McCormick and the Erosion of the Magisterium

In the prolegomena to his analysis of Humanae Vitae McCormick tells us: “In the past a rather one-sidedly juridical model of the Church was common. Such a notion of the Church is bound to influence the theology of the magisterium — specifically the nature of authentic teaching and the response due to it . . . This means that the teaching office of the Church could be easily confused, to some extent or other, with the administrative (or disciplinary) office.” The consequence derived by McCormick is: “What I am tentatively suggesting is that assent, as the immediate proportionate response to authentic non-infallible teaching could be a product of an overly juridical notion of the Church. Embedded in such a concept is a paternalistic attitude toward teaching where the teacher possesses the truth and the taught are dispensed from personal reflection and assimilation, and are asked simply to accept.” (Theological Studies 29 (1968), 714-715.)

The alternative to this type of teaching was presented by McCormick in the popular journal Cross Currents in this guise: “Only persuasive reasons command assent.”(Ibid., 29 (Spring 1979, p. 24).) The implications of this position will be discussed in this paper. (The reason I mention that Cross Currents is a popular journal is that this discussion by its very nature is destined only for experts. The ordinary faithful should not be confused.)

Since McCormick says that Vatican II moved away from the juridical model (?) simply by stressing the notion of “the People of God,” let us clarify that the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in its chapter III reaffirms that the Church is Hierarchical, with its three powers: teaching, pastoral (legislative, juridical and punitive) and the sacerdotal corresponding to the three-fold office laid on Christ as man for the purposes of the Redemption of mankind: Prophetic, pastoral and priestly offices. Pius XII in his Mystici Corporis rejected the distinction between “a Church shaped by Charity” and “a Church consisting of juridical elements” (this distinction rests on the thesis of R. Shoms). According to the teachings of the Church, there belongs to the Mystical Body of Christ an external, visible, juridical element, and an inner, invisible mystical element.

Notice how McCormick tends toward the exaggerated account of a caricature as he describes the teaching of the juridical model: “dispensed from personal reflection, asked simply to accept.” Actually he qualifies the authoritative teaching as “imposed, commanded, demanding submission and obedience” (p. 715). McCormick’s alternative, as I mentioned above, is that of a rationalistic authority of knowledge, and as he expressed it in another popular journal: “teaching must persuade, not simply command.” (“Conscience, Theologians and the Magisterium,” New Catholic World 220 (November/December 1977), 268¬271.)

The amazing thing is that this alternative has two consequences: first, it would give the theologian the ability to discern the teachings of the Church, without excluding the average enlightened layman, and second, and this is paradoxical, since research never ends, its certainty would or could never be achieved!

Since McCormick is talking of the non-infallible teaching of the Church, I wonder whether the infallible teaching does, as he says “rule personal reflection out of court?” Indeed, if non-infallible magisterium could be so authoritative, how much more could the infallible be! There are two fundamental reasons for McCormick to raise a doubt on the Magisterium on contraception before Humanae Vitae: First, Note number 14 to number 51 of Gaudium et Spes, and second, the allocution of Paul VI to the Congress of the Italian Feminine Center.

The note in question is appended to this sentence “In questions of birth regulation the sons of the Church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved of by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law.” After making some references to the teachings of three popes in which they stress that positive interference with the procreative effect is an intrinsic disorder the note adds: “Quaedam questiones quae aliis ac diligentioribus investigationibus indigent, iussu Summi Pontificis, Commissioni pro studio populationis, familiae et natalitatis traditae sunt, ut postquam illa munus suum expleverit, Summus Pontifex iudicium ferat. Sic stante doctrina Magisterii, S. Synodus solutiones concretas immediate proponere non intendit.” The correct translation of the underlined words is “Remaining thus firm the doctrine of the magisterium.” Mistranslation used by McCormick: “With the doctrine of the magisterium in this state.” (of what?). (For the Latin note see Acta Apostolicae Sedis, LVIII, Dec. 7, 1966 number 15, p. 1073.)

Second, in his allocutio to the Congress of the Italian Feminine Center, Paul VI said: “The magisterium cannot propose moral norms until it is certain of interpreting the will of God.”  (AAS, 58 (1966), 219.) Having suggested that the magisterium is in state of doubt, McCormick reaffirms this state by the words of Paul VI. However, McCormick conveniently ignores the words of same Pontiff is his address to the congress of Obstetricians: “The doctrine proposed now by the Church cannot be considered as not binding as if the magisterium were in a state of doubt, being as it is in state of study and reflection.” (AAS, 58 (1966), 1168.)

