On Faithful Dissent (part 1)

The Church has two types of authority:

1. Spiritual authority, which is the teaching authority or Magisterium of the Church
2. Temporal authority, which includes the laws, rules, and rulings of the Church

The Magisterium teaches, whereas the temporal authority issues rules and rulings. Decisions of the temporal authority are not teachings; no truth of faith or morals is being taught. The temporal authority issues judgments of the prudential order.

The Magisterium teaches either infallibly or non-infallibly. Infallible teachings have no possibility of error; these are truths on matters of faith and morals. Every truth infallibly taught is found either explicitly or at least implicitly in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. The Magisterium teaches from the Sacred Deposit of Faith (Tradition and Scripture), and also from natural law (truths accessible to reason without Divine Revelation). And every truth of natural law is also found, at least implicitly, in the Sacred Deposit of Faith.

But I say more. All teachings of the Catholic Faith are implicit in the single act of Christ on the Cross dying for our salvation.

The Magisterium teaches infallibly in any of three ways:

1. Papal Infallibility, by solemn definitions of the Pope

2. Conciliar Infallibility, by solemn definitions of an Ecumenical Council

3. the ordinary and universal Magisterium:

Second Vatican Council: “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.” (Lumen Gentium 25)

All other teachings of the Magisterium, that is, teachings on matters of faith and morals that do not fall under any of the three types of infallibility, are non-infallible and non-irreformable, and are subject to a limited possibility of error and reform. When the Magisterium teaches infallibly, the Holy Spirit guarantees that there will be no errors on matters of faith, morals, or salvation. When the Magisterium teaches non-infallibly, the Holy Spirit limits the possibility of error so that no error and no set of errors can ever lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.

There are two types of assent to these two types of teaching.

Infallible teachings require the full assent of faith, which is an exercise of the infused theological virtue of faith. This type of assent is called theological assent or the assent of “divine and catholic faith”. I also use the term sacred assent. The infallible teachings of the Magisterium are certainly truths that are found in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, that is, within the Sacred Deposit of Faith.

Non-infallible teachings require a different type and degree of assent, called religious submission of mind and will, or religious assent. I also use the term ordinary assent. The non-infallible teachings of the Church are also called ordinary teachings; they are said to be teachings of the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium.

God is Truth. Whoever rejects truth, rejects God. If anyone says that we are obligated to believe a non-infallible teaching, even if we clearly understand that the particular teaching is in error, he rejects God who is Truth. We believe the teachings of the Church because those teachings are truth. In so far as any non-infallible teaching is in error, we have no obligation to assent. Infallible teachings have no possibility of error, and non-infallible teachings have only a limited possibility of error.

Non-infallible teachings can contain actual errors; the possibility of error is not merely theoretical. These errors can be identified by the use of reason to compare the non-infallible teaching to other teachings of the Magisterium, and to the teachings of Tradition and Scripture. If a faithful Catholic understands that a non-infallible teaching is in error, based on sound reasoning from Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, then he or she is free to faithfully dissent from that non-infallible teaching, only in so far as it goes astray from the truths of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Such dissent can be legitimate and responsible, and can contribute to real progress in the development of doctrine. But most dissent in the Church today is very far away from limited faithful dissent.

Non-infallible teachings have two possible types of Magisterium sources:

1. a magisterial source that is able to teach infallibly, but is in fact teaching a particular point non-infallibly, such as a Pope or an Ecumenical Council,
2. a magisterial source that is unable to teach infallibly, such as a local Bishop, a Bishops’ Conference, or a department of the Holy See.

The non-infallible teaching of the former carries more weight than the latter, just as the Second Vatican Council taught using the example of non-infallible teachings of the Pope:

Second Vatican Council: “Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra….” (Lumen Gentium 25)

The non-infallible teachings of the Pope have a greater claim to the religious assent of the faithful than the non-infallible teachings of the local Bishop or Bishops’ Conference. Even so, every non-infallible teaching is subject to the possibility of error.

A Pope or Council, teaching non-infallibly, can possibly err. But error is more likely among the individual Bishops, than when the Pope or a Council is teaching the universal Church non-infallibly. Of course, all infallible teachings have no possibility of error. Faithful dissent is only possible from non-infallible teachings.

Most non-infallible teachings are in fact free from error. For the possibility of error in non-infallible teachings is limited by the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. And this fact becomes all the more clear when we consider that most infallible teachings were once non-infallible, and only later were taught infallibly.

It is to be observed that, at times, two different Bishops will have different and incompatible teachings on the same question, on a matter of faith and morals. Nor can it be said, in every such case, that one or both are expressing mere theological opinion, which is fallible. One Bishop’s teaches one position as an act of the Magisterium, and another Bishop teaches an opposing position as an act of the Magisterium. So it is proven from such cases that the non-infallible Magisterium can err.

The non-infallible Magisterium has in fact taught that some dissent is faithful, reasonable, and legitimate. The following numbered paragraphs are quoted from a document issued by the U.S. Bishops (by the USCCB under its former name: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Norms of Licit Theological Dissent

49. There exist in the Church a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and also general norms of licit dissent. This is particularly true in the area of legitimate theological speculation and research. When conclusions reached by such professional theological work prompt a scholar to dissent from non-infallible received teaching, the norms of licit dissent come into play. They require of him careful respect for the consciences of those who lack his special competence or opportunity for judicious investigation. These norms also require setting forth his dissent with propriety and with regard for the gravity of the matter and the deference due the authority which has pronounced on it.

50. The reverence due all sacred matters, particularly questions which touch on salvation, will not necessarily require the responsible scholar to relinquish his opinion but certainly to propose it with prudence born of intellectual grace and a Christian confidence that the truth is great and will prevail.

51. When there is question of theological dissent from non-infallible doctrine, we must recall that there is always a presumption in favor of the magisterium. Even non-infallible authentic doctrine, though it may admit of development or call for clarification or revision, remains binding and carries with it a moral certitude, especially when it is addressed to the Universal Church, without ambiguity, in response to urgent questions bound up with faith and crucial to morals. The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church and is such as not to give scandal.

52. Since our age is characterized by popular interest in theological debate, and given the realities of modern mass media, the ways in which theological dissent may be effectively expressed, in a manner consistent with pastoral solicitude, should become the object of fruitful dialogue between bishops and theologians. These have their diverse ministries in the Church, their distinct responsibilities to the faith, and their respective charisma.

53. Even responsible dissent does not excuse one from faithful presentation of the authentic doctrine of the Church when one is performing a pastoral ministry in her name. (Human Life in Our Day, A Statement Issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 15, 1968)

Can dissent from a non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium ever be faithful? Yes, it can. But some Catholics claim that there is no such thing as faithful dissent. Ironically, their position on this question contracts the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium. These Catholics are expressing a dissenting position, when they say that no dissent is faithful.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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