Disagreeing and questioning…in union with the Pope and bishops

This is a recurrent problem in some of the comments at Pray Tell. Some folks don’t seem to understand that we do Catholic theology here. (And, I hope it goes without saying, we do ecuemnical theology here, or to put it another way, we do Christian theology ecumenically. But that’s a topic for another post. Here I’m talking specifically about Catholic theology.)

Some folks think that Catholic theology means simply repeating magisterial statements without question or comment. It’s never been so, and never will be. Catholic theology means raising questions, oftentimes new questions arising from new cultural/societal contexts, to assist the Church in the development of doctrine. Said development has been going on for 2,000 years now, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.

Now, everything has a time and place. There is a difference between a homily and an adult education discussion. There is a difference between junior high catechesis and undergraduate theology. There is a difference between faith formation in the RCIA and discussion groups at the Catholic Theological Society of America. And there is a place for acknowledging the role of the magisterium in making definitive judgments. Pray Tell is the place for those who are ready to do theology, sometimes at a rather high level.

Our assumption at Pray Tell from the outset has been that we do theology here. Not only – some of our material is more catechetical or homiletic. But we do defend our mission – in the Church, for the Church, with respect for Church officials – to do Catholic theology.

Bishop Kicanas says it better. Here’s an excerpt from his recent address to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities:

Clearly there needs to be room in an academic community for disagreement, debate and a clash of ideas even in theology. Such debate and engagement can clarify and advance our understanding. In discussions with local bishops, faculty need to be able to disagree and question with mutual respect. However, the bishop is the authentic teacher of the faith and, in union with the Pope and bishops, responsible to interpret the faith.

See the story here.



  1. Thanks, Fr. Ruff. Brings to mind a number of on-going questions in the church today:
    – role of the magesterium and bishops’ definitive statements
    – each catholics conscience formation
    – two recent examples: Olmsted and the Phoenix hospital; Vasa and his Baker, OR diocesan requirement that all volunteers must swear an oath/affirmation – link:

    A commentor:

    “… do not automatically assume that any teaching is right or wrong just because it comes from a hierarchy that is made up of human beings with biases and blind spots. Do not place yourself above them, or them above you, or anything between God and the conscience you are working constantly to form, with God’s help. Humility is a virtue, and it neither negates nor replaces critical thinking. Humility is not the antidote to questioning; it is the necessary accompaniment to both dissent and assent. We could any of us be wrong, and we may not know in this lifetime whether we are; we might even be arguing about things that don’t matter that much to God and forgetting the call to love one another.

    Church history shows that the hierarchy can be wrong and that voices from outside the power structure can have a lot to say to a hierarchy that has gotten too involved with itself (think Francis). One pope contradicts another.

    Example? Pope Innocent IV’s bull Etsi animarium (November 21, 1254) required “a partial dissolution of the apostolic groups of the mendicant orders.” He died two weeks later and his successor, Alexander IV, reversed Etsi animarium by issuing Nec insolitum on December 22, 1254. That was big news for that wild theological radical and user of pagan and Muslim philosophy Aquinas, who would have lost his place at the University of Paris had the first bull taken effect.

  2. And there is a place for acknowledging the role of the magisterium in making definitive judgments. Pray Tell is the place for those who are ready to do theology , sometimes at a rather high level.

    Did you intend this to sound like a contrast? I don’t see why there should be one. High level theology still has to acknowledge the role of the magisterium in making definitive judgments.

  3. And remember, this new translation is not about doctrine or orthodoxy, but about translation “fashion” that is currently in vogue.

    The 1973 translation is as theologically valid as the 2010.

    The CDW and/or bishops could well validly (and should IMO) change the rules of translation again.

  4. Fr. Ruff;

    I recall an instance inwhich the Holy father addressed this very issue, saying the following:

    In a planetary society like the one being formed today, theologians often are challenged by public opinion to promote dialogue among religions and cultures (and) to contribute to the development of an ethics that has peace, justice and the defense of the natural environment as its basic coordinates

    Obviously, these are legitimate concerns that certainly must be given careful consideration. Yet one cannot deny that the identity of theology is not found on this level of problems and needs.

    Theology must focus on the truth revealed in Jesus Christ and taught by the church. The basic virtue of the theologian is to seek obedience in faith, which makes him a collaborator in the truth and ensures that the theologian is not talking about himself, but about God

    Obedience to the truth does not mean renouncing research and the effort of reflection, but rather it means allowing questions to stimulate deeper faith.

    I’m not a theologian, but it doesn’t seem to me that Pope Benedict is saying quite the same thing as what you are suggesting. Could you perhaps comment on this?

    1. Well, Ratzinger is a very conservative theologian, of course, but my impression is that theologians as a body tend to regulate their pace by their peers and by what the faithful are ready to accept. Thus new ideas are generally pooh-poohed, and only embraced when they have already died.

  5. To also quote from an earlier document of Ratzinger:

    “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal [God], and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism. Genuine ecclesiastical obedience is distinguished from any totalitarian claim which cannot accept any ultimate obligation of this kind beyond te reach of its dominating will.”

    Joseph Ratzinger, Part I, Chapter 1, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vol. V of COMMENTARY ON THE DOCUMENTS OF VATICAN II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969, p. 134)

    With these examples, you even see the tension and development within one personality. Would interject – did this development change because this theologian became a member of the official heirarchy? How can one stay objective when he wears both a theologian’s hat and now the papal tiara?

