Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Monday, July 26, 2010

Even canon law is dangerous in the hands of amateurs

The answer to a canonical question is seldom found in a single canon.

A simple observation, one would think, but it is routinely overlooked by canonical amateurs, often with inconsequential results of course, but sometimes with ludicrous ones. Take, for example, a recent post by one “skellmeyer” who, citing Canon 253, suggests that Dr. Janet Smith is unqualified to teach in a Catholic seminary!

Skellmeyer, apparently upset with Christopher West’s presentations of TOB, has attacked Smith, a prominent West defender, on the basis that, if she is unqualified to teach in a Catholic seminary, she's probably also unqualified to defend West. We’ll come back to what one’s teaching in a seminary doesn’t have to do with one’s defense of West/TOB below, but for now, let’s look at Skellmeyer’s questioning of Smith’s eligibility to teach in a seminary.

Canon 253 § 1, upon which Skellmeyer relies, states “The bishop or bishops [in charge of a seminary] are to appoint to the function of teacher in philosophical, theological, and juridic disciplines only those who are outstanding in virtue and have obtained a doctorate or licentiate from a university or faculty recognized by the Holy See.” Obviously this canon is relevant to assessing credentials for seminary appointments, although how exactly Skellmeyer concludes that Canon 253 is “among the most roundly ignored canons [sic] in canon law”, escapes me. I can think of several other candidates for that dubious distinction. But let that pass.

Skellmeyer then correctly lists Smith’s academic credentials: her Bachelor’s in Classics from Grinnell College; a Master’s in Classical Languages from the University of North Carolina; and a Ph.D. in Classical Languages from the University of Toronto, noting finally that Smith holds the Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Ethics (at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit). Here’s where the trouble begins.

First, Skellmeyer rephrases the canon incorrectly ( “Wow. Can't teach in a seminary without a doctorate, eh?” ) but worse, mistakenly assuming that Canon 253 is the sole criterion by which seminary appointments are assessed, and amid sarcasm that has no place in the public discourse of Catholics, then launches an attack on Smith (and, while he’s at it, against the esteemed Ralph Martin and George Weigel as well!)

Says Skellmeyer: “No good Catholic would violate the sacred canons of the Church, would they? Would they? . . . Not only does Janet [sic] appear to be missing a Ph.D. or licentiate in from an ‘institution recognized by the Holy See’, none of her degrees appear to actually be in theology at all. Could someone tell me how one gets the Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary without having a degree in theology? It's certainly a poser.”

Well folks, it’s not a “poser”, not for anyone who knows canon law or Dr. Janet Smith.

Canonically, the credential requirement of Canon 253 is unquestionably among those many norms subject to dispensation in accord with Canons 10, 85-87, and 149 § 2. Cito, Exegetical Comm., II/1: 273. If, therefore, competent archdiocesan authorities concluded that Dr. Smith was qualified to teach in a seminary, they were fully authorized to appoint her.

Nor is this opinion conveniently offered just to aid my friend*: During the lengthy post-Conciliar canonical revision process, the requirement newly proposed for Canon 253, that seminary faculty have “pontifical degrees”, was criticized as being unnecessary in certain cases and unduly burdensome in many others. This criticism was effectively conceded and remedied when the pontifical Revision Commission expressly confirmed that the newly proposed credential requirement could be dispensed from by local authorities. Communicationes 14 (1982) 166. Smith’s seminary appointment therefore falls wholly within canon law and Skellmeyer is simply rash to assert that she "appears to be in violation of canon law."**

Notwithstanding the patent legality of Smith’s appointment, Skellmeyer could, I suppose, still complain about it to the Holy See. But in complaining to Rome—and here we come to our second point—Skellmeyer should keep in mind a few salient points about Smith.

Janet Smith: (1) was appointed in the mid 1990s by Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to a three-person team charged with investigating the
highly controversial Grammick–Nugent materials on Church teaching regarding homosexuality; (2) was appointed in 2005 by the Congregation for Catholic Education to serve as a US seminary visitor; and (3) was reappointed in 2009 to her third five-year term as a consultant to the Pontifical Council on the Family. I am, frankly, hard-pressed to think of an American lay woman who has been called upon to serve more Roman dicasteries than has Janet Smith!

Yet Skellmeyer, having looked up a canon, questions her qualifications to teach in a seminary. See what I mean by "ludicrous"?

A last thought: by personally attacking Janet Smith, Skellmeyer has done a disservice not only to Smith, obviously, but also to the other critics of Christopher West. At a minimum, I seriously doubt that any of the West/TOB critics I’ve read so far would want to join Skellmeyer in questioning the suitability of Smith’s seminary appointment or in twisting her academic credentials into a basis to ignore her arguments on West/TOB. Put another way, I won't assume that West’s other critics are as hapless as “skellmeyer”, and I will suggest that arguments for West/TOB offered by scholars as distinguished as Janet Smith cannot be so cavalierly brushed aside. + + +

In the interest of full disclosure: I carpool with Smith about once a week and if, per absurdum, she lost her teaching position at SHMS, I would have to arrange for alternative transportation on Wednesdays. Which I’d really prefer not to have to do. ;)

** Moreover, as should be obvious to anyone who reads the plain text of Canon 253, if Skellmeyer doesn’t like Smith teaching in a seminary, his beef is not with Smith, but rather, with the present archbishop of Detroit (who, btw, as Rector of SHMS, hired Smith in 2001!)