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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Question F: Could radical theological dissent be construed as mere reformulation of traditional moral teaching?

1. The discussion up to this point has concerned radically dissenting theologians who said clearly that some of their positions on moral issues were inconsistent with the Church’s moral teaching. In 1978, however, Richard McCormick took a new tack, maintaining that he and other theologians who disagreed with statements of the magisterium were not touching the substance of received Catholic moral teaching but only altering its inherently alterable formulation.

2. McCormick began by noting a “conceptual and destructive impasse” which tended to pit theologians and bishops against one another. Was there no solution? He suggested another way of looking at matters, one which “views the magisterium as the precious vehicle of our shared experience and knowledge.” Still, the hierarchical magisterium is pastoral in character, for it makes prudential judgments when more basic principles must be brought to bear in changing times; the magisterium is philosophical-theological in character, for it uses a thought-system and language which are culture-conditioned and imperfect; the magisterium must address believers of various cultures and value perspectives. “Together these three characteristics mean that there is a difference between the substance of a teaching and its formulation. This was explicitly acknowledged by John XXIII and Gaudium et spes. If there is a distinction between the substance and formulation, there is also an extremely close, indeed inseparable connection. They are related as body and soul. The connection is so intimate that it is difficult to know just what the substance is amid variation of formulation.”69

3. McCormick took premarital intercourse as an example. Various things have been said about it, among others: “It is morally wrong, scil., there is always something missing. Hence, it should be avoided.” McCormick said this was the substantial teaching to which the Church is committed. The rest of the things which had been said, according to McCormick, were philosophical-theological and subject to change. They included: “It is intrinsically evil” and “There is a presumption of serious guilt in each act.”

4. McCormick proceeded to draw three conclusions. First, the substance could not be identified with the formulation, and the magisterium must participate in a teaching-learning process to arrive at suitable formulations. Second, “It is not a stunning theological putdown or an insuperably serious objection against an attempted formulation” to point out that it is incompatible with a recent statement of the Holy See dealing specifically and authoritatively with the matter. Third, the pope and bishops “should not formulate their teaching against a broad or even very significant theological consensus; for such a consensus indicates at least that the problem has not matured sufficiently to allow an authoritative formulation.”70

5. In saying that substance and formulation are related as body and soul, McCormick defeated his own purpose (that is, to show that the substance of the Church’s teaching was not being touched by theologians such as himself). If the two are so close (“inseparable”), it is impossible to change the formulation without changing the substance. (If, after all, body is separated from soul, the result is death.) Nor will it do to say that McCormick’s analogy was merely a figure of speech, not to be taken seriously. He evidently meant it to be taken seriously, inasmuch as he was trying to make the substance of teaching inaccessible, that is, to exclude its being encapsulated as an objectively formulated truth. For this reason, he compared it to the soul.

6. McCormick’s example of the substance-formulation distinction—what he said about fornication—suggests that he wanted the substance of moral teaching to consist in what was common both to received Catholic teaching and to the opinion of theologians who dissented from it. The extent of the difficulties this raises is suggested by the fact that he omitted from his list of statements made at one time or another on the subject of premarital sex what the Council of Trent says in teaching that the grace of justification is lost by anyone who commits mortal sin: “This assertion defends the teaching of divine law that excludes from the kingdom of God not only those without faith, but also those with faith who are fornicators . . .” (DS 1544/808). If McCormick were correct, one would have to conclude that the substance of what Trent meant to say is merely that there is always something missing from premarital sex, and so it is to be avoided. In any case, McCormick provided no reason why the proposition he selected ought to be accepted as the substance of Christian teaching on fornication, when there are other propositions better grounded in Scripture and tradition to fulfill this role.

7. Finally, McCormick failed to show how the “conclusions” which he drew about the relationship between the magisterium and the dissenting theologians followed from what he said about the substance-formulation distinction. His first “conclusion,” for instance, stressed the difference between substance and formulation, while the part of his argument noted above stressed their very close relationship, on the analogy of body and soul. Similarly, his second and third “conclusions” followed only if the magisterium does not have the responsibility to judge what formulation of the Church’s faith is adequate to it. But the magisterium has always claimed precisely this duty, together with a corresponding right to reject theological formulations as inadequate to the faith which has been received and which must be handed on intact.71

McCormick’s proposal with respect to substance and formulation was vulnerable not only in respect to its reasoning and its conclusions, but also in respect to its premises.

