On Authority and Theology

What is my authority as a theologian? As a faithful Roman Catholic theologian, writing on topics ranging from dogmatic theology to moral theology to speculative theology, I have no authority. My writings are not authoritative, and I do not speak or act with ecclesiastical (or other) authority. But this is the case for all theologians. When priests and religious write theology, they do not write with authority. When a Bishop or even a Pope writes an article or book of private theology, it is not authoritative.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote and published a book of private theology entitled, “Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.” In the preface of that book, he writes:

“It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.” (Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. xxiv.)

Here the Pope gives us a good example to follow concerning the expression of theological opinions by the Bishops and even by the Pope. Such expressions, no matter how emphatically they may be phrased, are not an exercise of the Magisterium, and so are not binding on the faithful. All are free to contradict the Pope in any personal opinion that he expresses: about Jesus, about matters of faith and morals, and certainly on other matters. Therefore, all are free to contradict the individual Bishops in their opinions to the same extent. And the same is true for priests, religious, and lay theologians like myself. I do not write or teach with authority.

On the other hand, the contents of a theological argument may have authority. If I quote the dogma of the Assumption, that quote within my theology is authoritative. If I quote or even correctly cite an authoritative magisterial source, my quote or citation has the same authority. If I explain a teaching of the Magisterium, and it is explained correctly, then the explanation has the same authority as the teaching. If I make a sound theological argument, from the authority of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium, the sources that I quote or cite retain their same authority within my argument. If my argument errs, the sources retain their authority and truth; the error is mine alone.

I sometimes receive e-mails from persons saying something like: “I disagree, Ron, with your position on contraception. I don’t think that contraception is intrinsically evil, etc.” Well, here’s the problem with that assertion. The individual is not disagreeing with me, but with the Church. When I say that contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, it is not my theological opinion; I am presenting the teaching of the Magisterium. That teaching, presented by any one, retains its full authority, which is of the Magisterium. The fact that I also teach what the Magisterium teaches on many points is not me, teaching with my authority, but me, pointing the faithful to the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium.

But whenever someone dislikes a magisterial teaching, they try to represent that teaching as uniquely mine, so that it is easier to reject.

When I write dogmatic theology, or moral theology, or salvation theology (soteriology), the authority of my writing rests with my sources and my argument. In so far as I quote or correctly cite a teaching of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, or the Magisterium, the teaching retains its full authority. In so far as I offer a speculative theological opinion, my conclusion is not authoritative; all are free to disagree.

On the other hand, we are all compelled by the eternal moral law to adhere to important truths on matters of faith and morals that are clear to us by the exercise of faith and reason in cooperation with grace — even when the Magisterium has not decided the question. If you yourself understand that a particular act is gravely immoral, even if you can find no magisterial pronouncement on that question, you are nevertheless obligated to avoid that grave sin. We are not free to believe whatever we like when the Magisterium has no particular teaching on a point. We must believe what we understand to be taught, explicitly and implicitly, by Tradition and Scripture. We must believe what we understand, even by reason alone under natural law, to be morally good or morally evil.

And if my theological argument, based on faith and reason, is convincing to your mind, you have a moral obligation to adhere to that truth. We are not free to believe whatever we like. We are morally obligated to seek and to adhere to truth, especially on matters pertaining to faith, morals, and salvation. So my theological arguments, when sound, when based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, have the authority of faith and reason — in so far as I have not erred, and you yourself understand the argument to be correct.

Despite what sinful secular society teaches, you cannot believe whatever you want. Truth itself is authoritative, and so is your sincere exercise of conscience before God and His Church.

On matters that are speculative, I often offer my theological opinion and my argument as to why I think mine is the correct position. I could be mistaken. I am fallible. Even if I express my opinion on an open question with firmness and resolve, this does not imply that I am teaching with authority. But when my opinion is based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, you should give those sources due consideration. God is Truth. You are morally obligated not to treat any sound theological argument with contempt, or ridicule, or derision, or scorn, even if your opinion on an open question differs from mine.

But if you disagree, and you have no theological argument, then all I can say to you is this: “What I have written, I have written.”

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian
and Biblical scholar

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