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Chapter 35: The Truth of Christ Lives in His Church

Question F: Why must one give religious assent to teachings not infallibly proposed?

1. Plainly, there are times when bishops, including the pope, express private opinions on matters outside the area of faith and morals. There are also times when they speak or write on faith and morals, but make it clear that they are doing so as simple believers, private theologians, or civic leaders. Even within the context of official teaching, it is often the case that observations and arguments are put forward which are not part of the proposition proposed for acceptance by the faithful. In some cases, disciplinary directions are given: This opinion should not be taught; that one is hard to reconcile with faith. At other times, propositions are proposed tentatively: For instance, some bishops have questioned the morality of capital punishment without proposing their view as the judgment to be held definitively. In all these ways, statements by bishops, including the pope, can fail to meet the conditions required for teaching proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium.

2. We are not concerned with any such cases in the rest of this chapter. And it is worth noting that many standard theological works do not explicitly and clearly exclude all these cases before taking up the point to be discussed here. That point may be stated as a question: How are we to regard teachings by bishops, including popes, which could be recognized as truths proposed infallibly except for one thing, namely, that the entire collegium has not agreed in one judgment, either because there has always been some disagreement among the bishops or because most of the collegium has never addressed the issue?

How does it happen that such teachings are proposed at all? Why should a bishop or group of bishops (or a pope) insist that a certain point be accepted as certain, although the point is not part of common and universally received teaching, and other bishops either disagree or, at least, might disagree if they addressed the issue?

One case in which teachings are proposed firmly by some of the collegium yet rejected by part of it arises when some part of the collegium falls into error and begins to teach contrary to Catholic truth. As the history of the Church amply shows, this can happen even when a matter has been solemnly defined. It happens more easily when a received teaching has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium, but then is called into question. The latter situation often has led to a resolution of an issue by a solemn definition. Until such a resolution is achieved, the part of the collegium which holds the truth (which eventually is vindicated) often is very firm in teaching it despite the equally firm contradiction of the truth by the remainder of the collegium. The Arian controversy is a paradigmatic example.

When this occurs, the main point or points in controversy already have been infallibly proposed. But usually many related points, not previously infallibly proposed, enter into the dispute. Some may never have been considered before, while others may have been open questions up to that time. Members of the collegium defending the true position during such a controversy will be forced to teach as truths to be held definitively not only the main point or points in controversy, but also the related propositions which contradict parts of the false position.

Another situation in which teachings are proposed firmly by some of the collegium and yet rejected, or simply ignored, by part of it arises when bishops find it necessary to draw from the faith conclusions about new questions. Vatican II points out, for example, that in missionary situations the encounter of the faith with the culture into which it is being introduced should lead to an enriching development in the understanding of faith and its application in life (see AG 22). The revealed truth remains the principle of judgment, but its preaching must make use of new ideas as well as new language, and Christian life must be lived in the institutions and opportunities offered by a changing world (see GS 44). In short, that “tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (DV 8).

3. In exercising their prophetic office, bishops preach and teach the faith which their people accept and put into practice. They not only repeat what they have received but clarify the faith with the help of the Holy Spirit, “bringing forth from the treasury of revelation new things and old (cf. Mt 13.52), making faith bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors” (LG 25). The “new things” which are brought forth should spring from faith itself and so be “in harmony with the things that are old” (DH 1). Yet, to fulfill their duty, bishops must venture to teach what has never been taught before, and sometimes they must propose this teaching as truth to be held definitively. In such cases, their teaching is official teaching within the Church and the faithful must accept it.

4. Nevertheless, in cases of this sort, bishops (including a pope) do not individually enjoy the gift of infallibly discerning what belongs to divine truth and what does not. Mistakes are possible. There is room for disagreement among bishops. Until the magisterium as a whole has spoken, one cannot be certain that such disagreement will not arise nor how it will be resolved. But until it is resolved the faithful must accept the teaching of the pope or, lacking such a teaching, that of their own bishop. What Vatican II says about “religious assent” concerns such a situation: “Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul. This religious submission of will and intellect must be given in a unique way to the authoritative teaching of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra. That is, it must be given in such a way that his supreme magisterium is reverently acknowledged, and the judgments proposed by him are sincerely accepted, according to his manifest mind and will, which he expresses chiefly either by the type of document, or by the frequent proposal of the same teaching, or by the argument for the position” (LG 25; translation supplied).

5. Even in the situation envisaged, the bishops (and pope) teach in Jesus’ name. As Pius XII points out, “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10.16; cf. Mt 10.40; Jn 13.20) applies in such a case; if a pope makes a point of settling a matter disputed among theologians, it can no longer be treated as an open question (see DS 3885/2313; cited in OT 16). The judgment must be accepted sincerely and adhered to, provided the pope makes clear in one way or another that the truth is proposed as a position to be held definitively—that is, as certain.

6. When bishops, including the pope, individually venture to teach beyond the body of teaching which is commonly received and proposed, this may represent a first stage in the expansion or development of the belief of the Church as a whole, but it may also represent a false start. The outcome cannot be predicted in advance. Such a teaching does not at once express the belief of the Church as such; the Church’s infallibility is not involved. Nevertheless, it might well be the case that the teaching faithfully expounds divinely revealed truth or is essential to safeguarding it. If so, the teaching which is noninfallibly proposed pertains in some way to revealed truth, although it cannot at once be recognized for what it is.37

In recent years, many theologians have assumed that nothing other than religious assent can be due to any teaching which is not solemnly defined. The explanation in question D of the infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium shows how mistaken this assumption is. But even if this obvious blunder is avoided, a subtler one often is made: Any teaching which is not recognizable as infallible teaching—either because it is defined or because the conditions are met by which it can be recognized as proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium—is classified forthwith as noninfallible, and the conclusion is drawn that it could be mistaken.

