“Catholic leaders fail to stop theologian,” said the Globe and Mail (Jan. 17, 92). “Barred from Churches, priest speaks at civic hall,” stated the Toronto Star (Jan. 20). “Using condoms no sin to priest,” reported the Toronto Sun (Jan. 20), while The Ottawa Citizen headed its report, “Liberal and Conservative Catholics clash at lecture” (Jan. 24).

Finally, the Toronto Star devoted most of its Saturday religion page to the controversy under the title “Catholic vs. Catholic” (Jan. 25).

The source of the controversy was an 80-year-old American priest and Benedictine monk of St. John’s Abbey, Minnesota, traveling in Ontario, dressed in bow-tie and civvies, telling his Catholic audiences that there is really no need to pay attention to the teaching of the Catholic Church on moral and family issues.

It’s the kind of thing Tom Harpur tells his readers and TV audience regularly without anybody getting too excited. Why then the controversy?


First, the visitor was himself a Catholic priest.

Second, the clergyman was the guest of Catholics, namely the CCCC, the Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics, and in Toronto also of the Metro Toronto Secondary Unit of OECTA, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. These Catholics had invited him because he is the author of the book Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic (1989).

Third, Fr. Philip Kaufman was disowned by the Archbishops of Toronto and Ottawa, who prohibited the use of Church facilities, and by the Bishop of London, who rejected his sponsors’ “record of hostility.”

CCCC spokesman Fintan Kilbride, a teacher at Neil McNeil high school in Toronto, an inactive priest and also a member of Corpus, an organization for inactive priests, was the principal organizer of the tour. He professed to be delighted with the controversy.

“We couldn’t have bought this publicity for a million dollars. This is going to polarize the opposition to the Bishops in a way that nothing ever has before.”

Delighted Kilbride may have been, but polarization? increased opposition to Bishops? Hardly. After all, Father Kaufman represents a spent force, a throwback to the early and middle seventies when Catholic dissent, especially on the Church’s moral teaching, reached its apogee. Following the election of John Paul II in October 1978, it declined, and today whatever it had of intellectual justification has dissipated in name calling, bullying and esoteric theologizing.

Still, Catholic dissenters do much damage, not least because of widespread media support. But the dissent itself has no viable intellectual justification and, therefore, no future. Its demand that human experience become a determining element in the formulation of theology has been heard and rejected. Should divorce be allowed, for example, because divorce is common in North America? The answer was no and remains no.

Focus on CCCC

Fr. Kaufman’s visit did have one effect: it sharpened the focus on the CCCC, revealing more clearly what its members hope for. After all, the group brought Kaufman (from here on referred to as “K”) to Canada as a champion of their own ideas.

Founded in 1989, the CCCC attracts members chiefly from among feminists and Catholic teachers who see themselves as the future molders of Catholic faith and the builders of a new democratic Church.

The spots originally chosen for K’s visit indicate particular points of CCCC strength: King’s College, London; St. Jerome’s College, Kitchener-Waterloo; The Newman Centre, St. Timothy’s Church and St. Gabriel’s in Toronto as well as St. Michael’s College where K stayed during his Toronto visit; Peterborough; St. Joseph’s in Ottawa (organizer Alex Campbell, also an inactive priest and member of Corpus); finally also Montreal where K spoke on “neutral ground,” at Concordia University.

Humanae Vitae, 1968

For K, as for other dissenting Catholic theologians, the beginning of dissent from Catholic teaching began with the 1968 birth control encyclical Humanae vitae (HV).

Opponents to HV express themselves in slightly different ways but they usually wind up with the same results, namely, rejecting church authority on a variety of moral and doctrinal issues. K cites three such theologians:

Father Hans Kung, the Swiss priest who in 1979 was denied the right to teach “in the name of the Church, argues that in the mind of the Church, HV falls under the category of absolutely certain, and therefore, infallible, teaching. Because HV is erroneous teaching, he says, it “proves” that there is no infallible teaching in the Church.

Father Charles Curran, the American whose title of Catholic theologian was removed in 1986, states that HV is not infallible teaching. According to him that means that everyone therefore is free to ignore it. (On the other hand, the Church herself teaches that HV falls under the ordinary Magisterium or teaching authority. This is not infallible but authoritative, requiring acceptance by the faithful in heart and mind).

Fr. Andrew Greeley of Chicago, the sociologist who writes novels, doesn’t care what kind of teaching HV is. It’s simply not “received” by Catholics, he says, and by that very fact proves itself incorrect.

Why You Can Disagree…

Kuses all three arguments in Why You Can Disagree… He devotes the first six chapters to attacking HV. As one reviewer puts it, “The author assigns himself a supra-magisterial position from which he passes judgment on popes and councils while showing a slavish respect for dissenting theologians.” (Msgr. Vincent Foy, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Feb., 1991).

