There is a mistake that many Catholics make today toward their teachers, toward priests, preachers, theologians, authors of devotional books, etc. which I call the ‘all or nothing’ attitude. If they find one idea or conclusion, or a few, with which they disagree, they condemn the person’s entire work and look with suspicion on this entire character. They want their teachers to teach them nothing but what they themselves judge to be true. They accept all that one teacher says, and nothing that another teacher says. They speak about how very wonderful the ‘all’ teacher is, and how very terrible the ‘nothing’ teacher is.
Some teachers meet this all-or-nothing requirement by teaching a shallow version of the Gospel. Their teaching is watered down. Entertainment fills the void left by the depth of insight that has been taken away. Their listeners want teachers who will entertain them, and tell them what they want to hear. They do not want to be corrected for a misunderstanding on a matter of faith, morals, or salvation. They lack the humility to accept correction. They assume that the version of Catholicism in their own minds is Catholicism itself (and so cannot be mistaken). They do not want to be taught any substantial truth on faith or morals of which they were previously unaware. For this would imply that they themselves were lacking in knowledge of some important matter. Their pride does not permit them to learn or to be corrected. So they prefer teachers who will present to them a mirror image of their own limited understanding of the Gospel, and in an entertaining way.
No teacher can meet the ‘all or nothing’ requirement while preaching the Gospel fully, in season and out of season. No theologian can meet this requirement while doing his work properly, seeking new insights into the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. The problem here is not that the theologian is fallible. Even a hypothetical infallible theologian (though there is no such thing) could not meet this requirement. We are all fallen sinners. It is inevitable that we will disagree with something said by a priest or theologian which is objectively true, because we mistakenly think that it is not true.
But it is ordinary for the work of any theologian to contain some errors. Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is among the greatest works of theology. But the work contains substantial theological errors, for example on the Immaculate Conception and on the inheritance of original sin. Theologians should not strive merely for an absence of errors in their works. This could be achieved only by rejecting the search for new insights into the Faith; those new insights might contain some mistakes. A priest or theologian could mostly avoid error (or seem to avoid error) by avoiding preaching the full Gospel, instead presenting to the faithful only those points of theology that are widely accepted and easily proven to be true. But such an approach would be immoral. We are each and all required by the eternal moral law to seek the whole truth on all important matters of faith, morals, and salvation.
What follows is an example of how good theology is written (excerpted from my book, The First Part of the Tribulation)
The theologian, Avery Dulles, S.J., writing in 1966, in his book, The Dimensions of the Church, used a number of sources in seeking the truth about the extent and limits of the Church. Dulles draws on the work of a Jewish philosopher, Henri Bergson; he finds his work useful in discerning truths about the Catholic Christian Church. Dulles does not reject Bergson’s work on the basis that he is Jewish, or on the basis that he is more a philosopher than a theologian. Dulles also finds truths pertaining to the nature of the Church in the work of the controversial Catholic theologian E. Schillebeeckx, O.P., as well as in a private revelation (a vision) to the early Christian writer Hermas, in a work called ‘The Shepherd’. And he devotes an entire chapter to drawing useful insights from the work of the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer; he does not dismiss the work of Bonhoeffer on the basis that he is a Protestant. Dulles also cites and disagrees with certain points in the works of Saint Robert Bellarmine, who is also a Doctor of the Church.
Notice, in this good example from Avery Dulles, S.J., that he searches for truth wherever it may be found, regardless of the reputation of the individual. He disagrees on some points with a Saint and Doctor of the Church, but he agrees on some points with a Jewish philosopher, a Protestant theologian, a private revelation, and a controversial Catholic theologian. Sacred Scripture teaches us that God is no respecter of persons: “I have concluded in truth that God is not a respecter of persons.” (St. Peter, the first Pope, speaking in Acts 10:34). This teaches us that we, too, should not be respecters of persons, and that we should not judge based on reputation or appearances, but based on justice and truth. The work of Avery Dulles is a good example of this teaching.
But to the contrary, there is a troubling trend among some conservative Catholics to accept or reject various theological arguments based on the reputation of the individual. In this approach, all non-Catholic sources would be excluded from the search for truth, along with the works of any Catholic who is characterized as a ‘liberal,’ or as a ‘dissenter,’ or as ‘disobedient to the Magisterium.’ Some of these conservatives portray themselves, because they engage in this type of exclusion, as being more faithful to the Church; they claim to be ‘100% faithful to the Magisterium.’ Such is not the case. By deciding what to believe in this way, they cast aside both truth and the search for truth.
The result of this approach is not an understanding of Catholic teaching that is free from substantial error. Not at all. Instead, the result is a version of the Catholic Faith which has been grossly oversimplified and which contains numerous errors. These errors occur because, once such an individual assumes that a teaching is true, (since it is found in some source that is said to be ‘approved’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘obedient to the Magisterium,’) the error cannot be corrected. Just as the error was accepted without any search for truth or regard for truth, it is also adhered to with the same disregard for truth. Any theological argument that might be used to correct such an error is rejected, even if the argument is firmly based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. For the individual is not in the habit of seeking and finding truth, but of blindly adhering to an idea based on reputation. The example of the theologian Avery Dulles serves to correct this erroneous approach to the Catholic Faith.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator