A Letter from John Shea, a courageous friend in the U.S.

Dear Tony,

If the bishops in this country are incapable of addressing women’s ordination—perhaps partly because of loyalty, partly because the church never makes mistakes, partly because of fear, and partly because they simply are not informed enough to speak—and if the theologians in this country who are informed enough to speak are also incapable of addressing women’s ordination—perhaps partly because they have been told by the bishops to be quiet, partly because of fear, and partly because of the prospect of jeopardizing their academic careers—then who is able to speak?

All of this induced silence raises the question of the role of the bishops and the theologians in the church. If they are our teachers, how can they have so little concern for intelligent, informed, and engaged pedagogy? What is the impact of squelched, truncated, and timid thinking—over two decades of a forced and enervating silence—not just on the ordination of women but also on any open, honest, and fruitful discussion of the ministerial needs of the church? What happens to the church when it is separated from a living theology? Do we realize the price we are paying for an un-called-for and unhealthy failure to speak? In how many ways are the women, the men, the children, the remaining priests—all the people of God—paying that price? Likewise, do we realize what happens to our theology when it is separated from the living church? Are we aware of that price too?

Jesus keeps saying; “Do not be afraid.” Pope Francis keeps saying: “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.” But how are courage and dialogue possible in a church where women—seen by some as another species—are rendered structurally voiceless and where bishops and theologians are only present by carefully and safely silencing themselves? Is there any possibility at all for a church that is beyond dumb—for a whole, life-giving, honest, authentic, and Spirit-filled church, for a church that respects each person’s voice and gifts for ministry, for a church of hospitality that is responsible and adult, for a gendered church that is as fully human as Jesus is fully human?

At this point, do our bishops and theologians—so similar in so many ways—only serve as a pale reminder of the events, the promise, the fortitude, and the aliveness of yesteryear? Are we still recovering from the Americanist heresy? Is Vatican II a reality for us or just another event to be chronicled? Have we devolved—in paci­fying yet paralyzing pusil­lanimity—to the point where the only good church is a silenced church, a gathering of the voiceless and leaderless, a Vatican-fettered church we cheerfully accept not only as patently sexist and rigidly controlling but also as dialogically dead?

Is it already too late to talk about the search for truth? Is skewed patriarchal thinking the best we can bring? Are historical explanations the same as theo­logical explanations? Is a folk theory of gender the essence of revelation? Was Jesus wonderfully patriarchal? Is the past prologue or is it meant to be an endless present of male superiority and privilege?

What does it mean today for us be just stewards? Do the people of God need engaged teaching appropriate for adults? Are silence and safety the new testament? Is theology about faith but not about understanding? Is there salt without savor?

How long? How long? How long? How long?

When is too late?


John Shea