Mike Lewis, on his substack “Mike Lewis Extra,” wrote a post titled “Once more with feeling”, subtitled: Authentic Church teaching does not depend on how I feel about it. There are some good points in that post, but the piece lacks any distinction between infallible and non-infallible teachings, and treats religious assent to ordinary non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium as not substantially different from theological assent to infallible teachings of the Magisterium. Read Mike Lewis’ post here.
I agree that Church teaches does not depend, for its authority and its obligation of assent, on our feelings. But Lewis errs by not admitting that a non-infallible ordinary teaching of the authentic Magisterium allows for licit theological dissent. This dissent is a possibility for any of the faithful, not only for clergy or theologians. The reason for this possibility of limited, and I stress the word limited, dissent from non-infallible teachings is that they are non-infallible and non-irreformable. These teachings can possibly err. And the extent of possible licit theological dissent is the same as the extent of possible error.
A local Bishop or groups of local Bishops (whether teaching in a Bishops’ Conference or informally together) teach under the authentic ordinary non-infallible Magisterium. They are unable to teach infallibly, though their teaching can be a participation in the ordinary universal Magisterium, which is infallible. However, their teaching apart from the rest of the body of Bishops and the Roman Pontiff can never be infallible. As Lumen Gentium 25 states: “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility….” The text goes on to describe the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium and of Ecumenical Councils.
“For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. 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.” [Lumen Gentium 25]
The teaching of an individual Bishop (other than the Bishop of Rome, other than as a participation in the ordinary universal Magisterium or an Ecumenical Council) can err to any extent, even to the extent of heresy or schism. But such teachings as are heresy are certainly not part of the authentic Magisterium, not even its ordinary non-infallible exercise.
As for teachings of individual Bishops that err, though not to the extent of heresy, the faithful have the right to dissent from the teaching of an individual Bishop, even the Bishop of their own diocese, adhering instead to the contrary teaching of the Roman Pontiff or the majority of other Bishops, even when this latter teaching is not infallible. Clearly, the faithful can dissent from what a local Bishop teaches, for such teaching can err, and God, Who is Truth, does not require the faithful to adhere to error.
As documented in these quotes from Popes, Saints, Fathers, Doctors, and Councils, the Roman Pontiff, by the charism of truth and never-failing faith, is unable to err to a grave extent in his exercise of the Keys of Saint Peter over doctrine and discipline. Thus, when the Roman Pontiff is teaching under his non-infallible ordinary papal Magisterium, his teachings can err only to a limited extent, never to a grave extent, never to the extent of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation, never to the extent of causing grave harm to the Church, the Body of Christ, of which he is both Her head and her foundational Rock.
We cannot hold that ordinary papal teachings are entirely without possibility of error, for then we would be contradicting the dogma of Vatican I, which teaches that the teaching of the Roman Pontiff is only infallible and irreformable when all the criteria for Papal Infallibility are met. This implies, necessarily, that other teachings of the Roman Pontiff under the authentic but ordinary papal Magisterium have the possibility of error and reform, for which reason such teachings are termed non-infallible or non-irreformable.
We cannot hold that non-infallible papal teachings always require religious assent, without possibility of dissent, since God does not require us to adhere to error. Such a requirement would be contrary to the teaching of the Gospel that God is Truth, and that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Instead, the teaching of the Church (which itself is ordinary and non-infallible so far) is that the faithful are permitted licit theological dissent within certain limits. This teaching is expressed most clearly in two documents, Donum Veritatis, and Human Life in Our Day. The former is a document of the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger; the latter is a Pastoral Letter by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (in the U.S.), dated November 15, 1968.
Here is the text of Human Life in Our Day, n. 49-53:
“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.”
Dissent from a non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium can be licit. The text above discusses the limits of that dissent (so often violated today). But the document considers that non-infallible teachings “may admit of development or call for clarification or revision.” These teachings clearly can err, to some extent. And error does not require religious assent.
Though the document gives the example of “professional theological work,” licit dissent is clearly not limited to the theologian. For the text says “This is particularly true in the area of legitimate theological speculation and research”, not ‘only true’. Moreover, the Lord Jesus does not distinguish in the Gospel, nor has the Church ever distinguished, different obligations of assent for the theologian as compared to the rest of the faithful.
