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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Question C: What other grounds were proposed to support the legitimacy of radical theological dissent?

1. At first, the principal ground was the claim that the Church’s own teaching justifies such dissent. Eventually, however, this was universally acknowledged not to be the case. Thus the concern of the present question is with other grounds which were advanced from time to time by various theologians. Since many simply repeated one another’s views, only a few typical examples drawn from a vast literature will be considered.

2. Richard McCormick, more accurate than Charles Curran and his associates, did not claim that common teaching justified radical theological dissent. Instead, he claimed that Vatican II led to a renewed concept of teaching in the Church, one more open to participation by the whole Church and less legalistic with respect to the authority of the magisterium. Up to this point, as the analysis in chapter thirty-five makes clear, such views are unexceptionable.

3. McCormick further argued that the new concept of teaching had repercussions for the notion of the magisterium and its functioning.39 First, by its teaching the magisterium must persuade, not just command. Second, McCormick argued that there was a developing theology “which emphasizes a docile personal assimilation and appropriation of authentic teaching as the appropriate immediate response, rather than an unquestioning assent.” Third, the reflection of theologians is essential to the work of the magisterium.40 McCormick also argued that if the magisterium’s teaching must be accepted on its authority, not on the force of the arguments offered for it, dissent would be eliminated in principle, and one could do nothing but agree with everything the magisterium says.41

4. Complementing this view of the limited authority of the magisterium was the thesis that theologians enjoyed a magisterium of their own to which the magisterium of the bishops in practice ought to be subordinate. Avery Dulles asserted that the episcopal magisterium should not say anything without consulting theologians. Usually it should not speak in a binding way without the prior consensus of theologians. Lacking such consensus, the magisterium can at most propose its own theological opinion, while admitting that good Christians can disagree with it. Dissenters from Church teaching should not consider themselves disloyal, for there is no obligation to assent. For the same reason, nothing should be done to inhibit dissenters in expressing their views.42

5. McCormick developed his views in line with those of Dulles. He came to think that the congregations of the Holy See should be liberated from their single theological language and perspective; perhaps they should refrain from doing theology altogether, for the “temptation is almost irresistible for such groups to support the theological views of the officeholders whom they serve.”43 McCormick agreed with Dulles on the inadequacy of “the notion of tradition and the magisterium being followed by the pope and many bishops,” since according to this view theologians could have only a subordinate and instrumental role, and “are not teachers in the Church or part of the magisterium.”44

6. McCormick earlier insisted that the magisterium produce adequate reasons for received Catholic teaching.45 The Holy Spirit is at work in the whole Church, and so the whole must determine doctrine; the magisterium can propose doctrine, as Bernard Häring says, only with “proofs from human experience and with good arguments.”46 If the hierarchy does not listen to the theologians, its efforts to teach are counter-productive.47 Eventually, McCormick laid down rules for the magisterium’s use of theology: Bishops must not choose theological advisors by the criterion of their assent to received teaching; they must not teach against a significant theological consensus; they must not consider theological dissent objectionable.48

These views imply three things. First, McCormick and radically dissenting theologians generally were forgetful that faith is a presupposition of theology. Second, they not only tended to ignore the divinely appointed leadership role of the bishops and the pope, but also tended to deny them even the role which would belong to the managers of any human society, namely, the right and duty to make decisions, to pick advisors, to follow some advice and not other conflicting advice. Third, the radically dissenting theologians more and more posed as the Catholic theological community; those who did not join in radical dissent simply did not count, and their arguments could be ignored.

7. In evaluating McCormick’s position, the first point to notice is that he made a simple logical mistake. The possibility of nonassent is by no means excluded by readiness to assent to an authoritative teaching proposed without convincing arguments. Anyone who trusts another can generally assent to what he or she says without convincing reasons—or despite unconvincing reasons—yet also sometimes have reasons for nonassent, namely, the existence of a positive reason for thinking a particular statement false. It is simply not the case, as McCormick supposed, that one must either admit the need for the magisterium to prove its case or else lapse into the obscurantism of agreeing with whatever the magisterium says just because it says it. For the basic requirement of assent, which is due irrespective of the magisterium’s arguments, does not exclude the possibility of nonassent should the teaching proposed conflict with a superior theological source, such as Scripture or a Church teaching already infallibly proposed (35‑G).

8. With respect to McCormick’s earlier view, his position amounted to this: There is nothing about the sacramental office of the bishops, including the pope, which specifies that one’s response to the magisterium be assent rather than dissent. Rather, the status of the magisterium requires that the faithful think over the reasons it offers. On this view: “Dissent from authoritative noninfallible teaching is but a single aspect of the learning process of the Church. That is, it is the terminus of a sincere attempt to assimilate authentic teaching.”49 Thus McCormick shifted the burden of proof: A Catholic needs no reason for dissenting, but should not assent unless he or she finds the magisterium’s arguments adequate.

9. In effect, this position reduced the pope to the status of a private theologian. Any competent theologian deserves as much consideration as McCormick recommended be given the teaching of the magisterium. Having arrived at this view, McCormick reasonably went on to question whether bishops enjoy any special assistance of the Spirit if they neglect to use the human processes which any theologian would have to use to reach doctrinal judgments.50

McCormick provided a proportionalist rationalization for public dissent, saying it would be justified if other forms of dissent are ineffective and unopposed error by the magisterium would be very harmful.51

In other words, if the magisterium teaches and if theologians do not find its teaching persuasive, they can consider it in error, publicly dissent from it, and urge the faithful to follow theological opinion instead of the Church’s teaching. McCormick did not specifically endorse the dissent of Curran and his associates, nor did McCormick subscribe to Curran’s statement. But neither did McCormick disown that instance of dissent, the most obvious example of what he was talking about. In that instance, the dissenting statement was issued one day after Humanae vitae was published, and numerous signers subscribed to it.

