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Chapter 35: The Truth of Christ Lives in His Church

Question G: What are the limits of the obligation of religious assent?

1. The question is precisely this: Considering the sort of proposition with which we are concerned here—a proposition which could be false but which also could pertain to divine revelation—what sort of reason could undercut the normal grounds for religious assent? (The concern here is only with propositions in the moral domain. Further complexities might be involved if one were to take into account the full range of matters about which the Church teaches.)

Obviously, religious assent is conditional, in the sense that one who assents in this way is aware that a norm which could be false but is a safe guide does not have the same status as an article of faith or a moral norm constantly and universally taught. While the norm might be a divinely revealed truth, it also might require correction by a later and better judgment. The individual teaching of one’s own bishop, for instance, can be corrected and perfected by the teaching of the higher authority of the pope. And the teaching of a pope, when it develops the prior teaching of the Church, is open to correction by himself, by a later pope, or by an eventual consensus among the whole collegium including a pope.

Because this assent is conditional and open to correction, the standard theological manuals in use until Vatican II consider conditions under which one might rightly withhold or suspend the assent.39 However, in discussing this problem, the manualists did not always consider clearly and distinctly the case in which only the agreement of the collegium as a whole is lacking for the proposition to be recognizable as one proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium.40 Hence, they did not point out that a proposition not infallibly proposed, which for all we know could be mistaken, also might pertain to faith and have the solidity of divine truth.41

Even so, the manualists do not authorize public dissent.42 They talk of withholding assent by a person who has competence and serious grounds to consider a point of teaching false. The suggestion generally is that even such a person must maintain silence or communicate the difficulty to the teacher (pope or bishop) concerned.

2. No moral theory can settle any issue with complete certainty by experience and purely rational analysis (1‑C). It is impossible to demonstrate that a moral norm is false by confronting it with data, since the norm states what ought to be done, not what is the case.

3. Thus, experience and reason not themselves illumined by faith cannot undercut the confidence with which Catholics accept the moral norms proposed as certain by their own bishops or the pope. The fact that the bishop or the pope proposes a moral norm as certain is a sufficient ground for a Catholic to have human faith that the norm is a moral truth pertaining to God’s plan for human fulfillment.

4. In considering a proposition proposed by the magisterium—especially one currently proposed by the pope—as a truth of Christian morality to be accepted as certain and followed as a necessary part of the way of salvation, the fundamental fact which theologians, as much as other Catholics, must always keep in mind is that even if such a proposition is not proposed infallibly, it still might well pertain to divine revelation. Such a proposition deserves the conditional assent of faith: If this is a truth of faith, then I accept it as such. It is impossible to maintain this disposition while firmly rejecting the proposition.

5. Thus, there is a good reason to accept the norm, and there will be no good reason not to accept it except a reason founded on some clearer claim of faith. In other words, the only good reason for doubting a norm proposed in the manner under discussion here will be a stronger authority drawn from faith itself. Thus, a faithful Catholic is not in a position to think a moral norm currently proposed by the ordinary magisterium is false, unless there exists a superior source (such as Scripture, a defined doctrine, or a teaching proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium) which requires this conclusion.

6. History shows it is not unusual for one or a few bishops to become firmly convinced of an erroneous doctrine and to propose it to the faithful as certain. In such cases the faithful can look to the Holy See for a clarification, since there is a basis in Catholic faith for preferring the pope’s judgment in such a matter.43 In the case of papal teaching, the normal grounds for religious assent are unlikely to be undercut by a superior theological source (such as Scripture, defined doctrine, or a teaching infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium), since popes ordinarily try hard to avoid proposing as certain any moral norm which might be shown false from such a source.

In view of the complexity of many new moral problems, it is only after careful investigation that bishops in general and the Holy See in particular can responsibly pronounce on them a judgment to be held as certain. Such investigation ought to include consultation with persons who are expert. Moreover, the difficulties and opinions of the faithful at large should be investigated and taken into account.44

Nevertheless, the collegial magisterium has the responsibility for judging what faith requires of Catholics in their lives, and the pope has a supreme responsibility within the collegium. His judgment ought to be accepted by all and followed in practice. This submission most obviously is necessary if study of a disputed question tends to suggest that a moral norm has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium. Paul VI perhaps came to such a conclusion after he examined the results of the work of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birthrate.45

