Monday, October 1, 2018

Is It Possible for the Church to Err in Matters of Faith or Morals?

Is it possible for the Church to err in matters of faith or morals?

Fortunately, the answer here is quite simple:


In a previous post, I established that it is never legitimate to dissent from the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church - that is, from the teaching of the bishops of the Church collectively (united with the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome) or from the teaching of the bishop of Rome by himself.  The thesis of this post follows naturally from that previous thesis (and, indeed, was already included in it), for the reason it is never legitimate to dissent from the teaching of the Church is because the Church has been endowed with the authority of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and therefore what the Church teaches is what Christ teaches, and Christ always teaches truth.  The only legitimate reason to assent intellectually to a proposition is because there is reason to think that proposition is true.  It would be a contradiction and a violation of reason for the Church to demand assent to teaching which she does not at the same time guarantee as truth.  This would be to divorce the idea of intellectual assent from the idea of truth, which would be contrary to reason.

I present a more extensive amount of evidence in my previous post, but The Second Vatican Council Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium describes the basic idea concisely:

Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place.(39*) For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old,(164) making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.(165) Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.  (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, #25)

Sometimes there is a misconception that the Church can err that comes from the fact that the Church has different levels of teaching.  Sometimes the Church teaches definitively - that is, her teaching is presented with an absolute finality, so that it is to be taken as irreformable.  It is not a provisional position that might be altered or even corrected in the future when circumstances change or more information comes to light.  Other times, the Church teaches in a less definitive manner, not intending necessarily to be giving the final word on a particular subject.  In some such cases, it can be said in some sense that the Church can err, because the Church's teaching can be reformed when circumstances change.  But it is crucial to recognize that in such cases, the Church is not truly erring strictly speaking, for she does not intend to teach definitively (just as I have not erred if I declare that there is a 90% probability that a certain event will take place, even if that event ends up not taking place).  To the extent that she guarantees her teaching to be true, it is to be taken as indeed true.  To the extent that she allows her teaching to be reformable, it is to be taken as reformable.  That is what Lumen Gentium is getting at when it says that, even when the pope is speaking non-ex-cathedra (that is, non-definitively), "the judgments made by him [must be] sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will."  If the Church teaches us that some particular claim is definitely true and will always remain true, then we are to accept that this is the way things are.  If she teaches in some particular case that a particular claim is the right way to think about something at this time without necessarily guaranteeing that future circumstances will not alter this judgment, then we are to take this as the way things really are.  If she teaches us that a certain claim is to be accepted as most probable at this time, then we can be sure that it is indeed most probable at this time.  In short, we are to assume, based on our trust in God's guidance of his Church and the authority of Christ speaking through her, that whatever she intends to teach us is always in accordance with truth and will never lead us into error.  This is why all her teaching requires "religious assent".  So while the Church does not always teach definitively or non-reformably, in the strictest and deepest sense we must say that she cannot err.

There are some Catholics who are under the impression that the Church is only infallible (in this strictest and deepest sense) when she teaches definitively, or even only when she speaks in an ecumenical council or when the pope speaks ex cathedra (that is, when he defines an official doctrine of the Church definitively in a solemn pronouncement), and so we are free to disagree with what she intends to teach us in other cases.  But this position, in addition to being contrary to the Church's teaching about her own authority, leads logically to a position that undermines trust in the Church in general and so is fatal to the very foundation of Catholic epistemology, which is dependent on the reliability of the God-guided Magisterium to lead the people of God into truth regarding the interpretation and application of God's revelation in Scripture and Tradition.  A fictional dialogue might be one of the best ways to bring this out:

Frank:  What do you think of Pope Francis's new teaching on the death penalty?

Thomas:  I totally disagree with it.

Frank:  But how can you disagree with it?  It is teaching from the ordinary magisterium of the pope, and he has placed it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, making it quite clear that it is official Catholic teaching.  We are required to submit to such teaching with religious assent.

Thomas:  No, we don't have to submit to it.  The pope is only infallible when he makes a definitive judgment.  But this new teaching is not definitive.  It could therefore be wrong.  Therefore, we do not have to submit to it if we think it is wrong.  Well, I've looked at the evidence, and it seems to me the teaching is wrong.

Frank:  I won't claim the new teaching is necessarily definitive in every respect.  It may not be the Church's final word on this subject.  But it is still a positive teaching of the Church, and we are to assent to it.  Are you saying the Magisterium of the Church can err in its official teaching?

Thomas:  Yes, the Church can err in her teaching, when that teaching is not definitive.

