A Protestant asked: “Is my understanding correct that, as long as there is submission and no attempt at sabotaging unity, some disagreement is okay?”
Basically, the “line” is where the Church has established a dogma or solidly established doctrine. Most theological issues have been settled, and Catholics are not really free to disagree. They can have doubts, and not perfectly understand everything (who does, anyway?), but they are required to submit to all that the Church has decreed, and not only to not dissent in public, but even give internal assent.
Most of the theologically liberal dissidents are dissenting on matters of long since settled dogma (contraception, female priests, papal infallibility, various moral and sexual issues, etc.).
Some areas have not been settled. One classic example is the Thomist-Molinist disagreement on predestination, and exactly how God does that. Does He take into consideration foreseen actions of men in predestining the elect, using His middle knowledge, which is part of His omniscience)? The Molinists (my guys!) say that he does. Thomists disagree with that notion and are closer to the Calvinist position in that respect.
No orthodox Catholic, however, believes that God predestines the damned to hell apart from their own free choice. The Church allows both positions, and hasn’t settled it (probably because it is just about the deepest mystery in Christian theology).
One thing that has come up in recent years is capital punishment. The Church has not forbidden it altogether (indeed, it could not, because it believes in just war and police and prosecution of criminals). But recently, popes have taken a strong stand against it in almost all cases. Catholics ought to give the highest respect to the opinions of popes, expressed in official documents, even if they are not infallible.
But a Catholic can still personally be in favor of capital punishment. My own position for many years was to be against it in most cases, but to favor it in the very worst cases (mass murderers, etc.). Recently, I changed to a position of total opposition. Both positions are permitted for Catholics, but I would contend that the anti- view is much more strongly indicated in the current “Mind of the Church.”
Another area is individual wars. Popes do not have all the information in secret intelligence that states have. They take a position as peacemakers, by the nature of their job, but they recognize the jurisdiction of governments, according to Romans 13. It’s not like abortion, where there is no argument whatever.
As long as there is such a thing as a just war: at least in theory, then states can declare wars. The Church has not stated that they cannot do so. And honest, good men can disagree over whether a particular war is just or mostly just, or not.
During World War II we fire-bombed and nuked cities and killed many thousands of non-combatant civilians (Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki). This is all contrary to Church teaching. Now we have “smart bombs” that are so exact that the highest care is taken to hit military targets. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great deal morally better than our methods in the 1940s. That would be one argument (which has considerable power, I think, because most people accept the overall validity of the Allied position in WWII, in opposing Hitler).
We can differ on methods and approaches and levels or degrees of things: for example, in ecumenical matters. We can have differences of opinion on matters of liturgy and custom and discipline.
The easiest way to analyze this is to bring up some specific examples that can be discussed. But most of the “major” issues are settled by the Church and dissent is essentially disobedience to the Church.
The “trick” is to maintain an orthodox balance: between the almost unlimited so-called “freedom” of (in a vastly abused sense) “conscience” of the liberal, dissident, modernist Catholic, and the caricature of “no freedom of thought at all” / mindless / blind faith / obedient slave stereotype that we often hear from atheists and anti-Catholic Protestants alike, as if Catholicism remotely resembled that.
The true Catholic position is a freedom within orthodoxy: a freedom with sensible limits. G. K. Chesterton made an analogy of children playing on a hilltop that has steep cliffs all around. If there is no fence around the edge, they are always worried about falling over and so can’t really enjoy themselves. With a fence they feel safe and secure and don’t have to worry about falling over the edge and killing or seriously injuring themselves.
The fence is dogma and orthodoxy. The top of the hill is the Church, and the children are us! And of course, falling over represents heresy, schism, and damnation (and overall human unhappiness and unfulfillment).
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On 23 September 2010, I wrote the following on the Coming Home Network discussion forum:
One can also distinguish between acceptance of Catholic doctrines on the authority of the Church (assent and implied agreement to not dispute them in public) and not knowing all the ins and outs of them (not having full understanding). I would argue that this is actually the case for virtually every Catholic, since there is so much depth and fullness in theology that one person can hardly know everything there is to know about all of it.
But if you accept by the authority of the Catholic Church that what it teaches is true, because it is protected by the Holy Spirit from error (itself an act of faith, but not without reason) then you can accept also (as part of the overall “package”), doctrines or practices that you don’t fully understand. It’s all in how you approach it.
