Thursday, January 26, 2017

Quaeritur: What is the Status of a Catholic Who Dissents from the Magisterium?


Quaeritur: I was having an online discussion and we all agreed with the statement that "a Catholic cannot dissent from the traditional teaching of the Church's Magisterium."  But I had further questions about that statement.  Would you say that the word 'cannot' in the statement is to be taken in the strong, descriptive sense of "isn't able to", or merely in the prescriptive sense of "shouldn't"? In other words, is it the case that it is impossible for a Catholic to have a belief that is contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, or merely that a Catholic shouldn't have beliefs contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium? If someone holds a belief that is contrary to the Deposit of Faith or the teaching of the Magisterium, does it render that person no longer Catholic, or just a bad (disobedient) Catholic?

Respondeo: It depends on the level of the Magisterial teaching in question. Some teachings have been defined dogmatically, for example, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and many, many others; such that believing in these teachings is part of the definition of what it means to be Catholic. And if someone obstinately denies even the least of these, then they no longer meet the requirements for the definition of what it means to be Catholic. There is no such thing as a Catholic who denies the divinity of Christ---or for that matter a Catholic who denies that the sacramental accidents of the Eucharist continue to exist without a subject in which to inhere. This includes moral teachings that form part of the Deposit of Faith but are nonetheless commonly rejected by many so-called 'Catholics' today: the indissolubility of marriage, the immorality of sodomy, contraception, abortion, etc.  If you reject any of these dogmatically defined teachings, then you're not Catholic. It doesn't matter if you are baptized, a priest, or a bishop.  I admit the issue has its complexities: there are important nuances such as whether the denial is obstinate, and in the case of the pope there are further complications.  But the basic principle is that part of the definition of being 'Catholic' is accepting defined Catholic teaching.

So there are people who dissent from defined Church teaching but nonetheless think of themselves as ‘Catholics’ simply because they were baptized, or because they have been raised in the Catholic Church, or because they hold some position in the hierarchy. But in reality these people are not Catholic, because none of those criteria are sufficient conditions for being Catholic.  In order to be really Catholic one must also believe in the Catholic faith and preserve it whole and entire.  This is required by the Church's mark of unity: the Church is 'one' in doctrine, worship, and government.  If someone separates himself from the Church's unity of doctrine, worship, and government, then he no longer is in the Church.

On the other hand, if someone denies a teaching that is not dogmatically defined, or especially one that is not directly part of the Deposit of Faith, but is simply a theological conclusion or common teaching of the ordinary Magisterium, then this would be different. You wouldn't cease being Catholic by denying it.  

I'm speaking, for example, of the case of a Catholic who for some reason would deny that Our Lady is the Mediatrix of all Graces---a doctrine that hasn't yet been defined. The same is true of teachings that are logically or theologically derived from defined dogma, but which are themselves not defined. These are known as theological conclusions, and theologically are considered distinct from the dogmas from which they are derived.  For example, the Christological perichoresis (the close union between Christ's two natures) is a theological conclusion that is derived from the dogma the Hypostatic Union (the union of each of His two Natures to the Person of the Word).  The latter is a defined dogma, but the former is not.  Regardless of concrete examples, I'm speaking theologically of the lower notae theologicae, i.e., of statements that are not yet de fide, but are rather at the level of sententiae proximae fideisententiae certae, etc.1 

In any case, it is not permissible to deny these: such a denial is an act of disobedience towards the ordinary Magisterium, and thus a sin.  But you are not excommunicated, nor cease to belong to the Church for doing so. If you deny them, you may be a bad Catholic, but you're still Catholic.... until the Church elevates them to a dogmatic level, that is.

So we must be careful not simply to hand out excommunications to people who deny this or that teaching, especially if we do not know exactly what the nota theologica of that teaching is. Many doctrines of the Magisterium that we hold dear have not been defined; they are true and certain, but for one reason or another the Church has not exercised its charism of infallibility in teaching them. So just calling everybody who denies any teaching a heretic is a dangerous tactic.  There are many levels of theological censure (censurae theologicae), only the first one of which is 'heresy'; other theological censures include: error in fide, sententia haeresi proxima, haeresim sapiens, sententia temeraria, error theologicus, etc.  And we must be very savvy about these and sufficiently nuanced when assessing theological errors.  This is especially the case when assessinng the claims of the practitioners of the Nouvelle Theologie (from De Lubac, Von Balthasar, Rahner, etc. to Popes John Paul II, Benedict, etc.), who were thoroughly trained in the traditional theology that preceded them and are therefore usually very careful not to fall into 'heresy', strictly speaking, when proposing a novel theological idea.  Otherwise, if every theological error were a heresy, sedevacantism would be inescapable, and in fact few hierarchs in the world would be Catholic. But fundamental theology is much more complex than that.

(1) Cf. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (St. Louis: Herder, 1955), pp. 9, 161, 212, 453.

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