Frank:  Again, I grant that the Church does not always teach definitively.  But you seem to be going further than this.  You seem to be saying that the Church can intend to teach something as true to the people of God and yet be wrong about it.  It is clear, for example, that the pope intends to teach as true the idea that the death penalty is currently inadmissible, given the state of the world as it currently is and the state of the evidence as it currently exists.  Are you saying the pope, and the Magisterium in general, can intend to teach something as true, but be wrong?

Thomas:  Yes, exactly, so long as they are not teaching definitively.

Frank:  How do you know that the Church can err when she is teaching non-definitively but cannot err when she is teaching definitively?

Thomas:  Because that's what the Church herself has said!  See the documents of Vatican I and II.  See the Catechism.  See the statements on this subject from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  And so on.

Frank:  Well, I do not agree with you that the Church has said this.  But putting that aside for now, I am more interested in examining your position further.  You say that you know the Church can sometimes intend to teach truth but be wrong, because the Church has told you this?

Thomas:  Yes.

Frank:  Well, if the Church can intend to teach truth and be wrong, how do you know she wasn't wrong when she told you that she can be wrong when she teaches non-definitively?  How do you know she isn't wrong when she tells you she is infallible when teaching definitively?

Thomas:  She can't be wrong about that, because that is definitive teaching!

Frank:  But how do you know the Church cannot err in her definitive teaching?

Thomas:  Because the Church tells me so!

Frank:  But your position is that the Church can intend to tell you something and be wrong about that.  If the pope thinks he is leading us aright when he tells us that the death penalty is currently indamissible, even though, in fact, this is wrong and leading us astray, how do you know the pope wasn't intending but failing to lead us aright when he told us that the Immaculate Conception is a divine dogma, or when he told us that his definitive teaching is infallible?

Thomas:  As I've told you already, the Church and the pope cannot be wrong when they are teaching definitively; they can only be wrong when they are teaching non-definitively.

Frank:  I know you've told me that, but I don't see what basis you have to think it is true.  Perhaps the Church has taught this distinction, but if the Church can be wrong, how do you know she isn't wrong in her teaching regarding this distinction?  How do you know the Church wasn't wrong when she defined that definitive teaching is infallible?  Maybe the Church thinks that is true, but maybe she is wrong.  If she can be wrong about other things, why not that?  You've admitted that the Church might think and teach one thing while actually a contrary thing is true.  So how do you know that isn't happening when the Church teaches that non-definitive teaching is fallible and definitive teaching is infallible?

Thomas:  Well, we have to trust the Church in that matter, because otherwise Catholic epistemology collapses.  We will have to be Protestants or something like that, because we will no longer be able to trust the teachings of the Church!

Frank:  Yes, I agree that in order for Catholic as opposed to Protestant epistemology to be true, we must be able to trust the Church.  The teaching of the Church must be reliable.  That is precisely why I find your position problematic.  You seem to want to have your cake and eat it too, as they say.  You want to say the Church is trustworthy to lead us into truth (thus avoiding Protestantism), but then you want to turn around and say the Church is not always but only sometimes trustworthy.  But once you've said that, how are you going to determine when the Church is trustworthy and when she isn't? If your only basis to determine this is reliance on Church teaching to tell you where to draw that line, well, you've undermined that basis by claiming that the Church is sometimes untrustworthy.  Consider what would happen if we said the same thing about the Bible.  "The Bible is trustworthy sometimes, but not other times."  OK, so how do we know when it's trustworthy and when it's not?  "The Bible will tell us."  But the Bible isn't always trustworthy!  So how do we know it's trustworthy when it tells us when it's trustworthy and when it's not?  Our only rational basis for relying on the teaching of the Bible must be that we have reason to believe the Bible is generally trustworthy (not just sometimes trustworthy).  Similarly, the only way we can rely confidently on the teaching of the Church is if the Church is generally (not just sometimes) reliable.  She may not always intend to teach something definitively, but we can be sure that if she intends to teach us something as true, it is true.  She can never lead us to think something is true that isn't.

Thomas:  But you admit that the Church sometimes teaches non-definitively.  Doesn't that mean she can err sometimes?  How is your position different from mine?

