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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Question E: Could morality be considered outside the field of authority proper to the magisterium?

1. The Church is competent in moral matters as well as dogmatic ones. The inherent normativity of faith and the fact that the covenant is a way of life preclude barring the magisterium from the moral domain. Moreover, the teaching of the three most recent councils agrees in asserting the Church’s competence in faith and morals (35‑D).

2. One defense of theological dissent, nevertheless, was the claim that the magisterium’s authority in respect to morals is limited, so that it cannot propose any specific moral norm as a truth to be held definitively. Charles Curran, for example, said that specific moral issues, such as contraception, “so removed from the core of faith can never be the place where the unity of the Church is to be found.”65 Joseph Fuchs, S.J., argued that since faith and love determine salvation, specific moral practices are “only a secundarium,” so that various and incompatible moral norms may be accepted as Christian, provided only that in a given culture they are nonarbitrary and considered “right.”66

3. To the objection that the Church has always held some specific moral norms as truths to be held definitively (for example, that adultery is always wrong) such theologians replied either that the norm is nonabsolute or that it refers only to certain instances—for example, in the case of adultery, to certain instances of extramarital intercourse, namely those in which such intercourse happens to be wrong. In cases in which it is right, these theologians said, extramarital intercourse involving a married individual simply should not be called “adultery.” In other words: Adultery is always wrong, but extramarital intercourse by a married person is not always adultery.

4. Dissenting theologians who held that the magisterium cannot propose any specific moral norm to be held definitively usually adopted proportionalism, which was examined in chapter six. If proportionalism were true, the Church could only give general advice in moral matters; the determination of the right thing to do in each situation would still rest on taking all circumstances into account—a process of accounting which might make a lesser evil of the choice which in most cases would be morally wrong. Other inadequate moral theories, such as intuitionism (4‑B), would also preclude the magisterium from teaching anything specific in the moral field.

5. It is true that many moral norms are nonabsolute. But, as was shown (10‑C), some are absolute. The Church has always proposed norms of both sorts. The teaching on adultery is a clear example of an absolute norm. Only a dissenting theologian arguing his case would claim that Christian teachers, from Jesus to the present day, merely meant to say that it is always wrong to engage in wrongful extramarital relations.

In 1970, a group of Italian moral theologians met to discuss the relationship between morality and the magisterium. One of their conclusions was: “The establishing of norms having juridical force is not the characteristic function of the magisterium in the area of morality; that particular task is per se inherent in the function of governing, though it could entail a choice of a magisterial character.”67 In response to this, the Italian Episcopal Conference said:

The formulation of this section is not readily comprehensible to the average reader. Because of its ambiguity, it readily lends itself to unacceptable interpretations. In reality it must be said that the moral magisterium is per se doctrinal, with morally binding efficacy for the formation of conscience and the conduct of life, but it can have different characteristics and functions. It can be definitively doctrinal, prudentially doctrinal, and so forth. In short, it can teach some norm, which interprets the Gospel law or natural law, as an absolute norm for all times and places, or it can present some norm as the historical application of an indeterminate and dynamic Gospel law.
The historicity of the origin and formulation of many of the magisterium’s moral norms should not lead people to the conclusion that all of them are always historically conditioned insofar as their value is concerned, and hence changeable as cultures change.68

In offering this explanation, the Italian bishops explicate the teaching of Vatican II, to which they also refer (LG 12, 25; GS 50) in their document.

6. Moreover, as explained above (35‑E), at least one specific moral norm has been solemnly defined: “If anyone says that Christians are permitted to have several wives simultaneously, and that such a practice is not forbidden by any divine law (cf. Mt 19.4–9): let him be anathema” (DS 1802/972).

7. There are at least two reasons why the magisterium must teach the specific norms of Christian life actively and with certainty.

8. First, the Church has the task of guiding the faithful on the way to salvation. People need and must be given help to follow Jesus uprightly; but uprightness depends upon moral honesty with oneself. The Church’s specific moral teaching helps individuals by making them acutely aware of moral truth which they might otherwise evade and ignore—but not without moral responsibility, sometimes even grave responsibility, for doing so. The magisterium does for the faithful what true prophets always have done for God’s people—what, for example, Nathan did for David.

