Archive for the 'Dissent' Category

Scripture, Authority, and the Development of Doctrine

The small world of blogs that I visit regularly has been abuzz with the topic of authority and the proper understanding of the development of doctrine. It all started with C. Michael Patton over at his popular blog, Parchment and Pen. In his post entitled, Why I Believe That Our Canon is Fallible… And Am Comfortable With It, Patton (following R.C. Sproul) argues that while Scripture is infallible, the list of books which make up the canon is fallible. In other words, because there is no infallible human authority (according to Protestants) to determine which books should make the canon, we have “fallible cannon of infallible books”. In need not be said, that not all Protestants hold to this view as enunciated by Patton and Sproul.

However, this is all very confusing to a Catholic, so Fr. Alvin Kimel of Pontifications and Dr. Mike Liccione of Philosophia Perennis made all the necessary objections based on the meaning authority and interpretation, not to mention epistemology. This debate on sola scriptura leads quite nicely into the issue of authority and the development of doctrine. The debate of the canon, the nature of authority, and the development of doctrine flowing from that authority has even spilled over to the blogs, fides quaerens intellectum and After Existentialism, Light. It’s all been very interesting to read, but one gets the feeling this topic has been much debated through the years in the blogosphere. Overall, this has been a good discussion, and it should be noted that debates like this can (and often do) lead to a greater understanding between Protestants and Catholics, even if we still disagree. To summarize G.K. Chesterton, the purpose of debate is to come to the truth. We debate in order to learn and obtain knowledge, not to win an argument.

The issue of the development of doctrine also dovetails into the issue of reform in the Church. What does true reform look like anyway? Avery Cardinal Dulles takes up this issue in his Spring 2003 Laurence J. McGinley lecture given at Fordham University. In this lecture I think he nicely summarizes some of the points the Catholic participants in the aforementioned debate have been trying to make.

Quoted from Church and Society (Fordham University Press 2008):

Unlike innovation, reform implies organic continuity; it does not add something foreign or extrinsic. Unlike revolution or transformation, reform respects and retains the substance that was previously there. Unlike development, it implies that something has gone wrong and needs to be corrected. The point of departure for reform is always an idea or institution that is affirmed but considered to have been imperfectly or defectively realized. The goal is to make persons or institutions more faithful to an idea already accepted.

Reform may be either restorative or progressive. Restorative reform seeks to reactualize a better past or a past that is idealized. Progressive reform aims to move ahead toward an ideal or utopian future. Either style can run to excess. Restorative reform tends toward traditionalism; progressive reform, toward modernism. But neither direction can be ruled out. Sometimes the past needs to be repristinated; at other times, it may need to be transcended.

In any discussion of reform, two opposite errors are to be avoided. The first, is to assume that because the Church is divinely instituted, it never needs to be reformed. This position is erroneous because it fails to attend to the human element. Since all the members of the Church, including the pope and the bishops, are limited in virtue and ability, they may fail to live up to the principles of the faith itself. When guilty of negligence, timidity, or misjudgment, they may need to be corrected, as Paul, for instance, corrected Peter (Gal 2:11).

The second error would be to assail or undermine the essentials of Catholic Christianity. This would not be reform but dissolution. Paul rebuked the Galatians for turning to a different gospel (Gal 1:6). The Catholic Church is unconditionally bound to her Scriptures, her creeds, her dogmas, and her divinely instituted hierarchical office and sacramental worship. To propose that the Church should reject the divinity of Christ, or retract the dogma of papal infallibility, or convert herself into a religious democracy, as some have done in the name of reform, is to misunderstand both the nature of Catholicism and the nature of reform.

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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.

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!

Avery Cardinal Dulles on Dissent

With specific reference to the issue of women’s ordination, this is how Avery Cardinal Dulles ends his April 1996 Laurence J. McGinley Lecture at Fordham University:

In view of the force of the convergent argument [from scripture, tradition, theology, and magisterial pronouncements] and the authority of the papal office [John Paul II 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis], Catholics can and should give the full assent that the pope has called for.