Frank:  My position (which I believe to be the Church's position as well) is that the Church is always trustworthy in all she teaches.  She can never lead us into falsehood by her teaching.  Therefore, when she says she is teaching something definitively, we can be sure that that teaching is definitively true.  When she says she is teaching something as true but non-definitive, we can be sure that that teaching is non-definitively true.  If she tells us that there is an 80% probability that Position X is the case, we can be sure that there is an 80% probability that Position X is the case.  The Church cannot intend to teach something to us, and that thing she intends to teach be wrong.  In the case of the death penalty, Pope Francis has taught the Church that, given the state of things in the world today, the death penalty is something we should work to avoid.  How am I to respond to this?  I am to believe that, given the state of things in the world today, the death penalty is something we should work to avoid.  If I were to say to Pope Francis, "I know you think that is true, and you want me to believe it, but I think you're wrong, and I refuse to accept what you are telling me to believe!", then how could I be sure that this was not also the appropriate response to Pope Pius IX when he taught the Church in Ineffablis Deus that the Immaculate Conception is a doctrine revealed by God?  "I know you think this doctrine was certainly revealed by God, Pope Pius IX, and I know you intend to teach us this as definitively true and you want us to believe it, but I think you're wrong!"  The only basis we can have to trust the Church to draw the line correctly between non-definitive and definitive teaching, in fact the only basis upon which we can be sure of anything she teaches us (apart from our independently confirming various propositions by other means, which is what Protestants think we have to do with everything the Church teaches before we can believe it), is the conviction that the Church is inherently reliable, that whenever she teaches something she can be relied upon to be getting it right.  Therefore, it follows from Catholic epistemology that we can never fail to give the assent of mind and will to any teaching of the Church, and we can never dissent from what she commands us to believe.

Published on the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Emails I Wrote to Myself as I Was Making My Transition from Protestantism to Catholicism

I recently came across a few emails I had written and sent to myself on Thursday, March 19, 2015.  I remember writing them, sitting in the computer lab in the library at Utah Valley University and grading philosophy papers.  When an idea occurred to me, I would stop grading and email the idea to myself.  As I describe here, I began my transition to the Catholic Church on Saturday, March 14.  During the week from that Saturday to the end of the following weekend, I did a great deal of thinking with regard to the workability and truth of Sola Scriptura.  It was during this week I first realized that I had been defaulting to Sola Scriptura without a good basis for doing so, and that the default really lies on the side of the Catholic Tradition and interpreting Scripture in the context of that, following the Spirit-guided teaching of the Catholic Church.  I had been taking Scripture and Church Tradition as independent pieces which had to be justified independently.  Thus, I felt that if I knew Scripture was a locus of revelation, I could stick with it alone unless some independent proof could be presented for Tradition.  What I had not been taking into account is the historical reality that Scripture originally came in the context of Catholic Tradition, and that the Protestants had to rip Scripture out of that context in order to establish Sola Scriptura.  Once that piece was properly in place, it became apparent that the default is not with Sola Scriptura but with Scripture as interpreted within the context of Catholic Tradition.  I could no longer assume the sufficiency of Scripture out of the context of an authoritative interpretive tradition.

I came to call this line of reasoning my "default" argument.  I describe it in the article linked to above (my narrative outlining my doctrinal history leading to my Catholic transition).  I've also discussed it here, as well as other places.  At the end of that first week of thinking, beginning on Saturday, March 14, I was ready to write up a kind of semi-formal version of my default argument, and I did so (you can read it here).  But what I came across in the series of emails I wrote on Thursday, March 19, was the writing where I put down my thought processes chronicling the very beginning of my awareness of the default argument.  I had been writing to myself quite a bit that week previously (this is one of the major ways in which I tend to help myself to work out ideas), but in these emails is where the scale was finally tipped to the Catholic side.  By the end of them, I was no longer simply baffled by the practical difficulties of Sola Scriptura and where they had led myself and my family; I had now spotted the fundamental problem with my previous reason for going with Sola Scriptura.

Anyway, I found it very interesting to read these emails and observe my own train of thought on that day, so I thought I'd post them here as well.  I sent several emails to myself that Thursday, and I've separated them below as labeled by the time I sent them.  I've left them unedited from how I wrote them at the time.


12:20 PM:

1. We can say there is a line somewhere at which general feasibility comes to an end.  People in general can be expected to see certain things, to grasp certain arguments.  But there is a point beyond which it will be too hard to see clearly enough to come to reliable and clear conclusions.  This will especially be the case when we are dealing not with relatively straightforward logical arguments, but with intricate and very nuanced details of biblical exegesis and history, particularly where plausible readings are very close and much hinges on a sentence, a meaning of a word (especially if the word is in Greek or Hebrew), subtle hints of language, and inferences trying to bring things out that are only very obscure in the text itself.  Some things the Bible says pretty clearly and obviously, and people can be expected to grasp those things.

2. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church.  The new tenants will succeed at producing good fruit where the old tenants failed (the implication being that the new tenants will never have to have their tenancy taken away from them).  The Holy Spirit is given in a new way, and will guide us into all truth.  We had revelation through all history in the past, so now will we have no living revelation (or does Christ speak through his Spirit in the church)?  (On the other hand, miracles seemed to go along with revelation, and haven't they ceased?  Isn't there a difference between apostolic times and now?  Hasn't revelation ceased?  So shouldn't we expect this difference?)

