Roman Catholic Ethics and Infallible Dogma

There is a very common HERESY among Catholic moral theologians today, not on any particular point of ethics, but on the field itself in its entirety. The heresy is to treat all of ethics as a speculative field. Many moral theologians speak as if the Magisterium of the Church did not exist, or as if the Magisterium had no definitive teachings on ethics at all, or as if the teachings of the Magisterium on ethics were merely advisory, or as if all of the moral teachings of the Magisterium are so thoroughly open to interpretation as to offer no definitive truths on ethics. This problem existed among theologians at the time that Pope John Paul II wrote Veritatis Splendor:

“In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church’s moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to “exhort consciences” and to “propose values”, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices. In particular, note should be taken of the lack of harmony between the traditional response of the Church and certain theological positions, encountered even in Seminaries and in Faculties of Theology, with regard to questions of the greatest importance for the Church and for the life of faith of Christians, as well as for the life of society itself.” (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 4)

And yet the situation is still worse today. Some moral theologians simply ignore Veritatis Splendor. Others treat the encyclical as if it were an interesting discussion or a speculative exploration, but not as authoritatively binding. The question of infallibility in the Church’s teachings on ethics is anathema to many moral theologians: they recoil in horror at the very idea that the Church would require them to believe and to teach particular absolute truths on morality. Of if they do not recoil at this idea, then they laugh. The idea that, when the Church teaches infallibly, the faithful are morally required to believe that infallible teaching is a joke to them. And the idea that theologians are morally required to teach what the Church teaches, and to act in service to that teaching, even on those questions not explicitly decided by the Magisterium, is a foreign concept to them. Instead, the secular ideas of ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ have been adopted by many moral theologians in place of religious ideas such as magisterial teaching and infallible dogma.

Here is what Pope Benedict, writing at the time as the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, taught, as an act of the Magisterium, about the role of the theologian:

“Among the vocations awakened in this way by the Spirit in the Church is that of the theologian. His role is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Donum Veritatis, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, n. 6).

The Magisterium teaches that theologians are servants of Sacred Tradition, of Sacred Scripture, and of the Magisterium. This is not to say that theologians merely explain what the Magisterium teaches. They are also called to seek a new deeper understanding of the truths found in the Sacred Deposit of Faith. But even when seeking new insights, contributing to the development of doctrine, and answering open questions, their task is to act always in accord with Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. The quest for an ever deeper understanding does not justify abandoning, contradicting, or undermining definitive magisterial teaching.

But the current practice (and apparent belief) of most moral theologians is a far cry from the magisterial view of their own role. They do not admit, in theory or in practice, that the Magisterium has definitive teachings on morality, which they are morally obligated to believe and to teach.

But the Magisterium does have the role of teaching authoritatively on morality:

“What concerns morality can also be the object of the authentic Magisterium because the Gospel, being the Word of Life, inspires and guides the whole sphere of human behavior. The Magisterium, therefore, has the task of discerning, by means of judgments normative for the consciences of believers, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those which, on the contrary, because intrinsically evil, are incompatible with such demands. By reason of the connection between the orders of creation and redemption and by reason of the necessity, in view of salvation, of knowing and observing the whole moral law, the competence of the Magisterium also extends to that which concerns the natural law. Revelation also contains moral teachings which per se could be known by natural reason. Access to them, however, is made difficult by man’s sinful condition. It is a doctrine of faith that these moral norms can be infallibly taught by the Magisterium.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Donum Veritatis, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, n. 16).

The Magisterium teaches Divinely-revealed moral truth from Tradition and Scripture, and also from natural law (since all moral truth is at least in theory accessible to natural reason). Fallen human reason has difficulty finding and illuminating the whole moral law, and so Divine Revelation is a practical necessity, as is the guidance of the Magisterium.

The Magisterium is able to teach moral norms INFALLIBLY. And infallible teachings are required beliefs under penalty of heresy. To believe an idea in contradiction to an infallible teaching is the grave sin of heresy. To teach an idea in contradiction to an infallible teaching is the even graver sin of teaching heresy. To entirely ignore the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium on morality, or to treat that teachings as if it were not authoritative, is the grave sin of schism, or perhaps in some cases even the very grave sin of apostasy. For to abandon entirely the magisterial authority over morality is tantamount to abandoning the Faith altogether.

Many moral theologians have fallen into the grave sins of believing and teaching heresy. And some have in effect abandoned the Catholic Faith altogether. And yet they continue to teach those among the faithful who are foolish enough to listen to them.

{15:12} Then his disciples drew near and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees, upon hearing this word, were offended?”
{15:13} But in response he said: “Every plant which has not been planted by my heavenly Father shall be uprooted.
{15:14} Leave them alone. They are blind, and they lead the blind. But if the blind are in charge of the blind, both will fall into the pit.”

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