If a person withdraws assent because they haven’t totally figured out some particular doctrine(s); if they think it is their burden to arrive at all true theology by being the final arbiter in each doctrinal case, then they are still in the driver’s seat. That is what is called “private judgment” and is a thoroughly Protestant attitude. If someone thinks like that, they are not yet Catholic and ought not formally become a member, because they could hardly even say the words required to do so.
But if one says, “I don’t fully understand doctrines x, y, and z, but I have seen enough to know and believe that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, and has an authority and understanding far above my own; therefore, I give assent to doctrines x, y, and z on her authority and will cease disputing about them — all the while seeking to better understand them and their rationale as time goes on.”
One with this latter attitude can become a Catholic in good conscience. There is no conflict or cognitive dissonance or “dueling opinions” taking place.
The following was written on 4-7-01:
The late Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J., was one of the leading catechists in the world and one of the most respected Catholic priests; adviser to Blessed Pope Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II, and catechist of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity, used to frequently say: “to doubt even one received dogma of the Catholic Church is to lose the supernatural virtue of faith.”
He was referring primarily to Catholics, who are bound to accept all the Church’s teachings, as a matter of routine obedience and intellectual honesty. With non-Catholics, there is always the matter of how much they know, or don’t know, about Church teaching, which reduces culpability significantly. Obviously there are many people who couldn’t care less what the Catholic Church teaches. But a Catholic who professes to be obedient (verbally, or indirectly, by membership) to that authority is in a different category.
Many Catholics, unfortunately, adopt a mentality of “pick-and-choose,” with regards to what Catholic teachings they will accept or reject. But Catholics are obliged (by definition) to accept all dogmatic pronouncements of the Church and the entire ordinary magisterium, with not only external but also internal assent. This itself is dogmatic teaching. Whoever denies this, becomes, ipso facto, a “liberal Catholic.” That is the inexorable consequence of taking such a position within the Catholic dogmatic framework. Granted, we all learn more and more as we go along, but in any event, this is the Catholic position. The following authoritative citations will make this abundantly clear:
Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, n.25):
In matters of faith and morals … religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking “ex cathedra.” That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
The U.S. Bishop’s Committee: critical statement on the two-volume work, Catholicism, by Fr. Richard McBrien, who at the time was head of the department of theology at Notre Dame University:
In addition to those doctrines which have been taught by the Magisterium of the Church in the extraordinary way of infallible definitions, the ordinary teaching of the Pope and the Bishops in union with him preserves many revealed truths which have never been solemnly defined, but which, nevertheless, are infallibly true and definable. These are truths which cannot be rejected or neglected without injury to the integrity of the Catholic faith, because they are either explicitly contained in Holy Scripture, or, although only implicit in Sacred Scripture, they have been taught universally and continually, are professed in the liturgy, and are believed and witnessed by the faithful as divinely revealed.
Pope John Paul II in his talk to the Bishops in Los Angeles in 1987:
It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, . . . It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a “good Catholic,” and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching of the Bishops in the United States and elsewhere.
The First Vatican Council (1870) defined the gift of faith:
Faith is a supernatural virtue whereby, under the inspiration and assistance of grace, we believe those things revealed by God to be true, not because the intrinsic evidence of those things has been perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself revealing who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
All those things are to be believed, on divine and catholic faith, which are contained in the written and unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, whether this is accomplished through her solemn pronouncements (ex cathedra definitions), or through her ordinary and universal teaching power.
[Encyclicals, decrees of Sacred Congregations, etc.]
[Note that no distinction is made between “solemn pronouncements” and “ordinary universal teaching power” of the Church, nor is one categorized as infallible and the other non-infallible]
Pope Leo XIII expressed the same idea in his Encyclical on the Unity of the Church:
If it be certain that something be revealed by God, and this is not believed, then nothing whatever is believed by divine faith . . . He who dissents even in one point from divinely revealed truths absolutely rejects all faith, since he thereby refuses to honor God as the supreme truth.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:
This is what faith was in the time of the Apostles, as no one can deny; and what it was then, it must be now, else it ceases to be the same thing . . . Men were told to submit their reason to a living authority. Moreover, whatever an Apostle said, his converts were bound to believe; when they entered the Church, they entered it in order to learn. The Church was their teacher; they did not come to argue, to examine, to pick and choose, but to accept whatever was put before them. No one doubts, no one can doubt this, of those primitive times. A Christian was bound to take without doubting all that the Apostles declared to be revealed; if the Apostles spoke, he had to yield an internal assent of his mind; it would not be enough to keep silence, it would not be enough not to oppose: it was not allowable to credit in a measure; it was not allowable to doubt. No; if a convert had his own private thoughts of what was said, and only kept them to himself; if he made some secret opposition to the teaching, if he waited for further proof before he believed it, this would be a proof that he did not think the Apostles were sent from God to reveal His will; it would be a proof that he did not in any true sense believe at all. Immediate, implicit submission of the mind was, in the lifetime of the Apostles, the only, the necessary token of faith; then there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgment.