3. Could it be that I am dealing with intricacies in exegesis, etc., that are so difficult, that certain conclusions may appear slightly more objectively plausible to me, and even often consistently, without that being because they really are objective better but because of my personality and mental states?  In this case, it would explain the odd situation that I am able to come to conclusions (though, admittedly, only with great difficulty and with lack of self-confidence) much of the time, with much consistency, and yet the conclusions I come to in some areas are ones no one else has reached, or rather the combination of conclusions is one shared by almost no one else, leading to a situation where my family is isolated from most or possible even all currently existing denominations for one thing or another?  Wouldn't we expect, if sola scriptura is true, that there would be at least a significant minority of people in the world, and among professing Christians, who would be able to do what I have done and come to the same conclusions, more than (literally!) a handful?  This seems really odd on the assumption that people in general can do this.  But if my conclusions are partly a product of my own personality, as seems plausible given the intricacy of literary and historical interpretation and subtle inferences based on a complex literary text, then it would explain why I can come to conclusions often but my overall set of conclusions is shared by so few--other people might be trying to do the same thing, but they are coming to somewhat different conclusions on a few things because they have different personalities, reading styles, cultural backgrounds, etc., and so see the text slightly differently.

4. Could my lack of self-confidence and my dismal feelings be coming not from simply discontent, but from a nagging sense that I don't really have a firm foundation for my positions?  When I can see clearly that something is true, I tend to be confident and content in disagreement.  It could be that I am simply feeling a lack of confidence because am out of tune with majority opinion, but it could also be that some of it is coming from a lack of intellectual confidence in my biblical conclusions (because I recognize how tentative they are, being so close to other plausible conclusions, being so difficult to determine).

5. There does seem to be some difference between a logical analysis and an empirical literary and historical analysis.  The one is more straightforward than the other, and an ability to do one well does not necessarily imply an ability to do the other well.  This is especially the case when the empirical analyses involve very complex and nuanced literary and/or historical data and inferences from obscure data.

6. What can people in general be expected to accomplish in thinking through arguments and data?  This is a very difficult question to answer, for there are so many factors to consider, including questions about how much people might be trying (either through laziness or lack of noticing what to try, etc.).  It might be that many people are not good at sorting through theological and philosophical and literary and historical arguments and some are better than others.  Some might be good at some forms and not others.  With logical analysis, there is the possibility of instinct--an intuitional grasp of truth that cannot be articulated and which does not involve an ability to do very well at difficult and confusing arguments from opposing positions (and yet is justified, because the limitations are recognized and the intuitions can be seen to really be tracking something even if one can't articulate exactly how).  With empirical sorts of analyses, it would seem these intuitions wouldn't exist to the same degree.  Well, they might exist somewhat--someone, for example, might be good at intuiting meaning in literary texts.  But, on the whole, since the data is far more empirical and less logical and so dependent on factors not as generally available to minds, Instinct will no doubt be less able  here.  For example, we can assume that arguments for the existence of God can be grasped intuitively, for they deal with perceptions that all people have (even if they don't consciously dwell on it or articulate it).  But an argument that infant baptism is implied by biblical data, or that the Revolution Settlement was justified, or that exclusive psalmody is the best inference (at least slightly) from the biblical data, is probably not going to be subject to the same instincts or perhaps general instincts at all.

12:39 PM:

1. God has not given a revelation to all men, meaning every individual.  The gospel has not gone to all.  Some people are mentally retarded, or only newborn babies, etc.  But God has given a revelation to men in general--meaning that God's revelation has gone out into the world, is not restricted from certain classes of ordinary, adult people (like certain races, or certain personality types, etc.), and so it is possible that ordinary people in general can find the revelation and understand and follow it.  It is available to be found and followed.  Some people might not know that because they haven't encountered it yet, or they might not recognize it for some reason, or they might be confused, etc., but the revelation is out there, and it is possible in the ordinary circumstances of this world for ordinary people in general to find out about it and understand and follow it.  Besides something like mental retardation that makes a person incapable of being aware of the world around them, people of ordinary intelligence can do this.  That is, one need not be a genius, or really good at something or other (like apologetics, or literary analysis, etc.).  Since the church is commanded not only to follow God's revelation but be unified over it, people in general should be able to do this well enough to come to correct conclusions enough for the church in general to be unified.

