Can the bishops be wrong? (again)
Yesterday the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine issued a statement, signed by committee chair Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in response to the recent flap over their critique of Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God (click here for all dotCommonweal posts on the subject). It’s called “Bishops as Teachers: A Resource for Bishops,” and you can read it here (PDF).
As with the aftermath of the bishops’ position in the the debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I find myself asking, “Can the bishops ever be wrong?” Following the health-care-reform debate, that question was asked in Commonweal by Daniel Finn (“Uncertainty Principle”) and Richard Gaillardetz (“The Limits of Authority”), and it’s worth going back to their analyses in the light of this new document. “Bishops as Teachers” defends at length the bishops’ special competence as authoritative teachers of the faith. But what if they make a bad call? Is anyone who says “I think you got this wrong” automatically undermining, or denying, the bishops’ authority to teach what is right?
Cardinal Wuerl offers an analogy:
In any sporting match, football, tennis, baseball, there are referees and umpires. The game can only proceed with the supervision of a referee. In a tennis match, it is not the player who calls the ball “out of bounds” but the referee. The player may object that it was not his or her intention to hit the ball out of bounds. He or she may even question whether the ball is out of bounds. But it is the referee who must make the call. Otherwise there can be no coherent game, no enjoyment of the match, no sense of progress in learning the sport: in short, the “tennis game” would devolve into a fruitless exchange of individuals hitting the ball at will.
Agreed. But what about the responsibilities of the referee? To quibble with a call is not necessarily to quibble with the legitimacy of rules and umpires in general. And sometimes referees do get it wrong — and many sports have adjusted their procedures in light of that reality. Not having rules and referees is untenable. But not holding referees accountable in any way is also detrimental to “enjoyment of the match” and “progress in learning the sport” and so on. When a referee makes a bad call, it undermines the trust of the players and spectators.
A recent example: St. John’s victory over Rutgers in the NCAA playoffs. The last play of the game was posted all over the internet, because the refs missed not one but two calls that would have turned the ball over to Rutgers and given them a chance to tie or win the game. ESPN’s Kieran Darcy reported:
CONTROVERSY: Justin Brownlee hurled the ball into the crowd after the last Rutgers turnover, and it appeared there was still time on the clock. Others say he also traveled, and stepped out of bounds. The Big East issued a statement, saying: “Two separate officiating errors occurred at the conclusion of the St. John’s vs. Rutgers game. Both missed violations should have caused the game clock to stop and a change of possession to occur prior to the end of the game. Neither error is reviewable or correctable under NCAA playing rules.”
Not reviewable, not correctable — but it was still a mistake. An obvious one. (Watch the video here.) At the buzzer the refs hurried off the court and away from accountability. But they did later voluntarily withdraw from officiating for the rest of the tournament, a tacit admission that their credibility had been dangerously undermined.
Wuerl returns to his analogy later, in a way that I think strains it past usefulness:
Once a theological work is published, however, it is ipso facto open to response. It is like the ball that has been hit in a tennis match. It is already in play. If it is called out of bounds, it is not an adequate response to say that the referee did not enter into dialogue with the player beforehand.
Obviously the cardinal is objecting to the complaint that the bishops failed to reach out to Sr. Johnson in any way before issuing their judgment of her book. But I think this analogy belittles the concern about a lack of collegiality and openness — those who have made this point (including the CTSA) are not questioning the bishops’ right to act as referees; they’re saying the bishops might have made a better call if they’d made more of an effort to understand what they were judging. This is where theology is not like hitting a tennis ball. If the bishops say “Sr. Johnson believes…” or “Sr. Johnson argues…” and it seems clear to others that those judgments are not grounded in a fair reading of the book, we have a problem beyond a general failure to recognize that boundaries exist and should be enforced.
Does the commission of Christ to teach with authority rule out the possibility of going back to the tape in a good-faith effort to get things right? Does the ruling on the field not only have to stand, but have to be defended, no matter what the cost? That doesn’t seem right to me — not in basketball and not in the church.