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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Question D: How did dissenting theologians try to buttress their claim to an authority superior to that of the magisterium?

1. One line of argument appealed to history. Avery Dulles stated: “In the post-Tridentine Church, and in the Neo-Scholastic theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the dialectical tension between the charisms in the Church is virtually eliminated. All authentic teaching power is simply transferred to the episcopal order.”53 He argued at length that the situation in which popes and bishops determine points of teaching concerning faith and morals was a relatively recent development and a kind of aberration in the Church due to peculiar, modern conditions.

2. However, this is not the case. The status of the pope and bishops in the Church belongs to them as successors of the apostles. There is no point subsequent to apostolic times at which they began to act as the teaching authority of the Church, for they were authorized by Jesus to play this role. Tracing how they have done so and how the peculiar competence of the magisterium has been articulated at various times is a proper function of historical scholarship. But the fact that supreme teaching authority, however exercised and articulated, is vested in the pope and bishops as successors of the apostles goes back to the origin of the Church herself.54

One of Curran’s colleagues, Daniel Maguire, made a statement very similar to Dulles’. However, according to Maguire, the trouble began earlier, with a shift to the juridical in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He explained the effect of this shift: “After this transition there is a tendency to see the teaching acts of popes and bishops as divinely guaranteed. The teaching of Church officers seems to enjoy an inalienable presumption in its favor, a certain authenticity that other Christian teaching does not have. The magisterial role of the Church at large is neglected in the stress on the prerogatives of officers. The hierarchical emphasis was intensified in the panicked reaction to the Reformation.”55 Thus, Maguire considered the situation in which the hierarchy has unique teaching authority an aberration which has existed, unfortunately, for nearly half the life of the Church.

A Protestant scholar, Hans von Campenhausen, examined the relationship between magisterial authority and various other charisms in the early Church. Von Campenhausen thought that teachers and theologians had some independence through the second century but lost it in the third. He summed up: “In the course of the third century the exclusive authority of office attains its full stature. It is true that the right to co-operate and share in church decisions is nowhere absolutely denied to the congregation, and that in practice their influence shrank only gradually and step by step before the growing might of the clergy. But everywhere in governing circles we can see the effort to make the effectiveness of clerical authority as unrestricted, unqualified and exclusive as possible. These efforts were especially successful in the western Church, and Cyprian here marks the terminal point of the process. He formulates for the first time quite unambiguously—and with terrifying precision and candour—the principle that authority resides uniquely with the bishops.”56 Cyprian died in 258. On this analysis the situation in which the hierarchy has the kind of teaching authority it claims for itself in Vatican II (see LG 25 and DV 10) was an aberration which has existed for nearly seven-eighths of the life of the Church.

While von Campenhausen was an excellent scholar, I do not think he pushed back far enough. At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus appears in Galilee teaching. People are used to religious teachers, such as the scribes, who were the theological scholars of the day. Jesus is different. When he begins to teach: “They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1.22). This aberration from past teaching practice was handed on by Jesus when he said first to Peter and then to all the apostles: Authority is mine, and I authorize you to carry on my work (see Mt 16.17–19; 18.18; 28.18–20).

3. Another line of argument was that the magisterium made errors in the past in matters such as the Galileo case, the decrees of the Biblical Commission between 1905 and 1915, and the question of religious liberty. In light of this, it seemed that the magisterium, rather than the theologians, could be mistaken in regard to matters in dispute, and that the judgment of the latter could reasonably be preferred to that of the former.

4. There are several possibilities with regard to alleged magisterial errors in the past. In some cases there really were errors, but in matters of discipline or government, not doctrine. This kind of error is not at issue here. In other cases, it is arguable whether there were errors. For instance, some theologians, assuming that past error on contraception had to be conceded, argued from this that there may have been errors in many other matters of received Catholic teaching, especially in respect to sex and innocent life. In the actual debate, however, such allegations of error were question-begging. Anyone who accepted all of the Church’s moral teaching simply did not concede the point assumed by these theologians. In still other cases, there really were errors in teaching proposed in the Church with some authority, but the instances did not meet one or more of the conditions for a teaching proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium. (A discussion of some instances of alleged error will be found in appendix 1.)

