TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 35: The Truth of Christ Lives in His Church

Question E: Does the Church infallibly teach some absolute moral norms?

1. Plainly, there is a substantial body of common Catholic moral teaching. Its expressions are found in the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church, in the lists of sins and penances used by confessors, in canon law (where no act was considered a crime unless it was assumed to be a grave sin), in the works of doctors of the Church such as St. Thomas Aquinas, in many catechisms, in numerous episcopal statements both individual and collective, in some conciliar documents including those of Vatican II, and in numerous documents of various sorts issued by the popes and their congregations. (It is evidence of the common character of this teaching that most of it was also handed on by Orthodox Christians and by Protestants, at least up to the nineteenth century.)31

2. It might be objected that much of this teaching is in the form of exhortation, that many nonabsolute norms are proposed without explicit qualifications, and that the teaching is not completely uniform on every matter on which it touches. All this is quite true. There is, however, no room for doubt that some kinds of acts were condemned absolutely and without exception, and approved by no Christian teacher during many centuries. One will not, for example, find Catholic bishops, except for some condemned as heretics, defending the moral acceptability of sexual relations apart from the marital act or of a choice to kill the unborn.32

3. Furthermore, there is a constant consensus about such matters among Catholic theologians in modern times, a consensus broken only since l960. This consensus is important, because any indefiniteness in the tradition regarding the details of immoral kinds of acts, their immorality in every single instance, and other matters was eliminated, either by explicit statements of the modern theologians or by the general principles they shared in common. This is especially true of the works in moral theology generally used in Catholic seminaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, right up to Vatican II.33

Not all the principles shared by moral theologians during this period deserve the same respect as does the Church’s substantive moral teaching, which they handed on. Moral theology was influenced by rationalism, and the theologians proceeded legalistically, with defective theories. But their shared principles do preclude suggestions that they did not all mean the same thing when they agreed, for example, that every act of adultery is intrinsically and gravely evil in its matter (and so is a mortal sin if done with sufficient reflection and full consent).

4. The consensus of modern Catholic moral theologians also shows that common Christian moral teaching was universally proposed by the bishops, since the theologians’ works were authorized by the bishops for use in seminaries, and thus for the training of priests who communicated moral teachings in the confessional, in their preaching, in various forms of catechesis, in missionary evangelization, and so on. As authorized agents of the bishops during centuries when the latter were careful not to share their teaching authority with theologians whose views they did not accept, these approved authors in writing their manuals shared by delegation in the teaching authority of each and every bishop who sent his seminarians to seminaries in which these manuals were used as textbooks.

In many cases, documents of individual bishops, groups of bishops, and the Holy See refer to the theological manuals, which in later editions refer to them. Instructions from Rome are picked up by bishops, and the teaching of bishops often is supported by Rome. This situation does not show that the bishops failed to fulfill their individual responsibility as teachers. On the contrary, it shows the harmony of action which one would expect of the body of bishops teaching in communion with one another and with the pope, proposing what they had received and held to be Catholic moral truth.

5. Thus there is evidence that some absolute moral norms are proposed universally and authoritatively by the ordinary magisterium. Still, it is necessary to ask whether these are proposed as certain—as the single position to be held definitively.

6. The evidence supports an affirmative answer. Many norms were proposed not just as pious opinions, probable judgments, admirable ideals, or optional guidelines, but as essential requirements for anyone who wished to live in the state of grace. In other words, it has been the common teaching that acts of certain kinds are grave matter. On some matters, the magisterium allowed no differing opinions; probabilism was inapplicable. The conditions under which the teaching was proposed left no room for doubt in the minds of the faithful. But when the Church proposes a moral norm as one which the faithful must try to follow if they hope to be saved, she a fortiori proposes the teaching as certain.

7. In many cases, the norms proposed were set forth as divinely revealed. Very often the Ten Commandments were used as a framework for moral instruction, and numerous kinds of acts commonly held to be grave sins were assimilated to one of these norms. The faithful were taught, for instance, that any completed sexual act apart from marriage is forbidden by the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Other passages in Scripture also were used or cited in condemning various kinds of sexual acts—for example, the story about Onan (see Gn 38.9–10) was often used to support the condemnation of contraception.

8. Prescinding from whether the evidence advanced to show that the moral condemnations of various kinds of acts are divinely revealed really does show this, the point here is simply this: When those who propose a teaching appeal to divine revelation to confirm the truth of what they propose, they are implicitly calling for an assent of divine faith and thus proposing the teaching as one to be held definitively.

9. In cases in which Scripture and common Catholic moral teaching plainly coincide—the exclusion of adultery, for instance—there is no room for doubt that the Church’s ordinary magisterium has infallibly proposed a revealed truth.