    You always have a tension between theology that starts from above and theology thats starts from below – think of the on-going debates around “liberation theology”; the use of condoms, etc. Classic understanding would suggest that catholic theology is both/and – it considers/reflects the reality of the groun and seeks to understand/incorporate this into the more structured theological reflections, IMO.

  6. Another interesting article from America Magazine – Nicholas Lash:


    “In 1975 a plenary session of the International Theological Commission issued a series of theses on the relationship between the magisterium and theology. In 1966 Paul VI had addressed an international congress on “The Theology of Vatican II” on the same topic, and the commission introduced its theses with two brief quotations from that address. The commission defined ecclesiastical magisterium as “the office of teaching which, by Christ’s institution, is proper to the college of bishops or to individual bishops joined in hierarchical communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”

    – “What terminology might be appropriate to describe what someone is doing when, for whatever reason, he or she seeks to take issue with some particular instance of magisterial teaching? “Disagreeing” is the term that comes to mind. But because teaching is, in current ecclesiastical usage, usually construed as governance, as command, such taking issue is described in the recent literature not as disagreement but as “dissent.”

    Commenting on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “The Splendor of Truth” (1993), Herbert McCabe, O.P., contrasted manuals and rule books. A manual helps one to acquire some skill: as a football player or a piano-tuner or, if we extend the range of skills to those habits we call the virtues, as a just or generous person. A manual is an instrument of education. In addition to manuals there are rule books, which tell you what, in some particular context, you are and are not allowed to do. Father McCabe writes: “The rule book does not tell you anything about acquiring skills in football; it simply tells you the rules and the kinds of action that would break them.” The rule book is an instrument of governance……

  7. There would be much more acceptance of the teaching of the ecclesiastical magisterium if bishops would be clear and articulate in stating how their “thinking and doing” in specific and general teaching is connected to the “thinking and doing” of Jesus. What responsibility do we have to please the bishop by doing what he simply wants? We have a responsibility to obey when his teaching is a reflection of the life and teaching of Jesus. Even on issues like abortion or the death penalty or economic justice, why can’t or don’t bishops relate these issues to the “thinking and doing” of Jesus? The “thinking and doing” of Jesus is the ultimate norm, isn’t it? It is so empty when a bishop speaks out on any significant issue and he doesn’t even mention the name of Jesus Christ. There would be much less disagreement if the bishop would reflect on the wants of Jesus rather than his own wants.

    1. The thinking and doing of Jesus the ultimate norm?

      If you mean the historical Jesus, no.

      If you mean the Jesus of the Four Gospels, yes, as along as you add the whole of Scripture as inseparably conjoined with them in a single revelation.

      But then of course comes the problem of interpreting the Gospels, which is where the Chuch’s dogmatic tradition (relying chiefly on the Fourth Gospel) comes in.

      Indeed the really ultimate norm is not the Christ of Scripture but the living Spirit of Christ who helps interpret Scripture and who is present to His Church.

  8. “Or they think that Catholic theology means simply repeating magisterial statements without question or comment.”

    Depends on what you mean – ideally, magisterial statements will elicit both comments and questions from those who read them. If by ‘question’ you mean to question the truth of those statements, it becomes more difficult. Of course, one legitimate way to approach any statement is through playing Devil’s Advocate, questioning its coherency and logic. For the faithful Catholic theologian, however, there might come a time to say “I don’t understand at the moment, but I accept the truth of this statement as an official teaching of the Church.” Some theologians and laypeople choose to make the weight of Church authority the final deciding factor, rather than their own criticisms and ideas.

    The problem is when you get people who say “I know the Church teaches [X,Y,or Z], but I don’t think it’s right, and I don’t accept it.” Fine – this is their right as rational beings, and ultimately they have the free will to do whatever they want with the raw data of the official teachings. The difficulty is when they call the refutation of official teaching CATHOLIC theology. It is certainly theology, but where does the right come from to call it “Catholic?” Why would you want to call it “Catholic” anyway, if your main purpose is a refutation of the teachings of that Church? I merely ask, because of the wide range of views expressed on this blog. Fr. Ruff – are you trying to suggest that the denial or refutation of official magisterial statements constitutes Catholic Theology? Or merely that Catholic theologians always reply to the official statements with further questions, ideas, requests for clarification, etc.?

    I would also suggest that it is not strange or ridiculous when Catholics respond to discussion of Catholic internal policies (i.e. on liturgy) by quoting magisterial statements. This is only logical – it is one obvious…

    1. “If by ‘question’ you mean to question the truth of those statements, it becomes more difficult.”
      Of course it is necessary to question the truth of statements that are doubtful or wrong, such as the past magisterial teachings on torture and slavery (seen as good things).

      But theologians more normally question the adequacy of magisterial statements and suggest a potential for “development”.

  9. “I know the Church teaches [X,Y,or Z], but I don’t think it’s right, and I don’t accept it.”

    Often this kind of statement is the basis for asking “Does the Church teach this?” This is a legitimate question in almost all circumstances. By this questioning the Church uncovers the truth about slavery, usury, religious freedom, etc.

    What is most important is that this be a personal reflection, rooted in the theologian’s faith rather than in some abstract system. Teaching needs to be brought into the realm of faith, and a questioning theology is the means of purifying awkwardly expressed teaching so that it can be refined. Only in this way can teaching help build the faith in our hearts.