With such flimsy premises McCormick concludes (?) that the Pope, after having said that the magisterium had not changed, yet he needed the studies of the commission. He adds that demanding faithful observance simply because the magisterium has not yet modified the teaching is like “asking it to be certain independently of the ordinary sources of clarity and certainty.” McCormick insisting that certainty depends on knowledge concludes that the papal statement adds nothing. (p. 724). Therefore his magisterium is “magisterium of fiat.”

This is rationalism creeping in, totally forgetting the magisterium of the Holy Spirit. That’s the other source of certainty McCormick ignores. He proposes therefore a “Decentralization” of the magisterium to solve one “of the most important theological problems of the day: the relationship of the magisterium to theological investigation” (p. 724).

This is the conclusion to the prolegomena to his analysis of Humanae Vitae. In doing it McCormick concentrates on the issue that every contraceptive act is intrinsically evil. As McCormick is not convinced by the offered reasons (see final note) (while noting “this is not to say that this teaching of Humanae Vitae is certainly erroneous” p. 737), he wonders what would happen if the teaching is taken independently of the reasons, just on the authority of the pope. But then dissent would be impossible, “and if dissent is impossible in what sense is the teaching noninfallible?” The weakness of this dilemma is that it presents the extreme issues of rationalism or fideism. Incidit in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charibdyn. Of course, if there is absolute certainty we can dissent, but when there is room for uncertainty there is room for obedience and faith, and for this you have to follow the ordinary magisterium. Dissent cannot be based on a “very fallible opinion,” to use the very words of McCormick. We can say then that in those issues in which we lack absolute certainty we are the ones who are in state of doubt, and according to logic we cannot argue from the negative. Therefore we should surrender to guidance.

When St. Thomas tells us that the existence of God is a matter of reason but accidentally a matter of faith he means that he who possesses a certain truth by faith and then goes on to acquire an evident demonstration of that truth removes from his mind faith in that truth and substitutes a knowledge of it. But he does not do so except in so far as he acquires an EVIDENT demonstration of it which might be rare. Thus we can say that to a defective knowledge there corresponds the certainty of faith. Thus, for instance, we can ask: Do we have an evident knowledge of what natural law is? And, does not McCormick tell us that he is not certain that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is erroneous? Does not he confess that “more time and study are required?” (P. 737). We have to keep in mind that the distinction between theology and philosophy does not adequately answer the distinction between faith and reason inasmuch as theology includes both faith and reason. Notice that it is the philosophical which is drawn into the orbit of theology and not vice versa. If man knows naturally some of the revealed truths because they do not go beyond the limits of his natural reason, they are, however, revealed by God for our salvation. Theology has the collaboration of purely philosophical elements but they are used in view of an essentially theological end.

As a way out of McCormick’s dilemma between rationalism and fideism I could suggest the implication of Newman’s Essay on Development.

“If the Christian doctrine, as originally taught, admits of true and important developments, this is a strong antecedent argument in favour of a provision in the dispensation for putting a seal of authority upon these developments.”(An Essay on the Development of Doctrine, p. 79)

“The most obvious answer, then, to the question why we yield to the authority of the Church in the questions and developments of faith, is, that some authority there must be if there is a revelation given, and other authority there is none but she. A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given. In the words of St. Peter to her Divine Master and Lord, ‘To whom shall we go?’ ” (p. 89).

My argument is that if the Holy Ghost is guiding the Church then the so called non-infallible magisterium has to be often infallible even if we can’t put a finger on it. Or you can put it this way: if there is an infallible homogeneous development IT HAD to be protected by the ordinary magisterium for the simple reason that the extraordinary happens so seldom. In answering then McCormick’s question, how is then assent possible, the issue is not dissent but that the non-infallible magisterium shares in the infallible. The issue is that of faith or the issue is that of obedience. Faith in matters of doctrine, obedience in non- doctrinal matters. Thus we have the paradox of infallible ordinary magisterium, otherwise what kind of prophetic witness against the world would the Church be able to make if we reduce it to the minimalist view of “ex cathedra” definitions? Isn’t that manifested by the state of anxiety and perplexity shown by those who practically deny the existence of the Magisterium and make it so purposeless and useless as to deprive it of real leadership? And what is the sense of talking of the Magisterium if we do not know what it is?

