U.S. Catholic bishops have been pressured by conservatives to suspend the appointment of a Jesuit theologian to a key post within the church hierarchy because nine years ago he publicly criticized a Vatican prohibition on the ordination of women as priests.
The May 30 appointment of the Rev. Michael J. Buckley, 54, a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., to head the committee on doctrine of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has been put on hold while a special three-bishop panel examines the orthodoxy of his beliefs, according to church officials.
The incident, part of an ongoing battle between right-wing U.S. Catholics and the bishops' Washington-based support staff of advisers and consultants, marks the first time an appointee has been prevented from taking office, said Russell Shaw, spokesman for the bishops' organization.
Conservative Catholic publications and groups contend that the liberal social and economic positions taken by the bishops in recent years are the result of undue pressure from progressive consultants on the conference staff.
Shaw said that opposition to Buckley's appointment came largely from the National Catholic Register, an unofficial conservative weekly published in Los Angeles, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a conservative group that he said "put together a dossier" on Buckley.
Although the Buckley appointment was not on the agenda of the bishops' retreat last month in Collegeville, Minn., enough questions were raised informally, Shaw said, to prompt Msgr. Daniel Hoye, general secretary of the bishops' conference, to take action.
Hoye asked Buckley to respond in writing to questions that have been raised, Shaw said. His responses will be reviewed by a panel of three bishops: Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, Bishop Walter Curtis of Bridgeport, Conn., and Bishop Michael Murphy of Erie, Pa.
Buckley could not be reached for comment.
Objections to Buckley concern an open letter he and 22 other faculty members of the Jesuit seminary signed in response to the Vatican's 1977 declaration that women may not be ordained priests.
In addition to disagreeing with the conclusions in the document issued by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Jesuit scholars argued that the pronouncement was "not sustained by the evidence" and would cause "serious injustice" in the church.
Stating that " . . . those whose lives are consecrated to the assimilation and explanation of the Word of God cannot remain silent when that Word is attenuated seriously by indifference or by error or by insensitivity or by ignorance," the Jesuits called their dissent "a moral imperative."
Shaw said the bishops' panel, in evaluating Buckley, would consider "the appropriateness and legitimacy of dissent from a magisterial position in the church." And on the nontheological level, he said, they would have to consider whether, "in view of the perceptions of Father Buckley, can he in fact function effectively in this job?"
The challenge to Buckley's appointment comes amid increasing efforts by church leaders to stamp out dissent. At Catholic University, the Rev. Charles Curran has been ordered by the Vatican to retract dissenting views on sexual ethics or face loss of his credentials as a Catholic theologian.
The Rev. James Provost, an expert on church law, has been unable to secure tenure at the school. And last year, the Rev. John P. Boyle was denied the deanship of the university's School of Religious Studies because Archbishop James A. Hickey, the chancellor, questioned positions taken by Boyle in a 1977 book on sterilization and Catholic hospitals.