  10. In Moral Theology, there are two general schools of thought, and thus 2 answers to Fr. Anthony’s rhetorical question. Manualism and Neo-Manualism would embrace a perspective similar to what some readers want on PrayTell which is simply interpreting Vatican statements. This is more prevalent with neo-manualism and the expansion of the Vatican influence in teaching on ethics somewhat diminishing the role of the moral theologian to act on his own. Revisionist moral theology would object to a moral theology which is simply interpreting what Vatican or manual dictates say. It also tends to have a more positive view of human nature than manual theology. This insight comes from Keenan’s work A History of Catholic Moral Thought in the 20th Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences by James Keenan. Both theologies have strength for different reasons. Manual theology creates a list of what is evil and provides a nexus for reflection on what is good, especially when thought about in light of revisionist theology which allows for creativity. Questioning and positive anthropology give the potential for people to thrive, but this tension is always present in theology particularly as power struggles become more apparent. Theology’s strength is when it listens to the experience of others (which is a prevalent part of revisionist theology, but not a complete part.) Our theology has to hold this tension above and understand the strengths in both positions so it can listen to people who operate from either position, and invite them to a deeper following to Jesus Christ. In this deeper following, with a deep examination of human experience, then theology can offer a reflection which serves more of humanity. This experience allows us to disagree and challenge others with appropriate vulnerability.

    1. Keenan’s way of dividing up approaches to moral theology seems to me idiosyncratic and, dare I say it, a little bit self-serving. Is it a coincidence that the “neo-manualists” come across as rigid martinets and the revisionists as compassionate healers? I don’t think so. There are much more theologically interesting ways of parsing the field of contemporary moral theology.

  11. There’s also the question of the sensus fidelium. It’s quite clear that at least 85% of Catholics do not accept the Church’s magisterial teaching on artificial birth control. Does that mean they are not Catholic?

    1. It means that if they knowingly act upon their non-acceptance by using birth control, they have most likely committed a mortal sin and their soul is in jeopardy of eternal damnation. Seems easily understandable. Are you afraid of this teaching? The way is narrow.

    2. The 85% is a hypothetical number, but let’s accept it. From experience, of that number, 70% have not been told the teaching so they accept whatever society tells them. When was the last time you heard a homily on contraception? Of the 30% that have been told, most are told a mixed message of what the Church teaches and what self appointed theologians teach without really understanding what it means to be Catholic. We’re dealing with a very poorly catechized generation.

      Are the 85% Catholic? A definition of Catholicity derived from the Catechism is “You are a part of the Catholic Church to the extent that you would submit to Church teaching if you truly understood what the Church taught and what the Church was”. Only God knows how many of the 100% (let alone 85%) satisfy this criteria. I believe that a great deal of the 85% would repent if they understood, but keep using contraception since they are weak since disciplines such as fasting have been so downplayed.

      But since theologians make it their business to know Church teaching, if they teach improperly they are either guilty of negligence or misleading the faithful. The Apostle James has strong words on the judgment of teachers and why one should think twice over becoming a teacher.

  12. Mr Gosnell–no. Even if we assume the rightness of official teaching, a person who acts out of a sincere and thought-through conviction that the prohibition (for whatever reason) is wrong-headed, or does not apply in a particular situation, is at most guilty of a mistake, not a sin, and certainly not a mortal one.

    If such an attitude is taken by a ‘Catholic theologian’, the theologian remains Catholic for as long as she or he considers the official teaching a definitive point of reference, something worth taking seriously and arguing with. Other things being equal, it should call forth assent.

    What worries me at the moment is that something is snapping among many conscientious and thoughtful Catholics. Somehow or other, we’re becoming a less tolerant community. The space to be anything other than reactionary as a Catholic is somehow contracting. It’s becoming harder to be sensible and to be Catholic with integrity.

    1. “What worries me at the moment is that something is snapping among many conscientious and thoughtful Catholics. Somehow or other, we’re becoming a less tolerant community.”

      Yes, tolerance can sometimes be in short supply. Are we truly tolerant of those who disagree with us? Do we engage their views thoughtfully & in charity or do we label them “fundamentalist”?

    2. “the theologian remains Catholic for as long as she or he considers the official teaching a definitive point of reference, something worth taking seriously and arguing with. Other things being equal, it should call forth assent.”

      This is just not strong enough.

      The theologian is not required to submit to Catholic teaching as a theologian, she’s required to submit to Catholic teaching as a person.

      We require converts from other Christian traditions to claim, “I believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to have been revealed by God.” The standard is no lower for Catholic theologians.

      1. The formula for converts means something like: “I believe that which the Church specifies as being a matter of divine revelation”. It doesn’t mean that just anything which the Church teaches has that status.

  13. Yes, calling someone a fundamentalist isn’t very nice.

    Now let’s look at a leading traditionalist blog. It took me seconds to find the following, written about a professor of theology, a professor of scripture, a journalist and a priest. And these are from main blog posts, rather than the comment boxes, where the comments make the main blog posts look tame.

    “I think an 8 year old would find Tina Beattie’s argument here absurd to the point of being risible.”

    Not very polite, perhaps, but that was about the content rather than the person, right? On we go:

    “If it were anything other than a feminist argument, the exegete would be laughed out of any university that employed her!”

