Dissenting From the Magisterium Causes Great Spiritual Harm

Dissenting From the Magisterium Causes Great Spiritual Harm March 23, 2017

Ricardo Bellver, "The Fallen Angel" (1854).  Image via Creative Commons.

Ricardo Bellver, “The Fallen Angel” (1854). Image via Creative Commons.

In Donum Veritatis, the CDF lists several forms dissent against the Magisterium might take. (This is the fourth post in an ongoing discussion. The first is here; the second, here; the third, here. You can read the original post that prompted this discussion here.)

“Dissent,” the CDF clarifies, is different from “personal difficulties.” One must distinguish. You can work through a personal difficult; dissent is active rebellion. “Spiritual harm” results from dissent. There are five kinds.

First, Philosophical liberalism. “Freedom of thought,” the CDF says, “comes to oppose the authority of tradition which is considered a cause of servitude.” Those who hold this idea think that fealty is slavery. To dissent is to be free.

A teaching handed on and generally received is a priori suspect and its truth contested. Ultimately, freedom of judgment understood in this way is more important than the truth itself.

But true freedom is the freedom to seek the truth. It is not freedom from the truth. To be free from truth is to be free from God.

Second, Manipulation of public opinion. The mass media can exert a “pressure to conform.” Its narratives assume a “normative value; the world demands the Church conform to those narratives rather than to the truth.

The view is particularly promoted that the Church should only express her judgment on those issues which public opinion considers important and then only by way of agreeing with it. The Magisterium, for example, could intervene in economic or social questions but ought to leave matters of conjugal and family morality to individual judgment.

Or, contrariwise, some say that the Church should stay out of economics and instead worry about saving souls. Judge Napolitano once lashed out at Pope Francis on these grounds. The judge was upset with Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si, and was using his media platform to encourage dissent.

Those who subscribe to this form of dissent want to be affirmed rather than taught.

Third, Acceptance of only infallible teachings. This is a big one. This is an argument I encounter very frequently, and it is what prompted me to write my original post in this series.

More frequently, it is asserted that the theologian is not bound to adhere to any Magisterial teaching unless it is infallible. Thus a kind of theological positivism is adopted, according to which, doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility are said to have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not.

This is the kind of dissent that most interests me presently. (For it is dissent, according to the CDF.) Those who make this claim might make it in a few different ways.

  • They might say that the Magisterial texts constitute a “debatable theology.”
  • They might say there is no such thing as a “normative” theology. A person can favor any which one he likes.

In all of this, the CDF is most worried about a “parallel magisterium.” Theological pluralism is only legitimate to the extent that the unity of the faith remains. Christ does transcend all categories of thought. But

[t]his cannot mean that it is possible to accept conclusions contrary to that mystery and it certainly does not put into question the truth of those assertions by which the Magisterium has declared itself.

The Church has its authority to teach from God. (Matt. 16:18; John 16:13; 1 Tim. 3:15; John 21:15). Dissent from the Church can lead to “spiritual harm,” according to the CDF, because it leads to “contempt for true authority.”

Indeed, when you dissent, you set yourself up as your own authority. You reject the Holy Spirit who guides the Church; the Holy Spirit does not guide you.

Fourth, Argumentum ad populum. This is a false appeal to the sensus fidei. According to the CDF, the sensus fidei is not just the opinions of the faithful.

The sense of the faith is a property of theological faith; and, as God’s gift which enables one to adhere personally to the Truth, it cannot err. This personal faith is also the faith of the Church since God has given guardianship of the Word to the Church. Consequently, what the believer believes is what the Church believes. The “sensus fidei” implies then by its nature a profound agreement of spirit and heart with the Church, “sentire cum Ecclesia”.

The sensus fidei, like conscience, must be formed by the Church’s teaching, not in dissent from it. A person can err; the Church can not.

Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith. This is all the more so given that people can be swayed by a public opinion influenced by modern communications media. Not without reason did the Second Vatican Council emphasize the indissoluble bond between the “sensus fidei” and the guidance of God’s People by the magisterium of the Pastors. These two realities cannot be separated.

There is no freedom, the CDF stresses, apart from “unity in truth” and “fidelity to the faith.” There is no freedom in dissent.

The freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent. In fact this freedom does not indicate at all freedom with regard to the truth but signifies the free self-determination of the person in conformity with his moral obligation to accept the truth.

Dissent from the Magisterium is spiritually harmful because it alienates a person from the truth. To be alienated from the truth is to be alienated from God, who has entrusted the truth to the Church. The Church, Paul writes to Timothy, is the “pillar and ground of truth.”

Dissent, the CDF says, “fails to recognize the nature and mission of the Church which has received from the Lord the task to proclaim the truth of salvation to all men.”

Fifth, the Magisterium of Conscience. Not even conscience justifies dissent. A conscience must be followed, but it must also be formed. “Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty.” (That’s important.) “It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice.”

Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation.

And to do that breaks one’s “bond with Christ.”

To succumb to the temptation of dissent, on the other hand, is to allow the ‘leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit’ to start to work.

Dissent is a “leaven of infidelity” to God.


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