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Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May | IgnatiusInsight.com

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What is the role of the Church as moral teacher, and what is the obligation on the part of the faithful (including the pope, bishops, theologians, and ordinary laypeople) to choose in accordance with the moral norms proposed by the Church's teaching authority? Can dissent from such teaching be legitimate? To answer these questions it will be useful to consider
1. teaching authority in the Church;
2. the ways in which this authority is exercised;
3. whether specific moral norms have been taught infallibly by the Church's teaching authority;
4. the kind of response due to moral teachings that have not been proposed infallibly;
5. the question of dissent.
1. Teaching authority (magisterium) within the Church

As scholars such as the late great Dominican theologian, Yves Cardinal Congar, have noted, the term magisterium has such a long history and during the Middle Ages it referred to the teaching authority proper to theologians, i.e., those who by study and diligence have achieved some understanding of the truths of the faith and their relationship to truths that can be known without the light of faith. [1]

But today this term has a very precise meaning, one given it by the Church herself in her understanding of herself as the pillar and ground of truth (see Tim 3:15) against which the gates of hell cannot prevail (Mt 16:18; Gal 1:8), and as the community to which Christ himself has entrusted his saving word and work. According to her own understanding of the term, the Church teaches that the magisterium is the authority to teach, in the name of Christ, the truths of Christian faith and life (morals) and all that is necessary and/or useful for the proclamation and defense of these truths (see Dei verbum, 8). This teaching authority is vested in the college of bishops under the headship of the chief bishop, the Roman Pontiff, the "concrete center of unity and head of the whole episcopate," [2] the successor of the Apostle Peter (see Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 22; Vatican Council I, DS 3065-3074).

This magisterium, moreover, demands assent to its teachings by the faithful in virtue of the divine authority vested in it and not simply in virtue of the contents of the message it teaches (Vatican Council I, DS 3020). It has authority in teaching all the faithful in keeping with the inner constitution of the Church itself (Lumen gentium, 23-24). Its teaching, moreover, is an exercise of its pastoral office, its munus (a term much richer in connotation than our English "office," connoting a privileged honor and mission [3]), to care for the "souls" of all the faithful, i.e., to safeguard the divine life within them.

2. The different ways in which the magisterium is exercised

At times the magisterium proposes matters of faith and morals infallibly, i.e., with the assurance that what is proposed is absolutely irreformable and a matter to be held definitively by the faithful. At other times the magisterium proposes matters of faith and morals authoritatively and as true, but not in such wise that the matter proposed is to be held definitively and absolutely. But still the matter proposed is to be held by the faithful and to be held as true. Note that the proper way to speak of teachings proposed in this way is to say that they are authoritatively taught; it is not proper to say that they are fallibly taught.

A. Infallibly proposed teachings

The magisterium can propose matters infallibly in two different ways. First, a matter of faith or morals can be solemnly defined by an ecumenical council or by the Roman Pontiff when, "as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, he . . . proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals" (Vatican I, DS 3074). Secondly, and this is most important to recognize, the magisterium can propose matters of faith or morals infallibly in the ordinary, day-to-day exercise of its authority when specific conditions are fulfilled. These conditions are clearly stated in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican Council II (Lumen Gentium). In a centrally important passage of that document the Council Fathers declared:
Although the bishops individually do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim the teaching of Christ infallibly, even when they are dispersed throughout the world, provided that they remain in communion with each other and with the successor of Peter and that in authoritatively teaching on a matter of faith and morals they agree in one judgment as that to be held definitively (25).
This teaching of Vatican II on the infallible character of authoritative magisterial teaching in the day-to-day or ordinary exercise of its authority was by no means a novel teaching of Vatican II. It had been set forth in the 1917 Codex Iuris Canonici (c. 1323, #2), a canon repeated as canon 74, #2 in the new Codex Iuris Canonici promulgated in 1983, and drawn almost word for word from Vatican I's solemn teaching on the same matter (cf. DS 3011). Canon 749, #2 in the new Codex reads as follows: "The College of Bishops also possesses infallibility in its teaching . . . when the Bishops, dispersed throughout the world but maintaining the bond of union among themselves and with the successor of Peter, together with the same Roman Pontiff authentically (or authoritatively) teach matters of faith or morals, and are agreed that a particular teaching is definitively to be held."

This key teaching of Lumen gentium makes it quite clear that the magisterium can (and does) propose teachings on moral matters when the conditions so clearly described are met.

B. Teachings authoritatively but not infallibly proposed

The magisterium, moreover, is an authoritative teacher of Catholic faith and morals when it exercises its teaching authority in a manner that is not clearly intended to be infallible. When the bishops teach on matters of faith and morals in their capacity as bishops, they "speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent (obsequium religiosum) of soul. This religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme teaching authority is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will" (Lumen gentium, 25). The meaning of this obsequium religiosum will be examined in more detail below, under #4.

3. Are some specific moral norms infallibly proposed by the magisterium?

Every Catholic theologian acknowledges that certain very general moral norms are infallibly proposed (e.g., one ought to love God and one's neighbor). But today a key claim made by a good number of Catholic theologians is that no specific moral norms have been infallibly taught; indeed, they claim that such specific moral norms (e.g., one ought never to commit adultery; one ought never intentionally to kill an innocent human being) cannot be taught infallibly.

Some theologians, for example, Charles E. Curran, appeal to the Code of Canon Law to support their claim. Thus Curran and several of his associates appealed in 1969 to paragraph 3 of canon 1323 of the old 1917 Code (in fact, they erroneously cited canon 1223, or perhaps this was a typographical error), which corresponds to paragraph 3 of canon 749 in the new 1983 Code. [4] This paragraph says that "No doctrine is to be understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated" (emphasis added). But appeal to this paragraph does not settle the matter. The paragraph to which Curran (and others) appeal is explicitly concerned with teachings infallibly defined; it is not concerned with teachings infallibly proposed by the ordinary, day-to-day exercise of the magisterium. Curran and others who deny that specific moral norms can be infallibly proposed never consider whether the conditions for teachings infallibly proposed in this way have been met. As we shall see, evidence supports the position that the core of Catholic moral teaching has been proposed in this way.

These theologians likewise contend that we come to know all specific moral norms inductively, by reflecting on shared human experiences in company with others. They then argue that, since "we can never exclude the possibility that future experience, hitherto unimagined, might put a moral problem into a new frame of reference which would call for a revision of a norm that, when formulated, could not have taken such experience into account," [5] norms of this kind cannot be universally true and hence cannot be fit subject matter of infallible teaching. Here I simply wish to point out that these theologians have not properly identified the way we come to know specific moral norms. As St. Thomas and the Catholic tradition hold, the truth of many specific moral norms, e.g., the precepts of the Decalogue, can be shown in the light of the primary principles of natural law. [6]

A final reason advanced by these theologians to support their claim that specific moral norms are rooted in the "concrete" nature of human beings, not in their "transcendental" or "metaphysical" nature, and that man's "concrete" nature is subject to radical change. This position, rooted in Rahnerian thought, ignores the fact that human nature cannot substantively change if men are to remain men and if Christ shared Adam's and our human nature. It also ignores the truth that the goods perfective of human persons, the goods to which we are ordered by our natural inclinations, the goods at stake in moral choices, are the same for us as they were for Adam, goods such as life itself, living in harmony and fellowship with others, knowledge of the truth, etc. [7]

On the other hand, many theologians today (and the whole body of theologians prior to Vatican Council II) recognize that the core of Catholic moral teaching, as set forth in the precepts of the Decalogue as these precepts have been and are understood within the Church itself, has been infallibly proposed by the ordinary, day-to-day exercise of the magisterium by bishops dispersed throughout the world yet in union with one another and with the Holy Father. For this magisterium has proposed, as a matter definitively to be held, that it is always gravely immoral intentionally to kill the innocent, to commit adultery (or fornication or sodomy), etc. This was the understanding of the Church Fathers, of medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, etc. It was the firm teaching of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, and it was commonly taught by all theologians prior to Vatican II, as attested to in a remarkable text of Karl Rahner in his book Nature and Grace, published in English in 1963. Although he never formally repudiated what he had said in that book, Rahner subsequently claimed that the magisterium cannot infallibly teach specific moral norms insofar as they are concerned with man's concrete human nature. But, as we have seen, this view cannot be sustained. What caused Rahner to change his mind, apparently, was Humanae Vitae; for nothing in the text of the documents of Vatican II can be used to support this view.

Moreover, and this is very important, Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae explicitly referred to the key passage in Lumen Gentium, 25, identifying the conditions under which the ordinary, day-to-day exercise of the magisterium can propose truths infallibly. He did so in affirming as solemnly as he could without making an ex cathedra pronouncement the truth of the Church's teaching on

a the absolute inviolability of innocent human life from intentional attack (Evangelium Vitae, 57),
b the intrinsically evil character of intentional abortion (Ibid., 62) and
c the intrinsically evil character of all forms of euthanasia or mercy killing (Ibid., 65).

4. The response due moral teachings authoritatively but not infallibly proposed

I have argued that the central core of Catholic moral teaching has been infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium. Even if one were to disagree with this argument (which I believe is sound), one must acknowledge that the magisterium does teach with a more than merely human authority on moral questions. Moreover, it proposes moral norms not as legalistic rules but as truths of Christian life. Moral teachings authoritatively but not infallibly proposed as true are binding upon the consciences of the faithful, including pope, bishops, theologians, and ordinary laypeople. All the faithful are to give these teachings a religious submission (obsequium religiosum) of will and mind. Teachings authoritatively proposed are proposed as true, not as opinions or "prudential guidelines."

Still, such teachings are not infallibly proposed; they are not proposed as "definitively to be held." This raises the question of the nature of the "religious submission" of will and mind and the question of dissent. Precisely what does this entail?

5. The nature of the "obsequium religiosum" and the question of dissent

It is interesting to note that the term "dissent" did not appear in theological literature prior to the end of Vatican Council II. The "approved" manuals to which the three bishops, who wanted Lumen gentium 25 to say something about the nature of the obsequium religiosum required for teaching authoritatively but not infallibly proposed, were referred did not speak of legitimate theological dissent from such teaching. [8] Rather, they recognized that a theologian (or other well-informed Catholic) might not in conscience be able to give internal assent to some teachings. They thus spoke of "withholding assent" and raising questions, but this is a far cry from "dissent."

The Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has addressed this matter. It recognized that theologians (and others) might question not only the form but even the substantive content of some authoritatively proposed magisterial teachings. It held that it is permissible in such instances to withhold assent, to raise questions (and present them to the magisterium), to discuss the issues with other theologians (and be humble enough to accept criticism of one's own views by them). Theologians (and others) can propose their views as hypotheses to be considered and tested by other theologians and ultimately to be judged by those who have, within the Church, the solemn obligation of settling disputes and speaking the mind of Christ.

But it taught one is not giving a true obsequium religiosum if one dissents from magisterial teaching and proposes one's own position as a position that the faithful are at liberty to follow, substituting it for the teaching of the magisterium. But this is precisely what has been occurring. Dissent of this kind is not compatible with the obsequium religiosum. In fact, those who dissent in this way really usurp the teaching office of bishops and popes. Theologians, insofar as they are theologians, are not pastors in the Church. When they instruct the faithful that the teachings of those who are pastors in the Church (the pope and bishops) are false and that the faithful can put those teachings aside and put in their place their own theological opinions, they are harming the Church and arrogantly assuming for themselves the pastoral role of pope and bishops.

Dissent, understood in this sense, is thus completely incompatible with the obsequium religiosum required for teachings authoritatively but not infallibly proposed.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier.


[1] Yves M J. Congar, O.P., "Pour une histoire du term 'magisterium,'" Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 60 91976, 85-96, and "Bref historique des formes du 'magistère' et des ses relations avec les docteurs," Ibid., 99-112.
[2] See Karl Rahner, S.J., "Magisterium," in Sacramentum Mundi, 3.352.
[3] On the rich meaning of this term see Janet Smith, "The Munus of Transmitting Human Life: A New Approach to Humanae Vitae," The Thomist 54 (1990) 385-427.
[4] See Charles E. Curran et al., Dissent In and For the Church: Theologians and Humanae Vitae (New York: Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1989), p. 63.
[5] Francis Sullivan, S.J., Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Church (New York: Paulist, 1983), pp. 150-151. Sullivan, himself not a moral theologian, here summarizes the thought of "main stream" moral theologians, among whom he includes Curran, Franz Bockie, Bruno Schuler, Bernard Haring, and others who accept this view.
[6] See St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1a-2ae, Q. 100, a. 3; see also 1a-2ae, Q. 94, a. 8. See also Patrick Lee, "The Permanence of the Ten Commandments: St. Thomas and His Modern Commentators," Theological Studies 42 (1981).
[7] See St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1a-2ae, Q. 94, a. 2.
[8] On this see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1, Christian Moral Principles, chapter 36, especially pp. 873-874.

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Dr. William E. May is the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of a dozen books, and contributed to Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, edited by Dr. Janet Smith. May served on the International Theological Commission from 1986 through 1997 and during those years worked closely with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Dr. May has lectured in universities throughout the world.

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