4:04 PM:

OK, so we have two options. Assuming equality in data, we have two equal options: 1. Sola scriptura. 2. Infallible teaching authority. Which one is the default? The argument for the latter is that we are given teachers with gifts to teach and guide in to truth, and we are commanded to stay in unity, so we should default to our ordinary teachers and so stay in unity with them. Therefore, if we don't know whether 1 or 2 is true, we should default to 2. The response from 1 would be that we cannot defer to our teachers and to unity with them so far as to trust them implicitly without cause. If we don't know if they are infallible or not, it could go either way, then we must ask for evidence of their infallibility before trusting them implicitly. 2 might respond that putting an implicit trust in sola scriptura is also a risk. It is true that both 1 and 2 accept Scripture as a valid reliable authority, so we know that, but this is not the same as position 1. Assuming position 1 entails trusting that relying on Scripture alone without deferring to an infallible teaching authority beyond it will bring us to doctrinal truth, but if 1 is false it will likely lead us to error, confusion, and disunity. Trusting in 2 assumes that deferring to teachers' views will lead to truth, but if this is wrong it is also likely to lead to error, confusion, and disunity. Both, then, are risks. Which is a worse risk? Well, trusting in 2 is not absolute, in that we still have Scripture and it does speak clearly on some things, and we still have reason and logic, so there are correctives there to a significant degree. Position 1 is not absolute either, for, again, we have reason and logic, and Scripture is, again, clear to all on some things, perhaps many things. So where are we now? Which one do we default to? Position 1's argument that we obviously default to 1 because we already know that Scripture is reliable seems erroneous, because, again, it confuses knowing that Scripture is reliable with sola scriptura, but these are very different. Scripture may be reliable, but if we are also to have an infallible church, again, trying to rely on it in a way in which it was not intended will likely lead to error, perhaps very significant error. So position 1 is not as obvious as it might seem on the surface. I was thinking before that "we know Scripture, but we don't know anything else, so we simply go with Scripture, and require additional evidence for anything else." My argument went like this: "We know Scripture. Scripture works by itself (that is, it is possible to rely on it alone because we can say the best reading is the right reading and so come to definite conclusions). We don't know anything else independently. Therefore, obviously, we go with sola scriptura." The flaw, though, is that we actually don't know if Scripture by itself works. We know how it could work if we assume there is no infallible church, but we don't actually know if it in fact does work in this way. The idea of "the best reading is the right reading" adds an element to reading the literature of Scripture which is not inherently present within it. The fact that we have to articulate such an idea suggests that Scripture is not clear enough by itself to tell us many things we need to know. For example, Scripture does not tell us clearly in itself whether or not women should wear head coverings in public worship. Simply literarily speaking, it is not clear what Paul intended to communicate there. There is nothing in the text that requires us to take the "cloth covering" approach. It seems like we can say that is the most likely reading, but not by a great deal, and not at all for sure. So we really don't know what Paul was trying to teach there. But we have to either have women wear a cloth covering or not, so we have to know. So we add the assumption that "the best reading is the right reading," which then allows us to get from "this seems to be the better reading overall, even if not by much" to "this is definitely the right reading; we know what Paul intended." Perhaps this works fine, but it must be noted that it only works by adding this assumption to the text itself. This assumption is not taught by the text; it is a logical requirement for sola scriptura to work. But, on the opening supposition, we don't actually know if sola scriptura works. That's why we are asking this question about which side we default on. So we don't actually know that "the best reading is the right reading" is correct. All we know is that sola scriptura can work if we add that assumption (assuming there are no other issues with it). So, since we don't know if Scripture is sufficient by itself, we are taking a risk either way with position 1 or 2. Position 1 is a significant risk, for we can end up coming to all kinds of false and dangerous conclusions if we try to use it and it is not true. We can end up doing immoral things, worshipping God wrongly, missing important elements of the faith, imposing on the consciences of others, etc., etc. Position 2 also entails significant risks. Believing a teacher is infallible when he is not can result in doing immoral things, worshipping God wrongly, messing up parts of the faith or missing parts of it, imposing on consciences, etc., etc. Is there a greater risk one way than another? It is hard to say there is. Are we assuming more without evidence in one case than another? It would seem not, because in both cases it is not just Scripture we are assuming but some added infallible interpretive aid. One difference is that position 2 asks us to defer to an institution that is actually in place that we know about and which we already know we should defer to, whereas position 1 asks us to defer to a theory which we have no grounds at all to defer to or think true outside of it being a logical necessity granting the (unproven) assumption of sola scriptura.

