Commentary: Lessons from Monsignor Green

Monsignor Thomas Green Credit Catholic University of America CNA 1 Monsignor Thomas Green. | Catholic University of America

Monsignor Thomas Green, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., died peacefully on Saturday morning. He was 79 years old.
Monsignor Green was the Stephen Kuttner Distinguished Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America. Among canon lawyers, he was renowned as an expert in the Church's penal law and processes, and he was among the general editors of the "New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law," an invaluable resource for the study and practice of canon law. He served previously as editor of the The Jurist, the premier English-language journal of canonical scholarship.

In more than ten years of canonical practice, I regularly sought guidance from Green's scholarship, as do nearly all canon lawyers involved in the Church's administrative, procedural, or penal affairs.

Monsignor Green was also my teacher. I studied canon law at CUA from 2005-2007, and took several courses from him. His lectures were brilliant. His insights were unparalleled. His tests- always oral exams- were legendary. Green would invite students into his book-lined office, sink into a comfortable chair, and invite students to begin a "conversation" about the course material. The conversation would continue until the student, inevitably, found himself beyond his depth- no amount of studying could prepare students to keep pace with Green on the technical minutiae of the Church's canon law. When he was satisfied with the conversation, Green would extend his hand, offer a kind word, and suggest some additional reading or further reflection.

He was a good teacher. He was also a good man. Monsignor Green was affable, warm, and charitable. He made himself available- he took my calls well after I had graduated, and was willing to spend time on the phone talking through a thorny canonical problem, until a path forward became clear. He took students' ideas seriously, and engaged them with respect, and with openness to the idea that his own positions might change, or his own skills could be further sharpened, even with decades of scholarship and practice under his belt.  

But the most important lessons Msgr. Green taught me were not technical ones about canon law. They were lessons about the communion of Christ and his Church.

Green was ordained in 1963. He earned his doctorate from the Gregorian University in 1968. By style, by temperament, by intellectual disposition, even, he was a man of his time. It was rare to see him in ordinary clerical garb - he was more comfortable in a turtleneck, or wearing a corduroy or plaid blazer of some vintage. His gait reflected a kind of easygoing ethos that reminded me of Simon and Garfunkel's folksy lyric: "feelin' groovy." And, more seriously, I sometimes disagreed with him about theological matters- about the meaning of the Second Vatican Council, or its place in the broad context of the Church's doctrinal tradition and teaching.

But Monsignor Green loved Christ and his Church. He gave his life to its service. His scholarship reflected true faith seeking real understanding. He was not afraid to defend his positions, and his mastery of the sources made it difficult to win a debate. But he engaged in disagreement with civility and respect- in the spirit that fellow Christians should try, earnestly, to understand what the Lord had taught, and what the implications of that teaching might be.

Following the world's lead, the Church has entered an era of untenable polarization. In that environment, disagreements are too often intensely personal and deeply vitriolic. Of course, that is not unprecedented in the Church's life- but it is not the Lord's will for us. What Christ desires for his Church is that we approach disagreements in fraternity, with humility, charity, and docility to the Holy Spirit.

A friend remarked today that Monsignor Green didn't let his own ecclesiastical proclivities get in the way of a fair fight. That was the lesson for me. I began studies at CUA young, brash, and self-assured. I had a tendency to write-off those who didn't come from my own "tribe"- to see a priest in a turtleneck instead of a cassock, and make judgments before giving his views a fair shake.

Tribalism is a problem in the Church, and Monsignor Green's modus vivendi challenged me to overcome my own- to replace snap judgments with serious reflection and conversation on the teachings of the Church, and the meaning of the Gospel.

Monsignor Green didn't convince me of all his theological viewpoints. But he taught me that disagreement didn't make him my enemy. That seeking the truth, even when issues are thorny or contentious, is important. But that seeking the truth is worthwhile only when it's done in love. That is the lesson of a true and holy teacher.

Join me in praying for Christian unity, and for the repose of the soul of Monsignor Thomas Green- a brilliant scholar, a great teacher, and a priest of Jesus Christ.

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