No one could say: “I will choose my religion for myself; I will believe this, I will not believe that; I will pledge myself to nothing; I will believe just as long as I please, and no longer; what I believe today I will reject tomorrow, if I choose. I will believe what the Apostles have as yet said, but I will not believe what they shall say in time to come.” No; either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe. To believe a little, to believe more or less, was impossible; it contradicted the very notion of believing: if one part was to be believed, every part was to be believed; it was an absurdity to believe one thing and not another; for the word of the Apostles, which made the one true, made the other true too; they were nothing in themselves, they were all things, they were an infallible authority, as coming from God. The world had either to become Christian, or to let it alone; there was no room for private tastes and fancies, no room for private judgment. [“Faith and Private Judgment,” from Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 1849]
St. Thomas Aquinas:
If, of those things taught by the Church (as divinely revealed), one holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as an infallible guide, but to his own will. [Such a one may accept other teachings of the Church, but he does so not out of divine faith, but] only by a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will. (Summa Theologica, II II,5,3)
It requires faith to believe (from God). I think — ethically speaking — that people should remain in a group where their own belief is not contrary to the dogmas (if not positively asserted or required). That’s what I would do, at any rate, and I was always consistent with this “policy” throughout my evangelical years.
When I converted, I accepted the whole ball of wax, in faith (but without any significant remaining disagreements at all). I soon proceeded to start studying in depth, and defending Catholic beliefs (having already been a Protestant apologist for nine years). That endeavor has served to strengthen my faith and “certainty” ever since — not at all weakening it. This is one of the blessings of apologetics.
In the case of a convert, they shouldn’t move into the new place if they don’t yet fully agree with it (or, as a Catholic, are unwilling to submit their judgment to the Church). This is part of the “game” of more traditionalist versions of Christianity: one submits to a body of received doctrines, rather than making up an amalgamated personal version of Christianity, as I used to do.
No one ever said this sort of thing was necessarily easy to live by, either, but the principle of abiding by the creeds and beliefs of one’s own group seems straightforward enough to me. Separating love and correctness isn’t very biblical either, where obviously both things are imperative and not to be pitted against each other. Paul is equally vehement about correct, received doctrine, and love (1 Corinthians 13). We are not to choose one over the other.
If a person, for example, believed that the bishop of Rome was the “first among equals” among other bishops, he could become Orthodox or a High Church Anglican. Many persons in both camps believe this, and it is perfectly permissible. In fact, in John Meyendorff’s book The Primacy of Peter, which many Orthodox consider the best Orthodox book on the subject, several contributors took this position. It is not unknown at all in Orthodoxy.
Doctrinally and morally, we believe that the Catholic Church is protected by the Holy Spirit and granted the gift of infallibility. And it is to be obeyed in its teachings. I suspect that not many of the 70% who contracept in the Catholic Church would cease simply after being told what the Church taught about it, and that they were bound to obey it. A small percentage would change, but the great bulk would continue right on with the rhetoric about “the Church has nothing to do with what I do in my bedroom,” blah blah blah.
The issues, therefore, run far deeper than merely lack of knowledge, above all on sexual issues, which is why they just happen to be (just a mere coincidence) the issues which are most controversial. The will is also involved, and willingness or unwillingness to abide by teachings which may not be simple to follow. It is a matter of being honest with oneself, not a perfect church of do-goody-good pure white saints. We all need to learn what our own Church teaches (spend a night away from the TV and read the Catechism or something), and to strive to be consistent and honest.
And of course stating such things in the current relativist-saturated cultural milieu is considered “controversial,” “harsh,” and “intolerant.” It is often assumed that those who believe this must be harsh and intolerant and lacking charity in how we might approach a person in such a situation. It is time to vigorously counter the prevalent subtle implication that simply holding a viewpoint (in this case, the Catholic one) makes one such an uncharitable, sort of bigoted, almost “puritanical” person.
