Legitimate Criticism

In my previous post I mentioned how, during the lecture in question, Cardinal Dulles “speaks quite highly of the role of theologians in the Catholic Church, particularly their role in formulating legitimate criticisms of magisterial teaching.” Since this is open to a wide range of interpretations, I thought it wise to quote exactly what Cardinal Dulles did say on this matter.

Once again, from the Spring 1989 Laurence J. McGinley Lecture, entitled “Teaching Authority in the Church”, quoted from Church and Society (Fordham University Press, 2008 ):

The service of theology to the magisterium can, on occasion, involve criticism. Scholarly investigation may indicate that some reformable teaching of the Church needs to be modified or that concepts that have been used for the communication of the faith are unsatisfactory in terms of contemporary science or knowledge. If so, theologians have the right and even the duty to make their views known.

In the past century or so we have seen many examples of theological criticism, some justified and some unjustified. At times the criticism has been bitter and intemperate and has produced alienation in the Church. An example might be the work of Modernists such as Loisy, Tyrrell, and Buonaiuti at the beginning of the present century. On the other hand, other thinkers of the same period, such as von Hügel and Blondel, very close to the Modernist movement, exerted a strong positive influence on the official teaching through their intellectual probing.

More recently, in the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-58), several of the most eminent Catholic theologians, such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, and Karl Rahner, cautiously advocated doctrinal positions that were, for a time, resisted by the magisterium. They made their proposals without rancor and, when rebuffed, submitted without complaint. After they had proved their loyalty and obedience, they were rehabilitated and invited to take part in Vatican Council II, where they made immense contributions to the official teaching of the Church. In view of cases such as these, it is difficult to deny that critical questioning of current magisterial teaching may sometimes be legitimate.


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