Franciscan friar’s attack on bishops and doctrine is a theological disaster

Friar Daniel Horan’s problem, ultimately, is that he disagrees with divine revelation, mediated through the Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. He could learn a few things from St. Anselm.

St. Anselm of Canterbury in an English glass window of 19th century. (Wikipedia)

Franciscan Friar Daniel P. Horan, in a response to the USCCB’s March 20th document “Doctrinal Note on the Moral Limits to the Technological Manipulation of the Human Body,” refers to the Note as a “disaster”. Why? Because, he writes, it calls “for the refusal to provide gender-affirming care to those experiencing gender dysphoria,” which he says denies “the reality of transgender, nonbinary and intersex persons.” The bishops’ document, according to Horan (who is a professor of philosophy, religious studies and theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana), is a disaster “theologically, scientifically, and pastorally.”

This essay will not address his claim about the scientific aspects of this issue (that is not my training, and others can do that better than I could), nor will it engage his reading of Pius XII’s comments about medical interventions.

That’s because there is more than enough to say about Horan’s apparent misunderstanding of what theology really is and actually does.

Anselm’s deeper understanding of theology

What does Horan think theology is, and how do the bishops fail theologically in his estimation? Horan begins by—rightly—invoking the oft-cited phrase from Anselm, that theology is fides quarens intellectum—“faith seeking understanding.” Based on this definition, Horan avers that “Christian theology is dynamic and complex, not easily reduced to simplistic propositional claims.” This is why “some of the most important dogmatic teachings of the Christian tradition took centuries to develop.” Since this is the case, Horan writes:

It takes time to understand deeply complex realities, such as who God is or what it means to be a human person, and even as we learn more, we never fully exhaust the mystery of reality. That the bishops assume they understand in totality the incomprehensible complexity of God’s creation generally and the human person particularly is a consistent and errant attitude present throughout this document. In every age and time, we continually learn more about the wondrous, mysterious, beautiful and complex creation of which we are also a part. To make absolute claims in the manner present throughout this text is, at best, theologically irresponsible.

There is a good deal that is problematic in this text, thinly veiled under a veneer of intellectual humility. But first, the Anselm quote.

Anselm first uses this phrase in the Prologion, the text where his famous ontological argument for the existence of God is found. He wrote the Proslogion, according to Anselm himself, as “one who strives to lift his mind to the contemplation of God, and seeks to understand what he believes” (Pros, preface). That is, he wants God to help him “understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe” (Pros II).

This is the first clue to what Anselm means by this phrase—that theology is seeking to understand what we already believe, that is, the content of Faith. In the case of the Proslogion, Anselm already believes that God exists, and to some extent what that means (and he states it as an “absolute claim”—more on that in a moment); he seeks to understand how that is the case, to understand what he already believes to be the case.

Anselm clarifies further in a later text, the Cur Deus Homo, or “Why God Became Human.” In this text, written as a dialogue, his interlocutor Boso says:

As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason; so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe. Therefore, since I thus consider myself to hold the faith of our redemption, by the prevenient grace of God, so that, even were I unable in any way to understand what I believe, still nothing could shake my constancy. (Bk I, ch 2).

This is quite telling. There is no question of what is believed. The question is understanding what it means. This leads to the question of what it is that Anselm believes is being understood—that is, what is the “faith.” While there is no explicit definition of the content of Faith easily accessible from his work (an 11th century monk would hardly have needed one), we can see throughout his work, and especially in the preface to the Monologion, that faith consists of what is revealed in Scripture and the authority of the Church Fathers. As Anselm says to Boso:

I say anything not upheld by greater authority, though I appear to demonstrate it, yet it should be received with no further certainty than as my opinion for the present, until God makes some clearer revelation to me. For I am sure that, if I say anything which plainly opposes the Holy Scriptures, it is false; and if I am aware of it, I will no longer hold it. (Cur Deus Homo Bk I, ch. 18).

This last point is crucial. Anselm holds that the content of the Faith—not just belief itself, but what is believed—precedes reason and understanding. Indeed, it must, or one cannot truly come to understand what the Faith teaches at all. Anselm writes in the Proslogion:

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,—that unless I believed, I should not understand. (ch. 1)

There must be that which is already believed, and if it is not believed, then understanding—according to Anselm—cannot and will not come.

Yes, there are things about what we believe as Christians that we do not yet fully understand. It would be quite ludicrous to suggest otherwise. However, this leads to a common misapplication of Anselm’s phrase, one that Horan himself falls into: that because we cannot fully understand something in the data of revelation, we cannot say anything definitive about it at all.