One person on a bulletin board replied that we all habitually break commandments. I replied:
There is a clear ethical distinction between the following two scenarios:
1) Person A commits a sin, realizes it is against the Church’s teaching, confesses to God or to a priest (if it was mortal), picks himself up, and tries to do better with God’s grace and assistance. He probably will fall again many times (like all of us), but he knows Church teaching and what is right and wrong, and makes it right through confession and resolve to improve himself (slowly, over time) by grace.
2) Person B knows the Church teaching against, say, contraception, yet practices it anyway. Rather than repent of it, he tells himself that the Church is wrong on this matter, and that his sexual behavior is none of its business. Upon being told by a priest that it is a mortal sin, and that he must stop, he gets angry and says it is “intolerant!” of someone to be so presumptuous as to his spiritual state, and that he is still “growing spiritually,” so that God will tell him in the future if he is to stop, not a bunch of old celibate men in Rome. Or they produce the foolish, wrongheaded argument (spoon-fed to them by the liberal dissidents) that they are not absolutely bound to obey any teaching that is not proclaimed ex cathedra, at the highest levels of authority in the Church.
If, on the other hand, a person is truly ignorant, that is their fault for not seeking to learn about the teachings of the Church they attend (they might know all about the stock market or the NBA standings or auto mechanics or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, or any number of things, but they can’t seem to ever make time to learn any theology or Catholic doctrine, for some odd reason). So they’re at fault, but not culpable for contracepting (at least not in the sense of mortal sin), if they are truly or invincibly ignorant. Upon being informed, if they are a Catholic, they then, of course, become responsible for following the teaching.
I am not “showing anyone the door” in asserting these things. I was responding to a simple question on a Catholic bulletin board, which asked: “why does someone who contracepts [underlying assumption: who knows it is against Church teaching] stay in the Church?” It is a fair question, and it deserves a non-hostile, thoughtful response. It is not improper to state that a person who thought contraception was fine, ought to be Orthodox or Anglican.
We (Catholic apologists) are not “orthodoxy cops” and make no claim to be. Neither I nor any other apologist has any power or authority (as a “cop” has) to “kick anyone out” of the Church. I certainly have no such desire. But we have a calling to communicate and defend what Church teaching is, and to object to those who wrongly claim it teaches something it does not teach.
There is a place for gentleness and diplomacy and ecumenism and pastoral guidance, but there is also a place for vigorous defense and rebuke and logical analysis, and calling a spade a spade, sin-wise, or in the sense of ethical inconsistency. The pope (who is quite ecumenical, gentle, and diplomatic), lays down the law, too, as that is part of his role as Teacher.
One doesn’t have to be Mr. Spock or Albert Einstein to understand the following proposition:
“The Catholic Church teaches that x is wrong, that it is a mortal sin, and that to engage in it is always wrong.”
They simply obey the Church they claim to be a part of or not. They may not fully understandthe rationale (who can understand all that the Church teaches?), or background, or subtleties in the authority of the ordinary magisterium vs. an ecumenical council and suchlike, but they obey (just like they would obey, e.g., their boss, or traffic laws, or the IRS).
The question isn’t one of intelligence, but of simple honesty, obedience, and consistency. I don’t think most cases of contracepting Catholics are due to sheer ignorance. They are either dissenting against the teaching itself or against the authority and jurisdiction of the Church, and that is a far more serious offense, where it is sometimes appropriate to deal with it sternly (in love) in the proper circumstances.
We can talk about being tolerant and gentle and longsuffering and “pastoral” all day long and I have no problem at all with those things. They’re lovely, praiseworthy attributes, and I constantly strive to be them myself (often failing). But we mustn’t neglect to see that tolerated dissent and disobedience is at the very root of the modernist / liberal problem in the Church.
Of course, the individual is, in almost all cases, not consciously dissenting in some grand conspiratorial sense, but nevertheless they are operating on the same (objective) principle which has decimated much of the Church on a sub-institutional level. We mustn’t allow that to continue unchecked out of a false notion of “tolerance.” That helps neither the Church nor the individual. In the matter of contraception, in particular it is scandalously wrong to “tolerate” it, as many forms of the Pill are known to be abortifacients.