9. Second, the Church is a prophetic community. Precisely as such, it must show people of good will that Christian life is the purest humanism, that Christianity is really committed to the human goods which true morality protects and which even the vicious often hypocritically acknowledge. The Church cannot fulfill this prophetic office unless the magisterium engages in quite specific moral teaching to shape a common life in which this teaching is put into practice, thus showing that Christian love really does redeem fallen humankind. For instance, in cultures which institutionalize divorce and lying, the Christian avoidance of such practices is testimony to the faithfulness and truthfulness of Jesus.

Some claimed that in a pluralistic age, absolute unity in Christian moral teaching no longer is appropriate. The “official teaching” ought to be regarded as one option, it was argued, and dissenting theological opinions as another legitimate option. Just as the law of the state allows consenting adults liberty to engage in sexual activities of their choice, provided they are done in private, and just as the state approves and facilitates abortion and remarriage after divorce, so (it was suggested) should the Church.

This argument neglected to notice that while every community can be pluralistic about whatever is not vital to its concerns, no community is pluralistic about what touches its essential purposes. Thus no state ever tolerates pluralistic approaches to the payment of taxes or to the assassination of public officials. The Church is pluralistic in many ways: It welcomes people who are Jews and Gentiles, people of all races, ages, levels of intelligence and culture, people male and female, and so forth. And none of these distinctions blocks one from enjoying full membership in the Church.

Moral norms are not an optional extra in any community. They express its very identity; they require what must be required for the community to live and hand itself on. Societies can be pluralistic with respect to morality only if and to the extent they concern themselves with certain limited aspects of life, as political society, for instance, concerns itself mainly with bare survival and mutual protection, and so need not insist upon all the norms of personal morality.

But the community of friendship with God concerns the whole of a person; nothing remains private in relation to God. The whole of chapters nineteen through twenty-seven tends to show that Catholic faith—which centrally constitutes the Church’s identity—excludes the pluralism which would be admitted if radical theological dissent were accepted as a legitimate alternative to received Catholic moral teaching.

Hence, Christian morality necessarily embraces the whole of life and leaves nothing to individual arbitrariness. If the Church were a political society, it would have to be totalitarian or its morality would necessarily be a mere legal code of behavior—which explains what happened when state and Church were too closely connected. Since the Church is a communion of love, not of power, it can embrace the whole person without infringing upon his or her unique individuality.

65. Curran, “Ten Years Later,” 428. Christopher Mooney, “The Claim of the Church to be Guardian of a Universal Natural and Moral Law,” in True and False Universality of Christianity, Concilium, 135, ed. Claude Geffre and Jean-Pierre Jossua (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 23–32, virtually denies the competency of the magisterium in matters such as contraception. In doing so, he ignores the scriptural grounding of Christian sexual morality, the Catholic conception of natural law, and thus the anteriority of both to specific theologies of natural law, including that of St. Thomas. Of course, he also ignores the solemn teaching of Trent, which rightly interpreted makes the “claim” Mooney and many others would deny: Teodoro López Rodriguez, “ ‘Fides et mores’ en Trento,” Scripta Theologica, 5 (1973), 175–221; Marcelino Zalba, S.J., “ ‘Omnis et salutaris veritas et morum disciplina’: Sentido de la expresión ‘mores’ en el Concilio de Trento,” Gregorianum, 54 (1973), 679–715.

66. Joseph Fuchs, S.J., “The Absoluteness of Moral Terms,” in Readings in Moral Theology: No. 1: Moral Norms and Catholic Tradition, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 102. McCormick, “Notes on Moral Theology: 1982,” 73–74, summarizes and commends a later study by Fuchs along the same lines, which makes clear the relationship between Fuchs’ view of the competence of the magisterium and his theories of fundamental option and the specificity of Christian ethics. (These theories were criticized in 16‑E and 25‑E.) Fuchs’ conception of the relationship between the grace of salvation and human acts appears more like the view rejected by the Council of Trent in its Decree on Justification (esp. DS 1535–39/803–4) than like the position taught by Trent: It is necessary and possible to keep the commandments of God and the Church (which are not mere determinations by human experience, evaluation, and judgment), and this is not merely a consequence and sign of the grace of salvation, but a principle of growth in holiness and, by merit, of eternal life.

67. See Marino, op. cit., 93.

68. Ibid., 99–100.