The appointment of a Jesuit theologian from California to the sensitive post of the U.S. bishops' chief adviser on doctrine will be formally reviewed by a panel of bishops, Roman Catholic officials announced Monday in Washington.
Father Michael J. Buckley, 54, a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, was chosen last May to become full-time executive director of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine, effective in September.
But several bishops and archbishops apparently objected in June to the fact that he had signed--along with 22 other members of the Jesuit seminary--a statement in 1977 disagreeing with the Vatican declaration that women may not be admitted to the priesthood. The statement also declared that such public dissent on church teachings is a "moral imperative" for theologians.
A terse announcement Monday from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said only that a panel of three bishops, headed by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, was "formed to examine the situation and advise the general secretary."
The general secretary is Msgr. Daniel F. Hoye, who had appointed Buckley as executive director of two committees, the one on doctrine and another on pastoral research and practices. Hoye has declined to speak to the press about the controversy surrounding the Buckley appointment.
But the National Catholic Register, a conservative newspaper published in Los Angeles, reported that several bishops and archbishops objected not only to Buckley's part in the 1977 statement, but also to some of his views on artificial contraception and other matters.
The objections arose as pressure for greater doctrinal orthodoxy has come from Rome. Two scholars at the Catholic University of America in Washington are under fire for supposedly straying too far from traditional church teachings. Father Charles Curran, a liberal ethics professor, has been threatened by the Vatican with loss of his official status as a Catholic theologian. Father James Provost, a church law expert, faces the possibility of being denied tenure by his school.
Like Provost, however, Buckley does not have a reputation as a controversial priest, and has held several responsible positions for the church hierarchy. He organizes the program for the annual 10-day retreats for California's bishops, and was made theological adviser to the Pontifical Commission on Religious Life in the United States chaired by Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco.
Quinn has expressed concern about the challenges against Buckley, at least in meetings the archbishop has had recently with some of his priests, said Father Miles Riley, information director for the San Francisco archdiocese. "It is surprising that a theologian as reputable and orthodox as Michael Buckley is being questioned," Riley said.
Buckley was named to succeed Msgr. Richard K. Malone, who has held those positions for 10 years. Praising Malone's successor in a May 30 announcement, Hoye said that Buckley, "like Msgr. Malone . . . brings to the position an impressive combination of scholarship and dedication to the church."
Buckley has taught mostly at the Jesuit School of Theology, where he was rector from 1969 to 1973. He was a visiting professor at the Gregorian University in Rome from 1973 to 1975. He is the author or editor of three books, including a study of the origins of modern atheism to be published next year.
Buckley could not be reached for comment Monday.
The formal statement of dissent signed by Buckley and his colleagues at the Berkeley school was presented by the head of U.S. Jesuits March 18, 1977, to the Vatican's diplomatic representative in Washington. The statement, published in The Times that day, took issue with a recent declaration by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office charged with maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy. The Vatican body said that the church could not authorize women's ordination to the priesthood, but the theologians argued that the pronouncement was "not sustained by the evidence" and "could sanction within the Church a practice of serious injustice."
The signers also justified their open objections. "For theologians, dissent is neither a luxury nor a rhetoric. There are times when 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 question then becomes one of conscience. Dissent becomes a moral imperative. . . ."