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Conscience Magazine

Classic and Remarkable: The Theologian Courageous Enough to Change

By Mary E. Hunt September 16, 2013

Great artists, great athletes, great writers: alas, even great theologians are not always great people. But as the Irish would have it, every rule has its exceptions, and Daniel C. Maguire is one on this score. In this short memoir, Dan does his best to blame his goodness on others—his mother, his parishioners, his sons—but there is no disguising the core of a world-class theologian who is also a mensch of the first order.

A Merry Memoir of Sex, Death, and Religion Book Cover ArtDan’s story is at once classic and remarkable. He was raised in ever-so-Catholic Philadelphia (where parishes trump neighborhoods for identity purposes) in a large Irish family. That Dan was one of three out of four brothers to become priests was notable but not unheard of. He studied at the North American College in Rome, the training ground for future bishops, but happily escaped that fate. Dan swallowed the party line until he matured enough to see the complexities of human life. Parishioners showed him the error of the Vatican’s narrow ways. He was honest and courageous enough to change. Note to Catholic clergy: read this book.

In Daniel Maguire’s case, change meant becoming a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America, where he and his friend, Professor Charles Curran, tilted at Roman windmills in an organized effort to overturn Humanae Vitae, the so-called birth control encyclical. Curran was sacked, Maguire married and Catholic University remains intellectually suspect at this writing decades later.

Professor Maguire then landed at Marquette University, a Jesuit institution (full disclosure: my undergraduate alma mater) that has by and large had his academic back throughout his tenure. Many a right-wing opponent has tried to derail his career there, but successive administrations, beginning with President John P. Raynor, SJ, have realized that having him around makes them look good. A Catholic university with a “dissenting voice” has credibility. In fact, they are very lucky he has stayed to bring his theological luster to an otherwise increasingly beige place.

Dan tells his story with an Irish flair. His mother, Cassie, was a grand soul but a lousy cook by Dan’s lights. I am in possession of her scone recipe and plan to try to exonerate her on the culinary count. She adored her family, instilled a sense of fun and taught them the basics of love and justice. Later on, even she came to see the folly of the institutional church on many issues that her pelvic-zone specialist son and friends worked hard to change.

For someone brought up to think that Protestants and Publics (those who, God forbid, did not go to Catholic schools) were consigned to the deepest reaches of hell, it is ironic that Dan Maguire became a seasoned champion of interreligious living. His Sacred Choices Initiative, “a worldwide issues campaign aimed at expanding scholarly and lay perceptions of the positions of the world’s religions on contraception and abortion,” bought together scholars from diverse backgrounds for the purpose of improving women’s rights through religious reasoning. But you will not find this initiative in his memoir, because Dan turns instead to the signal moments that showed him how the world works.

The most moving matter is the life and death of his older son, Danny, who suffered from Hunter’s syndrome and died at the age of 10. Confronted with a flock of birds and ducks, little Danny uttered words that were to give his father marching orders for life: “Daddy, look, Daddy look.” Dan has looked hard at virtually every moral question of our time—sexism, economics, war, environment, racism and heterosexism. He has “looked” and then lent this insight to the world through the hundreds of articles, chapters, op-eds to his credit, not to mention more than a dozen books written or edited, countless letters to editors, and more lectures, classes and consultations than many a large department could muster collectively. Thanks, Danny.

What stuns Maguire’s listeners at lectures, and now readers of this magazine, is how one person can move so seamlessly from Aquinas to an Irish story, from Latin to slang, from erudite theory to common sense, from classical theology to innovative, courageous theo-ethics. Dan’s data is grounded in a life lived richly and with faith, good fortune mixed with bad, tragedy writ large and humor, in the Maguire mold, always having “the right of way.” This mixture is a method that works.

No wonder when he met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while on the road with his son Tommy that Dan could see the three sides of the future pope—delight, recognition, fury. The Inquisitor figured out too late who the father was of the son with whom he had so readily had his picture taken. Gotcha Joe.

No wonder when Geraldine Ferraro quoted Dan’s obvious statement to the effect that “the Catholic position on abortion is not monolithic” she incurred the wrath of Cardinal John O’Connor in New York. Catholics come in many shapes and sizes, and most of the ones worth paying attention to, like Dan, do not wear miters.

No wonder when Clarence Thomas, pre-Supreme Court, heard Dan lecture he accused Maguire of “Republican bashing.” Dan had protested the government’s spurious claim that ketchup was a vegetable, thus perpetrating malnutrition on poor children. Thomas’ subsequent silence on the Court may actually be a blessing. Dan handles his fame and infamy with equal aplomb because he keeps a light touch even in the heaviest of moments.

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]emoirs are selective by nature. Many stories remain untold here—hopefully the stuff of a second volume perhaps now in progress by an ever-prolific writer. This book is a wonderful rendition of Maguire’s highlights. He demonstrates how one person went from a pre-Vatican II Catholicism that had all the answers, to a healthy dose of more questions than answers that is appropriate in postmodernity, especially for people of faith. Many readers will find themselves in these pages; others will better understand people they know. I predict that all will laugh and cry. I did.

I have no reason to flatter Dr. Maguire. I served with him for years on the board of then Catholics for a Free Choice (he might joke that choice has only gotten more expensive). We have been involved in several collective scholarly efforts through the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, which he created to produce the gold standard in contemporary religious ethical work. I have shared both tea and spirits with him so I know the man well enough to say that while all human beings have their faults, some have fewer than others.

This is not a book to read on an airplane. The person sitting next to you will wonder what about “sex, death, and religion” is so hysterical one minute, so tragic the next. Just tell her/him that the author is among the smartest, funniest and most compassionate people ever created. Then give her/him your copy and consider that you have given gold.

A Merry Memoir of Sex, Death, and Religion
Daniel C. Maguire
(Caritas Communications, 2013, 136 pp)
978-0615766669, $11.57 (paperback)

Mary E. Hunt
Mary E. Hunt

is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, MD.