What are we supposed to do: allow a couple (to use another example of a mortal sin) to cohabitate and fornicate, rather than speak the truth in love, for fear of “alienating” them from remaining in the Church, and growth in the faith? This is moral nonsense, and it is not loving. Gentleness, concern, compassion, understanding of human foibles and weaknesses, sure (who would deny that?), but if we make this some sort of norm of how to deal with sin, to the exclusion of rebuke and clear moral teachings, the orthodox Catholic cannot agree.
One can wonder why people live with, and how they explain to themselves glaring inconsistencies and what I would call essentially “intellectual dishonesty” (whether conscious or not) without having a sinful, pharisaical judgmental disposition, supposedly evidenced beyond a doubt by virtue of his asking of “hard” questions.
As for “real Catholics,” etc. Well, there are orthodox Catholics, and there are heterodox ones, and all sorts of degrees in-between. We all know that; no sense pretending this isn’t the case. But again, that doesn’t mean we approach people like a bull in a China shop. Perhaps too often — sadly — this is the case with apologists (and we are learning everyday how to better do our task), but the seeming absolute equation between stating moral absolutes and an alleged unsavory attitude is what is so objectionable.
Nor is the orthodox Catholic approach foreign to the biblical record. We can go to John 6, and observe the refusal of disciples to accept Jesus’ eucharistic teaching. That’s the only example we have of Jesus’ disciples forsaking Him, and it was precisely on a point of doctrine, requiring faith. His word wasn’t sufficient for them; likewise, the “word” of the Church He established isn’t good enough for dissenters today.
In His discourse recorded in John 6, Jesus “laid down the law,” over and over, more emphatically each time (so dogmatic, He was!!!), knowing that it was either not understood or willfully rebelled against. He didn’t tell them to “get out,” true, but He sure made no attempt to “water down” or make more palatable or presentable His teaching.
He asks in John 6:61-62 (“aware that his disciples were complaining” — also v. 61 — NRSV), “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” In other words, He “upped the ante.” He didn’t make it easier on them, but much harder, so that they had to believe in faith merely on His word, understanding little. That would analogous, I think, to telling someone today:
“Does the prohibition of contraception offend you? Then what if you were to learn of the Co-Redeemer role of Mary my mother?”
In other words, He appealed to another difficult, little-understood teaching or event in order to challenge their faith all the more, rather than “go down to their level.” Disciples were largely ignorant (and sinful) then; they are today, as well. Nothing has changed in that regard.
So the dissenters who lacked faith and obedience left. Jesus simply turned to the twelve and asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” (6:67). The Catholic is to obey the Church, whether he fully understands every jot and tittle or not. A convert doesn’t have to join up in the first place. There are plenty of Christian groups which allow contraception or disbelief in papal supremacy. The very notion that one must understand something totally in order to submit or obey is Protestant to the core: private judgment. This is a fundamental matter of what it means to be a Catholic; what it entails.
So what should an orthodox Catholic say to a couple who came in as converts, but were contracepting? If we tell them it is wrong, then we get the usual complaints of “intolerance” and judgmentalism.” If we don’t, that is possibly (depending on circumstance) “enabling” of their sin (like the toleration of an alcoholic’s habit), and not loving at all. It is our duty to explain to them what the Church teaches, if we are in a position to be teaching them in the first place, as prospective or new converts. I don’t see how this is arguable.
There simply aren’t that many valid excuses, in the final analysis, for the massive theological ignorance we see, in the age of literacy, the Internet, even now, national Catholic TV. We can’t just be passive to the ignorance, as if it is impossible to overcome; we need to get people off their butts. People manage somehow to learn about all sorts of other things they are interested in, be it health or sex or the latest movie star scandal. The Church has been guilty at large of lousy catechesis in the last generation. But individuals share their part of the blame, too.
I have never asserted that those reasonably classified as “liberal” Catholics are not Catholics. I do maintain, on the other hand, that one is not a consistent (or, orthodox) Catholic if they dissent on a, b, or c. I don’t see that that is some terrible sin. It is simply stating the obvious. If I disbelieve in the Trinity or Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, I am not a “real” Catholic, by doctrinal standards; by the Creed recited every Sunday at Mass. Likewise, if I deny the validity of Protestant baptism, or the pontificate of John Paul II. This isn’t rocket science.
(originally 4-7-01 and 3-13-09 and 9-23-10)