Canadian bioethicist, Aquinas fan among women to advise Holy See

Moira McQueen. (Courtesy of The Catholic Register, Ontario / Michael Swan)

Toronto, Canada — Moira McQueen, a theology professor and a fan of St. Thomas Aquinas, views her appointment into a prestigious Catholic commission as cumulative of her faith and decisions made throughout her life.

“I find that it is only possible to be humble before his incredible gifts of reasoning, insight and faith,” said McQueen of the 13th-century theologian and philosopher. A theologian herself, she started out in law but, after desiring to delve more into her faith, she pursued a master’s in theology and eventually a doctorate. Pursuing theology allowed her to learn more about her faith and also led to her being appointed to the International Theological Commission.

McQueen relates to Aquinas when she describes her change in direction. In a 2012 witness speech at St. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton, she said, “St. Thomas Aquinas talks about grace building on nature, and I have never ceased to feel grateful for the grace I was given to act on my decision to study Catholic teaching, which ended up in my switching careers and, in fact, in changing me and the course of my life, I have to say, toward a more complete commitment, both in my personal and professional life, all my life in fact, to Christ.”

As one of five women appointed to the commission in July 2014 by Pope Francis, McQueen, a mother of seven and grandmother of nine, never expected to be nominated.

“Initially, I was very surprised because it was clearly a very important commission. So, I would never have expected to be nominated,” she said.

McQueen is head of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and a professor of moral theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto. She specializes in human sexuality and the moral issues in life and death. She has lectured and been published in the areas of end-of-life care, reproduction technologies, stem cell experimentation, regenerative medicine, genetics and mental health. She also holds a law degree from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

 McQueen understands the significance of the pope’s selection. Two women were seated on the commission in 2004, and both served a second term. Before then, no woman was chosen. “So this is actually quite a big leap,” she said.

Pope Paul VI formed the International Theological Commission in 1969 to assist the Holy See and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in examining doctrinal questions of major importance. The other women newly named to the 30-member commission are Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM, United States; Sr. Alenko Arko, Loyola Community, Slovenia, Russia; Dr. Tracey Rowland, Australia, and Dr. Marianne Schlosser, Austria, Germany.

Although McQueen views herself first and foremost as a theologian, she is happy to be representing women as well.

“I felt a great sense of responsibility on behalf of the other women theologians in the world to make sure that we represent women as much as possible,” she said, adding she is positive that in the future, the number of women will increase on the International Theological Commission and on other commissions in the church.

McQueen and the members of the commission first met in December 2014.

“It was a wonderful experience to meet with all the other people,” McQueen said. “I didn't know any of them beforehand. So, there was a lot of interaction and [we were] sort of beginning to realize the different areas that we all represented. We spent a lot of time working out what areas we would actually be dealing with because it is a quinquennium, a five-year term.”

The members were divided into sub-groups that focused on three main topics: synodality (who is in the synod of selected bishops advising the pope and who should lead it), the sacraments, and faith in the public square (the interaction of religion in a secular society). McQueen is part of the last sub-group.

Originally, McQueen began a career in family and juvenile law in Scotland, but, as a practicing Catholic and pro-life advocate, she believed that she needed a more solid theological foundation. She pursued a master's degree in theology at St. Michael’s and discovered that ethics was a perfect fit.

“When I started I didn't have an intention of doing a doctorate. I was going to go back into law after I was more theologically educated. That was the plan. The plan didn't work out because then I really wanted to go on with moral theology,” she said.

McQueen's passion for her Catholic faith is evident in her effusive interest in Catholic teaching.

I really have loved exploring Catholic teaching, and just to see how it really deals with people's humanity. [Catholic teaching] really is trying to get us to link our spiritual side with our actual daily life,” she said.

She believes that the Catholic perspective marries the rational side of natural law to the spiritual side. In comparing the Catholic approach to other secular systems, she sees the consistency of respecting life, which in itself has an internal logic.

“The Catholic approach is always going to look at those other systems and pick the systems apart to see what is really helping human flourishing,” she said.

McQueen wrote a book called Bioethics Matters: A Guide for Concerned Catholics, which was based on a program McQueen developed for parishioners. The program has four two-hour sessions, usually completed over four weeks. Participants talk about the foundations of Catholic teaching on the first night. 

“After I'd been doing [the program] two or three years, some priests called and said this should go further than the individual parishes as we go along, so they asked me to write a little book that more or less covered the topics that I would be dealing with in the sessions.”

While McQueen is wary of disillusioned Catholics and the lack of interest many Catholics have about understanding church teachings, she is encouraged by Catholic youth.

“What gives me hope about the future [are] all the World Youth Days and places like the Newman Center,” she said. “There just seems [to be] so many organizations where the number of young people there is really striking to me.”

In addition to her work as a theologian, McQueen keeps active within her parish as a lector and as a Breakfast Club volunteer on Wednesday mornings. She is also the president of a Serra Club chapter, a Catholic organization that promotes vocations in the priesthood and religious life. In November 2014, McQueen was made a dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great through the Hamilton, Ontario, diocese.

As a mother of seven children, there was a long period of time when McQueen stayed home.

“I was home for 13 years and people said, ‘Oh, you'll lose all your career prospects.’ But it was a deliberate choice,” she said. “There was no doubt in my mind which was more important for me. … When I look back I think, ‘You know what? Things like that don't keep you back.’ I think if you just make good choices, then you just trust that it will work out.”                      

[Maria Montemayor holds a BA with honors in English and political science from the University of Toronto, Trinity College. She lives in Scarborough, Ontario.]