It would be helpful here, probably to bring in Scriptural arguments, such as Jesus's conversation with the Pharisees, the role of revelation in the ongoing life of God's people in the New Testament, the promise of the Holy Spirit and its guidance, the promise about the gates of hell not prevailing and the parable of the tenants. Do we have reason from within Scripture to prefer sola scriptura vs. an infallible teaching authority? There is nothing clearly stated (without "the best reading is the right reading" assumed). There are hints that might go in both directions. And we can add to this discussion also the question of whether sola scriptura really works, and here we have the incredible splits of Protestantism, the incredible difficulty of figuring out all the doctrines, the feeling of hopelessness from trying to do this, the strange fact that my conclusions seem to lead me to have trouble being fully unified with anyone outside my own family, etc. On the other hand, perhaps we have the difficulty of distinguishing between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches.

5:47 PM:

So where are we now? What is our default--option 1 or option 2? As we've seen, neither of them are without assumption, both have risks. We cannot simply default to 1 because it has Scripture alone, for knowing that Scripture is reliable is not the same as knowing it is reliable by itself without the context of an infallible teaching authority. Right now we're assuming there is no biblical or other data pushing us one way or another. Where would we default? It seems to me that in this case, we since we have been given teachers and we are commanded to obey them and be guided by them and to keep unity with them (at least when possible), our practical default to going with them would imply that we ought to go with them here. If we were to defy them and split from the unity of the catholic body in this case, we would have no good reason to do so, and so surely it would be wrong. So we should, it seems, defer to them. This changes the dynamic a bit. It means that if there is no good, clear reason to embrace sola scriptura, we should assume a reliable catholic church and so defer to catholic tradition and interpret Scripture in light of the assumptions of catholic tradition.

Published on the feast of  St. Louis IX of France and St. Joseph Calasanctius

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Death Penalty in Catholic Teaching

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Romans 13:1-4 (KJV)

In order to articulate the Catholic view of the death penalty, we must first establish the general Catholic view of civil authority.  I have discussed this elsewhere in some detail (see, for example, here, here, and here), so I will provide here only a brief outline.

The Nature of Civil Authority

The passage at the top of this page from Romans 13 states clearly and succinctly the Catholic view of civil authority.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church fleshes this out a bit theologically and philosophically:

1897 "Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all."15 
By "authority" one means the quality by virtue of which persons or institutions make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them. 
1898 Every human community needs an authority to govern it.16 The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society. 
1899 The authority required by the moral order derives from God: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."17 
1900 The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will. . . . 
1902 Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a "moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility":21 
A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.22 
1903 Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, "authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse."23 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1897-1903)

Here is how I would briefly summarize the basic Catholic position on civil authority:  God has created human beings and the universe in such a way that human nature naturally calls for certain forms of organization among human individuals with certain authority structures that go along with them - such as organizations of family and civil society (the state).  Since God is the author of the human nature that gives rise to these institutions, these institutions are ordained by God and therefore have his authority behind them.  Thus, in St. Paul's language (Romans 13:1-7), the "powers that be" are ordained of God and are thus ministers of God whom we are commanded by God's moral law to obey.  Since these institutions are "ministers of God," they do not have unlimited authority.  They only have authority when they are legitimately fulfilling their essential functions in a manner consistent with the objective moral law of God.  Essential human governments, then, are a sort of limited microcosm of God's government of the cosmos.  Just as God seeks to promote the good and condemn the evil in his government of the world, so human governments ought to rule according to God's moral law, promoting what is good and hindering or opposing that which is evil.

Civil authority, like all human institutions, is to recognize and submit to God and do him honor:

For it cannot be doubted but that, by the will of God, men are united in civil society; whether its component parts be considered; or its form, which implies authority; or the object of its existence; or the abundance of the vast services which it renders to man. God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority.  (Pope Leo XIII, Libertas, 1888)

Authority should always be exercised as a service, respecting fundamental human rights, a just hierarchy of values, laws, distributive justice, and the principle of subsidiarity. All those who exercise authority should seek the interests of the community before their own interest and allow their decisions to be inspired by the truth about God, about man and about the world. (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Question 463)

So the function of the state is to be a minister of God for the praise and promotion of good and the hindering and opposing of evil, as these are defined by God's moral law, within the bounds of civil society.  The state is, to the best of its ability, to protect the civil sphere from evil and for good.  However, as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares reminds us, human institutions must sometimes, to some extent, tolerate some evils in order to avoid greater evils or to secure more important goods:

