Moral theologian Moira McQueen, to her surprise, has been appointed by Pope Francis to join the International Theological Commission. Photo by Michael Swan.

McQueen: Campus voice to Vatican advisor

  • October 26, 2014

Surviving cancer won’t bring an appointment to the International Theological Commission. Neither will it matter that you’ve been married forever and surrounded yourself with seven children and nine grandchildren. Volunteering at your parish for everything from the Catholic Women’s League to marriage preparation courses is nice, but it won’t make you part of an elite body of 30 Catholic theologians who advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the pope himself. 

Almost everybody with a PhD. in theology from the University of St. Michael’s College has never been appointed. Neither have many Scottish lawyers. 

In fact, Moira McQueen — professor of moral theology at St. Michael’s and executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute — doesn’t know why the pope appointed her to the commission last month. But she will bring to the job a breadth of experience that goes well beyond her academic credentials. 

“It’s a great honour, but it’s also a heavy-duty responsibility and I’m aware of that,” McQueen told The Catholic Register

McQueen, one of a record five women named to serve on the commission from now to 2019, thinks of herself as “a sort of generalist moral theologian.” She has published on a range of ethical issues — medical ethics, end-of-life issues, sexual ethics, medical research, moral decision making and development of doctrine. But her academic credentials have never defined McQueen or what she does. 

Since becoming the executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute in 2004, McQueen has dedicated herself to sharing her ethical thinking with ordinary parishioners in her long series of “For the People In the Pews” presentations and in her book Bioethics Matters. She’s also led outreach to family doctors with evening discussions of some of the most difficult medical issues from end-of-life care of patients with Alzheimer’s to palliative sedation. 

She helped the Archdiocese of Toronto put out a positive message about donating organs and continues to promote the idea of Catholics giving so others can live. 

Making the often heady, abstract concepts of ethics real, concrete and urgent issues for ordinary folks is never easy, but it helps to have lost all your hair and spent weeks sick with chemotherapy. After years of talking and writing about medical ethics, McQueen was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. 

“That was a really useful experience — once again, in hindsight. You don’t wish it on anybody. Nobody wants anything like that,” McQueen said. 

But faced with a room full of people with questions and fears about dying, McQueen believes her time spent inside the medical system helps her speak more genuinely about Catholic theological categories such as proportionate and disproportionate measures, and ordinary and extraordinary efforts. 

“It gives you a personal perspective on it, as well as just the head stuff,” she said. “It helps you relate to people.” 

It was McQueen’s experience as a mother and a parish volunteer that pushed her into moral theology. As her children began to go off to school, she had expected she would re-enter legal practice. But the University of Glasgow-trained lawyer faced the prospect of having to repeat up to three years of training, re-articling and maybe a year of university studies in Canadian law. 

At the same time, McQueen had been involved in pro-life work in Hamilton and had found herself in front of local TV cameras explaining her group’s position. She felt a need to give a better account of why Catholics oppose abortion. 

“I knew there was a real responsibility there,” she said. “Because if you give off the wrong impression you could turn more people off than you convince. I knew what the Church said. I agreed with it. But I wanted to be able to express why they said it in a more intelligible way.” 

Going off to formally study and think deeply wasn’t necessarily a popular choice. 

“When I decided I was going to come and do a masters, I had people say to me, ‘If you go to theology school then you lose your faith.’ That was their perception,” she said. “Underneath there’s a fear that if you question too much you lose your faith. But why would that make you lose your faith? Never to ask the question seems to me counter-productive.” 

Bigger and deeper questions may not yield final, firm and unchanging answers. The more you know, the more aware you become of what you don’t know. But there’s a vast difference between understanding and pat answers. 

“You can’t be a theologian and a fundamentalist at the same time. They’re utterly contradictory,” said McQueen. “One is exploratory and the other is boxed-in with those certainties already.” 

The Catholic attachment to truth and understanding is a model of how we can be religious without being fundamentalist. 

“That they (the Vatican) have not only the ITC but the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Academy for Science — they’re consulting all those people from all over the world, different professional backgrounds, because they recognize the needs of all… They’re not going to go on having committees for just the sake of it.” 

Watching the Synod on the Family unfold, McQueen is just as excited and interested as the rest of the theological community. She wonders what aspect of the range of topics that have come up in the synod the ITC might be asked to look at when it meets Dec. 1. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith hasn’t told the theologians what they will discuss. The group will meet in Rome and then be presented with an agenda. 

When McQueen looks back at the list of eminent theologians who have been part of the International Theological Commission since it was inaugurated in 1968 — Karl Rhaner, Bernard Lonergan, Walter Principe, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Avery Dulles and Walter Kasper among them — she wonders what her contribution might be. 

“The good thing is that it’s teamwork. There are 30 people in the room,” she said. 

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