This may not be what Horan intends to say, but it is certainly implied by his statement that “some of the most important dogmatic teachings of the Christian tradition took centuries to develop.” The obvious logic is that we cannot fully understand what God has revealed about persons, and so we cannot say something definitive about God’s intention for biological sex. Hence, to make “absolute claims” about it “is, at best, theologically irresponsible.”

Doctrinal development and sexual distinction

Whatever Anselm would make of Horan’s appropriation of his thought, Horan’s use of it indicates a complete misunderstanding of doctrinal development.

First, the suggestion that, because we cannot understand something fully, we cannot make definitive statements about it at all, is not only ridiculous, it is utterly impractical. The only way a thought, idea, teaching, etc., can develop in the first place is if there is definitive content from which to develop.

But development has to go somewhere—it has to develop further to say something. Definitive content, indeed, is what the Faith develops from and to. To take, for example, the Trinity, which Horan may have in mind when he discusses teachings the Tradition took centuries to develop: there were already beliefs in place that led both to the debate about Christ’s divinity and ultimately the codification of the doctrine of the Trinity. These would have been absolute claims (such as Christ being “God’s Son” and the perfect Image of the Father). But further, once the matter is settled, it is settled definitively (e.g., that Christ is homoousia with the Father). I doubt anyone would be silly enough to claim that by saying this, the Church Fathers were assuming they understand “in totality the incomprehensible complexity of God.” Yet the claim of the teaching is absolute.

Secondly, development must take place in continuity from the already established (in the case of theology, revealed) content. Many theologians have discussed this, most famously Johann Möhler and John Henry Newman. Newman, for example, compares this sort of development to a seed. As the tree grows from the seed, it changes, developing and expressing itself in new ways, but only in line with what was already contained within the seed. The tree never develops arms, or frying pans, or reverses back into its seed. That would be ridiculous. The tree develops from the seed, but does not separate from it and change into something else not already potentially present in the seed. Church teaching develops the same way. While the Church does develop her decreed dogmas and doctrines, she does not change them in the sense that she reverses, contradicts, or removes them.

This brings us to the key point, which is that Horan believes that the sexual distinction created in humans by God is not one of these teachings. Horan writes:

While some aspects of orthodox Christian faith are correctly stated, such as that the natural world designed by the Creator is inherently good and that there is a divinely created order, the authors then bestow upon themselves an uncritical authority to determine what constitutes that order absolutely.

Horan clearly believes that biological sex is not one of the aspects of divinely revealed truth of orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, he fumes:

Recourse in this document to proof-texted passages from Genesis, for example, are as irresponsible in identifying historical, social and scientific realities today as claiming that the Earth was created in six 24-hour days according to the same superficial reading of Scripture.

Fully addressing this would take much more space than allotted here, and would be mostly an exercise in banality. But I do wonder just what Horan thinks we could learn from the Genesis passage at all. For example, he says we can learn that there is a divinely created order, but somehow not that biological sex is a part of that order.

This is to say nothing of the logic of the text itself: the Genesis text presents the distinction of human into male and female (this is noted by the USCCB document, by the way, note 5, and it is hardly a prooftext) as an intrinsic part of that order—that things reproduce according to kinds. The biological distinction is not acting like a literary device (as is the distinction of each day, or yom); it expresses the logic of the divine order itself, culminating in the reunification of the human when the pair become one flesh and a child—the fruit of that union—results.

The genesis of the problem

And all of this does not address the fact that Horan’s argument could quite easily be turned back on him. By what lights, if we can’t make any absolute claims about human sexual difference because we do not fully understand the mystery of God’s creation or the nature of personhood, does he pronounce that the bishops are wrong in their interpretation of Scripture and the Tradition?

He claims the bishops are hubristic to make such claims—why not he himself?

I suspect the answer will lie in his ultimate rhetorical goal: to portray any critiques or rejections of transgenderism as attempts to “erase” people who suffer with these issues that surround gender and sex, to deny ”that transgender people exist; that nonbinary people exist; that intersex people exist.” This appears to be the root of his claim that the USCCB document is a pastoral disaster.

However, I do not see how this is the case. Leaving aside even whether the bishops are correct in their position, it is hard to see how any honest reading of the document can conclude that it denies the very existence of these persons, or that their suffering is not real. For example, as the document says: “To be sure, many people are sincerely looking for ways to respond to real problems and real suffering” (note 20). Writing and releasing the document itself makes no sense if such persons are not recognized to exist and to be truly suffering.

What the document claims—consistent with divine revelation through Tradition and Scripture—is that biological sex is not something that we own, because we do not own human nature, and sex is part of the crucial expression of that nature. Nor do we have the authority or right to manipulate this “fundamental aspect of existence as a human being” (note 5). This is because our personhood, sex, identity, etc., come from God.

