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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Question H: Why did some wish to change Catholic teaching?

1. The intent of the answer which follows is not to single out one theologian, Avery Dulles, for special criticism. Dulles did, however, provide an exposition whose principal elements appeared to be shared to one degree or another by many of his colleagues among the radically dissenting theologians. His position is therefore worth examining for the light it sheds on this movement as a whole.

2. While it appears that Dulles could find room in his theory of development of doctrine for the conception of development treated in the preceding question, he did not think it adequate. He wished also to allow for revisions of received teaching, including some which were admittedly incompatible with the principle of continuous and cumulative growth.82

3. Dulles did not provide a very precise answer to the question of how he wanted to change received doctrine. He held that God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is the central mystery and that the primary or central truths of faith are those which express this mystery. With respect to other doctrines, he proposed a program of simplification, intensification, and concentration.

4. As an outcome of this process, not every Catholic would be expected to affirm personally every proposition ever proposed definitively as a truth of faith. Only a minimum—to avoid “harmful deviations from the gospel”—would be imposed on all. For the rest, everyone would be at liberty to reject the Church’s teaching, and certainly none would be expected to assent to anything in which he or she could “as yet find no meaning, relevance, or credibility.”83

5. Dulles presented many arguments for accepting this program of change. Most started from true propositions—precisely the propositions which point to the need and possibility of genuine development. By themselves, however, none of these considerations lent any support to this radical proposal. For instance, Dulles pointed to the need to find better and more relevant ways of expressing Christian faith; he cited John XXIII in support of this unexceptionable premise. But the premise by no means showed that the Church should consider any of its definitively proposed doctrine, always assuming it is rightly understood, to be dispensable for those who do not agree with it. (No one, it should be noted, has ever said that every Catholic must be aware of and assent to every truth of faith. Most Catholics never hear of some defined truths—not because they are concealed but, typically, because the controversies which occasioned their definition are not currently live issues in the Church. The Church has only required that one not reject truths of faith and that one affirm those truths about which one has been instructed.)

6. Dulles’ main reason for his program of change was simple: “to lighten the burden of assenting to doctrines handed down from the past.”84 This consideration is not trivial. In the modern world, Christian faith and moral teaching has not easily gained and held the allegiance of people who can choose other, immediately appealing options.85 Liberalizing Christianity is one way of trying to meet this challenge. The updating of nonessentials and repackaging of essentials advocated by John XXIII is another approach to the problem.

7. Dulles invoked his general theory of change in support of the proposal for a new ecclesiology which would admit dissent otherwise inadmissible.86 The essential claim which Dulles thought allowed change of the sort he advocated was that revelation itself is not a matter of propositions, that the content of faith remains transcendent (what “transcendent” means was not clarified), and that the categories used in definitions are human.87

8. Thus Dulles apparently embraced a view of revelation and faith criticized above (20‑C). His account ignored the complex reality of human faith explained there. It seems clear as well that the position he held was one which has been solemnly condemned by Vatican I (see DS 3020/1800, 3043/1818).88

On the whole, radically dissenting theologians never tried to justify dissent by appealing to expressions of faith more authoritative than the teachings received and reaffirmed by the magisterium. At times, however, their remarks suggested arguments along this line. For example, in defending dissenting theologians, Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., said that an important part of a theologian’s work was to subject every earthbound expression of faith to the test: “Does it square with, correspond to, adequately represent the Word of God? In doing so, we are not setting ourselves above the Pope or bishops; we are collaborating with them in a joint effort to understand what God says to us and what God wants of us.”89 Thus Burghardt suggested that theological dissent was justified by the word of God, and implied that theologians had access to this word in a way which could test every “earthbound affirmation of Christian truth.”

Unfortunately, Burghardt never explained what this access was. If he meant that theologians could read the Bible, he was right. But the theological dissent considered in this chapter almost never appealed to Scripture as a basis. How could it? Where in Scripture will one find any hint that contraception, homosexual behavior, adultery, abortion, and so on are sometimes good acts? Where will one find any hint that theologians have an authority to which bishops must submit? Perhaps Burghardt did not mean Scripture. Perhaps he meant that theologians had access to the word of God quite apart from the earthbound affirmations even of the Bible. But what was this access, and how could it be squared with a Catholic conception of revelation and faith?

9. The relevance of Dulles’ proposal to the argument unfolded in the present chapter is twofold. First, here one sees clearly just what was at stake in radical theological dissent on moral issues. The ecclesiology of Dulles, or something very like it, was required by Curran, McCormick, and others in order to justify their activities and positions. But this ecclesiology depended upon an untenable theory of revelation and faith. Second, one also sees in Dulles’ wider proposal a similarity to radical theological dissent in the moral field. The aim in both cases was to lighten the burden of faith by allowing believers to say yes and no simultaneously—yes to the elements of Christian teaching they found acceptable, no to those they did not.

10. It is no criticism of Dulles and his colleagues but merely a truism about the human condition that sinful humankind always wishes to have things both ways. This attitude, however, is clearly rejected—not only in the constricted domain of “religion” narrowly conceived but in regard to the whole of life—by Jesus, who demands a radical commitment of the total person to his whole person, including his Mystical Body, the Church. It is a heavy demand. Dulles and others showed human sensitivity in wishing to lighten it. Yet it is a demand of God’s love. Those who accept it can fulfill it by the power of the Spirit, and so they find the burden of Christian faith light and their share in the cross of Jesus sweet.

This work has criticized many theories which were more or less widely supported by moral theologians. Subjectivist theories of conscience, proportionalism, the denial of the authority of Catholic moral teaching, untenable theories of fundamental option, the supposition that sins of weakness are not mortal sins, and the theory of an empty hell are only a half-dozen of the positions criticized. None of these theories is very plausible.

It is worth asking oneself: What was behind this multitude of theories? I think the answer is that all of them tended toward a single goal: To permit wills determined to act contrary to very firm and constant Catholic moral teaching to maintain that determination without giving up hope of reaching heavenly fulfillment.

But if all these theories had a single objective, why were there so many of them? Why did they proliferate so? One might suppose that they were simply different approaches, proposed by different individuals or schools. But in fact most of these theories were promoted by the very same people.

The multiplicity of theories is accounted for by the fact that Catholic moral principles are like a football team, whose defenses in sudden-death overtime might conceivably be breached in any number of different ways. The many implausible theories were so many different strategies for scoring. The success of any one strategy would have won the game.

If this is so, why did the dissenting moral theologians not content themselves with a single, most promising line of attack? I think the answer is that they themselves suspected that none of these theories was very plausible. Thus the same author perhaps promoted a subjectivist theory of conscience, but defended proportionalism (which is incompatible with a subjectivist account of conscience) just in case the first theory did not succeed; he perhaps claimed that proportionalism really articulated the Catholic moral tradition (although it did not), yet just in case this claim was not admitted denied the authoritative weight of the tradition; he perhaps went on to argue in favor of some unintelligible sort of fundamental option, just in case his theory of norms failed to show that the sins to be permitted really were virtuous acts; he perhaps also argued that sins of weakness were not mortal sins, just in case the theory of fundamental option did not prevent them from really being self-determining acts; finally, as a last desperate effort, he perhaps defended the theory of empty hell, just in case everything else failed.

The dissenting moral theologian who proceeded in this way was like a man who wishes to jump from a height toward a deep pit, yet avoid falling into the pit. To break his fall, he deploys a safety net. It looks strong at first glance, but on examination it proves to be very weak; it almost falls apart under its own weight. Frantically, the man obtains more nets and deploys them, one beneath another. But all the nets are like the first one. None of them could bear the man’s weight. Still, he has decided to jump, and jump he does.

82. Dulles, Resilient Church, 51–54. Not all theologians were as sanguine as Dulles about the resiliency of the Church: Gustav Ermecke, “Die katholische Theologie in der Krise,” Münchener theologische Zeitschrift, 32 (1981), 194–205. Concerning the philosophical foundations of liberalizing theological programs: Cornelio Fabro, L’Avventura della teologia progressista (Milan: Rusconi, 1974).

83. Dulles, Resilient Church, 52–57. Dulles did not ask the question: Which deviations from the gospel are harmless?

84. Ibid., 51.

85. See Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1969), 127–71. For a good summary of the social and ideological situation of faith in the modern world, see Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1980), 467–540, 672–73 (bibliography), and 726–35 (notes).

86. Dulles, Resilient Church, 110–12.

87. Ibid., 52.

88. Ibid., 55–56, makes much of Vatican II’s teaching (see UR 11) that there is an order or hierarchy in the truths of faith, since they differ in their relationship to what is fundamental. But this hierarchy does not allow one to dispense with some dogmas, for all of them, as aspects of one and the same personal relationship with God, must be held with the same act of faith. The Council instead intended to guide study: Catholics and other Christians can perhaps find ways of resolving their differences on less central questions if they develop their thinking on these matters by reference to the fundamentals held in common.

89. See Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., “Stone the Theologians! The Role of Theology in Today’s Church,” Catholic Mind, 75 (September 1977), 50. One who rejects Burghardt’s view is not driven to blind obedience to arbitrary ecclesial authority: Philippe Delhaye, “La collaboration de la Hiérarchie et de tous les chrétiens dans la formulation des normes morales,” L’Année canonique, 22 (1978), 43–60.