TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 12: Moral Judgment in Problematic Situations

Appendix 2: Legalism, dissent, and the current abuses of probabilism

The old, legalistic order in which probabilism made sense largely has collapsed in the Catholic Church since the beginning of Vatican Council II. The Council itself signalled this fact: “Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-informed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city. From priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem or even every serious problem which arises they can readily give him a concrete solution, or that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role” (GS 43; translation amended).

This very important paragraph makes it clear that the Church’s role is to help form conscience by communicating truth. Where one has formed one’s conscience in conformity with what the Church teaches, one is then on one’s own to discern moral truth in doubtful cases. The opinions of moral theologians are no longer to be taken as authoritative. Moralists can be useful only insofar as they help one to learn and understand what moral truth is.

Quite providentially, this dissipation of legalism occurred at the same time one party of professional moral theologians, including many who publish books and articles, declared its own autonomy from the magisterium. This portion of the moral-theological community, by engaging in dissent, eliminated the apparatus required for the working of the legalistic system. By pursuing moral truth as each one sees it, often in the light of secular wisdom and apart from the light of revelation unfolded by the Church’s teaching authority, dissenting theologians made unmistakably clear that Christian morality must be considered a matter of truth, not of law, and that a good Christian life will be one lived in the light of Christ, not merely in conformity with the rules of the Church as a society.

It is ironic although not surprising that in the present new, and still transitional, situation many—among theologians, priests, teachers, and the ordinary faithful—both gladly reject legalism insofar as it is restrictive and cling to it insofar as it limits responsibility. Herein is the present great danger of probabilism, a danger not arising from the system itself, properly understood and applied in its appropriate (but now largely past) context, but from the system’s abuse.

Thus some now appeal to probabilism in favor of dissenting theological opinions against the teaching of the Church. If one were a consistent legalist, one would recognize dissenting opinions as illicit; if one were consistently seeking moral truth, one would look at dissenting opinions only on their intellectual merits, just as one looks at the opinions of any moral commentator, whether nonbeliever or believer. However, the abuse is to reject legalism sufficiently to allow moral theology to proceed without regard for the supreme judgment of the magisterium, yet to cling to legalism sufficiently to allow the opinions of dissenting theologians some weight of authority which goes beyond the cogency of their arguments.13

13. An example of this confusion through ambivalence: Richard M. Gula, S.S., What Are They Saying about Moral Norms? (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 101–4. Gula also uncritically accepts the arguments for radical theological dissent which will be examined in chapter thirty-six and ignores the case which has been made that much received Christian moral teaching has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium (see 35‑D–E).