This is one of the fundamental claims about human existence, from the Book of Genesis to St. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, something the USCCB document makes quite clear from numerous quotes.

Horan’s central problem, ultimately, is not that he disagrees with the bishops (which he does), but that he disagrees with divine revelation, mediated through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Theology does not involve fully understanding, but working and seeking to understand what we have received and accepted by the gift of faith.

With this in mind, I would caution Horan not to make such absolute claims about what theology and revelation say until he fully understands that.

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About T. Alex Giltner, Ph.D. 2 Articles
T. Alex Giltner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Theology and Director of the Assisi Program for Discipleship and Leadership at the University of Saint Francis. He works on historical (including biblical) theology, the relationship of faith and reason, and Trinitarian metaphysics. He has published mostly in the area of historical theology, particularly on the thought of Saint Bonaventure. He and his wife, Mary Beth, have a criminally adorable son named Jack.


  1. 1. What has characterized the whole post-Vatican II era is that people like this Franciscan friar are allowed to lead, for years and decades, opposition movements against the teachings of popes and bishops.
    2. In effect, in the new reality of Vatican II-renewed Church, nothing is ever settled doctrine.
    3. Yes, the Vatican did issue a new official Catechism in the papacy of John Paul II.
    4. But numerous Catholic theologians, and even some bishops, immediately issued their disagreements with certain portions of that Catechism, thereby rendering that Catechism to the status of just one opinion in the Church.
    5. In some dioceses, the Church’s official, universal Catechism isn’t even used to instruct lay Catholics or priests or deacons.
    6. Under the rule of Vatican II, nothing is ever settled.
    7. The daily reporting of The Catholic World Report proves this.

    • Or, maybe Gus is too optimistic! What if your ecclesial mudslide is worse still?
      What if even Vatican I was already a victim when, only half-done, it was abruptly interrupted by an armed revolution (“suspended” said Pope Pius IX, not adjourned)? And, of course, the 16th-century Council of Trent was already decades too late to avert the dismemberment of Christendom.

      In another thousand years, our long history might simplify all this:

      From the 4th Century, we are reassured that even sacraments (the Real Presence!) performed by heretic priests and bishops remain VALID (the Donatist heresy);
      From the 19th Century in Vatican I we know that because the Church, however muddied and betrayed, is still and always INDWELLED by the Holy Spirit such that under Papal Infallibility the Successor of Peter cannot formally teach error. (Signaling, insinuating, enabling…well that’s something else!).
      From the 20th Century, and with the complementary (as in, finishing the job) Vatican II, we also know that the college of bishops are also part of this ever-gifted and universal Church—when they act collegially, that is: “Together with its head, the Roman Pontiff, and NEVER without this head [as in Germania, etc.]…” (Lumen Gentium, n. 22, and the further three-page Explanatory Note removing all possibly exploitable ambiguities).

      Rather than being the problem as you insist, is the real Vatican II actually part of the victimized solution of “settled doctrine”?

      Yes, you are correct on today’s apostasies, betrayals, stupidities and especially lack of accountability. Too many seminary-deformed clerics remain illiterate or indifferent, or worse, as to our family history and the complete (!) workings/decisions/Documents of Vatican II. But, now instead, with Hollerich’s inclusive SYNODALITY as the new math of compound factions?

      In this almost-totally Fallen World—the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church now seems to be hanging by a thread. But always and also, by a few solid nails.

  2. Just a thought, here…In addition to citing St. Anselm (“faith seeking understanding”), Friar Horan might ALSO consider Thomas Aquinas (focused more on “existence”! than intelligibility).

    Which is to realize that truth (the correspondence of the mind to existing reality) is indivisible, something like the mystery of the Trinity. So, together with the complementary of the existing, binary and therefore fecund sexes, the inseparable doctrine of the Church also includes (inclusivity!) the mystery of “the FAMILY.” Now, the accelerating deterioration of the family is correlated with the upswing in all things LGBTQ, including those suffering from transgender afflictions.

    To begin to truly address transgender suffering, we have to do better than normalizing this grievous SYMPTOM…There’s the expanding science of epigenetics which partly has to do with those intergenerational (!) and cultural factors like sexual abuse (likened to computer software) that then instruct the hardwired human DNA—which, for example, does not include any gay gene but only a few less-than-consequential “markers.”

    Would Band-Aid theologian Friar Horan really want to get back to square-one and HEAL (“reprogram”) the individual “software” of transgender suffering? As with the bishops he disdains, would he bring all of Catholic Social Teaching into the “field hospital Church”? Metaphysically speaking, what’s the fit, too, between ontology and what’s going on historically—in our time?

