 1995 “Response to Dubium” identifies its own alternate evaluation), that would not make Gaillardetz the “hard-core liberal dissenter” that letter writer Tom Richardson once hurled in his direction. Any error by Gaillardetz, further, would be shared by Francis Sullivan, whose work in ecclesiology (in the English-speaking world, and in my opinion) is second to none. Although Gaillardetz is not rendered infallible as a result of agreeing with Sullivan, and although not without inviting critical response, Gaillardetz exists within the mainstream of Catholic ecclesiology on this matter. At issue is a matter requiring further attention in Catholic ecclesiology: the method of verifying that which has been definitively connected with the divinely revealed. All that is identified as belonging to that “definitively connected with divine revelation” gradation, must be considered an interpretation and while one’s interpretation can be questioned, one’s Catholicity need not be.
Critics of Gaillardetz need to remember that even when a teaching has not been presented infallibly (or even when ambiguity exists as to where a teaching is best classified), that does not mean that there is suddenly dispute as to what the Church teaches, or dispute as to how persons respond. As paragraph 25 of Lumen gentium notes, even “when he is not speaking ex cathedra” the “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in an authentic way to the magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.” More important, I think, than the status of a document, is making evident the truth contained within. To that end, Gaillardetz reminds his critics that he has never challenged, in his works, the truthfulness of reserving priestly ministry to men, and also, that he has defended, in his works, the Church’s views on artificial methods of regulating birth. And yet to a small number, this is not enough.
I appreciate (what I charitably choose to interpret as) the interest these activists have in the state of the Catholic Church in Canada, and in the integrity of a Catholic institution such as Saint Paul’s University, and in their concern for the hearers of (what they perceive are) dangerous views, but the criticisms of Gaillardetz are lightweight (to be polite), and in place of them I think Canadian Catholics would be better off giving the benefit of the doubt to a great number of American Bishops who have employed Gaillardetz’ services and placed their confidence in him, to the Canadian Bishops who have done the same, and to Saint Paul’s University who believes Gaillardetz has something of worth to contribute. I have no doubt that he does.
Readers might appreciate “Fulfilling the Unrealized Vision of Vatican II” (a sixty [or so] minute lecture by Gaillardetz).