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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Question A: Does the Church’s teaching itself provide some justification for radical theological dissent?

1. The statement mentioned above, issued by Charles Curran and his associates on July 30, 1968, asserted: “It is common teaching in the Church that Catholics may dissent from authoritative, noninfallible teachings of the magisterium when sufficient reasons for doing so exist.”7

2. It is important to understand that radical theological dissent was by no means limited to the Church’s teaching on contraception. Curran, for example, had by 1978 asserted a generalized thesis: Dissent can be legitimate with respect to any specific moral teaching.8 Although he did not himself defend exceptions on every specific norm, he did defend exceptions from the norms concerning abortion, sterilization, remarriage after divorce, and various other matters.9 He pointed out that “the official teaching” on questions such as contraception, sterilization, masturbation, homosexual acts, adultery, euthanasia, and divorce had been challenged by at least some theologians, and he defended the legitimacy of their challenge even if he did not agree with them on every substantive issue.10

Earlier the so-called minority report of Paul VI’s Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birthrate (the “Birth Control Commission,” as it became popularly known) had argued that a departure from Catholic teaching on contraception logically entailed a wider departure from the norms pertaining to sexuality—indeed, from the norms pertaining to all kinds of acts which received Catholic moral teaching excludes as always wrong.11 The “majority reply” was that the approval of contraception would not lead to the approval of other kinds of acts excluded by received Catholic teaching.12

On 29 December 1975, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Persona humana, a declaration on sexual ethics, in which it reaffirmed received Catholic teaching that any sexual actuation outside marriage is grave matter; it referred to Humanae vitae for teaching concerning the norms of sexual life within marriage. This document, too, encountered much dissent.13

3. The common position of radically dissenting theologians was that in general the Church had been mistaken in teaching that acts of certain kinds are wrong regardless of circumstances, intentions, and consequences. Many theologians who shared this common position agreed with the claim made by Curran and his associates in 1968.

4. However, an examination of the theological manuals cited by Curran and others in support of the claim that common teaching in the Church justified dissent shows that these authors do not justify dissent.14 All admit the possibility that one might not be obliged to assent to certain teachings—those neither defined nor proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium. But none asserts that theologians may publicly dissent from teachings proposed by the magisterium. Moreover, no Catholic theologian before Vatican II thought that theologians might rightly counsel the faithful to form their consciences by dissenting theological opinions rather than the Church’s constant, firm, and currently reaffirmed moral teaching.

5. Challenged in their assertion about the teaching of the manualists, Curran and his associates were obliged to provide their own interpretation of these texts. They then fell back on the following position: “The perspective of the manuals concerning assent and dissent suffers from serious philosophical and theological limitations. The manuals’ analyses of the nature of assent is inadequate, and quite oblivious to the crucial questions raised by Newman in his Grammar of Assent.15 Whatever else might be said of this, it constituted a repudiation of the earlier claim that the manualists testify to a common teaching which justifies dissent.

One further point about the teaching on dissent of the classical manualists—the “approved authors”—is worth noticing. In Humani generis, published in 1950, Pius XII wrote about dissent: “Nor must it be thought that what is contained in encyclical letters does not of itself demand assent, on the pretext that the popes do not exercise in them the supreme power of their teaching authority. Rather, such teachings belong to the ordinary magisterium, of which it is true to say: ‘He who hears you, hears me’ (Lk 10.16); very often, too, what is expounded and inculcated in encyclical letters already appertains to Catholic doctrine for other reasons. But if the supreme pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter debated until then, it is obvious to all that the matter, according to the mind and will of the same pontiffs, cannot be considered any longer a question open for discussion among theologians” (DS 3885/2313; cited in OT 16). Most of the theological manuals cited by Curran and his associates were published before 1950 and so do not contain a reference to this document. But two of them, those by Francis Sullivan, S.J., and I. Salaverri, S.J., do contain this statement as part of their theology of the teaching of the ordinary magisterium.16

6. It was also claimed that Vatican II provides support for radical theological dissent. Curran and his associates pointed out that at the Council three bishops wanted an amendment to Lumen gentium, 25, to take into account the possibility that a scholar faced with a noninfallible teaching might not be able to give it internal assent. The conciliar commission dismissed the proposed amendment with the observation that one might consult the manuals about the matter.17 But, as noted, Curran and his associates themselves repudiated the manualists as witnesses to the legitimacy of dissent.

