A couple of days ago, while the crème de la crème of the Catholic blogosphere was in Rome being whipped into a froth of self-appreciation by Vatican officials, far away in the Outback, Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba was getting sacked for daring to suggest that clerical celibacy and women’s ordination ought to be open for discussion in the Catholic Church. From time to time, one of the big boys, like Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, has made such a suggestion and gotten his wrist slapped, but so far as I know, this is the first time a bishop has been cashiered for same.

Morris, for his part, didn’t take the decision lying down. As he put it to a letter to his priests:

“It has been my experience and the experience of others that Rome controls bishops by fear, and if you ask questions or speak openly on subjects that Rome declares closed . . . you are censored very quickly, told your leadership is defective . . . and are threatened with dismissal.

In fact, the extent to which a pope can close a discussion is itself a subject of high level debate in conservative Catholic circles. Recently, some very conservative clerics have taken to attacking Vatican II’s pronouncements on religious liberty as illicitly violating Pius IX’s pronouncements on the subject. On the other side is Martin Rhonheimer, the Opus Dei theologian who gained some fame a few months ago for defending the new Vatican line on AIDS and condoms.

Rhonheimer draws an interesting distinction between the the pope’s magisterial interpretation of dogma or natural law, which is infallible, and his application of it, which is, well, fallible:

In short: the teaching of Vatican II on religious freedom does not imply a new dogmatic orientation, but does take on a new orientation in the Church’s social doctrine – specifically, a correction of its teaching on the mission and function of the State. The council gave the same immutable principles a new application in a new historical setting. There is no timeless dogmatic Catholic doctrine on the State – nor can there be –, with the exception of those principles that are rooted in the apostolic Tradition and in Sacred Scripture. The idea of a “Catholic State” as the secular arm of the Church falls outside these principles, which in fact suggest a separation between the political and religious spheres.

If clerical celibacy and women’s ordination are not timeless dogmatic Catholic doctrine but applications of such doctrine in a particular historical setting, then might they not be, in the current historical setting, mistaken? Shouldn’t they be, at the very least, open for discussion?

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