Another insight of Newman that could provide a way out of McCormick’s dilemma is Newman’s concern with “antecedent probability” in the realm of historical inquiry. Newman insists that it is not enough to have the historical method, one has to have a theological perspective. Thus in his criticism of Milman’s History of Christianity in the “British Critic” in 1841 Newman objects that Milman attempted to view Christianity “as a secular fact, to the exclusion of all theological truth.” Thus there has to be an intertwining of two realms. Thus Newman said that “the Christian history is an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace, whether the sign can be satisfactorily treated separate from the thing signified is another matter” (Essays Critical and Historical II, p. 188). Newman’s claim is not, therefore, that the Church’s history is not factual but that “what is historically human can be doctrinally divine” (p. 230). Thus, we argue, the moral theologian cannot argue just on the basis of persuasive reasons because what distinguishes theology from any other science is that it receives its object from faith. He will be doing philosophical ethics, but he is not doing theology. A good illustration of Newman’s method is Lonergan’s pair of scissors. The upper blade is the antecedent probability or the a-priori considerations or the claim that it is reasonable to expect that the data will bear witness to this instead of that. The lower blade is the emergence of the data which are such data because of the anticipatory scheme. Thus, how could we have moral theology based on revelation “if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given?”

And since Newman repeats Peter’s words “To whom shall we go?” we should make a reflection on the anxiety experienced by the private person when he takes over the common leadership. Yves Simon in his Philosophy of Democratic Government illustrates this situation with that of a “private” in the army who is told by the high command to hold his position. Suddenly communications are cut and anxiety fills the soul of the private as he interprets what could be the possible orders of the high command which are not coming. It was so easy before just to follow orders, but now he has to interpret what the common good demands! Simon concludes: “When the private person has to emerge above his capacity and substitute for nonexistent public persons, an awe-inspiring solitude makes him realize that the structure of society has broken down” (p. 44).

Simon has also pointed out that the unity of action, as the essential function of authority is not achieved in practical matters by intellectual conviction but by obedience. Unanimity is achieved by obedience. There is a suspension of personal preference but there is not an abandonment of reason. A classical example would be that of Winston Churchill’s plan to invade Europe through the Balkans. His plan was rejected but he gave full support to the Normandy invasion.

McCormick’s way of the dilemma: The Two Magisteria

Lumen Gentium number 25 is an expression of the magisterium teaching on what is the magisterium: the bishops do proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ when “assembled in an ecumenical council, they are, for the universal Church, teachers of and judges in matters of faith and morals, whose decisions must be adhered to with the loyal and obedient assent of faith.” And it is a matter of fact that the bishops, assembled in an ecumenical council do tell us, in that same document that: “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex-cathedra.” Therefore, it is under this umbrella that we take the words of Pius XII in Humani Generis — “if the supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that the matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians. Whatever dissent from received doctrines which might be allowed to theologians in their work of interpreting and helping to develop these Church doctrines surely cannot apply to those doctrines which the Church has specifically considered — and with the .authority of her magisterium has decided. To hold otherwise would constitute a practical denial of the Church’s teaching authority since whatever was decided could always be dissented against; and hence nothing ever could really be decided. It seems inconceivable that Our Lord would have set up His Church on such a basis.”

But, in spite of this, suddenly, we are confronted with an “authoritative” teaching of the Church devoid of “persuasive reasons” according to McCormick . . . Notice how the “juridical model” that was first “tentatively suggested” by McCormick becomes suddenly a fact, taken for granted, proven simply by repeated assertion. Notice also the exaggerated qualification given to the “authoritative teaching” as the taught “are dispensed from personal reflection” (p. 715). Is that the case of Humanae Vitae? It is clear that McCormick is embarked on something no one before him had ever undertaken: to solve the dilemma between rationalism and fideism in purely rationalistic terms! As for the style of his new Ecclesiology, he must invent one as the task he has set himself to accomplish: The two magisteria!

“unless and until this close interdependence is acknowledged and indicated, both the hierarchical magisterium and the magisterium of theologians (the term is appropriate as indicating a true competence and authority not possessed by the hierarchy as such) are in trouble” (New Catholic World, article quoted).

However, we are told by John Paul in Sapienta Christiana (1979), “true freedom in teaching is necessarily contained within the limits of God’s word as this is constantly taught by the Church’s Magisterium.”

And again, at Puebla (Jan., 1979): “In this matter everybody in the ecclesial community has the duty of avoiding magisteria other than the Church’s magisterium for they are ecclesially unacceptable and pastorally sterile.”