Religious assent is not theological assent. The former applies to the non-infallible, and the latter applies to the infallible. The full assent of faith is required of dogma, as such teachings are not only certainly free from error, but also are important teachings of faith and morals, and therefore important to the path of salvation. Non-infallible teachings of the ordinary teachings of the papal Magisterium can err only to a limited extent. The Church has the right and authority to require religious assent, despite the possibility of error because: (1) non-infallible teachings are helpful to the path of salvation; (2) we cannot follow the path of salvation and follow Jesus by formal dogma alone; (3) non-infallible teachings are usually true and correct, as they are taught with divine assistance; (4) the faithful may licitly dissent from errors in non-infallible teachings, within certain limits.
If there were no possibility of licit dissent from non-infallible teachings, there would be no difference between religious assent and the full assent of faith. But there is a difference, as clearly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” [Lumen Gentium 25] which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.”
Notice that infallible teachings can be either a definition or something taught in a definitive manner. The prior paragraph (891) of the CCC discusses infallible teachings, which require “the obedience of faith”. The non-infallible have no such requirement. Religious assent is ordinary; it is distinct from the full assent of faith, which is an obedience required by our faith in Christ.
Donum Veritatis deals with the same issue of licit dissent:
“The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions.”
Religious assent to non-irreformable teachings is the general rule. The text goes on to consider cases where dissent is licit.
“When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.”
Donum Veritatis admits that magisterial teachings can err. Certainly, the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, especially of the Roman Pontiff, cannot be “habitually mistaken” in doctrine or discipline. But this divine assistance in what is non-infallible and non-irreformable does not free the doctrine and discipline of the Church from every possible error.
“Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions.”
The papal accusers, those who oppose Pope Francis and who usually also oppose Vatican II and more, err gravely by presenting their extensive dissent from both non-infallible and infallible teachings as “non-arguable conclusions”. That type of dissent is never licit.
“The preceding considerations have a particular application to the case of the theologian who might have serious difficulties, for reasons which appear to him well-founded, in accepting a non-irreformable magisterial teaching…. If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.”
When the teaching is non-infallible and therefore non-irreformable, acceptance of that teaching can be loyal and licit. Objections to such teachings, which may perhaps really be in error, can “contribute to real progress” in the teaching of the Church. Such dissent is clearly presented as licit.
“It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question.”
The person described is faithful to the Magisterium, but dissents from a particular non-infallible teaching, due to theological arguments to the contrary. Such arguments must be based on Tradition, Scripture, and/or past magisterial teachings, particularly past teachings of greater or equal authority. This does not imply that the faithful should remain in the past, and not accept new clarifications of doctrine by the Magisterium.
As n. 32 in Donum Veritatis states: “public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church also called “dissent”, which must be distinguished from the situation of personal difficulties treated above.” Those who openly resist the very Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, or of any Ecumenical Council are not exercising licit dissent. An individual believer might licitly dissent from a non-infallible teaching, but he or she is not justified in opposing the Roman Pontiff, or the body of Bishops, or the Magisterium in general. The possibility of error is limited, and so therefore is the extent of licit dissent.
DV n. 33 describes a dissent taken too far, which certainly would be illicit and gravely harmful:
“More frequently, it is asserted that the theologian is not bound to adhere to any Magisterial teaching unless it is infallible. Thus a Kind of theological positivism is adopted, according to which, doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility are said to have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not. The theologian would accordingly be totally free to raise doubts or reject the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium particularly in the case of specific moral norms.”
Non-infallible teachings are binding under religious assent, but there remains some possibility of licit theological dissent, within limits. This licit dissent cannot be based solely on one’s own judgment or understanding of the faith, as a matter of mere conscience. Rather, it must be a theological dissent, based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium and not merely one’s own mind and heart.
Note that DV speaks in a very limited way about licit theological dissent. And this is necessary because dissent is very often not licit, and illicit dissent can easily harm the faithful and the Church. However, we are called to adhere only to truth, and since non-infallible teachings can err, the possibility of licit dissent is irrefutable. God does not require us to adhere to falsehoods.