How such a procedure was an expression of theological scholarship and why any theological work would need the endorsement of persons other than those who shared in doing it were unanswered questions. It seems clear that the statement of Curran and his associates had the character of a manifesto; the procedure was political rather than scholarly. It is surprising that McCormick could have tolerated such an operation; only a few years earlier he clearly explained “the inherent reasonableness of an authoritative magisterium,” on the basis that while moral principles are intuitively clear, they are hard to articulate, and our perception of them is fragile and difficult.52

10. However, the position taken subsequently by both Dulles and McCormick denied the magisterium even the status enjoyed by established academic theologians. The latter can always and without challenge freely and firmly state their own views, definitely reject the positions of others, consult and collaborate with whomever they choose. In practice, the radically dissenting theologians not only operated independently of the Church’s teaching authority but granted it a status inferior to that which they granted one another as professional academic theologians.

11. In view of the authority on moral questions with which this position would invest dissenting theologians, it became reasonable to ask why any faithful Catholic, including any bishop, should rely on their authority. The claim to authority which their position proposed was their scholarly competence. But there are many other scholars, Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and nonbelievers, whose scholarly competence is equal or greater. Every significant ideology has a body of competent scholars who articulate it. In most cases, these various bodies of scholars come to conclusions which differ from one another and, specifically, differ from the conclusions of the radically dissenting Catholic theologians.

12. Presumably these latter thought Catholics should attach special weight to their views because they were fellow believers and, for the most part, priests. However, nothing in Catholic faith requires anyone to believe a theologian, even if he is a priest, in preference to a bishop or, particularly, in preference to the pope. (Or to believe a body of theologians in preference to a body of bishops.) On the contrary, Catholic faith urges that, inasmuch as the bishops are successors of the apostles, on matters of faith and morals the judgment of the collegial magisterium be accepted as normative for the Church.

13. In the past and also at present, theologians have enjoyed an important status in the Church—a status entirely based, however, on their having placed scholarship at the service of the word of God, under the guidance of the magisterium. Once their methodology surrendered this relationship and committed them to the view that their own reasoning was the only warrant for the truth of their judgments in moral matters, dissenting theologians, regardless of their intelligence and good intentions, lacked a basis for the status proper to Catholic theologians. There no longer was any reason for a faithful Catholic to rely on their authority.

Some urged that the dissenting opinions created a genuine probability against the received teaching, and that the faithful were, therefore, free to set aside the Church’s teaching and to act according to the dissenting opinions. In making this claim, they invoked probabilism (12‑D). There are two things to be said about this view.

First, it ignored the difference between the teaching authority of the Church and the value of theological reflection upon the Church’s teaching. In classical moral theology, probabilism was never invoked in favor of theological opinions against the Church’s teaching, but only in favor of one theological opinion against another (or others) in areas left indeterminate by the teaching of the Church.

Second, the authority of the Church’s teaching ultimately rests on divine revelation and faith, and the magisterium’s duty to articulate and defend this teaching rests on divine commission. The authority of theologians rests on three things: their use of the Church’s teaching as the presupposition of their thought, their authorization by the magisterium to share in its work, and their scholarly accuracy in presenting what faith teaches and cogency in arguing from this teaching. When theologians dissented from the Church’s teaching without a solid foundation for dissent in a superior theological source, they undermined their own authority.

39. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., “The Teaching Role of the Magisterium and of the Theologians,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 24 (1969), 244–45.

40. Ibid., 245. For a theological critique of this type view: Dario Composta, “Il Magistero ecclesiastico informa o insegna la morale?” Divinitas, 20 (1976), 199–203; “Diritto naturale e magistero,” Euntes Docete, 29 (1976), 365–77.

41. McCormick, Notes, 221.

42. Dulles, Resilient Church, 110–11. In “The Two Magisteria: An Interim Reflection,” Dulles undertook (156–69) to stand judiciously above both the magisterium of the bishops and the claimed magisterium of the theologians. Attacking what he called the “third magisterium” (167), namely, traditional believers who think radically dissenting theological opinions ought to be condemned, Dulles advised both bishops and theologians how to mitigate tensions between themselves. In doing this, Dulles necessarily took a far different tone than in his rather confrontational earlier work. Yet he retracted nothing of what he had said previously, while evidently considering the less said about prior usurpation the better for the consolidation of previous gains.

43. McCormick, Notes, 667.

44. Ibid., 664.

45. Ibid., 221.

46. Ibid., 264.

47. Ibid., 588.

48. Ibid., 784–85. Later, McCormick suggested that unless his prescriptions for the reform of the magisterium were adopted, it would cease to exist. In an article summing up his views on the subject, “The Teaching Office as a Guarantor of Unity in Morality,” in Christian Ethics: Uniformity, Universality, Pluralism, Concilium, 150, ed. Jacques Pohier and Dietmar Mieth (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 72–81, McCormick admitted (72) that the hierarchical magisterium is a value and privilege whose loss we would all suffer: “However, if we are to continue to enjoy this value, this privilege, the magisterium must be rehabilitated, brought abreast of contemporary realities. Teaching in the Church must reflect what contemporary man understands by teaching. This rehabilitation will mean rethinking the meaning of the authentic teaching office.” The implication is that a magisterium which fails to rehabilitate itself according to the prescription will find the gates of theological academe doing what the gates of hell cannot do.

49. McCormick, Notes, 249.

50. Ibid., 264.

51. Ibid., 249–51.

52. Ibid., 18.