Theologians Contra Magisterium

This is how Avery Cardinal Dulles ends his Spring 1989 Laurence J. McGinley Lecture, entitled “Teaching Authority in the Church”:

Christianity and perhaps especially Catholic Christianity, requires an element of trust in those who are commissioned to teach officially in the name of Christ. Theologians, like other members of the Church, have no right to demand that the magisterium always follow their own opinions. In fidelity to Christ and the gospel, the magisterium may be obliged to utter hard saying of it’s own.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to protest that the hierarchy is being autocratic. The dissenting theologian will be acclaimed in some quarters as the champion of freedom, the model of courage and independence. But this reaction only raises more acutely the questions: What is true freedom? What are the proofs of courage and independence? When the current of public opinion is flowing against the official teaching, its acceptance, I suggest, may require a greater exercise of freedom and courage than would contestation.

The abuse of authority is a real danger in the Church as in any other society. In our day, however, it is not the greatest danger. Christianity is threatened by the demonic power of public opinion that refuses to submit to the discipline of faith. The tide of public opinion pounds incessantly against the rock of faith on which the Church is built. If the Church allowed herself to be carried away, or even materially weakened, by this demonic force, the prospects of Christian faith in the modern world would be less favorable than they are. The hierarchical magisterium, generally speaking, has been more effective than the theological community in safeguarding the purity of the faith against the trends and fashions of the day.

Church and Society (Fordham University Press, 2008 )

As always, this small excerpt from the lecture fails to do justice to the lecture as a whole. He actually speaks quite highly of the role of theologians in the Catholic Church, particularly their role in formulating legitimate criticisms of magisterial teaching. Although you may not get that from the excerpt quoted above.

I love it when he says – When the current of public opinion is flowing against the official teaching, its acceptance, I suggest, may require a greater exercise of freedom and courage than would contestation. This is just good stuff. And he said this at a Jesuit university!

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