Catholic concepts in a secular world

Margaret Nutting Ralph, director of the master's program in pastoral studies at Lexington Theological Seminary, has written several books as a "contextualist."
Margaret Nutting Ralph, director of the master's program in pastoral studies at Lexington Theological Seminary, has written several books as a "contextualist." Lexington Herald-Leader

In Margaret Nutting Ralph's first book, And God Said What? An Introduction of Biblical Literary Forms (Paulist Press, $18.95), published in 1986, Ralph wrote from the standpoint of a Bible-studying "contextualist" within the Catholic Church. She put Scripture into its historical and moral context, considering overall directives of the Scripture in addition to specific historical mandates.

Her new book, Why the Catholic Church Must Change: A Necessary Conversation (Rowan & Littlefield, $34), examines various topics not just of the secular culture — abortion, marriage annulment and social justice — but of the Catholic culture and focuses on how the church can change.

In addition to her writing, Ralph, a Catholic, is director of the pastoral studies master's program at Lexington Theological Seminary and teaches in the permanent deacon program at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Ind.

She discussed her new book with the Herald-Leader.

Question: In a few words, what is the main message you hope to convey with the book?

Answer: Several people asked me to write the book, I think because, for a Catholic woman who loves the church, I have an unusual experience. There aren't many Catholic women who are wives, mothers and have been secretaries of educational ministries in a Catholic diocese for many years. I love Scripture. And I think that when you're formed by Scripture, you have a different perspective than if you're even formed by theology or doctrine.

Q: You write that the Catholic Church teaches that people "will be judged, not by their obedience to the law, but by their fidelity to a well-formed conscience." You discuss the importance of putting Scripture in context. How does that square up with those who quote selected passages from the Bible as "evidence" that they are right to be, say, anti-gay marriage or anti-abortion?

A: If you don't put Scripture passages in context, you can use them to support anything you already think; so you can have two people diametrically opposed on an issue, and both of them will be convinced they're right, because they've taken an out-of-context Scripture passage to support what they already think.

We still have the creationist museum in this state, and people are still trying to use the Bible to teach science, which it does not teach.

If I put the Scriptures in context, I can use that to accept the inspired truths that they are trying to teach me. A direct example I use that I think all agree on now is slavery. If a person had been a Southern slaveowner, they may have just taken the passage, "Slaves, be obedient to your masters" and thought that was God affirming their social order and so they'd feel justified in doing what they were doing.

The method is just as useful for present-day issues. The words I use for that are "contextualist," for what I'm doing, and I contrast that with "fundamentalist."

Q: In your chapter on abortion, you make a salient point about how many people who are pro-choice are not really pro-abortion. Why do you say that "Catholics also do harm when those who believe that abortion is immoral try to distinguish themselves from all of their opponents by calling themselves pro-life."

A: I've talked to many people who would never have an abortion themselves and are not pro-abortion at all, but they think that it's a decision of conscience and that it should be a personal decision and not a decision of the federal government or state government. They're not for criminalizing abortion, because that would deprive people of it being a personal choice, but nevertheless they're against abortion.

Q: You mention in that chapter also that science has not really determined that moment when a human becomes a human.

A: I don't think we know. But the church has a definite teaching on it. The church says that when egg and sperm meet, even if it's in a petri dish, it's a person.

Now, I truly believe in life after death, and so my idea is that a person is a person when, if their life on earth is terminated, they're still alive in heaven. I think the church — I shouldn't say the church when I mean the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the church) — should say, because we don't know precisely when that moment comes, we must treat all possibilities with the dignity with which we treat a human being. I would err on the side of caution, not on the side of feeling free to abort.

I would never call myself pro-abortion in a million years, because I think that's a terrible tragedy. At the same time, I would be uncomfortable with the federal or state government being the deciding voice in the issue.

Q: You write about gay marriage and emphasize that the greatest mandate we are given by Scripture is to love thoughtfully and to express tolerance and encouragement to others. How does that reflect on the issue of gay marriage?

A: My thoughts on this have certainly evolved. Initially, not knowing anything about it, I thought it was a choice based in lust.

My husband's a psychologist, and I asked him, "Do you think people choose this action freely or is it innate to them to be homosexual as I am heterosexual?" He said, "I don't think they choose it." I said, "What do you think causes it? Is it nature or nurture?" He said, "We don't know the exact cause, but it's probably both."

I began to think the only way for people of homosexual orientation to have a happy stable life, the kind of life I have, is if they have a relationship. I disapprove of all sexual activity outside of marriage, so the only way I can let them have sexual activity is to let them have marriage, where it's committed and life-giving — not in the sense of procreation, but in the sense of each other's life.

My next stand was that civil unions would be all right, but don't call them marriage. But then a priest friend of mine told me, "If you want to be faithful to the teaching not to discriminate, you have to let them use the word 'marriage.' Marriage brings privileges under the law."

I consider myself a 100 percent faithful Catholic. A lot of people who read this book won't consider me that, but I do. I accept them (gays) for who they are. This is the way God made them. They are the way God wants them to be, and I shouldn't be discriminating against them.

Q: Throughout the book you talk about Scripture abuse. Could you give us an example of an often-abused passage of Scripture?

A: Because of the Supreme Court's considering the right to marry among people of the same gender right now, I heard over and over politicians being interviewed about this saying, "Scripture tells us that for a man to lie down with a man is an abomination, and Scripture has authority in my life, so I can't be in favor of this."

Well, before I was a contextualist, I would have agreed with that statement, because I can find those words in Scripture, but they weren't addressing the question we're addressing now. The question we're addressing now couldn't be addressed by a biblical author, because the idea of sexual orientation was unheard of. If homosexual orientation is a fact, which I think it is, then we have a new setting within which to ask the questions.

No biblical author addressed the question of what is moral and immoral activity for those with homosexual orientation. They should be able to be just as loving and responsible in that love as a heterosexual person.

Q: What do you think reaction to the book is going to be?

A: Some people will think I'm the tool of Satan, and other people will be very, very grateful that what they've thought for years has been stated and is part of the conversation.


Excerpts from Why the Catholic Church Must Change: A Necessary Conversation by Margaret Nutting Ralph

On how literally to take the Bible:

"Those who were telling the stories were not trying to teach history or science. They were trying to probe mysteries that are, to this day, partially beyond our comprehension: Who is God? Who are we in relationship to God and to each other? What would God have us do to cooperate with God's will and God's purpose rather than to thwart it?"

On women in the ministry:

"If the Catholic Church believes that it cannot do anything not taught by word or example by Jesus Christ during his public ministry, it wouldn't have ordained priests at all. Where did the Catholic Church get the authority to begin to ordain anyone, even males? The Catholic Church can't claim that Jesus set that example because there is absolutely no evidence of that. The practice of ordination developed many years after Jesus's public ministry and resurrection."

On abortion:

"First, the Catholic Church could do a better job of teaching what Catholics believe. If more Catholics were loving and persuasive teachers on this topic, fewer people might choose to have abortions. The Catholic Church could also do many more things to alleviate those problems that are the causes of a woman's choosing abortion, be it shame, lack of family support, poverty, lack of health care, and the like. Catholics could help people see that abortion is their worst choice, not their best choice among bad choices."