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Eric Doyle

Fr Eric Doyle OFM.

Franciscan friar, scholar and theologian, writer, speaker, broadcaster, lecturer

Champion for women’s rights in the Church

13th July 1938 – 25th August 1984

A Brief Biography

Fr Eric Doyle OFM (born William Martin Doyle) entered the world on 13 July 1938, son of Patrick Doyle and Josephine Reynolds, in Bolton, Lancashire, where he first attended St Joseph’s Primary School and later the Thornleigh Salesian College. He entered the Franciscan Order in the English province of the Friars Minor as a novice on 8 September 1954, was solemnly professed on 14 July 1959 (the Feast of St Bonaventure) and was ordained to the priesthood on 16 July 1961. He took his doctorate in ecclesiastical history at the Pontificium Athenaeum Antonianum in Rome, receiving it summa cum laude, having gained the maximum marks possible. On his return to England he lectured in ecclesiastical history at the Franciscan House of Studies in East Bergholt. This continued to be the main activity for the remainder of his life, most of which was later spent at the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury, of which he was one of the pioneers and ‘founding fathers’.

In addition Doyle became well known as a preacher, counsellor, writer and broadcaster, taking part in over five hundred television and radio programmes. He offered ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4 and was one of the three-member panel on ‘The Big Question’ (Anglia TV) broadcast weekly, almost without interruption from its beginnings in 1971 until March 1984. Doyle was also much sought after as a retreat-giver and lecturer in many parts of the country. Amongst other things he gave the Fisher Lectures at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in February 1980, where he was very well received, and he was a member of the Teilhard de Chardin Society, being their vice-president at the time of his death. He also taught in St. Bonaventure University’s Graduate Theology Department in New York from 1970 until 1982, and in 1983 dedicated his translation of St. Bonaventure’s sermons on St. Francis, The Disciple and the Master, to the Franciscan Institute there. This book with its sixty- page introduction has come to be regarded as invaluable to Franciscan scholars.

In a legacy of over a hundred and twenty articles and books Doyle’s most scholarly work is contained in the six articles, including his doctoral dissertation, on William Woodford. He wrote principally on Franciscan spirituality, but quite a number of articles are concerned with ecumenism and the environment, both areas of great interest to him. He wrote A Litany of Our Lady of Walsingham, now in common use. His book St Francis and the Song of Brotherhood is a commentary on St. Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun. Doyle states that his ‘one purpose in writing the book has been to attempt to show how belief in the universal brotherhood can help us to create a better world’; this book has been re-printed three times, most recently by the Franciscan Institute, New York, in 1996. At the time of his death he was working on a book on Christology.

Doyle died of cancer on 25 August 1984, aged 46. Many felt his loss keenly, not only those in the academic world to which he had contributed so much, but also on a more personal level. He always had time for people, and those who had met him would be left with the indelible impression of a man of enormous intellect and learning, with a quick wit and sense of humour, a man of humility, sincerity and above all of prayer. The year 2004 will mark the twentieth anniversary of Doyle’s death, and the anthology to be produced in that year is a sure indication that his work continues to be both inspirational and influential.

Doyle’s Contribution to the Debate on the the Ordination of Women

In November 1975 Doyle served, by appointment of the Holy See, as a member of the Anglican/Roman Catholic Working Group on the Ordination of Women in Assisi, and later as a member of the Anglican/Roman Catholic Consultation on the same topic in Versailles in1978. Doyle was, therefore, at the heart of official debates within the Catholic Church and in discussion with Anglicans. His work was familiar to at least some members of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity (SPCU) and it is quite possible that it was also known to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). It might, therefore, not be too much to suggest that Inter insigniores was, in part, a response to Doyle’s paper in Assisi.

This paper (entitled The Ordination of Women: The State of the Question in the Roman Catholic Church) covers in depth all the theological issues involved in the debate in a way such that it still merits attention today. Doyle concludes that the church is in the midst of a development concerning the question of the ordination of women, and that there is an awareness amongst theologians, that an exclusively male priesthood belongs to the accidentals of the church. Doyle was an exceptionally gifted scholar with a deep understanding and appreciation of ecclesiology and canon law, well aware of the question of authority and the legitimacy of even posing the question of the ordination of women. As such he clearly understood all the issues involved but was nevertheless firmly convinced of the possibility, at least, that women could (and in his view should) be ordained.

Whilst the issues surrounding the debate have become well-rehearsed during the last three decades, it should be noted that Doyle was amongst the first to identify those issues, especially as they relate to the Catholic Church, and discuss them objectively in some depth. Despite the publication of Inter insigniores and Ordinatio sacerdotalis, (the status of which is still somewhat uncertain in the minds of many people), Doyle’s work continues to have contemporary relevance for the debate, not least because his work was familiar to the hierarchy in Rome and because he was so closely involved with official discussions within the Catholic Church.

Text written by Brenda Abbott

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