    “She is either a dope or is purposely distorting the facts.”

    “I wouldn’t fool around with this clown very much.”

    Philip Endean is right. The new style book seems to have been snipped out of the worst excesses of Waugh, Chesterton and Belloc. Eristic language and guilt by association have become normal. People are being encouraged to report their fellow Catholics to Rome. People are acting from fear.

    By the way, Jack, the first use of ‘fundamentalist’ in this thread was in your own post.

  14. Even if we assume the rightness of official teaching, a person who acts out of a sincere and thought-through conviction that the prohibition (for whatever reason) is wrong-headed, or does not apply in a particular situation, is at most guilty of a mistake, not a sin, and certainly not a mortal one


    I’m not a Theologian, or even a theology student… but the way that you have stated this sounds as though it is essentially “if you don’t believe it’s a sin, it’s not…”

    That seems to refute the very idea of sin, relying instead on the individuals “state of mind” to determine the relative goodness or badness of their actions. Tell me that this isn’t what you are saying here…

    1. I’m not saying that state of mind determines goodness or badness of actions–as you imply, that’s crazy. But I am saying that state of mind is a crucial factor in determining sinfulness or culpability. I would, however, be sympathetic to the sort of restriction being named by Fr Allen below, regarding the need to keep a certain discretion, and not to broadcast the individual line taken except in contexts where that would be genuinely helpful to others.

      1. Philip…

        I wasn’t implying that… I was asking if that was what you were implying. I see that it isn’t.

        But I’m still a bit skeptical about the idea of sinfulness or individual culpability being dependent on one’s disposition. It would seem that that is something that falls to God to decide rather than for us to try and reason out for ourselves. I would rather know that what I am doing is truly sinful, and when in doubt, appeal to God’s mercy.

  15. It seems to me that in a grave matter, for a Catholic to make the moral decision to use artificial birth control which is not endorsed by the Church, that in making a decision of conscience the person should read Humanae Vitae, consult with their priest or someone in the Church, with their spouse or family members, pray about it and then make a decision of conscience. If the decision is to use artificial birth control, it should be the person’s decision, not a permission that has been granted to them by a priest, deacon or any official of the Church. They should be told some where in the counsel given them that not to follow the Church’s teaching, even after making a decision of conscience that they should presume God’s judgment and pray for God’s mercy. But it should be clear that the decision made was made by the person and not made for them and that they and no one else will be judged by God who is merciful when mercy is invoked and who understands the decisions of conscience made by God’s people in difficult life situations.

    1. I should have added that one should not then make public a decision of conscience that is not conforming to the Church’s teaching. And certainly one cannot make a decision of conscience that leads to the death of another person, such as abortion, or active euthanasia. However, in marital situations, one could make a decision of conscience within the context of sacramental confession, concerning a marriage not recognized by the Church–if the external forum is exhausted, the person believes that the marriage not recognized by the Church is a good marriage and no scandal is given to the faithful, one might be able to return to Holy Communion. I’ll stand corrected if I misrepresent this.

      1. So anyone Catholic who condemned slavery as unjust and unnatural in 1866 was a bad Catholic who should have shut up? You cannot set limits to conscience like this. It is clerical high-handedness surely?

      2. Joe, what you write is absurd. No one can make a decision of conscience that harms another person in the process. Owning slaves is not on the same level as using artificial contraception. There was nothing private about slave ownership or the law that allowed the abuse of these people. If I am in a bad marriage, I can’t make a decision of conscience to kill my spouse. I might make a decision of conscience though to divorce that person. But your point about slavery is important and its link to abortion. It was legal as is abortion today. So people did make a decision to own slaves, even a decision of conscience to do so because of its legality. So do people who have abortions and perform them. If its legal why not, the state decides for me in my decision of conscience. That decision, even if legal, is immoral, although one’s culpability might be lessened because one thought legality meant it was moral.

  16. I would argue that we are too tolerant. It’s not a virtue. To tolerate is to experience something that you disagree with, but say or do nothing. Instead of teaching how to engage others in a reasonable way, we’ve taught several generations (mine included) to be passive in the face of disagreement. We are dishonest with each other. Bad feelings build up and ugliness ensues. Let us learn how to speak our minds charitably and give the tolerance thing a rest.

    1. It seems to me that tolerance is not a primary virtue, but a derived one. In other words, whether tolerance is good or useful depends on what is being tolerated. I don’t know that I agree with you that we are “too tolerant,” but I do believe we are too tolerant of evil and sin. We can be sure that the world does not hate sin, and that the world hates those who hate sin. It seems to me that if we do not hate sin, and the world does not hate us, then we aren’t doing our job.

      1. Have you heard of Gaudium et spes? The Catholic Church’s teaching on the relationship between Church and world is markedly different from your view.

      2. It would be more helpful if you suggest how his argument contradicts Gaudium et Spes rather than just asserting that it does.

        The discussion of freedom in say, GS 17 doesn’t obviously contradict it, where true freedom consists in choosing the good freely! A position that is quite radically different than modern ideas of tolerance.

      3. A few things …

        Gaudium et Spes was not a document of pessimism. The council bishops expected to find a world in need, willing to talk. I think that world is still there.

        I think one can approach the world from a stance of criticism, but what would one hope to accomplish? The world will fire back that our ministers are sex-obsessed, the bishops and pope cover up crimes, and that our people are apathetic and fleeing. The Hermeneutic of Subtraction strikes again.