39. Some references and brief summaries: Joseph A. Komonchak, “Ordinary Papal Magisterium and Religious Assent,” in Contraception: Authority and Dissent, ed. Charles E. Curran (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 105–16. Unfortunately, this treatment is biased in favor of dissent. For example, Komonchak never mentions that one manual he cites—Francisco A. Sullivan, S.J., De Ecclesia, vol. 1, Quaestiones Theologiae Fundamentalis (Rome: Apud Aedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1963)—warns explicitly (344) that papal doctrine often is infallibly proposed because of the consensus of the universal magisterium, even if it has not been defined by any pope or council. Nor does he make it clear that an author as recent and respectable as Sullivan considers (348–52) it a tenable, though less likely, view that a pope in his ordinary teaching on matters of faith and morals always is teaching infallibly if he proposes a teaching to be held as certain. Like Sullivan, I do not consider this view true. In an article, “The Moral Implications of a Nuclear Deterrent,” Center Journal, 2 (Winter 1982), 15, I commented on a statement of John Paul II as follows: “In a message (published in L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 21 June 1982) to a special session of the United Nations for disarmament, John Paul II stated (p. 4): ‘In current conditions, “deterrence” based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament may still be judged morally acceptable.’ Here the Pope spoke generally; I am concerned with the actual United States deterrent. Moreover, he did not say that deterrence is morally acceptable, but that it can be judged to be so—a possibility which remains open for persons of good will until its immorality becomes clear to them. Further, even if Pope John Paul had unqualifiedly affirmed the morality of the deterrent, it is not clear that he intended to speak as supreme teacher in the Church and to propose teaching to be accepted by the faithful as certain. Hence, there would be no difficulty in supposing him to have erred in this statement.” Richard A. McCormick, S.J., “Current Theology: Notes on Moral Theology: 1982,” Theological Studies, 44 (1983), 98, comments: “Here Grisez implies that a pope cannot err when he speaks as ‘supreme teacher’ about something ‘to be accepted as certain.’ This is a theologically false expansion of the charism of infallibility.” McCormick commits an elementary logical fallacy. “When the pope is not speaking as supreme teacher and not proposing a teaching to be accepted by the faithful as certain, he can be mistaken” does not imply “When the pope is speaking as supreme teacher and proposing a teaching to be accepted by the faithful as certain, he cannot be mistaken.” By McCormick’s logic, “If someone is not a man, he cannot be a Jesuit” implies “If someone is a man, he must be a Jesuit.” My point simply was that since John Paul’s statement on nuclear deterrence does not even meet the conditions which call for religious assent (see questions F and G), there is no difficulty in supposing him to have erred—i.e., in withholding assent.

40. See Salaverri, op. cit., 711, who makes it clear that he is talking about a variety of sorts of propositions, and that some other authors are less clear about this than he himself is.

41. Even the most competent theologians who analyzed the obligation of religious assent seemed to be impeded by a somewhat legalistic emphasis on the acts of the teaching authority, which overlooked the possibility that noninfallible teaching can articulate revealed truth. See, for example, John J. Reed, S.J., “Natural Law, Theology, and the Church,” Theological Studies, 26 (1965), 56–60; John C. Ford, S.J., and Gerald Kelly, S.J., “Doctrinal Value and Interpretation of Papal Teaching,” in Curran and McCormick, eds., Readings in Moral Theology: No. 3, 4–7. (Curran and McCormick anthologized this 1958 treatment by Ford and Kelly of the relationship between the magisterium and morality, but omitted the 1978 treatment by Ford and Grisez, which Ford considered necessary to clarify and correct his own earlier view.) This defect in the classical treatment of the obligation of religious assent renders it susceptible to criticism. See, for example, Daniel C. Maguire, “Morality and Magisterium,” in the same anthology, 49–58. As soon as one takes into account the possibility that noninfallible teaching might contain divinely revealed truth, such criticism loses its force.

42. Even Komonchak, “Ordinary Papal . . .,” 110, admits: “The manuals are generally rather negative on the possibility of public dissent or disagreement.” This is an understatement; he goes on to discuss only one—J. M. Herve, Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae, vol. 1, De Revelatione Christiana; De Ecclesia Christi; De Fontibus Revelationis, ed. 16 (Paris: Berche et Pagis, 1935), 523—“who can be regarded as leaving any door open.” But a reading of the page cited shows there is no such open door in Herve, as Komonchak himself virtually admits. What he does not mention is that Herve’s discussion is mainly, although not wholly, concerned with decrees of the Roman congregations, not with papal teachings proper. A few pages later (112–13) Komonchak makes much of another author’s—L. Lercher (F. Schlagenhaufen), Institutiones Theologiae Dogmaticae, vol. 1 (Innsbruck: Rauch, 1951), 297—statement that the Holy Spirit might prevent the Church from falling into error by helping the subjects of a decree detect the error and desist from giving it internal assent. Komonchak moves quickly (113) from this to: “Lercher does not exclude the faithful from the possibility of such dissent for the sake of preserving the Church from error.” But Lercher (298) states: “If suspicion of error arises, which too quickly happens among those who trust in their own learning and are not favorable to the Holy See, there remains the obligation to be silent (20) and to accept a definitive and infallible judgment.” The note (20) is: “As is evident the reasons for doubting may be made known to the Holy See.” It is hard to see how Komonchak thinks he finds here any room for dissent, since the procedure Lercher indicates no more constitutes dissent than passive resistance constitutes armed rebellion.

43. See Bouyer, op. cit., 369–90.

44. A very important statement of policy concerning two-way communication within the Church: Pontifical Commission for the Instruments of Social Communication, “Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Northport, N.Y.: Costello, 1975), 330–32. Part of the present difficulty is that while most of the faithful have no way to communicate effectively with the pastors of the Church, a small group of persons who are by no means representative have considerable access.

45. Hans Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), 31–63, makes a plausible case for this statement. Although many of his critics rejected his view that the teaching of Humanae vitae is proposed infallibly if anything is, no one provides any good reason for denying that Paul VI more or less clearly thought the teaching had been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium.