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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent


Defenders of radical theological dissent held that in general the Church had erred in teaching that acts of certain kinds are wrong regardless of circumstances, intentions, and consequences. They held that dissent from any specific moral teaching is legitimate. Initially they maintained that either the Church’s theological tradition or Vatican II justifies dissent. But neither does, and ultimately the dissenting theologians conceded this. With respect to Vatican II, they found it necessary eventually to reject its doctrine on the Church’s teaching authority.

In repudiating various moral teachings, dissenting theologians either overlooked the possibility that they had been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium or assumed that an infallible moral teaching would have to meet the conditions for infallibly defined teaching. The statements of several episcopal conferences published in response to Humanae vitae proceeded from the nondefinitive character of that document to the possibility of dissent. But no conference discussed whether the encyclical’s teaching had been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium and so none took a position on this question. However, this teaching and a substantial body of moral teaching on other matters has been infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium.

Some dissenting theologians proposed a new view of the magisterium as an agent whose task was to persuade, not teach certain truth; complementing this was the view that the theologians enjoyed a magisterium of their own superior to that of the bishops. Scholarly competence was the basis of their claim. But many other scholars, Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and nonbelievers, of equal or greater competence, differed from the radically dissenting Catholic theologians on most matters. Thus, once these theologians surrendered the status which comes from placing scholarship at the service of the word of God, under the guidance of the magisterium, Catholics had no reason to rely on them.

Dissenting theologians tried to buttress their claim by appealing to history. Contrary to one of their claims, there is no point after apostolic times at which the pope and bishops began to act as the teaching authority in the Church. They also argued that the magisterium had made errors in the past; but either the teachings in question were not erroneous, or the errors were in matters of discipline and governance, or the teachings did not meet the conditions for an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium. Finally, they appealed to the authority of their own consensus; but this had no rational weight, since only evidence and reasons count in scholarly disputes.

Sometimes it was said that the magisterium cannot propose any specific moral norm as a truth to be held definitively. Counterexamples, such as the norm forbidding adultery, were handled by saying that the norm either is nonabsolute or refers only to instances in which the behavior in question happens to be wrong. The view that the Church could give only general moral advice was usually accepted by those who adopted proportionalism, for proportionalism usually excludes moral absolutes. In fact, however, some specific moral norms are absolute (for example, the teaching on adultery) and at least one (against polygamy) has been solemnly defined. The magisterium must teach specific norms with certainty in order to foster moral honesty in the faithful and to fulfill the Church’s prophetic office.

It was also argued that dissent did not touch the substance of Catholic moral teaching but only altered its changeable formulations. Typically, however, the “substance” was reduced to what was common both to received Catholic teaching and to the views of those who dissented from it, without showing any reasons why this should be taken as the “substance.” Moreover, the magisterium has always claimed the right to determine what formulations of the Church’s faith are adequate to it and to reject inadequate formulations.

Moral doctrine is plainly subject to genuine development. Many specific moral norms are nonabsolute. With respect to these, authentic development can appear to be a reversal (although not really such): for example, development in the Church’s teaching on usury. However, some moral norms are absolute (for example, the norm excluding contraception) and so are not open to reversal.

It has been proposed that, apart from the primary or central truths of faith, the Church should pursue a program of doctrinal simplification and concentration. Only a minimum would be required for belief by all, while everyone would be at liberty to reject the rest of the Church’s teaching. The purpose of this program was to lighten the burden of belief. But the underlying view of revelation and faith was solemnly condemned by Vatican I. As with radical dissent in the moral field, the intent was to allow believers to say yes and no simultaneously—yes to elements of Christian belief they found acceptable, no to those they did not.