        Matthew 28:16ff suggests an optimistic, brash, and hopeful engagement with the world, which is, after all, only made up of human beings who are either Christians or potential believers in Christ. And if the hard-core adversaries of Christ seem to be yelling louder than others in some quarters, our tack shouldn’t be to out-shout them.

  17. If I may redirect this back to the topic – disagreeing & questioning…in union with bishops. From the 50th anniversary conference of the College Theology Society held at CUA – “The Future of Theology” by Rev. J. Komonchak – expert on historical theology and Vatican II – link:


    Some valuable distinctions about doing theology:

    – ” at the end of VII, the theological scene was more complicated than just Manichean terms like progressive vs. conservative. Its most dramatic feature was the collapse of the neo-scholastic paradigm. Most striking – after 50 years no paradigm has emerged to replace it. Instead, we have a plurality of theological approaches.
    – guiding light was H. deLubac who said about theology: ….an understanding interpretation of all reality in the light of faith as distinguished from the current seminary practice of “just understanding faith.”
    – John Courtney Murray said about theology – “…it is the science of faith – both an intellectual and religious virtue.” He made a distinction between using theology to “defend the faith” and to “mediate faith to the institutions of civil society.:”
    – per Murray – “….theology needs to address the spiritual crisis in the temporal order.”

    And so, you always have this tension between theology directed inwards and theology directed externally – it is both/and. And theology directed externally is much more than “just saving souls” – its mission is to distinquish between the wheat and chaff of modernity.

    Thus, historical theology shows that an earlier expression of magisterium was the church “acting” on its own understading of faith – made up of bishops, theologians, the people of God. In more recent times, magisterium has been redefined as the hierarchy and its pronouncements of faith. This change has created the tension we live with today (suggest – a…

    1. I think too one should keep in mind that speculative theology, bantering things back and forth was done in an academic setting, and in various periodicals. For the most part the laity were unaware of what was going on in Pre-Vatican II times. Blogs have brought this to them.
      Trying to do that in an open forum like a blog and with those who are of varying backgrounds in theology is a bit more difficult. It is hard for some to distinguish between theories and putting ideas into practice. Academic dissent in union with the bishops that leads to official clarification or even change is one thing, advocating for anarchy in a public forum is another, not that anyone here does that.

      1. Fr.,

        I think i read your comment to say that there is a difference between engaging in discussion in the hypothetical realm on one hand (which you deem acceptable, and I agree), and acting in accordance with your own unapproved conclusions on the other (which would be putting the cart before the horse). Am I right?

        Is it fair then to say that one who desires to be Catholic cannot reject magisterial teaching regarding sin when making personal decisions, merely because one is in the process of “doing theology” or “thinking for himself” or “advocating for change” or because he/she “personally disagrees?”

      2. Yes, I would agree with your first paragraph. In the second paragraph we’re talking about decisions of conscience in conflicted personal situations. When a decision of conscience is made where one’s actions cannot be publicly justified by Church teaching, it should be a decision that is private, not public. One would hope the person making the decision knows what the Church teaches on sin and that all of us from the pope to the child of the age of reason will be held to judgment by God according to our state in life at our personal judgment and at the final judgment.

      3. The massive rejection of Humanae Vitae by the faithful is not a matter of speculative theology. It is a datum that all pastors and theologians take into account.

      4. Yes, pastors may want to take the seeming lack of observance into account when they examine their own consciences and consider when is the last time they preached on the subject? When was the last time they challenged the people with the Church’s teaching in this area?

      5. “When a decision of conscience is made where one’s actions cannot be publicly justified by Church teaching, it should be a decision that is private, not public.”


        If the person dares make it public, first and foremost, it preserves their integrity; second, it gives much more weight to those of their decisions that are in accord with Church teachings. Third, explaining their reasoning may also help them or the Church develop a more nuanced, better understanding. Fourth, it fights the image of hypocrisy that our church has. Fifth, it helps fight the secrecy that is a great cause of evil within the church.

        But the main reason is the first one: it is good for their character.

      6. Claire, I’ll accept what you write if the next time you go to confession, you ask the priest to turn on the microphone for you. Decisions of conscience that from a public point of view disregard the Church’s moral teachings can still be judged in the generic way as a sin. As I mentioned the person who makes a decision of conscience that goes against the Church’s moral teachings must acknowledge somewhere in that private decision making within the sacred secrecy of their conscience that an element of sin could still be present clouding and influencing the decision making process of conscience and thus makes them liable to God’s judgment. Presume God’s judgment; beg for his mercy. To go public with a decision made in the privacy of one’s conscience could be an occasion of sin for another. Now if you want to speak in a generic, hypothetical way about that decision making process that would be different altogether especially in a catechetical session.

      7. But nothing in what you say argues that such a decision “should” be kept private, except for the possibility that it might be an occasion of sin for someone else. I think that that argument has been way overused. The fear of scandal is damaging for the church.

        To be more concrete, the ban on contraception is an example of great hypocrisy in the church. The many people who silently practice or support contraception are being hypocritical, and the few who affirm the ban are out of touch with reality (and usually at no risk of becoming pregnant themselves). That discrepancy weakens our church. It is much more damaging than the risk of scandal that you raise.
        If a Catholic goes public with their decision to use artificial contraception, I say, good for them. Their contraceptive decision may or may not be good, but their being public about it is good.