10. In other cases, where there is room for reasonable argument about the interpretation of Scripture—as for example in the case of the Onan story and the condemnation of contraception—it is important to remember that those who invoked or alluded to particular texts in Scripture did not interpret them in isolation from the whole body of Christian moral convictions. These latter in turn were grounded more in the meditation of Christians upon the whole of divine revelation, contained both in Scripture and in the concrete experience of Christian life, than in an exact reading of isolated texts. Holding a body of moral convictions, which they were confident expressed God’s wisdom and will for their lives, Christians invoked particular Scripture texts as witnesses to the truth and obligatory character of the moral norms they believed to belong to the law of God. Rather than a debatable interpretation of Scripture settling the moral teaching of the Church, the moral convictions of Christians often conditioned their interpretation of Scripture.

11. In either type of case, the ordinary magisterium proposed moral norms to be held definitively. If, however, all natural law is implicitly revealed (27 A), it follows that the moral norms which are to be held definitively are also revealed, if only implicitly. Be that as it may, having been proposed with one voice by Catholic bishops as a requirement for eternal salvation, the whole body of common Catholic moral teaching concerning acts which constitute grave matter meets the requirements articulated by Vatican II for teaching proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium.

In exercising the extraordinary magisterium, the Church also infallibly teaches in matters of morality. The purpose of this chapter does not require detailed consideration of this mode of teaching. However, some remarks about it are appropriate at this point.

Vatican I defines the dogma that when the pope speaks ex cathedra and defines doctrine, he has the infallibility of the Church, and so such definitions are irreformable—that is, they may not be rejected as expressions of false propositions. “Ex cathedra” means he is acting as pastor of the universal Church and defining a teaching on faith or morals to be held by the whole Church (see DS 3074/1839). As the spokesman of the Church, the pope under the stated conditions utters the teaching of the Church, not merely a teaching within the Church. The pope is the principle of unity for the bishops, much as the bishops are for the Church as a whole.

Vatican II restates the teaching of Vatican I concerning the infallibility of the Pope when he acts as the voice of the faith of the Church. It adds that the body of bishops also has the same infallibility when it exercises supreme teaching authority in union with the pope (see LG 25). In each case, what is in question is a mode in which the infallibility of the faith of the Church is manifested, for it is manifested in all the ways in which the faith of the Church as a whole is manifested.

Both Vatican I and Vatican II make it clear that in defining doctrine, there is no question of adding to divine revelation. To define is to identify infallibly a teaching as belonging to divine truth, and so the process of defining is subordinate to revealed truth (see LG 25; DS 3070/1836). The infallibility of the Church extends just as far as divine revelation extends—that is, it extends to all those things and only those things “which either directly belong to the revealed deposit itself, or are required to guard as inviolable and expound with fidelity this same deposit” (LG 25; translation supplied).

The clarification in the phrase, “or which are required to guard as inviolable and expound with fidelity this same deposit,” was provided by the commission responsible for Vatican II’s text; it excludes a restrictive theory of the object of infallibility, which would limit it to truths explicitly contained in already articulated revelation, and so prevent the Church from developing its doctrine and rejecting new errors incompatible with revealed truth.34

It is sometimes said that the Church has never defined any moral teaching, and this lack of defined doctrine in the moral domain is claimed to imply that the Church cannot define moral teachings. In fact, in its canons on matrimony, the Council of Trent excludes polygamy (which had been permitted in practice and defended in theory by Luther): “If anyone says that Christians are permitted to have several wives simultaneously, and that such a practice is not forbidden by any divine law (cf. Mt 19.4–9): let him be anathema” (DS 1802/972). Of greater interest, the same Council defends the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage with two canons:

  If anyone says that the marriage bond can be dissolved by reason of heresy, domestic incompatibility, or willful desertion by one of the parties: let him be anathema. (DS 1805/975)
  If anyone says that the Church is in error when it has taught and does teach according to the doctrine of the Gospels and apostles (cf. Mk 10; 1 Cor 7) that the marriage bond cannot be dissolved because of adultery on the part of either the husband or the wife; and that neither party, not even the innocent one who gave no cause for the adultery, can contract another marriage while the other party is still living; and that adultery is committed both by the husband who dismisses his adulterous wife and marries again and by the wife who dismisses her adulterous husband and marries again: let him be anathema. (DS 1807/977)

One might argue that Trent does not define the indissolubility of marriage absolutely—for example, it does not say that marriage cannot be dissolved if both parties agree that different arrangements might promote the greater good of their growth toward personal fulfillment. This observation is technically correct.35 No one in the sixteenth century had suggested anything so absurd, and Trent had enough real errors without inventing possible ones to condemn.

In any case, some moral teachings have been defined and others can be. What the Church defines already has been infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium; a definition only clarifies the situation and insists upon the boundaries of faith for members of the Church who are in serious error.

One might wonder why there have been few solemn definitions in the moral field. There are at least two reasons.

First, in the past moral norms have normally not been denied so much as they have been violated in practice. Exhortation to live up to accepted teachings has been more appropriate than definition of their truth. As a rule, the primary deviation of those who radically questioned Christian moral norms concerned matters of doctrine, and rejection of moral teaching was only incidental to this.

Second, canon law from the Middle Ages until 1917 codified moral formation in a manner analogous to the way in which the creeds and dogmatic definitions summarize and defend the truth of faith. The canonization of saints also is a mode of solemn and universal teaching; a canonization concretely presents moral truth which all Catholics are to hold. Similarly, the formal approval of the rules of religious communities by the Church constitutes solemn and universal moral teaching concerning the forms of life proposed in such rules.36 Thus, the Church’s moral teaching has not lacked an appropriate form of definition, but until now the dogmatic definition of moral norms as truths of faith seldom has been necessary.

31. A marshalling of the evidence that the conditions for an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium have been fulfilled in the case of the norm excluding contraception: Ford and Grisez, op. cit., 277–86. This argument was criticized by an article in the same issue: Joseph A. Komonchak, “Humanae Vitae and Its Reception: Ecclesiological Reflections,” Theological Studies, 39 (1978), 238–50. (Komonchak does not explicitly mention Ford-Grisez but had a year to study and reply to their article.) The heart of his reply is in the first full paragraph on 248; nothing else he says contradicts the Ford-Grisez thesis. Ford and Grisez had reserved the right to reply briefly in the same issue to Komonchak’s critique, and did so by adding one footnote to their article, 292, n. 73.

32. This point can be seen with respect to any choice to kill the unborn (direct abortion): John Connery, S.J., Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1977), esp. 311. Those who talk as if the tradition never reached precision about what falls under the commandments ignore evidence, for example: Catechismus ex decreto Ss. Concilii Tridentini ad Parochos, Pii V., Pont. Max., iussu editus (Rome: Propagandae Fidei, 1839), 2:125–31 (on the fifth commandment). The treatment of murder carefully sets out cases which are not murder: (1) killing animals, (2) capital punishment, (3) killing in a just war, (4) killing in obedience to a divine decree, (5) accidental killing, and (6) killing in self-defense. Having done this, the unexceptionability of the commandment is asserted as clearly as one could ask: “These, which we have just mentioned, are the cases not contemplated by this commandment; and with these exceptions, the prohibition embraces all others, with regard to the person who kills, the person killed, and the means used to kill. As to the person who kills, the commandment recognizes no exception whatever . . .. With regard to the person killed, the obligation of the law is no less extensive, embracing every human creature . . .. It also forbids suicide . . .. Finally, if we consider the numerous means by which murder may be committed, the law makes no exception . . ..” (This catechism has special status, since it was launched by the Council of Trent, published with the authority of many popes [first edition 1566] translated into many languages, used for centuries all over the Catholic world, and served as a model for many other modern catechetical works.)

33. For works consulted to bear out this point with respect to contraception: Ford and Grisez, op. cit., 279–80, n. 51. Probably almost all seminarians between 1850–1950 used one of these manuals. They were remarkably uniform, not only on contraception, but on anything involving grave matter, because probabilism had dissolved whatever differences existed before the Reformation about what constitutes grave matter.

34. See Ford and Grisez, op. cit., 264–69.

35. However, the canons are to be read in the context of the doctrinal introduction to the decree, which does assert indissolubility in general (DS 1797–1800/969–70). Pius XI, Casti connubii, 22 AAS (1930) 574; The Papal Encyclicals, 208.89, having cited the authority of Trent, concludes: “If therefore the Church has not erred and does not err in teaching this, and consequently it is certain that the bond of marriage cannot be loosed even on account of the sin of adultery, it is evident that all the other weaker excuses that can be, and are usually brought forward, are of no value whatsoever.” Piet Fransen has worked carefully to show the limits of Trent’s seventh canon on the sacrament of matrimony (the second of the two, I quote, concerning divorce on the ground of adultery). For a summary of his view with references to his fuller treatments: Piet Fransen, “Divorce on the Ground of Adultery—The Council of Trent (1563),” in The Future of Marriage as Institution, Concilium, 55, ed. Franz Böckle (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 89–100. While ingenious, his interpretations are not entirely consistent with the decree’s doctrinal introduction which, even if not of the same dogmatic value as the canons, has unqualified value as a framework for sound interpretation of the canons.

36. The manualists commonly considered disciplinary decrees, canonizations of saints, and definitive approbations of religious communities to fall under the “secondary object” of infallibility—that is, to be included in things connected with revelation. For example: I. Salaverri, S.J., De Ecclesia Christi, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa, vol. 1, Theologia Fundamentalis, ed. 5 (Madrid: B.A.C., 1952), 720–37; Christiano Pesch, S.J. Praelectiones Dogmaticae, tom. 1, Institutiones Propaedeuticae ad Sacram Theologiam, ed. 6–7 (Freiburg: Herder, 1924), 385–92. I prescind from the question whether all the propositions asserted in such acts are proposed infallibly; I believe that the propositions of faith and the moral norms proposed in such solemn, magisterial acts are proposed infallibly.