33. Yet, with the discernment of a true mother, the Church weighs the great burden of human weakness, and well knows the course down which the minds and actions of men are in this our age being borne. For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, she does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good. God Himself in His providence, though infinitely good and powerful, permits evil to exist in the world, partly that greater good may not be impeded, and partly that greater evil may not ensue. In the government of States it is not forbidden to imitate the Ruler of the world; and, as the authority of man is powerless to prevent every evil, it has (as St. Augustine says) to overlook and leave unpunished many things which are punished, and rightly, by Divine Providence.(10) But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. In this, human law must endeavor to imitate God, who, as St. Thomas teaches, in allowing evil to exist in the world, "neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills only to permit it to be done; and this is good."(11) This saying of the Angelic Doctor contains briefly the whole doctrine of the permission of evil. 
34. But, to judge aright, we must acknowledge that, the more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires. Wherefore, if such tolerance would be injurious to the public welfare, and entail greater evils on the State, it would not be lawful; for in such case the motive of good is wanting.  (Libertas, #33-34)

Foundation of the Death Penalty in Catholic Teaching

The Church has always recognized the right and duty of civil authority to use force to protect the common good, even, if necessary, to the point of death.

In the Old Testament, there are numerous approved examples of civil authority applying the death penalty.  God's law given to Moses itself specifies the death penalty as the proper punishment for several crimes.  Genesis 9:6 has sometimes been taken as a general prescription of the death penalty:  "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man."  

In the New Testament, the same right and duty continues to be recognized.  We've already noted the classic text of Romans 13:1-7, in which the civil authority is described as having from God the power of "the sword" - a clear indicator of the right and duty of the state to use force when necessary to protect the good and punish evil, even to the point of death.  We see this echoed in some other passages as well, such as Acts 25:10-11 and Luke 23:39-41:

Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar. (Acts 25:10-11)

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. (Luke 23:39-41)

Throughout the centuries, the Magisterium of the Church has commented on this principle from time to time.  The Catechism of the Council of Trent, often called the Roman Catechism, published in 1566 at the command of Pope Pius V, made these comments:

Again, this prohibition [that is, the prohibition of the Fifth Commandment not to kill] does not apply to the civil magistrate, to whom is intrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which he punishes the guilty and protects the innocent. The use of the civil sword, when wielded by the hand of justice, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the commandment is the preservation and security of human life, and to the attainment of this end the punishments inflicted by the civil magistrate, who is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend, giving security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David : "In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land ; that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord." 2 In like manner, the soldier is guiltless who, actuated not by motives of ambition or cruelty, but by a pure desire of serving the interests of his country, takes away the life of an enemy in a just war. 3 There are on record instances of carnage executed by the special command of God himself: the sons of Levi, who had put to death so many thousands in one day, were guilty of no sin : when the slaughter had ceased, they were addressed by Moses in these words: "you have consecrated your hands this day to the Lord."  (The Catechism of the Council of Trent, tr. Rev. J. Donovan [Baltimore: Lucas Brothers, 1829], 280)

Pope Innocent I, back in 405, in a letter to the Bishop of Toulouse, had made a similar point:

It must be remembered that power was granted by God [to the magistrates], and to avenge crime by the sword was permitted. He who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister (Rm 13:1-4). Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority.  (Innocent 1, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum,
20 February 405, PL 20,495, found at on 8/22/18) 

Pope Innocent III, in 1208, in a series of statements required of the Waldensian heretics to profess before being received back into Catholic communion, included this statement:

Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly.  (Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, tr. Roy J. Deferrari [Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2001], a translation of "the thirtieth edition of Enchiridion Symbolorum by Henry Denzinger, revised by Karl Rahner, S.J., published in 1954, by Herder & Co., Freiburg", p. 168)

The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, had this to say about the death penalty:

2266  Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.
          The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. Finally punishment has a medicinal value; as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender. 67 
2267  If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church [New York: Doubleday, 1995], 604-605.)

What About Today?

As in many areas of social and political justice, so with the death penalty as well there are always a number of moral principles that must be properly balanced in order to determine the just and best application in the given circumstances of any particular time and place.

Of course, this is reflected in God's own government of the universe.  In the Bible, for example, there are many instances in which God strikes someone with death in response to his sin.  But in other cases, a person may do the same crime or even worse and not get struck down by God.

In terms of God-derived human authority over life and death, we see the same principle.  In the Law of Moses, God commanded death for the promoter of false gods among the people of Israel.  But the Church, through its history, has not necessarily advocated the same penalty for false religion, recognizing that the laws given to Moses were not intended, in all their judicial details, to apply to all places and times.  Even within the Bible, God will sometimes spare those who in other circumstances would have incurred the death penalty.  We can think of the example of David, who committed murder in the killing of Uriah but was spared the death penalty by God (and by civil authority).  God laid down the principle (perhaps including both descriptive and prescriptive elements) in Genesis 9:6 that "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man."  And yet in Genesis 4:15, we find God putting a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him, even though he had just murdered his brother.  The determination of what is the right judicial response to a particular crime is seldom a straightforward matter, involving the application of a single, simple principle.  It is typically an exercise in prudence which takes a number of moral principles and weighs them with wisdom, deciding which application is right and best given the specific circumstances involved.

