Bishops’ new doctrinal head ready to defend teachings
Father Ryan
Father Ryan

When it was announced in May that Jesuit Father Peter Ryan would head the American bishops’ national doctrine office, the National Catholic Reporter called him a holder of “conventional” views who was hired as a doctrinal “watchdog.”

Visibly at least, Father Ryan isn’t troubled by that unflattering description.

Of “conventional,” he said, “I certainly try to be faithful to the Church’s teaching, and I think that’s a good thing.”

As for “watchdog,” he acknowledged that it’s “part of the job,” adding: “A watchdog is supposed to protect the flock, and I consider it a privilege to help the bishops do that.”

The 61-year-old Jesuit moral theologian spoke with Our Sunday Visitor in July during a visit to the headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, D.C., where he is scheduled to start work Aug. 19 as executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs. He succeeds Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, who held the job since 2005.


At the time of his appointment, Father Ryan had been director of spiritual formation and professor of moral theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis since January 2011. Before that, he was professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md., from 2001 to 2011, and assistant professor of moral theology at Loyola College, Baltimore, from 1994 to 2001.

He was born in Washington on Feb. 12, 1952, the fourth of eight children, and he had what he describes as a “strong Catholic upbringing.” His brother William is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who, for the past eight years, has been a missionary in Togo, in West Africa.

Between his junior and senior years at Loyola College, the young man had a “profound conversion experience” through his involvement in the Charismatic Renewal movement. After three years of post-college work, he entered the Society of Jesus. “I liked the idea of being able to do a variety of things, and the Jesuits offer a broad range of apostolic possibilities,” he said.

Power of theology

At first attracted to philosophy, in time he moved on to the study of theology. Today he recalls thinking, “If theology could be done with the same intellectual rigor as philosophy, it would be pretty powerful stuff.” His several degrees include a licentiate in philosophy from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., a master of divinity degree from Regis College in Toronto, and a licentiate and doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome.

Among his publications, he takes particular pride in two articles in the latter institution’s Gregorianum Journal. Developing themes from his doctoral dissertation on French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, the articles deal with the ultimate end of the human person and the beatific vision — the experience of God that those who are saved will have in heaven — which he sees as closely linked to the subject matter of moral theology.

Currently he is collaborating on a book on these themes with the American moral theologian Germain Grisez, a friend and former colleague at Mount St. Mary’s. The issues it deals with might find their way onto the agenda of the doctrine committee, he acknowledged.

Besides teaching and writing, he has been a member of the executive board of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a group committed to the study and support of Church teaching, and a senior fellow of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.

Nature of the position

When the USCCB job opened up this year with the news that Father Weinandy was leaving, Father Ryan was invited to apply. He consulted friends and advisers, had a daylong interview with a search committee — made up of heads of several other conference offices — and in due course was offered and accepted the job. Presumably Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, USCCB president, and Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the doctrine committee, were consulted as part of the hiring process, he said.

Theology must be at the service of the faith of Christians, says Lumen Fidei. CNS file photo

Asked about the nature of the work, Father Ryan mentioned staff support to the bishops’ doctrine committee first. An official description says the committee’s mandate is assisting the bishops “both collectively and individually” on matters that involve Church teaching, with particular emphasis on “doctrinal issues, science and human values, health care and the Church, [and] review of Scripture translations.”

As to the current agenda, “the issues in the press are pretty much the ones I suppose will come across my desk,” Father Ryan says. Among these he noted same-sex marriage, the Health and Human Services mandate regarding contraception and abortifacients, the implications for Catholic participation in Scouting as a result of the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to accept openly gay members, and questions raised by mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals in which a Catholic institution finds itself partnering with an institution that does procedures condemned by the Church.

“If our institutions are really apostolic, a lot is required — and not just avoiding formal cooperation,” he told OSV.

The secretariat also provides support to other USCCB offices by vetting draft documents and statements before publication. The organization’s internal rules require that “anything that bears on doctrine” be run by his office, Father Ryan said.

Dialogue with theologians

Another large area of concern for the doctrine secretariat is the rocky relationship it and the bishops have had with some Catholic theologians. In recent years, tensions have erupted in open conflict over doctrine committee statements criticizing the work of several particular practitioners in the field, with angry retorts emanating from the like of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

But besides making statements, Father Ryan noted, the doctrine committee has sponsored theological symposia and had periodic meetings with CTSA and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Statements criticizing theologians’ work nevertheless will continue to be made as necessary, he said, although “I would hope dialogue would be an important element of that.”

Pope Francis’ first encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), released in July, contains a brief but pointed section on the relationship between Catholic theology and the magisterium — the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops in union with him. Among other things, it says theology, rather than viewing the magisterium as a “limitation on its freedom,” should view it as one of the “internal, constitutive dimensions” of theology itself inasmuch as it is a link to the apostolic preaching of Christ’s message.

Recalling that he’d written an article on Catholic universities and academic freedom making the same point, Father Ryan called it “part of what I hope we could all agree on.”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.