Mike Lewis’ Errors
Lewis opines: “If the pope teaches something to the Church on a matter of faith and morals in his official capacity as Roman Pontiff, it’s Church teaching — part of the authentic Magisterium — whether you agree with it or not. This isn’t a hard concept. If you reject the teaching, you dissent from the Magisterium. Your own opinion doesn’t change that.”
Notice that what Mike Lewi says is not a part of the authentic Magisterium, but only his opinion. By comparison, the text of Human Life in Our Day (n. 49ff.) is the ordinary authentic Magisterium of the U.S. Bishops, and the document, to my knowledge, has never been seriously contradicted on licit theological dissent.
Is every teaching of any Bishop part of the authentic Magisterium? A Bishop can err to the extent of heresy (see the last section of this article), though the Pope cannot. Lewis takes the case of the ordinary papal Magisterium. However, Papal teachings can err. This is seen, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Pope Saint John Paul II was closely involved in overseeing and approving, so much so that he delayed publication of Veritatis Splendor (n. 5) until the CCC was published. And yet Pope Francis has changed the teaching of the CCC, as Lewis notes, on the death penalty. If one Pope contradicts another, perhaps their teachings can be reconciled (as in this case). But the possibility of error is undeniable, when Popes are not teaching infallibly.
Pope Paul IV, in Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio, states the following about errors in the ordinary papal Magisterium:
“In assessing Our duty and the situation now prevailing, We have been weighed upon by the thought that a matter of this kind [i.e. error in respect of the Faith] is so grave and so dangerous that the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God and our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.” [n. 1]
Later in the same document, Pope Paul IV discusses the cases of heresy and schism, and he presents a long list of persons who might fall into heresy or schism, a list which notably excludes the Roman Pontiff. The only case of heresy or schism regarding a Roman Pontiff mentioned is prior to his taking office as Roman Pontiff. Paul IV clearly believed that a Pope cannot fall into heresy or schism. Therefore, in that document, a deviation from the Faith is a lesser error in a teaching, not a grave error. Such an erroneous teaching, which permits the faithful generally, and not only theologians or clergy, to contradict the Roman Pontiff must be non-infallible, as infallible teaching never err at all. Paul IV would not need to even say that the faithful can contradict the Pope in his personal opinions that are not teachings under the Magisterium. No one has ever proposed that the Roman Pontiff is infallible in personal opinions, even in theological questions. So the case of being able to licitly contradict the Roman Pontiff is when he teaches under the non-infallible ordinary papal Magisterium.
Therefore, Mike Lewis errs when he claims that dissent from any particular teaching of the ordinary papal Magisterial constitutes a dissent from the Magisterium itself: “If you reject the teaching, you dissent from the Magisterium.” Popes can err in non-infallible teachings, and the possibility of error does not harm the faithful in their path of salvation, partly because the faithful can contradict the Roman Pontiff in his ordinary teaching, within the limits of the norms of licit dissent, discussed above. Lewis implies that the faithful may not contradict the Roman Pontiff when they believe, based on serious reasons of faith, that he has erred in a non-infallible teaching.
It is also a problem that Lewis does not consider the case of individual Bishops or groups of Bishops (short of the body of Bishops led by the Pope) in their teaching errors. In that case, a Bishop or Bishops can go astray from the faith to any extent. So while grave errors from Bishops are not part of the authentic Magisterium, the faithful must judge, in some cases, whether that is the case or not. But if they take the position of Lewis, in never questioning or disagreeing with the authentic Magisterium, they might be led astray by some Bishops.
Lewis: “When Pope Francis declared that the Church teaches the death penalty is inadmissible, that became the Church’s teaching….
“So the question becomes whether you are able to accept the teaching in good conscience or not. If the pope was to, say, add a sentence to the Catechism mandating that all Catholics were morally bound to be Yankees fans, I would (obviously) dissent.
“Fortunately I believe Catholicism to be true, so that will never happen. But the point is that I lack the authority to change the actual Church teaching. Yet many Catholics think they can undo Amoris Laetitia or say they Church approves of the death penalty because it doesn’t align with their understanding of Catholic doctrine. They can’t.”