Eventually it all boils down to the view that HV is just the opinion of one man, no better or worse than yours or mine. Accept it, if you wish; ignore it, if you want.

In passing, one notes that K doesn’t know anything about NFP, Natural Family Planning. Also he doesn’t know that today’s Pill and IUD are abortifacients; and he thinks that abortion should be a “take it or leave it” proposition on account of “pluralism” (expressed in a separate article).

K’s views on papal authority come down to the notion that it is not a question of laity, theologians and bishops having to be in union of heart and mind with the Pope, as the church teaches. No, it is the Pope who must learn to accept the “experience of the people”; otherwise his authority is null and void.

In K’s eyes, the whole idea of papal authority is suspect. Moreover it is an obstacle to true ecumenism and the expected “united church” of the future.

Church of the future

Divorce, K thinks, should be permitted, together with remarriage (Chap. 6 and 7). The Church may have taught for 2000 years that marriage is indissoluble and the Second Vatican Council may have denounced divorce as a plague (GS, Section 49), but modern experience demands change.

Anglican and Lutheran orders should be recognized; intercommunion should proceed at once; bishops should be elected only; Roman authority should be rejected; theology from principle and Revelation should be modified by a theology of experience; priestly authority should flow from the people, not the bishops; the laity should have a legislative, not a consultative role. In short, we need democracy.

Is K a wild-eyed rebel? Heavens no! He is your typical wolf in sheep’s clothing, smiling, benign, with an occasional chuckle.

Despite Mr. Kilbride’s ‘delight,’ the Episcopal “interference” was not really appreciated. In Toronto, CCCC handouts denounced Archbishop Ambrozic.

In the Catholic New Times which is supportive of the CCCC, Joanna Manning, CCCC president and religion teacher at Toronto’s Msgr. Percy Johnson Catholic High School, called for resistance to the ban on the use of churches.

As she did in March 1991 when feminists were forbidden to use church property, Manning spoke of “intimidation,” “abuse of the exercise of authority in the church,” reliance on “hearsay” without “due process;” an “arbitrary denial of access to church property.”

We are struggling, she said, for “competing models of the Church,” and the model of Archbishop Ambrozic is anti-Vatican II.

Leap in logic

Then follows the gratuitous leap in logic which has become characteristic of the CCCC: tie-in the so-called silencing or “suppression” of theology dissenters to a supposed cover-up of scandals involving homosexual priests: “The attempt to silence Kaufman is all the more poignant for Catholics in Canada who are still reeling from the impact of ongoing revelations of the cover-up of physical and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy…

Which is the greater scandal, Manning asked rhetorically: ‘silencing” Kaufman by “branding” him “a disloyal son” of the Church, or the Bishops’ covering up of the priest scandals?

Never mind that nobody “silenced” or “branded” Kaufman, and never mind that there never was a “cover-up,” i.e. in the sense of a plan to deliberately deceive the faithful on abuse by priests or brothers.

Manning wants to tie the Newfoundland scandals, not to homosexuality, not to errors in judgment about how to deal with the abusers, but to celibacy and the hierarchical structure of the Church.

The argument is that abuse is inherent in both, with hierarchy representing authority – therefore autocracy – therefore corruption (“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”).

The sad conclusion of this view is the rejection of the church as a divinely-instituted and divinely-guided institution; she becomes just one power structure among many. And that, too, is ultimately the thrust of Why You Can Disagree…

Groups such as CCCC are hardened in their resolve when they have support from a prominent theologian. Such a person is Father Walter Principe.

Principe is a former president of the American Theological Society, a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (whose theology he intensely dislikes), Professor emeritus of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies and lecturer in history theology, Faculty of Theology, St. Michael’s College, Toronto.

In 1968 Fr. Principe publicly rejected HV as something “he couldn’t buy.” Today, in semi-retirement, he has become active in promoting and supporting the CCCC.

The Catholic New Times, seeking a defense for K. asked him for his opinion and received the following comment:

“Father Philip Kaufman is no disloyal rabble-rouser. He speaks as one would expect of a Benedictine monk – peacefully and serenely, meanwhile showing his deep pastoral concern for so many Catholics who have either left the Church or are finding it hard to remain. His concerns are for those ‘bruised reeds and smoldering wicks’ among Catholics, who are confused when some bishops and priests lump all Catholic teaching together as if everything they teach is infallible and unchangeable; Catholics are disheartened when discussion of non-infallible and changing issues is closed off.” (CNT, February 2, 1992)

In my view Fr. Principe here attempts to justify his own behavior as well as that of K. He separates the subjective from the objective, by expressing the notion that true pastoral concern and compassion can be exercised separately from and even contrary to objective morality and truth.

It is amazing how a supposed expert on medieval theology can so contradict Thomas Aquinas, the premier theologian of the Middle Ages, who teaches that “it is clear that mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fullness thereof.”

Father Alphonse de Valk is a Catholic priest in the Congregation of St. Basil and editor of The Interim.