In 1969 McCormick had reported the first distinction he made—that between the doctrinal and the pastoral—as a proposal of Phillipe Delhaye, who had suggested that Humanae vitae was not teaching that contraception is wrong, but only giving pastoral guidance. McCormick had remarked that, if so, practically all the bishops and theologians of the world misunderstood Humanae vitae. Less than a decade later, however, McCormick suggested that all the teaching of the magisterium be taken as he had rightly noted Humanae vitae cannot be taken.72

McCormick’s second premise—the idea that the magisterium itself is philosophical-theological in character—went back to a paper by Archbishop Robert Coffy of Albi (speaking as a theologian, not as a bishop), which McCormick had reported in 1977. According to Coffy: “Every understanding of the faith necessarily implies a theology. There are no sharp lines of demarcation between the faith and the theological understanding of the faith.” According to McCormick’s summary, Coffy had gone on to reject a conception of revelation “that allowed it to be encapsulated in objective formulated truths.” It followed that the magisterium cannot “distinguish clearly between the true and the false.” Truth was historical, and magisterial formulations were not beyond discussion. Therefore, theologians and the magisterium must serve the word of God together. The magisterium would do well to make fewer interventions and to allow a long maturing process for many questions.73

Coffy’s argument depended upon equivocation between various meanings of “theology” (1‑A). His assertion that truth is historical and his denial that the magisterium can distinguish between the true and the false were very like the position of Hans Küng, criticized in chapter thirty-five, appendix two. Moreover, Coffy seemed to reject the definitive teaching of Vatican I concerning the object of faith (20‑C). If Coffy had been right, faith would be some sort of mysterious, aconceptual relationship to God.74

McCormick’s third premise—that the magisterium has to talk to all sorts of people and to people with different value systems—certainly is correct. But all that this showed is that the same truth of faith must be articulated in different languages and developed to meet new problems. It by no means showed that the Church must accept the diversity of cultures and their value systems and bless all of it, good and bad alike, by calling it “diverse formulations of the same substance.” When in Corinth, Paul did not say that the mind of Jesus is to do as the Corinthians were accustomed to doing. He had a different way of dealing with cultural diversity (see Rom 12.1–2; Gal 5.13–26).

The passage quoted from McCormick, in which he claimed that John XXIII and Vatican II accept the substance-formulation distinction as he articulated it, contained the distortion discussed in chapter twenty, appendix two. When John XXIII and the Council (see GS 62) say that “the deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment, is another,” they take for granted that one can find the truths of faith in very definite formulations—for example, in the teaching of the Council of Trent, in Scripture, and so forth. The phrase “the same meaning and the same judgment,” often omitted by those who translate the statement, makes this point absolutely clear, for it would be nonsense to talk about sameness of meaning and of judgment if there were not two formulations, A and B, about which one could say two things: (1) “Both A and B mean X,” and (2) “A and B agree in affirming X” or “A and B agree in denying X.” The key phrase, “eodem sensu eademque sententia,” is taken from Vatican I’s definitive teaching on Catholic faith (see DS 3020/1800; cf. 3043/1818). Vatican I quotes the phrase from St. Vincent of Lerins who (in the fifth century) uses it to express the continuity which must be maintained as Catholic teaching develops (see FEF 2174).

69. McCormick, Notes, 744.

70. Ibid., 744–45.

71.  See José Luis Illanes Maestre, “Pluralismo teológico y verdad de la fe,” Scripta Theologica, 7 (1975), 619–84. McCormick, Notes, 778, urged the need to “reformulate what is defective” in Humanae vitae by eliminating from it the position that contraception always is wrong. He offered no indication concerning what he considered to be the substance of the received teaching on contraception, except that “technology can be of great assistance to us but should not be allowed to dominate us.”

72. McCormick, Notes, 255.

73. Ibid., 657–58.

74. See Robert Coffy, “The Magisterium and Theology,” in Readings in Moral Theology: No. 3, 212 and 214–15, for a translation of the relevant parts of Coffy’s paper. Whereas Vatican I teaches that “by divine and Catholic faith everything must be believed that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, and that is proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed object of belief either in a solemn decree or in her ordinary, universal teaching” (DS 3011/1792), Coffy, admittedly offering a possibly over-summary treatment, said (215): “To put it sharply, truths were conceived as coming from above and as lending themselves to definitive translations into formulas quite capable of expressing them perfectly. In this question, the magisterium could draw the line between what was truth and what was error.” With more historical consciousness, Coffy claimed, it is now clear that truth is discovered gradually in history: “Revelation is not the transmission of immutable formulas, or statements. It is a mystery; the mystery of God.” In arguing thus, Coffy overlooked the actual status of the truths God makes known about himself, for these are distinct from both the divine reality they reveal to humans according to their capacity and the culturally conditioned linguistic vehicles by which and in which these truths are expressed.