Because the official teaching runs against the prevailing climate of opinion and because plausible objections have been widely publicized, it is inevitable that a significant number of Catholics, in a country such as our own, will fail to assent.

Those who disagree with the approved teaching, while they are entitled to propose their difficulties, should refrain from treating the question as doctrinally undecided and should abstain from strident advocacy. Pressures for doctrinal change at this point would be futile and even detrimental, since they would provoke countermeasures on the part of Church authorities. The net result would be to divide the Church against herself.

The pastoral leadership of the Church, recognizing the complexity of the theological issues and the inevitability of dissenting views, should be patient with Catholics who feel unable to accept the approved position. While assuring the integrity of Catholic doctrine, the bishops should show understanding for dissenters who exhibit good will and avoid disruptive behavior. Such pastoral consideration, however, should not be taken as license to contest or call into doubt the tradition of the Church, confirmed as it is by recent pronouncements of exceptional weight.

Perfect. It’s worth a second, careful reading. Cardinal Dulles’ cogent analysis of ecclesiastical issues is always welcome. A reading of the entire lecture, entitled “Priesthood and Gender”, is highly recommended. Where can you find this lecture? The above is quoted from the recently released collection of Cardinal Dulles’ complete set of Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, called Church and Society (Fordham University Press, 2008).

Avery Cardinal DullesBiographical Note: After retiring from The Catholic University in America in 1998, Avery Cardinal Dulles was offered and accepted the newly formed Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University. One of the duties of the Laurence J. McGinley Chair is to deliver a public lecture each semester (two per year). Cardinal Dulles still holds the Chair, although it is widely rumored he will be stepping down soon due to health concerns. The Cardinal is almost 90 years old and unable to speak, but as they say, his mind is as sharp as ever.

Dissent Proper

Dissent seems to be a common feature of Catholicism in the western world. We are in the post enlightenment age, are we not? Being told what to believe by some old man in Rome is so medieval. Nevermind that this is a caricature of what it really means to be a Catholic, this is how we are often seen. Puppets on a string. To fight that perception, it seems that many Catholic theologians in the illustrious halls of academia are determined to show just how unpuppeted they really are. We think for ourselves, thank you very much!

Being fully aware of how Christian doctrine has developed through the centuries as the Church’s understanding grows with time, I am not against dissent per se. Discussion of things theological and seeking new ways to understand our doctrines is, after all, a vital part of the Church’s life. Why else do we have theologians? They can indeed be of great service to the Church. I do believe however, there is a right way and a wrong way to dissent from Church teaching – or as I prefer to term it, suggest new ways to understand a particular Church teaching. Dissent proper can be summed up in one word – humility.

With that said, the current issue of the National Catholic Register has an interview with the popular Catholic theologian Michael Novak about Pope Benedict’s address to Catholic educators in the United States. I would post the link, but it’s only available to subscribers (i.e. you’re not privileged enough to see the entire interview, so there). But here’s one question and answer from the interview specifically addressing the proper way to “dissent”:

Can dissenters serve a prophetic role in the Church, as they often say they are doing?

Sometimes, the dissenters claim to be saving the Church from the teachings of the Pope, or of tradition, by presenting a more up-to-date version. It is true that the Church always moves through history with strong arguments and adversarial positions. On certain points, it may require several generations to become clear about what is the true and most life-giving path. Sometimes those who are in a small minority win out in the end. Usually, though, they win out not only by the clarity and depth of their ideas, but also by their humility and holiness of life. One practical test I have found helpful: How deeply are disputants committed to the principle that to be Catholic is to be with Peter?

Those who offer new light to the Pope, new arguments and new ways of seeing things, may on occasion be correct, and popes will eventually winnow through and absorb what is good about their explorations. The inner test is: “Do I lay my ideas before Peter, awaiting his winnowing? Maybe I am wrong.”

When professors speak disparagingly of Peter — not perhaps of any particular pope (for all are limited, and subject to criticism) — but of the Petrine office itself, experience has shown me that I should not take them as my guides.


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