One can assume that the commission of Vatican II which sent to the approved authors the three bishops concerned about scholars who could not assent to magisterial teaching referred, among other things, to the clear statement of Pius XII on the subject quoted above.

Having advanced this far, however, the argument of Curran and his associates next proceeded to claim that Vatican II nevertheless implicitly did what it does not explicitly do: “Post-Vatican II ecclesiology contemporizes the classic ‘right to dissent’ in a dialogic context. There is, first of all, the very experience of the Council.”18 After several more pages, a conclusion finally was reached: “Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II articulate an ecclesiological atmosphere that differs basically from the rather hierarchological character of Humanae Vitae.19 “Ecclesiological atmosphere”—one expected a theological conclusion and suddenly found oneself in metaphysical meteorology.

7. The fact is that nothing in Vatican II supports radical theological dissent. According to Avery Dulles, S.J., “the Council in its formal teaching did not advance the discussion of dissent beyond where it had been in the previous generation.” (He argued, however, that the Council worked indirectly “to undermine the authoritarian theory and to legitimate dissent in the Church.”20) Similarly, Curran and his associates claimed that the documents of Vatican II were “dated” the day they were published; they said one must not ignore the spirit of the Council in favor of its letter. In this vein, some theologians began at once to articulate and correct what they considered the defects of Vatican II.21

8. Although Richard A. McCormick, S.J., was not in the forefront of this movement, in 1977 he wrote: “Appeal is made repeatedly to no. 25 of Lumen gentium, but it is widely, even if quietly, admitted in the theological community that this paragraph represents a very dated and very discussable notion of the Church’s teaching office.”22 As with the manualists, so with Vatican II, whatever else one may make of such a comment, it constituted an implicit but clear repudiation of the claim that Vatican II justified radical theological dissent. Evidently, if such dissent had any justification, it had to come from a source other than the Church’s teaching.

As a matter of psychological and social fact, some of the statements of conferences of bishops after Humanae vitae had the effect of powerfully supporting radical theological dissent. But the theological question is not one of psychology and sociology. It is: What did the bishops say, what did they mean, and what implications do their statements have for the issues being treated here?

Very many statements were issued by individual bishops, particularly immediately after the publication of Humanae vitae. There is no collection of this vast body of material. However, reports at the time in L’Osservatore Romano and in various news services indicated that almost all of these statements affirmed and many defended the teaching reaffirmed by the encyclical. Only a handful of these statements of individual Catholic bishops contained negative reactions, and even fewer went so far as to contradict what Humanae vitae reaffirmed.23

Statements also were issued by or on behalf of various national hierarchies, and these have been collected.24 If one reviews the collective episcopal statements, it becomes clear that most of this body of teaching is consonant with Humanae vitae. However, each of the documents has a unique character; all were composed as thoughtful responses both to the encyclical and to the pastoral problems raised by its reaffirmation of the received teaching.25

It is a mistake to speak of these episcopal statements as if they contributed a chorus of episcopal dissent to the dissent of some theologians who criticized the encyclical and rejected its reaffirmation of the received teaching on contraception. None of the episcopal statements denied the competence of the magisterium to propose specific moral norms, in themselves obligatory, on the morality of contraception. Moreover, none explicitly rejects the norms restated in Humanae vitae.26

One must admit, nevertheless, that not all these statements were fully consonant with Humanae vitae; some of them even made statements about conscience and dissent at odds with previous Church teaching. But the episcopal statements more acceptable to dissenting theologians not only diverged from the majority of the collective pastorals, which harmoniously support Humanae vitae, but conflicted with and canceled out one another.

Still, the residual discord within the magisterium was an abnormal situation which called for resolution. Points in dispute were aired fully at the Synod of Bishops in 1980, and substantial consensus was reached. This was expressed in a set of synodal propositions delivered to John Paul II with the request that he prepare a synthetic document. In response the Pope published the apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, resolving the discord within the magisterium concerning conscience and dissent in a way which clearly excludes radical theological dissent.