And again, to the theologians in Spain (Nov., 1982): “Therefore, the ecclesial magisterium is not something alien to theology.”

Since for McCormick “ONLY PERSUASIVE REASONS COMMAND ASSENT” (Cross Currents, 29, Spring 1979, p. 24) he has taken a rationalistic position. McCormick fully endorses F. Bocles’ proposal that neither revelation nor authoritative statement replace human insight and reasoning, and that, even taking into consideration the warning of Paul VI that the reasons given are not the only support of the doctrine taught. If “only persuasive reasons command assent” we have a significant change in Ecclesiology, and if retroactive, what happens to all the former papal pronouncements? Notice how McCormick has changed his Ecclesiology to suit his opposition to Humanae Vitae. How conveniently! And, ironically, his stance against “authoritative teaching” and his “loyal opposition” to avoid “centralization” have made of him the authority. By his “loyal opposition” McCormick struck a pose and the portrayal of an heroic deed in such an attractive way that it has generated, just by sheer contagion, a legion of copycats.

He even advises the bishops against the acceptance of Humanae Vitae (much in the spirit of Lumen Gentium!!!): It is a mistake for an individual bishop … to accept this or any non-infallible teaching, without serious personal reflection” (p. 739). The set-reactions McCormick has generated with his stance is now irreversible, and the attitude he has fostered toward the magisterium may be to blame for some very important new documents of the Church not receiving the hearing that they deserve. Thus, for instance Familiaris Consortio is largely an unread document. As a follow-up of the Synod of Bishops, 1980, on the Family, the Pope issued an elaborate exhortation regarding the role of the Christian Family in the Modern World. The Bishops at this Synod asked the Pope to act as “spokesman before humanity of the Church’s lively care for the family.” He fulfilled that request with the publication of this document. But the document shows, especially in the second part, a remarkable resemblance to the Pope’s Theology of the Body series given at his Wednesday audiences. This means that the Pope had his framework ready before the Synod met and he is not merely a “spokesman” repeating lines given to him. I wonder if the dissenters of Humanae Vitae have realized that this is a collegial document, and I wonder what McCormick would say about this statement: “This sacred Synod, gathered together with the successor of Peter in the unity of Faith, firmly holds what has been set forth in the Second Vatican council (Gaudium et Spes number 50) and afterward in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, particularly that love between husband and wife must be fully human, exclusive, and open to new life.” And what about “the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed” of Lumen Gentium, number 25? In Familiaris Consortio number 33, the Holy Father, pleads, almost begs, priests and theologians to form a united front behind his teaching so as not to confuse and lead the faithful astray. It is certainly a “sign of the times” when the Holy Father has to “beg” for cooperation from priests and theologians!

Since the evidence that the prohibition against contraception is an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium according to the standards of Lumen Gentium number 25 is so overwhelming (do not forget the tightly reasoned article by Ford and Grisez in Theological Studies, June, 1978), no wonder that the dissenters have launched a counter-attack by Garth Hallet, S.J. (Theological Studies, Dec., 82.) Hallett’s article is an intellectually bankrupt piece of work and it is so bad that I am sure it will help the cause of truth. It is the nadir of dissent. A dissenter has to be very desperate to use it. Why so? Hallet’s argument, behind a smoke-screen of jargon (he fancies himself a Wittgensteinian expert), is essentially that through the ages different reasons were given to explain why contraception was wrong, and if the reasons contradict each other, then the teaching cannot be infallible. Setting aside the fact that he does a shoddy job presenting these differences, he has violated a fundamental truth of logic which Peter T. Geach sums up as follows in his own recent treatment of the teaching regarding contraception: “It is a general and indisputable logical point that refutation of a bad argument for a conclusion has not even a tendency to show the conclusion is false.” (The Virtues, p. 141). Thus even if the reasons given or arguments made for the prohibition could be shown to have been false or even contradictory, that does not affect the truth of the teaching (remember the warning of Paul IV).