5. In respect to the real instances of error by the magisterium, Catholics of the time, including theologians, acted rightly in trusting the magisterium’s judgment, for reasons explained above (35‑F). If like cases were to occur again, it would be impossible at the time to recognize them with the clarity of hindsight. Responsibly following the possibly erroneous judgment of the magisterium is the same as responsibly following one’s sincere conscience in other cases; it is possible to go wrong in this way, but one has no better norm than one’s best judgment. Thus, when a faithful Catholic’s best judgment is formed, as it should be, by the Church’s noninfallible teaching, the Catholic might possibly be following a false norm. Yet God has provided no better norm for his or her current belief and practice.

6. It might be argued that people could avoid having to rely on the possibly erroneous judgment of the magisterium by instead following the judgment of dissenting theologians. But this, too, is question-begging. Moreover, it necessarily assumes either of two things: that it would be safer to trust the possibly erroneous judgments of dissenting theologians or that they, unlike the magisterium, are infallible without conditions or limits.

Some dissenting theologians appealed to the “sensus fidelium.” However, Avery Dulles pointed out that most laypeople were uninterested in the “liberal” program for reforming the Church: “The majority of the faithful are probably unaware of the reasons for protecting the right of speculative theologians to hold new and untried theories; and they would probably oppose the admission of women to holy orders.”57 Dulles warned against confusing the sensus fidelium with majority opinion. Nevertheless, he thought that the hierarchy could not be relied upon exclusively, because of their “class interests and professional biases.” What was needed, he thought, was a “pluralistic theory of authority in the Church.”58 This theory allowed theologians independence.59

7. The dissenting theologians did not of course claim to be infallible. They did, however, appeal to their own consensus against criticism which challenged the authority which they asserted for themselves. But this appeal had no rational weight, since in scholarly disputes only evidence and reasons count in establishing credibility. It appears that dissenting theologians were impressed by their consensus precisely because it was the agreement of a large part of those who held power in academic theology. The danger in this, from the point of view of scholarship, was in the consequent tendency to be closed-minded toward conflicting views regardless of the case presented to support them.

One reason often given for following radically dissenting opinions was that so many theologians accepted them. For example, Joseph Komonchak’s main argument in criticizing the position John C. Ford, S.J., and I defend with respect to the infallibility of the Church’s teaching on contraception was: “Finally, there is something like a consensus theologorum that the magisterial tradition behind HV’s condemnation does not constitute an infallible exercise of the teaching office.”60 McCormick, designating himself too much a specialist in moral theology to enter the argument, nevertheless adopted this argument from Komonchak.61

Since Komonchak’s article appeared in the same issue of Theological Studies as the article written by Ford and me, and since Komonchak had a year to study our article before completing his own (and McCormick was reviewing both), the invocation of a consensus theologorum must mean they were confident that the conclusion defended by Ford and me was rejected and would continue to be rejected by theologians who had never read our argument. In other words, the attitude of Komonchak and McCormick was: Never mind arguments; our position is in power.

The refusal of dissenting theologians to consider arguments against their consensus was evidenced by later events. At the beginning of a book he published in 1982, Charles Curran discussed the relationship between magisterium and theology; in delimiting the subject to be treated, he blandly claimed “all admit that the investigations of theologians have not involved the infallible teaching office of the church.”62

In the same year, Curran and McCormick published an anthology on the magisterium and morality from which they excluded serious work arguing that moral teachings have been proposed infallibly under the conditions stated by Vatican II (see LG 25; 35‑D). However, this anthology included a paper by John Boyle contributed to the 1979 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, in which he tried to deal with the problem posed for radical dissent by the article of Ford and me. Boyle tried to argue that “it is no simple matter to develop purely formal criteria for infallible moral teaching, as Grisez and Ford have attempted to do.”63 Thus he mistakenly suggested that the criteria were theological proposals; in fact, we merely drew Vatican II’s criteria from the conciliar documents themselves.

A political attitude also was expressed by some theologians’ constant references to “the majority” and “the minority” in the Birth Control Commission. Ten years after Humanae vitae, McCormick still talked about Paul VI’s rejection of “the majority” opinion, saying it reflects a highly legal notion of the magisterium and that consultation becomes a disposable luxury when majority opinions are not accepted.64 He missed the point that the Commission was not a legislature. It was intended to be a study group. Its members were supposed to marshall reasons and evidence for their views.

No one ought to believe any theologian. If the evidence and reasons make a good argument, one will understand it for oneself, and the authority of the theologian will be as irrelevant as a clean window opening upon a view. Only if someone has bad arguments will he seek to enhance them by invoking a consensus theologorum. Sixteen signatures did not transform a bad argument into a good one, and six hundred names did not make a manifesto into a theological proof.