With respect to the pastoral work of priests and deacons, John Paul II teaches: “Their teaching and advice must therefore always be in full harmony with the authentic Magisterium of the Church, in such a way as to help the People of God to gain a correct sense of the faith, to be subsequently applied to practical life. Such fidelity to the Magisterium will also enable priests to make every effort to be united in their judgments, in order to avoid troubling the consciences of the faithful.” In carrying out their complementary roles, pastors of souls and families must share in dialogue. “Theologians and experts in family matters can be of great help in this dialogue, by explaining exactly the content of the Church’s Magisterium and the content of the experience of family life. In this way the teaching of the Magisterium becomes better understood and the way is opened to its progressive development. But it is useful to recall that the proximate and obligatory norm in the teaching of the faith—also concerning family matters—belongs to the hierarchical Magisterium.”27

This papal teaching, synthesizing the consensus reached at the 1980 Synod, supersedes and so renders obsolete everything dissenting theologians found useful in the episcopal statements published in the wake of Humanae vitae.

7. Dissent, 26.

8. Charles E. Curran, “Ten Years Later,” Commonweal, 105 (7 July 1978), 429.

9. See Charles E. Curran, New Perspectives in Moral Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides Publishers, 1974), 41–42, 192–93, 211, 271–76.

10. Ibid., 19–22.

11. See The Birth Control Debate, ed. Robert G. Hoyt (Kansas City, Mo.: National Catholic Reporter, 1968), 55–59. The leaked documents are not exactly what they were purported to be. Moreover, the very use of the words “minority” and “majority” in this context conveys a conception of the work of the Commission evidently different from that of Paul VI. He sought from the advisory body a thorough study to see if it was possible that the received teaching might somehow be refined or limited. The number who subscribed to one brief did not make their case better; it clarified nothing for the Pope, who proceeded for two additional years to investigate the subject by other means.

12. Ibid., 75–77. Other documents of the Commission, not published by proponents of change, showed the extent to which theological literature by 1966 signaled the beginning of a shift of opinion in the whole field of sexual morality.

13. See McCormick, Notes, 668–82.

14. Dissent, 14, mentions the manualists referred to by Curran and his associates in an effort to substantiate their claim that common teaching accepted dissent. The authors say that I prepared an English translation of parts of these texts and add: “The translations prepared for the Chancellor [Cardinal O’Boyle] were selective, and thus somewhat distorted, and failed to indicate all the points favoring the possibility of dissent.” There are two errors here. I did not prepare the English translation; that was done by Rev. Msgr. E. Robert Arthur. Second, the excerpts never were given anyone by me or with my knowledge without copies of the whole sections of the Latin texts from which they are excerpted. If this procedure was selective and distorting, one might wish that dissenting theologians had adopted it.

15. Ibid., 47–48. Perhaps when Curran and his colleagues gave Cardinal O’Boyle a list of names of approved authors who purportedly supported the legitimacy of dissent they did not expect him to look at the works cited.

16. See Francisco A. Sullivan, S.J., De Ecclesia, vol. 1, Quaestiones Theologiae Fundamentalis (Rome: Apud Aedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1963), 354; I. Salaverri, S.J., De Ecclesia Christi, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa, vol. 1, Theologia Fundamentalis, ed. 5 (Madrid: B.A.C., 1952), 708, no. 669. The dissenters pointed out that this statement of Pius XII had been in the first schema of Vatican II on the Church, but was removed after that schema was roundly criticized. Dissent, 115, noted: “Apparently the warning was not dropped without opposition, for among the suggested emendationes distributed along with the second schema was that of five bishops who ask that the statement from Humani Generis be replaced in the text.” Charles Curran, Moral Theology: A Continuing Journey (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 6, asserted: “The Second Vatican Council expressly rejected that same sentence.” He provided no evidence for this claim, because there is none; certainly the Commission’s nonacceptance of an amendment proposed by five bishops is not the Council’s rejection of the statement that amendment would have inserted. Avery Dulles, S.J., “The Two Magisteria: An Interim Reflection,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 35 (1980), 162, said about the statement: “The position of Pius XII to this effect in Humani generis (DS 3885), even though not explicitly repeated by Vatican II, still seems to stand, especially in view of its reaffirmation by Paul VI.” I have searched the relevant conciliar documents pertaining to Lumen gentium and found no criticism whatsoever of the statement from Humani generis. There was much more on the magisterium in Vatican II’s first draft, including a treatment of the ways in which members of the Church other than bishops share in it. Dissenting theologians who insisted on their share in the magisterium should, if consistent, have taken Vatican II’s noninclusion of this material in Lumen gentium as evidence that the Council rejected the idea that anyone but bishops can share in the magisterium. Furthermore, if it were true that Vatican II expressly rejected Pius XII’s statement in Lumen gentium, promulgated in 1964, this still would not have been the Council’s last word on the matter, since the following year it cites (in OT 16, official note 31; Abbott note 46) the section of Humani generis (42 AAS [1950] 567–69) in which this statement is located as its primary reference for its own prescription that seminarians be taught theology “under the light of faith and with the guidance of the Church’s teaching authority.”