The McCormick-Burghard Outpouring of Doubt and Dissent

I spoke above of McCormick’s fatal influence. Well, it was in his review to the CTSA Committee Book on “Human Sexuality” (a book which was condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome) that he was waving the flag with this slogan: “DOUBT AND QUESTIONING IS PECULIARLY THE ONEROUS TASK OF THE THEOLOGIAN”. (Theological Studies, 39 (1979), p. 138.) This is not any longer the traditional stance of “Faith seeking understanding”. But another even more paradoxical statement came out of the McCormick-Burghard team: “OUR VERY LOYALTY DEMANDS THAT WE DISSENT”. Taking into consideration that McCormick had already established that “only persuasive reasons demand assent” we can assert that he is referring to dissent from the magisterium in those documents that he has termed “authoritative” or as devoid of “persuasive reasons.”

McCormick and Academic Freedom

As a consequence of the above, we can fully understand McCormick’s position in relation to Academic Freedom (Theological Studies, 41 (1980), pp. 113-123). McCormick agrees with Curran that the “Canonical Mission” is incompatible with Academic Freedom. But as Fr. William B. Smith points out: “Academic Freedom as understood in American Universities is a secular notion and it has a place and history in the discussion of any human ideology. However, the sacred sources of Sacred Theology involve more than human wisdom, more than mere human ideology — those sources deserve and require our religious assent of soul.” (Homiletic and Pastoral Review (March 1981), p. 25.)

But Paul VI said it even better in his “Address to the Bishops of the East Central Region of France” June 20, 1977:


Let me end with the words of Newman:

“He who inquires has not found; he is in doubt where the truth lies, and wishes his present pro¬fession either proved or disproved. We cannot without absurdity call ourselves at once believers and inquirers also. Thus it is sometimes spoken of as a hardship that a Catholic is not allowed to inquire into the truth of his Creed; — of course he cannot, if he would retain the name of believer. He cannot be both inside and outside of the Church at once. It is merely common sense to tell him that, if he is seeking, he has not found. If seeking includes doubting, and doubting excludes believing, then the Catholic who sets about inquiring, thereby declares that he is not a Catholic. He has already lost faith.”

Grammar of Assent, (1970), p. 191.

Final Note

Ten years after Humanae Vitae McCormick still wants to rationalize his way out of the moral qualification of “intrinsically dishonest” given in number 14 of the Encyclical to a “conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund”.

Thus in Theological Studies 40, 1979 pp. 80-97 he wishes the moral indictment could be read “to have said it was a disorder (disvalue, nonmoral evil, ontic evil, etc.) so that “many problems would vanish” (p. 84). But this is not the case! McCormick sides with those contemporary authors who “are trying to discover a language which will recognize certain effects as deprivations or disvalues without calling them moral evils” ( p. 86). The invention of the “disvalue” to do away with the moral absolute specification of acts is something as futile in the ethical field as is the invention of the perpetual motion machine in the physical order. They both persist in contravening the order of nature! At any event McCormick has for a dozen years followed Joseph Fuch’s lead (who seems to have been converted by his one-time grad student, Bruno Schuller, sometime in 1971) in maintaining that absolute moral negatives have only an abstract truth, and that their application to the concrete situation is always ambiguous. One wonders if this theology is locked into the Reform principle of a totally corrupt history, into which Christ’s grace cannot enter. Consequently, there is no valid historical expression of the faith in sacraments, doctrine or moral law. As “Fallen” we are left in the dark and there is no possible basis for a moral distinction between concrete human deeds. As Fr. Donald F. Keefe has said it recently “if American Catholics accept without discussion the notion that intrinsic evil can be tolerated to gain some good end, then consequentialist moral theory is in place and, with it, the politicization of Catholic morality and worship. In such an eventuality an ideologically-grounded “praxis” will replace doctrine and this “praxis”, rather than the Church’s worship in truth, becomes the one responsibility which remains to Bishops, whose magisterial function will have been abandoned. Consequentialism is not merely a moral theology; it is an entire ecclesiology, for it submits all the concreteness of the Church’s historicity to the single notion of “praxis”. This “praxis” supplants morality, doctrine, and sacramental worship. Once admitted into the Church, it must dissolve the Church, and that dissolution begins, as it must, with the episcopal office” (“Ecclesiological implications of Consequentialist Theory” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars NEWSLETTER, March 1983). McCormick’s consequentialist overtures are expressed in his question: “Does contraception or sterilization promise to help or hinder the total relationship that is marriage?” (Cross Currents, 29 (1979), p. 21.)

Thus for McCormick there is “still place for a theory of just sterilization” (Theological Studies, as cited above) or “an abortion may be direct and still morally permissible” (in Doing Evil to Achieve Good, p. 263).


  • E. J. Capestany

    In 1983, Edward J. Capestany was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Scranton.

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