Lewis’ hypothetical dissent “will never happen”. He assumes that all non-infallible teachings, at least of the ordinary papal Magisterium, are certainly true. And that seems to imply that Papal Infallibility is more extensive than Vatican I infallibly taught. If the Pope cannot err at all in any teaching, then the dogma of Vatican I would be false, which is heresy. But if the Pope can err in his ordinary Magisterium, then how is it that Lewis does not admit that the Pope can be contradicted in that teaching, when it deviates (in a less-than-grave way, I am saying) from the Faith?
It is disturbing that Lewis thinks the inadmissibility of the death penalty was never the teaching of the Church until Pope Francis caused it to become the Church’s teaching. Everything the Church teaches correctly is found in Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture; the teaching of the Church found in natural law are also found at least implicitly in Tradition or Scripture. So there is no way for a Pope to make something new into the Church’s teaching.
As for the death penalty, the three fonts of morality apply. The act is not intrinsically evil, since the person put to death is a convicted of any of certain types of serious crime (especially one that endangers society, making the death penalty a type of defense of the community). So the moral object, to defend the community, is good. The intention is the same, to protect the community. Then the morality of the death penalty falls to the third font, that of circumstances. Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis have both judged that in the present day, the world and the nations are able to protect themselves from dangerous criminals with incarceration, and so, under those circumstances, the act is inadmissible.
Any act is inadmissible if it has either a bad intention, or a bad moral object, or bad circumstances (when totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned does more harm than good). The death penalty is judged by Pope Francis to be inadmissible due to that font of morality. Francis did not declare the death penalty to be intrinsically evil. Equating “inadmissible” to “intrinsically evil” accuses the Pope of not knowing basic moral theology, which he certainly does know.
As for Amoris Laetitia, the document contains non-infallible teachings and non-infallible, non-irreformable disciplines, and so the faithful have some limited ability to dissent from some particular points in its teachings. I disagree strongly with those who accuse Amoris Laetitia of heresy or other grave error, and who interpret the document in the worst possible way. However, some faithful theological have expressed limited dissent from Amoris Laetitia, without accusing the Pope of grave error.
When Lewis states: “Fortunately I believe Catholicism to be true, so that will never happen.” he seems to imply that an authentic teaching of the ordinary papal Magisterium can never err. If so, that would contradict Vatican I’s definition of Papal Infallibility. If not, if the Pope can err in his teachings, then why would dissent never be licit, as the Church has taught it can be?
Lewis’ position is to accept whatever the Church teaches, but the Church teaches (Paul IV, U.S. Bishops, Cardinal Ratzinger) that the Magisterium, even the papal Magisterium, can err and that the faithful can licitly contradict the Pope and licitly dissent from a non-infallible magisterial teaching. And Lewis rejects that teaching of the Magisterium. In saying that one can never licitly dissent from an authentic magisterial teaching (limited to the papal magisterium or not?), Lewis contradicts magisterial teaching.
Don’t join him.
When Bishops Go Astray
For the sake of completeness in discussing this topic, I will also mention the case of Bishops who teach heresy or commit schism.
A Bishop can be a heretic or a schismatic, through his false teachings and beliefs. Examples of Bishops who departed from communion with the Church via heresy and/or schism include Bishop Lefebvre, who died separated from the Church, and currently notably Bishop Carlo Vigano, who refuses to acknowledge Pope Francis as the current valid Roman Pontiff. Such Bishops who separate themselves from the Roman Pontiff or the body of Bishops led by him lose all jurisdiction, and have no authority to teach or rule over the faithful.
“From this it must be clearly understood that Bishops are deprived of the right and power of ruling, if they deliberately secede from Peter and his successors; because, by this secession, they are separated from the foundation on which the whole edifice must rest.” [Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum 15]
Sometimes, the faithful must unfortunately judge that an individual Bishop or small group of Bishop has gone astray by grave error, and therefore decline to accept their teachings or rulings. In addition to the cases mentioned above, more than a few Bishops in the early Church (between the first and second Ecumenical Councils) fell into the grave heresy of Arianism. The faithful cannot consider teachings contrary to the teaching of the Roman Pontiff, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the ordinary universal Magisterium as part of the authentic Magisterium at all.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.