Authority and Dissent in the Church: Two Opposing Views

Editors’ Note: On October 16, 1986 Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony and Rev. Charles E. Curran of Catholic University presented their views on the nature of authority and dissent in the Catholic Church. They spoke to an overflow crowd of 1,700 at the University of Southern California, under the sponsorship of the School of Religion and the Loring Leadership Lecture. We present the two addresses here in their entirety.

Volumes and even libraries have been devoted to the question of authority and dissent in the Roman Catholic Church. In the light of recent circumstances, I will restrict the topic to the precise issue at stake in my case with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the legitimacy of theological dissent from some noninfallible hierarchical teachings. Public theological dissent, according to the Congregation, refers to what is written by a theologian in theological writings. The issue centers on some noninfallible hierarchical teachings and does not involve the infallible teaching of the church. The time limits of the present discussion preclude the justification of dissent in the particular cases under discussion, e.g., contraception, sterilization, divorce, etc.

Elsewhere I have dealt with related issues which are not directly considered here, but are intimately connected with the present discussion — the right of the faithful to dissent from some non infallible church teaching, the function of the theologian in the classroom, and what are traditionally called the extramural statements of the theologians as given, for example, in the mass media.

The primary presupposition in all that follows is that I am a Roman Catholic doing Roman Catholic theology within the Christian faith commitment. The whole church is called to creative fidelity with regard to the word and work of Jesus which must be preserved and made meaningful in the light of the contemporary historical and cultural circumstances. Within the Catholic Church, a special teaching office is given to the pope and bishops. In the light of this understanding, one must avoid overly simplistic and erroneous ways of framing the question under discussion. Above all, the issue is not just the broad question of the freedom of conscience. One cannot deny certain truths and still be a Catholic Christian. The precise question concerns the relationship between the hierarchical teaching office and the role of the theologian in the church in the area of some noninfallible hierarchical teachings. The generic legitimacy of some public theological dissent in these areas is justified in the light of the following six reasons.

(1) The distinction between infallible and noninfallible church teaching. This distinction was only universally made and accepted in the last half of the nineteenth century in the light of the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 at Vatican Council I. Since that time, church teaching, canon law, and Catholic theology have accepted and employed this distinction. The distinction has the primary purpose of setting off infallible teaching from all other hierarchical church teaching. Even at the time of the first Vatican Council it was recognized that at times official church teachings in the past had been wrong. Infallible teaching calls for an assent of faith on the part of the faithful which is absolute and certain. The noninfallible teaching calls for obsequium religiosum (religious submission or assent or respect) of intellect and will. However, unlike the assent of faith this assent is not absolute or metaphysically certain. According to generally accepted theological interpretations, there is a presumption of truth in favor of such teaching and the Catholic must make a sincere effort to give it intellectual assent; but such teaching can be erroneous. In 1967 the German bishops explained the religious submission of intellect and will due to noninfallible teaching in this way: “In order to maintain the true and ultimate substance of faith, she (the church) must, even at the risk of error in points of detail, give expression to doctrinal directives which have a certain degree of binding force and yet, since they are not de fide definitions, involve a certain element of the provisional even to the point of being capable of including error.” The English translation of the new code of canon law approved by the Executive Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops translates obsequium religiosum as a “religious respect of intellect and will.” Such a translation seems to capture the flavor of the German bishops’ understanding. Thus the authoritative noninfallible teaching of the pope and bishops has a special character about it and a presumption in its favor, but it can be erroneous. In other words, it is fallible.

(2) Historical examples of erroneous teachings of the hierarchical magisterium. History reveals many instances where noninfallible hierarchical teaching has been wrong and has subsequently been changed, often because of the role of theological dissent. Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 in the bull Unam Sanctam maintained: “We further declare, state, define, and pronounce as entirely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subjected to the Roman Pontiff.” The Council of Vienne, the fifteenth ecumenical council in the fourteenth cent14, condemned interest taking in severe terms: “If anyone should fall into that error of pertinaciously persisting to affirm that interest taking is not a sin, we declare that he should be punished as a heretic.” In 1864, Pope Pius IX in his encyclical Quanta Cura condemned “that erroneous opinion that is especially injurious to the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls. called by our predecessor Gregory XVI a madness (deliramentum). namely, that freedom of conscience and worship is the proper right of each man and that this should be proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society.” In 1866 the Holy Office, the predecessor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued an instruction dealing with slavery: “. . . Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery . . . .”

Many other examples could be cited, but only one more important example will be added here — the meaning of marital sexuality. Pope St. Gregory the Great in the early church taught that it is as impossible to have marital intercourse without sin as it is to fall into a fire and not burn. Later in the post-Augustinian period, the church taught that marital relations could be justified by the intention of procreation on the part of the partners. Later the intention of procreation was not required. Pope Pius XII in 1951 with his acceptance of the use of rhythm now allowed the couple to take steps to prevent procreation.