17. Dissent, 115–16.

18. Ibid., 119.

19. Ibid., 124. Antonio Acerbi, “Receiving Vatican II in a Changed Historical Context,” in Where Does the Church Stand? Concilium, 146, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo and Gustavo Gutiérrez (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 77–84, tried to give some theological plausibility to talk about the ecclesiological atmosphere or spirit of Vatican II. He appealed from the Council’s documents to what he claimed the Council in the first place was: a spiritual experience. The trouble with this is that Vatican II, as a social entity, had no subjectivity and no experience of its own; the Council only existed in its acts. Each person even remotely involved no doubt had some spiritual experience of the Council, and anyone can generalize beyond his or her individual experience by drawing on publications. Unfortunately, the latter convey impressions of common or universal experience strongly conditioned by the media of communication, which were largely managed by atypical believers or nonbelievers. Thus, Acerbi’s appeal from Vatican II’s acta to a spiritual experience of the Council really (though doubtless unintentionally) was an appeal to the interpretations and opinions of a narrow group, including nonbelievers.

20. Avery Dulles, S.J., The Resilient Church: The Necessity and Limits of Adaptation (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977), 109. Concerning theological abuse of Vatican II: Philippe Delhaye, La Scienza del bene e del male: La morale del Vaticano II e il “metaconcilio” (Milan: Ares, 1981).

21. Dissent, 100–101.

22. McCormick, Notes, 667.

23. The scantness of negative reaction can be seen by examining the New York Times, the National Catholic Reporter, and NC News Service from 29 July through 31 August 1968. Not more than a half-dozen negative reactions by individual bishops are reported. The media did not give equal attention to the many bishops who affirmed the teaching as their own and defended it against the dissent.

24. For example, Humanae Vitae and the Bishops: The Encyclical and the Statements of the National Hierarchies, ed. John Horgan (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1972). Even this collection is incomplete; see the list of Martin Brugarola, S.J., “Presentacion,” in Marcelino Zalba, S.J., Las conferencias episcopales ante la “Humanae vitae” (Madrid: Editorial Cio, 1971), 5–7.

25. See E. Hamel, S.J., “Conferentiae episcopales et encyclica ‘Humanae vitae,’ ” in De matrimonio coniectanea (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1970), 323–40.

26. Ibid., 340. A work favorable to dissent found “clear acceptance” in twenty-five documents from eighteen countries, “clear mitigation” in sixteen documents from thirteen countries, and an “uncertain” position in eleven documents from ten countries (see Joseph A. Komonchak, “Humanae Vitae and Its Reception: Ecclesiological Reflection,” Theological Studies, 39 [1978], 249, n. 87). It also was seldom noted by dissenting theologians that various conferences which made hurried statements in 1968 subsequently issued more carefully prepared documents on relevant matters. For instance, the Canadian Catholic Conference, “Statement on the Formation of Conscience,” 1 December 1973, corrected (without explicitly saying so) the statement issued five years before, to bring the teaching of the bishops of Canada into line with the received teaching on the Catholic conscience and its responsible formation. Again, in 1970 a group of Italian moral theologians claimed it appropriate for moral theologians to “help believing Christians to serenely follow their own sincere conscience even though in a given situation it cannot be clearly seen how their complete choice is to be reconciled with a particular goal that has been authoritatively proposed by the magisterium—provided that they seem to be on the road toward the ideal envisioned by the total teaching.” (Quoted in Antonio di Marino, S.J., “Morality and the Magisterium,” in Readings in Moral Theology: No. 3: The Magisterium and Morality, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 95. To this the Italian Episcopal Conference responded that the “formulation readily inclines people to the error that in particular individual cases something is licit in conscience which may even have been declared illicit in absolute terms by the authentic magisterium. As it is formulated, this section cannot be accepted as a correct statement of a moral-theology teaching that is faithful to the magisterium of the Church. Hence it cannot be proposed in teaching moral theology without failing in the duty that theologians have to the magisterium, which entrusts them with the task of teaching” (ibid., 101).

27. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 74 AAS (1982) 171; Eng. ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1981), 138–39 (sec. 73).