Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

More on the Teaching Authority of the Church

I am pleased to pass along these comments from my colleague, Bob Kennedy, in the Catholic Studies program here at the University of St. Thomas:

"I have been reading some of the recent posts on the “Mirror of Justice” blog and I would like to offer a few quick comments on the discussion about the teaching authority of the Church. This discussion, I think, is likely to be widely renewed with the publication of Judge Noonan’s new book.

First of all, it is important that we keep in mind that there is not one question here but a whole set of questions. If we don’t articulate clearly what question we are discussing it is easy to become confused. I think this is happening with the MOJ posts.

The question of whether a faithful Catholic may dissent from some specific teaching of the Church (or the declarations of a bishop, for that matter) is quite distinct from the question of whether the Church may sometimes teach without the possibility of error. One might give an affirmative reply to both questions without contradiction.

I have not seen Judge Noonan’s new book but I believe I have read carefully everything he has written to date about the development of doctrine in moral theology. While he is rightly honored for a remarkable career, I think he is an unreliable guide on this issue.

The core of the issue has to do with the Church’s claim, defined at the First and Second Vatican Councils, that it enjoys a gift—the living guidance of the Holy Spirit—that guarantees that there have been, are, and will be occasions in which it does not and cannot err in what it teaches regarding faith and morality. To put it another way, the Church claims that sometimes it teaches with the authority of the Spirit so that what it teaches is true and can never afterwards be rightly repudiated or contradicted. Such doctrines are not subject to any form of development that would entail affirming a contradictory proposition.

The Second Vatican Council, in Lumen gentium 25, laid out a set of conditions that, when met, are a sure sign that a particular doctrine of the Church is genuinely taught under the guidance of the Spirit and therefore permanently irreformable. The doctrinal claims of the creeds of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, for example, would meet these criteria, as would, say, many of the doctrines of Trent on the sacraments. To be very precise, I think it is true to say that the satisfaction of these criteria does not (magically) create irreformability but is instead a sure sign of the presence of the Spirit. The Spirit may also be present on other occasions when the Church teaches but it is when these conditions are met that the Church is supremely confident of that presence.

A corollary of this conviction is that when the Church teaches without meeting these conditions, the doctrine taught is, in principle, subject to reform or even repudiation. The Church does not claim that its doctrines are of two types, one undeniable and the other suspect. Rather, there are some occasions on which the Church teaches with utter conviction that it does so with the unerring guidance of the Spirit, and other occasions on which its convictions about the truth of what it teaches range from almost certainly true to probable.

With this in mind, we can think about the development of doctrine in moral theology, and here is where Judge Noonan, in my view, does not guide us as well as he could.

Is it the case that the Church has sometimes in the past taught some proposition, “X,” on moral matters and later repudiated that proposition by teaching “not X”? The simple answer is yes, but since we have already conceded that a good deal of what the Church teaches is not taught in circumstances that met the criteria of irreformability, this answer is not very interesting. Or, to put it another way, it would be interesting if the Church made the claim that it always teaches irreformably on moral matters, but it makes no such claim. The examples that Noonan adduces of substantive changes in doctrine show nothing more than reformable doctrines are sometimes reformed.

His analysis would be interesting if he could present an example of a doctrine that was taught under conditions satisfying the criteria of LG 25 but which was later denied by the Church under conditions satisfying the same criteria. Perhaps he does so in his new book, but in over 30 years of writing about this subject he has not yet provided such an example. Quite honestly, I do not believe such an example exists.

So where are we? Well, faithful Catholics ought to accept the claim that the Church enjoys the gift of teaching irreformably, but they need not accept a claim (which in any event the Church does not make) that it always teaches irreformably. Since relatively few doctrines have met the criteria of LG 25 (though many might meet them at some point in the future), quite a few doctrinal claims are susceptible to closer examination. Between obedient acceptance and stern dissent there can be quite a broad opportunity for humble, open-minded review.

Bob Kennedy
University of St Thomas
Department of Catholic Studies"


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