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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Appendix 5: An afterword on pastoral responsibility and solidarity

Certain logical preconditions for any authoritative change in the Church’s moral teaching never were understood clearly by dissenting theologians. This teaching has been and still is widely accepted by the Church, especially by her leadership. Therefore, to change it one had to try to show it false or doubtful. To show a universal norm doubtful, one must show that in some case one ought to act contrary to it. To show this plausibly, one must make a case at least consonant with faith itself for setting aside the received norm. If one thinks one has made such a case, one must propose it to the leadership of the Church. This is what happened in the Birth Control Commission.

For this reason, the Commission was unable simply to tell Pope Paul to say that the received teaching on contraception was uncertain and no longer binding. They had to tell him to say that “in fulfillment of its mission the church must propose obligatory norms of human and Christian life.”102 They had to tell him to say that “responsible parenthood is a fundamental requirement of a married couple’s true mission.”103 They had to tell him to say that “if they are to observe and cultivate all the essential values of marriage, married people need decent and human means for the regulation of conception.”104 They had to tell him to say that “the means which are chosen should have an effectiveness proportionate to the degree of right or necessity of averting a new conception temporarily or permanently.”105 Finally, although they did not have to tell Paul VI to say it, the proponents of contraception had to tell him that abstinence from intercourse is not always an adequate and morally acceptable means.

The official documents of the Birth Control Commission did not make clear precisely what these assertions implied concerning what the Pope would be doing if he approved contraception. However, Paul VI was fully informed by means of other documents about the implications of the official documents, along the following lines. To say the things proposed would amount to saying this: “Until now, I have been telling you that practicing contraception is a grave matter. Now I must tell you that you have a grave obligation to begin practicing it, if it is the method most suited to you for fulfilling your obligation to regulate conception. In other words, what it was a mortal sin to do last night might well be a mortal sin to omit tonight.”

Moreover, Paul VI realized that the Church could not change its moral teaching only on contraception. Any plausible account of the change on contraception would consistently lead to change on other matters. So the Commission was implicitly telling Paul VI to say: “Until now I have been telling you that masturbation, fornication, homosexual relations, abortion, adultery, and so forth all involve grave matter. Now I must tell you that what was a sin until this moment might well be a sin to omit from now on. Sorry about this folks, but the Church can make mistakes.”

Those who do not have responsibility for the Church’s teaching can grasp Paul VI’s problem only by putting themselves in his place.106 The ordinary priest or theologian thinks about the problems of the faithful in living up to the teaching, and perhaps thinks about his or her own reasons and rationalizations for changing it. A pope must ask himself whether a proposed new teaching could possibly be true if it clearly requires the Church utterly to discredit her claim to communicate divine truth to humankind. (And, lest there be any doubt, the issue here is not the “image” of the Church but the truth of received Christian moral teaching.)

Thus, dissenting theologians undertook an impossible task. They could succeed in changing the norms only if they could change the character of the community. To accomplish this, they had either to convert the leadership to their view, or to assume leadership themselves and transform the Church by revolutionary action. Until Humanae vitae, the theological dissenters were attempting to convert the leadership. After that, they were primarily attempting to execute a coup, especially with respect to the Holy See. Later still, it appeared that they might be attempting to do both things—convert part of the leadership while undermining the authority of the part, especially the Holy See, which refused to be converted. Perhaps dissenting theologians did not see it that way, but I am concerned with the dynamics of their position and program, not with their intentions.

John Paul II has been a rock in the way of the dissenting theologians. His sophisticated conviction concerning traditional teaching has rendered hopeless his conversion to dissenting opinions. His popularity with the faithful has rendered hopeless any effort to convince the membership of the Church that he is not their head and appropriate spokesperson—whether or not they agree with what he says. And, obviously, John Paul II does not consider the doctrine of Vatican II dated and discussable, something which has to be set aside as to the letter in favor of its “atmosphere” or “spirit.”107

Thus, each Catholic had to make a choice. One could accept the authority of Charles Curran, Richard McCormick, and other radically dissenting theologians; one could join them in setting aside many points of common Catholic moral teaching, the ecclesiology of Vatican II, and any responsibility to assent to the teaching of John Paul II when he repeats teachings one finds unsatisfactory. Or one could accept the authority of John Paul II and most of the bishops of the world; one could join them in affirming all points of Catholic moral teaching which have been held and handed down by the universal magisterium; one could accept the ecclesiology and help to carry out the program of Vatican II; one could bear effective witness to the love and truth of God revealed in our Lord Jesus by conforming one’s conscience to the Church’s teaching and by living according to one’s Catholic conscience.

Bishops who stand firm with John Paul II and priests who stand firm with him and their own bishops are contributing to the true renewal of the Church according to the plan of Vatican II. Renewed according to this great vision, the Church, our mother and our teacher—she, the lovely, holy, and spotless bride of our Lord Jesus—will more effectively carry on her mission: To teach the gospel by the proclaimed word and prophetic deeds, to reveal redemption in the world of today so that those who do not flee the light of Jesus will receive life in his name, and creatively to unfold and hand on intact the precious faith of our fathers to our children.

102. Hoyt, ed., op. cit., 81.

103. Ibid., 84.

104. Ibid., 86.

105. Ibid., 94.

106. The Commission documents opposing contraception were written not for the public but for Paul VI; the chief document favoring contraception was intended as a schema for a papal statement publicly approving contraception.

107. A single outstanding example of the effective work of John Paul II, “Fidelity to the Truth in Love: Meeting with the Bishops of the United States of America, 5 October 1979,” L’Osservatore Romano, Eng. ed., 29 October 1979, 8–10.