      8. Claire, I might be misreading what you are writing, but it seems to me that you want the Church to give permission to use artificial contraception to ease the conscience of those who use it. In lieu of that you want others who take this issue into their own hands to give testimony to their decision to dissent thus giving permission to others to do the same to ease their conscience. Am I misreading you? It really is about authority giving permission to use artificial contraception, correct? And if not Church authority, someone else.

      9. Sorry, I wasn’t clear. Those who speak up are not giving others permission to do anything. In fact, right now I am not arguing that the Church should give permisson to use contraception (that’s for another discussion). I am trying to say it is bad that people are not giving testimony to their decision to dissent. Their decision to dissent may be right or wrong (that’s for another discussion), but their silence is bad. That is, I object to your statement that people “should” keep such decisions private.

        Of course I can understand why people might choose to keep it private, but there is nothing good about that. It is not a “should”.

        Those who speak up, I say, good for them. I respect their integrity even when I disagree with their conclusions.

  18. Fr. Ruff:

    Catholic theology means something more than simply repeating magisterial statements without question or comment. That’s your view, isn’t it? Please explain to me how Gaudium et spes tells us not to hate and reject sin. Here’s what I read from Gaudium et spes, and it doesn’t seem to indicate tolerance of sin–on the contrary, it seems to warn of sin:

    “For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested.(8) Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God’s grace.

    That is why Christ’s Church, trusting in the design of the Creator, acknowledges that human progress can serve man’s true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle’s warning: ‘Be not conformed to this world’ (Rom. 12:2). Here by the world is meant that spirit of vanity and malice which transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the service of God and man.”

    Then I read this:

    “The Church, therefore, by virtue of the Gospel committed to her, proclaims the rights of man; she acknowledges and greatly esteems the dynamic movements of today by which these rights are everywhere fostered. Yet these movements must be penetrated by the spirit of the Gospel and protected against any kind of false autonomy. For we are tempted to think that our personal rights are fully ensured only when we are exempt from every requirement of divine law. But this way lies not the maintenance of the dignity of the human person, but its annihilation.”

    I don’t see anything about tolerating sin, loving sin, failing to hate sin… on the contrary, I read, “Indeed, the Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who persecute her.”

  19. I realize I’m asking Pilate’s question, but unlike him I’d await an answer. Jeffrey quotes the Pope: “Theology must focus on the truth revealed in Jesus Christ and taught by the church.” With regard to prescriptive statements, some philosophers consider the use of the word “truth” misleading. Our understanding of what we ought or ought not to do, what is right or wrong, moral or immoral, just or unjust, issues, they say, from a rational process: we identify a moral principle or value (in scripture, natural law, theology, philosophy) and apply it judiciously to a moral question. Our search for evidence of the “truth” of such a judgment is often futile. Christ said nothing about contraceptives, so the judgment “using barrier contraceptives is immoral” means something other than revealed truth. And the word “true” seems less pertinent in this context than modifiers like “right,” “flawed,” “well reasoned,” or “poorly informed.” The pre- or pro-scription itself seems to represent not a discovery of truth, but a decision, for free will to comply with or demur from. On what basis do you call such decisions “true”?
    At least in principle, we can discover the truth or falsity of descriptive (empirical) statements, but prescriptive statements differ categorically. Here we search for “truth” in the process which results in the statement: accurate understanding of relevant facts, valid reasoning, fitness of and true interpretation of the principle applied, etc. So in the words “truth revealed in Jesus Christ and taught by the church,” I hear one species of truth–revelation–and something else as well. Besides revelation, what is this “taught by the church,” if not the results of moral reasoning? If you speak of the “truth” of this process, it sounds to me as though you mean faith (or authority?), in Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. If so, then does the Spirit expect a process of debate, or does a decision by prelates suffice?

  20. Two points which seem to be confused in some of the postings here:

    1 – The question of individual conscience is a different question altogether – we can never look at another person and know the state of their soul or what their relationship is with their conscience. A person with a troubled conscience could act publicly with a great deal of self-confident bluster about how secure they are in their actions. Or they may be completely sincere. Who could tell? That is between them and God. At any rate, the question of personal culpability is a red herring. My original question to Fr. Ruff’s post was whether the denial of official teachings of the Catholic Church can properly be called “Catholic Theology” or whether such contradictions represent theological speculation which has (by definition) moved beyond Catholic Theology. Please also note that I am not accusing Fr. Ruff of saying anything, I just wanted him to clarify. If, for the sake of argument, someone did move beyond Catholic Theology (and, for the sake of argument, Catholic Theology is ultimately where they should have stayed), then their personal culpability would be a matter of conscience between them and God. I am just looking for clarification of what Fr. Ruff means by “Catholic Theology.”

    2 – Please, since we are well-educated at this blog, do not confuse “official teaching” with “anything any pope or church officials have said at any time in the past” or with disciplinary matters. Many posters on this blog have just been commenting on priestly celibacy as a disciplinary rather than doctrinal matter. Don’t go back and find similar situations in church history and label them doctrinal disagreements. DItto for papal statements from the past that were not promulgated as official teachings. This is the mistake the press and many non-Catholics always make (people are always wanting to proclaim that the church “changed its teachings” on some issue). Be careful what you call a…

    1. “My original question to Fr. Ruff’s post was whether the denial of official teachings of the Catholic Church can properly be called “Catholic Theology” or whether such contradictions represent theological speculation ”

      Only official teachings regarded as De Fide may not be questioned by a Catholic theologian. Of course Hans Kung questioned whether Papal Infallibility was De Fide or not — so this criterion can be a bit wobbly.

