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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Father Dulles and Church Authority: A Response to Mike Scaperlanda

Mike Scaperlanda quotes what he regards as the wise remarks of Father Avery Dulles: "All Catholics are of course obliged to accept the definitive teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals.  Even in the sphere of nondefinitive teaching, theologians should normally trust and support the magisterium and dissent only rarely and reluctantly, for reasons that are truly serious.  Dissent, if it arises, should always be modest and restrained.  Dissent that is arrogant, strident, and bitter can have no right of existence in the Church.  Those who dissent must be careful to explain that they are proposing only their personal views, not the doctrine of the Church.  They must refrain from bringing pressure on the magisterium by recourse of popular media." Mike thinks that the remarks about theologians apply a fortiori to non-theologians.

The remarks of Father Dulles raise many questions. What are the definitive teachings of the Church? Is the view that women can not be priests, as then Cardinal Ratzinger suggested some years back, one of them? Does the Church include the faithful? Is their reception of a doctrine necessary for a teaching to be definitive? Are all non-definitive teachings worthy of the respect Father Dulles suggests? Or was Father McCormick correct in suggesting that substantially less deference be afforded to various pronouncements the Church has made regarding women and sexuality? Does the prohibition of arrogant, strident, and bitter debate preclude civil, but robust and wise-open debate? Does the attempt to discourage debate in the popular media suggest that Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter are illegitimate media? Is Mirror of Justice part of the popular media?

 What would have happened if Catholics had never objected to the teachings of the Church? Consider the statement of Father Robert Egan, S.J., in his excellent article, “Why Not Ordain Women,” (Commonweal, April 11): “If there were reason to believe the magisterium had never made a mistake, [one of the arguments against the ordination of women would be more understandable]. Yet the magisterium justified the institution of slavery, tolerated and endorsed a harsh misogyny and the oppression of women by men, defended the use of torture, blessed the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the burning at the stake of heretics, cultivated a disdainful and punitive attitude toward the Jewish people, insisted that sexual intercourse was morally tolerable only for the sake of procreation, condemned democracy, ridiculed the idea of religious liberty, denied the legitimacy of the idea of human rights, and condemned the separation of church and state. These last six teachings were only reversed at Vatican II, which some church leaders now claim was in perfect continuity with the church history preceding it.

 “All these teachings were probably considered ‘settled doctrine’ by the authorities who promulgated and wrote about them. That should teach us something about not trying to bind the future to the current stage of our own comprehension. . . . The church risks setting a bad example [in making theology a defense of magisterial teaching], modeling a behavior which, in any other social body, would clearly be considered falsifying and corrupting.”

 I cite Father Egan not for the purpose of igniting yet another debate about the history of the Catholic Church (though some may feel it necessary to dive in to the fire again). I simply state again that most American Catholics reject many teachings promulgated by the Vatican and the American Bishops. I doubt their attitudes toward the magisterium are in harmony with those of Father Dulles, and I think that some authors on this site do not agree with Father Dulles. Mirror of Justice could be a site in which professors (theologians or not) exchange their honest views about the magisterium. It can not be that if those of us who take a negative view of parts of the magisterium and the claims made for its authority are successfully discouraged from speaking. I doubt Mike thought his endorsement of the remarks of Father Dulles would really discourage discussion. It might suggest he thinks this would be a better site if it were exclusively designed to defend and interpret the magisterium with no questioning of it by non-theologians. But it is not. Not yet anyway.  If it were, a minority of us could move on. We could all potentially live long, happy, and [with God’s grace] at least partially holy lives. And we could agree to disagree whether the site were better or worse off.


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