The recent history of the Vatican Council reminds us that the most influential theologians of the Council — Congar, de Lubac, Murray, and Rahner — had all experienced disciplinary action by church authorities. Thus, history indicates that hierarchical teaching in the past has been erroneous.

(3) The epistemological reason. Epistemology deals with human knowing. As the situation becomes more specific and more complex, one cannot claim to have a certitude that excludes the possibility of error or of exceptions. My disagreements with official church teaching are all on very complex issues and at a level of great specificity. For example, all human beings should agree that murder is always wrong, for murder by definition is unjust killing. But is all killing always wrong? In a number of limited circumstances, Catholic teaching has recognized the legitimacy of killing. All Christians should agree that the followers of Jesus should be faithful, loving, caring, just, and chaste. But what does justice or chastity mean in certain complex, specific circumstances? The United States bishops have acknowledged this lack of certitude amid specificity and complexity in their pastoral letters on peace and the economy. The bishops, for example, come to the conclusion that the first use of nuclear weapons is always wrong, but they recognize that other Catholics might disagree. However, in all instances of complexity and specificity it is impossible to claim a certitude that excludes the possibility of error. My areas of disagreement with official church teaching concern very complex issues in which many different values are involved.

(4) The theological reason. Theology has always recognized that all the aspects of Catholic faith are not of the same importance. Some things are core and central to the faith whereas others are more removed from the centrality of faith. These distinctions are very important and were recognized even in the pre-Vatican II theology with its concept of theological notes. The questions with which I am dealing do not pertain to the core and centrality of faith. The Canadian bishops recognized this reality in their consideration of those people who could not accept the official hierarchical church teaching on contraception. “Since they are not denying any point of divine and Catholic faith, nor rejecting the teaching authority of the church, these Catholics should not be considered, or consider themselves, shut off from the body of the faithful.”

(5) The ecclesiological reason. Catholic faith and theology recognize a special hierarchical teaching office in the church belonging to pope and bishops, but the primary teacher in the church is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit dwells in the hearts of all people of good will and speaks in many different ways. Thus there will always be some tension in the church precisely because no one in the church — pope or theologian — has a monopoly on the Spirit, who is the primary teacher. A concrete illustration will make the point.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican Council II accepted religious freedom, whereas earlier church teaching denied religious liberty. Question: When did the teaching on religious liberty become true? The moment the document was signed in Rome? No. The Declaration itself says that the Council fathers take careful note of the desires for the free exercise of religion already present in the minds and hearts of human beings and they declare these desires to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. Thus, the teaching on religious liberty was true before a document was passed at Vatican Council II.

(6) Authority in the service of truth. The church needs authority. Catholics believe in the authority given to pope and bishops. However, authority in teaching matters is not ultimate but must always conform itself to the truth. The Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican Council II reminds us that “the magisterium is not superior to the word of God but is its servant” (n. 10).

Catholic morality in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas has always insisted on its intrinsic nature. The question is best phrased in the following way: is something commanded because it is good or is it good because it is commanded? For Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition something is commanded because it is good. Authority in teaching matters must conform to the truth.

In conclusion, the whole church has the responsibility in creative fidelity to preserve and make meaningful in the contemporary circumstances the word and work of Jesus. Recall that it was only in the fourth and subsequent centuries that the church came to explicitly recognize that there are three persons in God and two natures in Jesus. For the greater part of its existence, the Roman Catholic church has not officially recognized the existence of seven sacraments.

Theology as the systematic, critical, and reflexive study of Christian faith and life has an important role to play in the ongoing life of the church. Theological dialogue and discussion are necessary if the word and work of Jesus are to be meaningful in contemporary circumstances. The growth that must characterize the existence of the church will bring with it inevitable tensions. Theology by its very nature should be on the cutting edge — probing, pushing, expanding the horizons. Theology and theologians will make mistakes. The hierarchical teaching office must encourage the creative fidelity of theologians, but the hierarchical teaching office by definition will tend to lag behind the theological enterprise. History reminds us of the truth and the tensions of this reality.

Theology in its creative and critical function will at times dissent from some noninfallible hierarchical teachings. But such dissent is always within a broader assent to the Catholic faith and is inevitably necessary for the creative fidelity that should characterize the whole church. The United States bishops in 1968 recognized the need for theological dissent from some noninfallible church teaching and proposed three norms for licit theological dissent. “The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church, and is such as not to give scandal.” I basically agree with these criteria and have always maintained that my theological dissent is totally in accord with such criteria.

The living church will always experience the tension of trying to do the truth in love and its ramifications in the relationship between theologians and the hierarchical magisterium. More adequate procedures are needed in this regard to safeguard both truth and love. Such procedures will help, but in the end the necessary tension will always remain. All of us involved should try to abide by the age-old axiom — in necessaries, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas — in necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, freedom; in all things, charity.



  • Reg. Charles E. Curran

    The Rev. Charles E. Curran (born 1934) is a moral theologian. He currently serves at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, as the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values.

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