    Or, is Oracle Friar Horan content to be “walking together” with another illuminati who famously tutored a breathless world, thusly: “it all depends on what the meaning of IS, is”?

  3. I commend any scholar’s attempt to correct the erroneous thinking of another. But let’s also allow for the possibility that what we are witnessing is not an error in thinking gone awry but a wilful attempt to deceive based on pride. Let those who teach in the Church first consult their confessor in the Sacrament and only when they are reasonably convinced of the purity of their heart should they attempt to proclaim the truth. Horan should begin any exercise in teaching in the confessional and not in the classroom or pulpit.

    • It’s not going to help if your confessor or spiritual director thinks just like you which I fear is the case with Father Horan.

      “I’m finding out that it’s not so easy, baby
      Especially when your only friend
      Talks, sees, looks, and feels like you
      And you do the same just like him”

      My Friend – Jimi Hendrix

  4. Daniel P. Horan has been a notable trainwreck releasing its toxin upon the ecclesial landscape for fifteen years or so, a James Martin wannabe, a classic example of the inadequacy of psychological screening for the religious life and the Holy Priesthood.
    This professor of his own notions is provided credence in the Catholic academy, in his religious order and by the episcopate. Clerical celebrity is lethal indeed.
    Me thinks this friar might need a roll in the briar, emulating Holy Father St. Francis, image of the Crucified Christ – no bird bath ornament he.

  5. SMC is right across the street from Notre Dame – literally. That idiocy of this sort has reached them is, sadly, no surprise.

  6. There is in reality no transgender, nonbinary, or intersex persons. These are only titles adopted by men and women for whatever dysphoric reasons. And no, we should not have a desire to encourage (sometimes aka “encounter”) perversity and evil. If I were to contest the reality and dignity of men as men, as such, and women as women, as such; I have no idea why I would not take the leap and contest the reality and dignity of the human person, as such.
    Father Horan here implicitly challenges, what does it mean to be a man? To be a woman? And by thrust of extension he suggests that the answer to the challenge should be amorphous.
    Well, what does it mean to be a human being? Answering that it means to be created in the image of God, slips the question. Aside from the fact that, from a different perspective all Creation is made in the image of God, inasmuch as nothing having existence did not have its beginning in the eye of the Creator, including the Enemy; such an answer gives only an attribute, or a formal cause at best for Mankind. It is no answer. So, to repeat: Father Horan, what does it mean to be a human being, a man, or a woman? Is there no answer?
    Contrary to his dumbfounding assertions, it is Father Horan, by his sad missive, who diminishes his moral authority and pastoral relevance, not the American bishops.

  7. Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)

  8. You can analyze Horan’s article theologically til doomsday. The fact is he’s homosexual and is merely scewing everything to suit that mindset. Don’t take him too seriously.

  9. I believe the Franciscans are doing the right thing. We have had enough of hierarchy abuse and my friend who helps the Franciscans and is friends with Pope Ben16 helped stop corruption and exposed it for what it was. Too many bishops and cardinals. And well luckily there are a few good ones still.

  10. I have listened to James Martin SJ and this Fr Horan despise and ridicule catholic doctrine in their displaced compassion to side with transgender ideology and gay straight definitions as the development progressive way of human kind. Unfortunately, neither have the appropriate background in biology, psychology, or anthropology to make any reference to development in the human species..
    To dismiss the very core of genesis fall from grace by our first parents is to dismiss the entire redemption of Jesus in His resurrection.
    To declare attractions as a natural development in sexual identity solidifying either homosexual or heterosexual is indeed very ignorant of the core of the fall from grace and who God made as male and female in God’s image.
    I didn’t read that God made us homo or hetero..
    These behavior characterizations of sexual activity and attraction are a theory of some psychological behaviourists in the line of Freudian psychology.
    Freud et al. Is not the redemptive Savior of the world and human kind from our darkness and sin as well as clouded and deprived souls from the fall from grace; Jesus is the way the light the truth the life.

  11. Hollerich, McElroy, Tobin, Fr. James Martin, Fr. Horan…along with 50% of the priests I’ve encountered in numerous Parishes during my 50 years on earth, all plainly, obviously gay men. Their arrogance and narcissism in co-opting theology and history to create a god made in their own image and foist it upon the Church is bewildering. Their disordered sexual lives have been the fuel and the engine of the abuse crisis. In my dreams, I imagine a day when the laity all stand up together, tar and feather these dissemblers and lock them out of their rectories and sanctuaries. Clearly the hierarchy cannot or will not look to it’s master’s example when He cleansed the temple of those profiteers who mocked God in His own dwelling. On the other hand, maybe we are meant to endure it all as a chastisement for our own poverty of love and other virtues.

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