      Matters such as contraception and women’s ordination are nowhere near De Fide status.

      1. And the erroneous papal teachings of the past WERE advances as official teachings. On slavery, Pius IX made his statement through the Holy Office and signed it himself.

      2. But then Joe we run into Vatican II’s Lumen gentium (25) and we see how important our assent is to the teaching of the extraordinary & ordinary magisterium. We are called to assent to the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and on the male only priesthood. Some may object to a direct reference to V2 in this conversation but a failure to engage the council’s teaching makes the conversation circular. I guess that is why someone already brought up GS.

  21. @Mary Coogan

    Well, yes of course – the assumption by those who put authority in official Catholic teaching is that the Holy Spirit guides the church in teaching and development of doctrine. I don’t see anything mysterious about this…

    As with the question of individual conscience, the question of free will is a red herring. The fact that free will can comply with or refuse to accept a statement says absolutely nothing about the truth or validity of that statement. By definition, ‘free’ will is free to comply with or ignore every single statement in existence. You seem to be asking “how can we call a statement ‘true’ when free will can ignore it?”

    Or perhaps the argument is “I accept that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, but I don’t accept the way the church goes about fulfilling this role.” The church has always had a climate of debate, but has also at times spoken a ‘final word’ on some subject – i.e. that Christ is both God and Man. So you are making a false dichotomy between debate and decisions by prelates. If the Spirit guides the church, and the church herself officially teaches which statements must be accepted (i.e. in the doctrine of Papal Infallibility), I’m not sure where that leaves you when you don’t like the methodology. Sorry – the church does not make polling the faithful a method of determining doctrine. Maybe the Holy Spirit is not guiding the Catholic church, or maybe the Spirit failed, or maybe we fail to understand…all possible answers.

  22. It’s interesting to me that not once has the issue of personal revelation been broached, even tangentially, with respect to things one knows or believes to be true, whether in agreement or disagreement with the official teachings of the Church.
    Is the Holy Spirit’s guidance limited to only speaking to and through ordained men who have attained a certain rank within the Hierarchy?

    1. Adam, It’s been experience that those using language referring to maleness, rank, and hierarchy are using terms relating to “power” and not necessarily theology. I’m not saying you’re attempting to bait anyone, but you may take note that many Catholics see one who uses such language as a “dissenter” from what is commonly accepted as Catholic faith and doctrine, and as someone who is only interested in institutional change (leadership, control, etc.) and may refuse to engage you altogether. However, I’m going to try to address your question.

      M answer would depend on whether you are talking about objective faith and morals, or not. I don’t believe the All-Male Hierarchy (TM) claims that the Holy Spirit speaks to them infallibly on every matter under the sun, but that the Holy Spirit was promised by God to protect the Church from doctrinal error through ensuring that at the very least, the visible apostolic authority (the bishops w/Rome) always teaches the true Faith Once Delivered.

      I think that if we were to accept the premise that the Holy Spirit would teach you one thing and the bishops another, contradictory thing about objective faith and morals, we would be calling God a liar. This would not be the case in a subjective matter that involves your activity in the faith, i.e., if you feel the Holy Spirit has called you to enter religious life and the bishop decides you are not called. That’s probably a simple judgment call and it’s quite possible that the bishop has missed the boat, so to speak.

      On the other hand, whether the deposit of faith contains a doctrinal proscription against Women’s Ordination would not be subject to private revelation, because it involves a matter of faith to be definitively held by the faithful. So yes, there would be an example of the Holy Spirit speaking only to the “Hierarchy,” IF and ONLY if there were no lay people who agreed with them. That is not, however, the case, as there many lay people who disbelieve in W.O.

    2. Private revelation cannot disagree with the public revelation given to the Church. If it appears to, it’s judged to be inauthentic.

      This is reflected in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      CCC 67 (in part): Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations.”

      1. Private revelation cannot “surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment”, but it certainly can surpass and correct episcopal misinterpretations of that Revelation. St Joan of Arc is a classic example.

        Again, the question raised is “does the Church really teach this?”

      2. St Joan of Arc is a classic example.

        No, actually she’s not. The case is one of trumped up charges, judicial misconduct, etc. etc. It has very little to do with conflicts between public and private revelation.

        Again, the question raised is “does the Church really teach this?”

        Teach what?

      3. Are you denying that St Joan had private visions? Or that church officials found no conflict between her beliefs and what they were teaching? You seem simply dismissive of those involved in her trial on behalf of the church, which is uncharacteristic.

        The question for us, I believe, is does the Church teach what is in dispute? Does the Church teach that women cannot wear pants, go to war, lead men into combat, etc.?

  23. Adam – you might want to read the links I provided. They are replete with examples of what you are talking about. See the first post – it is about two situations in which catholics heard a different voice than the local ordinary’s.

  24. WOW! Some of you are making this all too complicated. It is getting ridiculous. It sounds like the Middle Ages when things like Scholasticism committed suicide by drowning itself is distinction after distinction. What is the teaching and action of Jesus? Bishops must be faithful to Jesus or don’t listen to them. Joe, the way you seem to separate Jesus is totally unacceptable. The Jesus of history is the fleshly Word of God. We, including bishops, must listen to Jesus. It seems you want to make Jesus remote or try to present the teaching of the bishop as a new version of Jesus. We would not have many of these problems, nor would you need to make this so very complicated and involved if bishops would teach and explain how their teaching and acting reflects the teaching and acting of Jesus, the Word of God.
    Joe, the true Jesus of history is the Jesus of the Gospels. Becoming aware of the life and culture in which Jesus was born and grew up broadens the understanding of Jesus the Anointed One. The values of the teaching and actions of the historical Jesus are how we are to act today. This may cause you to change your life.

  25. @Jared Ostermann, “debate” is not a polling. When it happens, it is at its best a dialogue. Adam Wood put my point well by asking whether the guidance of the Spirit is reserved to “men who have attained a certain rank within the hierarchy.” If that were the case, then what would be left to those who are excluded from that rank? Wouldn’t they be deprived not only of the guidance of the Spirit, but of any personal responsibility beyond obedience to teaching? For the free exercise of will is not simply ‘to comply with or to ignore’ a moral rule as church teaching. It is a response of the person to a real situation in the world, an exercise of moral responsibility, and I mean the ‘response’ part of that responsibility in a Buberian sense of dialogue. I am addressed, and *I* must answer.

    ‘Prescriptive’ pertains not to doctrines of faith but to moral precepts or moral rules:’ought’ and ‘ought not.’ In devising its moral teachings the Church also is addressed and must answer. To take the ordination of women example a step further, the pope has prescribed excommunication for women who seek Holy Orders and for those who help them. One needs no doctorate in logic to see a fallacy of special pleading in prescribing so harsh an outcome for women seeking the same sacrament that confers on men special graces of God. No, I don’t think there was a failure of the Spirit in that case, but there was a failure to hear and to respond, and the failure is apparent in the divisive effects of that prescriptive use of language. To remedy that failure, I believe the Spirit would prescribe dialogue and debate as more likely to avoid obvious mistakes in reasoning.

  26. I think some quotes from The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian may be in order:

    11. Never forgetting that he is also a member of the People of God, the theologian must foster respect far them and be committed to offering them a teaching which in no way does harm to the doctrine of the faith.

    The freedom proper to theological research is exercised within the Church’s faith. Thus while the theologian might often feel the urge to be daring in his work, this will not bear fruit or “edify” unless it is accompanied by that patience which permits maturation to occur. New proposals advanced for understanding the faith “are but an offering made to the whole Church. Many corrections and broadening of perspectives within the context of fraternal dialogue may be needed before the moment comes when the whole Church can accept them” . Consequently, “this very disinterested service to the community of the faithful”, which theology is, “entails in essence an objective discussion, a fraternal dialogue, an openness and willingness to modify one’s own opinions”.(7)

    12. Freedom of research, which the academic community rightly holds most precious, means an openness to accepting the truth that emerges at the end of an investigation in which no element has intruded that is foreign to the methodology corresponding to the object under study.
    In theology this freedom of inquiry is the hallmark of a rational discipline whose object is given by Revelation, handed on and interpreted in the Church under the authority of the Magisterium, and received by faith. These givens have the force of principles. To eliminate them would mean to cease doing theology. In order to set forth precisely the ways in which the theologian relates to the Church’s teaching authority, it is appropriate now to reflect upon the role of the Magisterium in the Church.

  27. Jared Gosnell: We can be sure that the world does not hate sin, and that the world hates those who hate sin. It seems to me that if we do not hate sin, and the world does not hate us, then we aren’t doing our job.

    People were not objecting to your saying that we need to hate sin. They were objecting to your saying that if the world does not hate us then we are not doing our job.

    If you seriously think that Catholics can be in any kind of dialogue with the world if they somehow rejoice in the fact that the world hates them, and even go out of their way to cause that hatred, then I fear that any further discussion on Catholic doctrine with you is a lost cause. As Anthony pointed out, this is far from the position of Gaudium et Spes.

    I’d also appreciate a less black-and-white approach to Church teachings. There is a hierarchy of truths, as Philip pointed out.

    1. +JMJ+

      The Church is the ekklesia, is it not? The “called-out”. We have been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. Can we say without too much melodrama that the world, without Christ, is in darkness? And so are we not, in a sense, called out of this world and its darkness into the light of God and His kingdom?

      This world, which is in darkness, rejects the Spirit of Christ. It is opposed to Christ, indeed it hated (and hates) Christ. And we share the fate of Christ in that regard, being hated by the world because of Him, as He prophesied in the beatitudes this past Sunday.

      It is into this world, out of which we have been called, that Christ sends us. Not to fraternize, but to preach and teach and — dare I say — convert! There is cause for discomfort, even hatred, as a reaction to such a mission, especially when carried out by hypocrites like ourselves.

  28. Unfortunately some of the quotes from the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian were omitted. For example the ones that call for fidelity to the Pope and the magisterium of the Church. I encourage all to read this document. Dissent is not normally a positive thing. Often I find dissenters do not tolerate dissent from their views.

    1. Fr. Goodwin,
      You can’t fill up the commbox with long quotations from documents we all can find elsewhere. Give a link, then give your own views.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *