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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Question G: Could radical theological dissent be construed as legitimate doctrinal development in the moral domain?

1. Catholic teaching plainly develops, and there is no reason to exclude moral doctrine from the process.75 Much development is merely refinement or, as in the case of slavery, a movement from what was condoned without a firm judgment to a clear condemnation. Theologically speaking, however, these are not the really interesting cases of development.

2. The interesting cases are those in which development seems to involve a reversal. Simply to contradict what was previously taught, however, would in no sense be to develop it. Hence, those who suggested that radical dissent on a matter such as contraception could be regarded as licit development needed to show that their apparent negation of the Church’s teaching was not a true contradiction.

3. Actual theological dissent on this matter, among others, obviously did contradict the teaching constantly proposed by the magisterium. But the developmentalists’ claim was that the current official teaching did not adequately reflect the deeper truth of Christian tradition, which was being appropriately developed in the work of the dissenting moralists.

4. This approach had to confront a serious problem as to when the supposed development could have occurred. If the result of development was a practical reversal of specific normative demands, it had to have happened at some definite time. Those who argued for development seemed never to confront this problem. It is put aside here, not because it is unimportant, but because the discussion which follows will clarify it sufficiently.

5. The effort to show that a dissenting position really is a legitimate development usually took the following form.

  Specific norms express the practical demands of basic human values. Exactly what the various values demand can vary with circumstances which condition what is needed to protect and promote them. If the practical implication of a set of values at a certain period of history requires the absolute exclusion of a certain form of behavior as an immoral kind of act, then the Church rightly teaches that for those conditions such an act is always wrong. However, with changed circumstances, the practical implication of the same set of values can justify or even require that one engage in precisely that form of behavior. In such a case, the behavior comes to be a specifically different kind of act from the one formerly condemned. The Church should recognize this objective change and develop its teaching accordingly. The appearance of contradiction is an obstacle to this recognition; it arises because, although the same behavior is different from a moral point of view, it seems from a physical point of view that the Church would be approving exactly what it previously condemned. But this is an illusion, not a real difficulty.76

This account of development has merit. Many specific moral norms are nonabsolute (10‑C). With respect to such norms, authentic development of the Church’s moral teaching often will appear to be a reversal but will not really be such. The development of the Church’s teaching on usury is a clear case in point.

6. Still, development of this sort has limits. The belief that all specific moral norms are nonabsolute was based on an inadequate normative theory. Thus, those who defended dissent from the Church’s constant and very firm teachings concerning sex and innocent life and who claimed their dissent was a development of doctrine, virtually always assumed some sort of proportionalism.

7. The example of contraception illustrates the preceding very abstract analysis. In his important historical study of the Church’s teaching on this matter, John T. Noonan, Jr., argued in conclusion that a development in the teaching was possible.77 His case can best be understood in the form articulated above: Conception-preventing behavior under former social and economic circumstances was harmful to a set of basic human goods, and the Church rightly condemned it; today, the same sort of behavior perhaps serves these same goods; if so, it should be approved.

It is worth noticing that Noonan’s book reached only this modest conclusion; he did not pretend to show that development had in fact occurred in the subject matter. The use of Noonan’s work as if he had shown this required an additional premise—that the purported possibility of development rendered unreasonable the continuing affirmation of the received teaching. In other words, even if the theory of development applied to contraception—if the norm forbidding it were nonabsolute—it still would not follow from Noonan’s work that the Church could or should change her teaching, for it would be necessary first to prove that the relevant change in fact had occurred.

8. The essential weakness of Noonan’s argument was that conception-preventing behavior cannot be chosen for its conception-preventing effect without choosing to prevent a new life from coming into being; and such a choice violates the eighth mode of responsibility with respect to the good of human life: in this instance, the life of the unwanted baby whose coming to be the contraceptive choice is made to prevent. The specific norm taught by the Church is therefore absolute, and so it is not open to reversal.

9. In the many diverse formulations of Catholic teaching concerning contraception, reference to one or another particular type of behavior has not been the constant feature. From the earliest days of Christianity up to the present, conception-preventing behaviors have been of various sorts, ranging from coitus interruptus to the use of sterilizing drugs. The constant feature has been the deliberate choice of those who practice contraception to impede the coming to be of a new person. What has been condemned is precisely the deliberate attempt to impede a fresh realization of the basic good of human life.

Contraception is mentioned here only as an example; I have treated the issue in itself elsewhere.78 But to forestall misunderstandings, two points perhaps should be noted.

First, while the specific malice of contraception arises from its antilife character, it also violates the other goods of marriage. As a reflexive good, love or friendship needs content. The acceptance of contraception modifies the content which makes marital love marital, and redirects sexual relationships to other goals. A sign of this is that as soon as contraception is culturally accepted, nonmarital forms of genital interaction also are approved.

Second, proponents of the view that the Church’s teaching on contraception could develop to admit conception-preventing techniques very often argued: “The Church’s teaching on the matter already developed when Pius XI and Piux XII approved rhythm. Its point is the same as contraception’s. So the continued rejection of other methods of preventing conception can only be based on pure physicalism, which mistakenly makes a moral issue of outward behavior and neglects the significant identity of intent.”

The short theological answer to this is that Christians always practiced sexual abstinence to avoid conceptions when they considered themselves morally obliged to do so, and the Church never condemned such abstinence, while it always condemned doing anything to impede the fruitfulness of sexual intercourse by those who choose to engage in it. The recent teaching on periodic abstinence merely adds that those meeting the responsibilities of parenthood in this traditional Christian way need not on that account abstain during those intervals which modern knowledge tells us are infertile.

This traditional discrimination between contraception and sexual abstinence is not based on physicalism, but rather on the morally significant difference in intention between these two approaches to new life. The critic assumed that intent is defined by the concrete outcome, so that contraception and abstinence are identical insofar as both are ways of avoiding pregnancy and, if successful, have the same factual result: Someone who would have existed does not exist.

But a closer consideration of intention is required here using necessary distinctions (9‑C). Those who contracept (say, in an effort to fulfill a conscientious judgment that they should avoid pregnancy) necessarily adopt a proposal which includes the impeding of the beginning of a new life. This impeding of new life is a chosen means to their good end. Those who abstain in accord with a judgment of conscience that they should at present avoid pregnancy need not adopt a proposal which includes the impeding of the beginning of a new life. They make no choice to impede new life in any act of sexual intercourse which they think could lead to a new life, and no such choice is possible in other acts.

10. By contrast with the Church’s teaching on contraception, various teachings on interest taking lacked such a constant element. They referred to a form of unfair behavior, and they defined this behavior in terms of economic institutions whose relationships to basic human goods vary under changing conditions of society and economy.

After he published a major work on contraception, John T. Noonan, Jr., went on to publish articles arguing: The Church once condemned the taking of interest (usury) just as severely as it condemned contraception; but the Church now approves the taking of interest; therefore, the Church can approve contraception. The question is: Did the condemnation of the taking of interest ever meet the conditions for the infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium (35‑D)? The answer is negative, for the following reasons.

As has often been argued by Catholic scholars, the teaching of Scripture and of the Fathers forbids charging interest on loans to the poor and condemns the greed of usurers, but this teaching does not condemn the taking of interest as such, and does not envisage a situation in which moderate rates of interest are established by money markets. The decrees of the councils and popes up to 1450 are aimed at the same evils attacked in Scripture and by the Fathers.79

In his study of scholastic theories of usury, published before the debate among Catholics on contraception began, Noonan himself rejected the view that the central Catholic teaching on the morality of taking interest had changed: “Moreover, as far as dogma in the technical Catholic sense is concerned, there is only one dogma at stake. Dogma is not to be loosely used as synonymous with every papal rule or theological verdict. Dogma is a defined, revealed doctrine taught by the Church at all times and places. Nothing here meets the test of dogma except this assertion, that usury, the act of taking profit on a loan without a just title, is sinful. Even this dogma is not specifically, formally defined by any pope or council. It is, however, taught by the tradition of the Church, as witnessed by papal bulls and briefs, conciliar acts, and theological opinion. This dogmatic teaching remains unchanged. What is a just title, what is technically to be treated as a loan, are matters of debate, positive law, and changing evaluation. The development on these points is great. But the pure and narrow dogma is the same today as in 1200.”80 Although Noonan’s formulation of his point here is neither completely satisfactory nor precise, his idea is clear: The moral teaching on the taking of interest, proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium, has not changed at all.

The key to clarity in this matter is precision with respect to the concept of that usury which the Church condemns. The sin of usury is not simply the charging of interest on a loan, but the charging of interest on a loan in virtue of the very making of the loan, rather than in virtue of some factor related to the loan which provides a basis for a fair demand for compensation. Undoubtedly, there were many erroneous teachings about usury which never met the conditions necessary for an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium. But the main reason why the Church does not teach today on usury as she did in the Middle Ages is not that she has corrected such errors—much less changed her doctrine. The main difference is that the economic subject matter has changed; money and interest simply are not now what they were then.

Charles Curran, writing in 1978, admitted that the argument on the basis of development, which he himself supported before 1968, was attractive because it seemed necessary to facilitate change, but never was plausible. Those who argued against change, Curran admitted, had a clearer understanding of the radical character of the problem. He concluded: “One must honestly recognize that ‘the conservatives’ saw much more clearly than ‘the liberals’ of the day that a change in the teaching on artificial contraception had to recognize that the previous teaching was wrong.”81

75. The work of Newman, although pioneering, remains fundamental. Those who invoke his name, however, seldom test their opinions, offered as development of doctrine, by the seven criteria of faithful development he proposes. See John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1968), 169–206. For a more general summary of the theology of development, with bibliography: J. H. Walgrave, “Doctrine, Development of,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 4:940–44.

76. This formulation is mine, not quoted from another author. It is a summary of a view implicit in the developmentalists’ attempt to resolve the problem.

77. John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), 532–33.

78. See Germain Grisez, “A New Formulation of a Natural-Law Argument against Contraception,” Thomist, 30 (1966), 343–61; “Dualism and the New Morality,” Atti del Congresso Internazionale Tommaso d’Aquino nel Suo Settimo Centenario, vol. 5, L’Agire Morale (Naples: Edizioni Domenicane Italiane, 1977), 323–30; “Natural Family Planning Is Not Contraception,” International Review of Natural Family Planning, 1 (Summer 1977), 121–26; “Contraception, NFP, and the Ordinary Magisterium: An Outline for a Seminar,” International Review of Natural Family Planning, 4 (Spring 1980), 50–58. See note 60, above, for a sampling of works by other Catholic theologians defending the Church’s teaching. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., “Current Theology: Notes on Moral Theology: 1981,” Theological Studies, 43 (1982), 104, stated: “Several theologians in Germany have informed me that there is only one (G. Ermecke) who still defends the formulations and conclusions of Humanae vitae.” That statement is falsified by the collective work edited by Bökmann, and by the frequent, relevant contributions to Theologisches, a theological newsletter he also edits. On the Church’s teaching about the morality of natural family planning: Marcelino Zalba, S.J., “Continentia periodica iam ab anno 1853 in Ecclesia probata fuerat,” Periodica de Re Morali, Canonica, Liturgica, 70 (1981), 523–53.

79. See A. Vermeersch, S.J., “Usury,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 15:235–38, and works cited by him; Thomas F. Divine, S.J., Interest: An Historical and Analytical Study in Economics and Modern Ethics (Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 1959), 5–11, 24–35, and 45–64.

80. John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), 399–400.

81. Curran, “Ten Years Later,” 426.