However, as explained above, infallibility is not a characteristic of the truths believed but of the Church in believing. Divinely revealed truth carries its own objective solidity, and divinely given faith makes one who enjoys it absolutely confident in assenting. But individuals can mistakenly assent with faith to what is not divinely revealed, and fail to assent to what is. Infallibility is the gift by which the Church as a whole is protected from this kind of mistake. Thus the infallibility of the Church properly pertains to the Church’s acts of believing and teaching.

Nevertheless, belief and teaching within the Church on matters of faith and morals normally will be the holding and handing on of divinely revealed truth, even though such belief and teaching, if not that of the Church as a whole, do not enjoy the charism of infallibility. Hence, what the teachers of the Church propose noninfallibly very likely is divine truth, whose acceptance is necessary for the salvation of those to whom it is proposed. Therefore, such teachings must not be brushed aside as “noninfallible, and so possibly mistaken.” Dissenting theologians failed to do justice in this respect to the responsibility of religious assent.

7. Therefore, the teaching of bishops, including the pope, which is not proposed infallibly at a particular moment in history may on that account be categorized as possibly erroneous, but “possibly” refers here only to one’s subjective lack of certainty whether one is confronted with revealed truth. Even if the other conditions for a teaching proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium are met, lack of agreement by the collegium as a whole warrants the statement: “This proposition could be false.” But the statement, “This proposition could belong to revealed truth,” is also warranted by the nature of the subject matter, the role of the bishops in the Church, and the firmness with which a teaching is proposed by one who wishes it to be accepted as certain.

8. Much of the contemporary social teaching of the Church falls into this category when first proposed. The constant development of socioeconomic culture continually raises new questions which must be dealt with, sometimes by individual bishops or groups of bishops, sometimes by the pope. Mistakes can and will be made at the leading edge of such teaching. Nevertheless, when it is proposed as certain, conscientious Catholics are bound to make use of it in forming their consciences. This obligation is what Vatican II means by the expressions “religious assent of soul” and “religious submission of will and of mind” (LG 25).

9. The standard theological manuals in use until Vatican II employ these or similar expressions to refer to the assent which must be given to the teaching of the bishops, and especially the pope, when it is not clear that this teaching is infallibly proposed. Very often, however, the manuals attempt to analyze this assent legalistically, as if it were merely a duty of obedience owed by Church members to the governing authority of the Church.38 The explanation given here shows the inadequacy of this analysis. For what is most fundamental to religious assent is the possibility that the proposition to which assent is given may in fact pertain to revealed truth.

10. If a proposition clearly does pertain to revealed truth, a person with faith will accept it in faith. When one does not know whether or not a proposition pertains to faith, however, one’s assent with faith is conditioned. The attitude is this: If this proposition is a truth of faith, I assent to it as such; if not, I do not.

11. However, this attitude, which is fundamental to religious assent, is not itself assent. As the formula just suggested illustrates, it is a conditioned disposition to assent by one in no position to know whether the condition is fulfilled. Thus it is necessary to ask what else is involved in religious assent. On what grounds can one responsibly accept as true teachings proposed by one’s bishop or the pope and form one’s conscience by them, when these teachings are not independently evident and do not clearly pertain to faith?

12. Even when it is not clear that the bishop’s or pope’s teaching is proposed infallibly, one has a good reason for assuming that his teaching pertains to divine revelation. This good reason is the reality of his divinely given office and the grace which accompanies it. One also accepts these latter realities with divine faith. Thus religious assent is a Christian act of human faith, which is grounded in divine faith itself.

13. The alternative to making this act of human faith is to proceed individualistically in Christian life, with no sure interpreter of the word of God and no safe guide for living the Christian life. One who makes the act of human faith—that is, accepts teaching with religious assent even when it is not recognizable as infallibly proposed—can proceed with confidence and a clear conscience. If the teaching should turn out to be in error, one has nevertheless followed the guidance which God has seen fit to provide.

37. Karl Rahner, S.J., “The Dispute Concerning the Teaching Office of the Church,” in Curran and McCormick, eds., Readings in Moral Theology: No. 3, 113–16, quotes a 1967 document of the German bishops which seriously obscures the status of teachings proposed as certain but not proposed infallibly. By characterizing such teachings as “provisional” the German bishops use a modality more proper to law and planning than to the teaching of what the teacher believes to be true. Moreover, while they recognize the existence of nondefined but infallibly proposed teachings, they proceed to treat their “provisional” character as if it were identical with everything nondefined. The authority of such teachings is analogized to that of the statements of a physician or statesman, without attention to the disanalogy—that teaching noninfallibly proposed by the magisterium could pertain to divine revelation. Rahner attacks (118–20) a critic of this statement as self-destructive, on the ground that the critic rejects the authority of this statement while absolutizing just such teachings. But the attack is fallacious insofar as one need not absolutize noninfallible teachings to find this particular one seriously defective. In the same volume (96–101), the “Note of the Italian Episcopal Conference on the Conclusions of the Italian Moral Theologians” is more nuanced and less supportive of dissent. In a case of discrepancy such as this between the teaching statements of two conferences of bishops, one must look to higher theological principles, such as the teaching of Vatican I and II, to settle the issues.

38. See, for example, Salaverri, op. cit., 708–10. This understanding of the responsibility in terms of rights and duties partly arises from the documents he cites. Needless to say, Catholics do have a legal duty to assent, but they should understand the moral foundation of this duty, which is deeper than that to obey ecclesiastical laws.