53. Dulles, Resilient Church, 102.

54. For the conception of authority in the New Testament: David M. Stanley, S.J., “Authority in the Church: A New Testament Reality,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 29 (1967), 555–73; the idea of authority in the early Church: J. N. Bakhuizen van den Brink, “Tradition and Authority in the Early Church,” in Studia Patristica, 7 (1963), Texte und Untersuchungen, 92, ed. F. L. Cross (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1966), 3–22; on apostolic succession: International Theological Commission, “Apostolic Succession: A Clarification,” Origins, 4 (19 September 1974), 193, 195–200.

55. Daniel C. Maguire, “Moral Inquiry and Religious Assent,” in Contraception: Authority and Dissent, ed. Charles E. Curran (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 136.

56. Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1969), 299; see 192–93 concerning teachers and theologians.

57. Dulles, Resilient Church, 42.

58. Ibid., 99.

59. Ibid., 106.

60. Komonchak, “Humanae Vitae and Its Reception,” 250. The illusion of consensus is maintained only by carefully ignoring or arbitrarily dismissing the substantial theological works which continue to appear in many languages: Ermenegildo Lio, Humanae Vitae e Coscienza: L’Insegnamento di Karol Wojtila, Teologo e Papa (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1980); John R. Connery, S.J., “Morality of Consequences: A Critical Appraisal,” Theological Studies, 34 (1973), 396–414; “Catholic Ethics: Has the Norm for Rule-Making Changed?” Theological Studies, 42 (1981), 232–50; Ferdinando Citterio, “La revisione critica dei tradizionali principi morali alle luce della teoria del ‘compromesso etico,’ ” Scuola cattolica, 110 (1982), 29–64; Dario Composta, “Il consequenzialismo: Una nuova corrente della ‘Nuova Morale,’ ” Divinitas, 25 (1981), 127–56; Marcelino Zalba, S.J., “Principia ethica in crisim vocata intra (propter?) crisim morum,” Periodica de Re Morali, Canonica, Liturgica, 71 (1982), 25–63 and 319–57; Gustav Ermecke, “Das Problem der Universalität oder Allgemeingültigkeit sittlicher Normen innerweltlicher Lebensgestaltung,” Münchener theologische Zeitschrift, 24 (1973), 1–24; Servais Pinckaers, O.P., “La question des actes intrinsèquement mauvais et le ‘proportionnalisme,’ ” Revue Thomiste, 82 (1982), 181–212; Georges Cottier, O.P., “La conception chrétienne de la sexualité,” Nova et Vetera, 52 (1977), 1–21; and a collective work edited by Johannes Bökmann: Befreiung vom objektiv Guten? Vom verleugneten Desaster der Antikonzeption zum befreienden Ethos (Vallendar, West Germany: Patris-Verlag, 1982). And these are only a sample.

61. McCormick, Notes, 777.

62. Curran, Moral Theology: A Continuing Journey, 3. In the same sentence, Curran said that the issues under discussion “often involve defined truths of faith,” but gave no example or indication of what he had in mind. In any case, he clearly continued to reject without argument the claims of teachings infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium.

63. John Boyle, “The Natural Law and the Magisterium,” in Readings in Moral Theology: No. 3, 446.

64. McCormick, Notes, 687. Talk about the “majority” vastly oversimplifies what happened in the Commission. For instance, Paul VI wanted to know in June 1964 whether the “pill” was a contraceptive forbidden by the tradition; by 1966 almost all the theologians of the Commission agreed that it was. (See de Riedmatten, “Rapport Final,” 8 and 18—using the page numbers entered in ink at the bottom of each page.) Again, the bishops and cardinals who alone were constituent members of the Commission at its final stage considered a proposal that they recommend to the Pope that he once more consult all the bishops of the world as to their views on the morality of contraception. (This had been done previously in the spring of 1964.) Several of the members, including Cardinal Ottaviani, President of the Commission, argued strongly for such a consultation, but it was defeated eleven to four (ibid., 61) with all those favoring contraception against consultation. There also is a possibility that the brief of the theologians who opposed contraception was not made available to the cardinals and bishops of the Commission before their one common, decisive four and one-half day meeting; see John Cardinal Heenan, “The Authority of the Church,” Tablet, 222 (18 May 1968), 489.