The Church has always recognized as well that the coming of the gospel with Jesus Christ brought a new era of mercy to the world.  Justice is not done away with.  The sword of the civil magistrate is not done away with.  And yet Christian civilization is to have a greater emphasis on mercy, and this must play out in all areas of life, including the area of civil justice.  The balancing of mercy with justice has always been a part of the mix in terms of finding the proper balance in the application of moral principles to practical life in society, but the preaching of the gospel in its fullness with the coming of Christ has added yet another crucial element into that mix that must be taken into consideration.

Especially during the latter half of the twentieth century, feeling in the broader world as well as among the people of God began to look more skeptically at the death penalty, wondering if its application in modern countries in modern days can be justified.  This growing skepticism came to Magisterial expression in Pope John Paul II's famous encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, published in 1995.  Pope John Paul II discussed the subject of the death penalty in a few key sections in the encyclical:

9. But God cannot leave the crime [of Cain's murder of Abel] unpunished: from the ground on which it has been spilt, the blood of the one murdered demands that God should render justice (cf. Gen 37:26; Is 26:21; Ez 24:7-8). From this text the Church has taken the name of the "sins which cry to God for justice", and, first among them, she has included wilful murder. 12 For the Jewish people, as for many peoples of antiquity, blood is the source of life. Indeed "the blood is the life" (Dt 12:23), and life, especially human life, belongs only to God: for this reason whoever attacks human life, in some way attacks God himself. 
Cain is cursed by God and also by the earth, which will deny him its fruit (cf. Gen 4:11-12). He is punished: he will live in the wilderness and the desert. Murderous violence profoundly changes man's environment. From being the "garden of Eden" (Gen 2:15), a place of plenty, of harmonious interpersonal relationships and of friendship with God, the earth becomes "the land of Nod" (Gen 4:16), a place of scarcity, loneliness and separation from God. Cain will be "a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth" (Gen 4:14): uncertainty and restlessness will follow him forever. 
And yet God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, "put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him" (Gen 4:15). He thus gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel's death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. And it is pre- cisely here that the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God is shown forth. As Saint Ambrose writes: "Once the crime is admitted at the very inception of this sinful act of parricide, then the divine law of God's mercy should be immediately extended. If punishment is forthwith inflicted on the accused, then men in the exercise of justice would in no way observe patience and moderation, but would straightaway condemn the defendant to punishment. ... God drove Cain out of his presence and sent him into exile far away from his native land, so that he passed from a life of human kindness to one which was more akin to the rude existence of a wild beast. God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide".13 (Evangelium Vitae, #9

Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but "non-violent" means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of "legitimate defence" on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform. (#27)

The commandment regarding the inviolability of human life reverberates at the heart of the "ten words" in the covenant of Sinai (cf. Ex 34:28). In the first place that commandment prohibits murder: "You shall not kill" (Ex 20:13); "do not slay the innocent and righteous" (Ex 23:7). But, as is brought out in Israel's later legislation, it also prohibits all personal injury inflicted on another (cf. Ex 21:12-27). Of course we must recognize that in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life, though already quite marked, does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation, which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person. It culminates in the positive commandment which obliges us to be responsible for our neighbour as for ourselves: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Lev 19:18).  (#40)

As time passed, the Church's Tradition has always consistently taught the absolute and unchanging value of the commandment "You shall not kill". It is a known fact that in the first centuries, murder was put among the three most serious sins-along with apostasy and adultery-and required a particularly heavy and lengthy public penance before the repentant murderer could be granted forgiveness and readmission to the ecclesial community. 
55. This should not cause surprise: to kill a human being, in whom the image of God is present, is a particularly serious sin. Only God is the master of life! Yet from the beginning, faced with the many and often tragic cases which occur in the life of individuals and society, Christian reflection has sought a fuller and deeper understanding of what God's commandment prohibits and prescribes. 43 There are in fact situations in which values proposed by God's Law seem to involve a genuine paradox. This happens for example in the case of legitimate defence, in which the right to protect one's own life and the duty not to harm someone else's life are difficult to reconcile in practice. Certainly, the intrinsic value of life and the duty to love oneself no less than others are the basis of a true right to self-defence. The demanding commandment of love of neighbour, set forth in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus, itself presupposes love of oneself as the basis of comparison: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself " (Mk 12:31). Consequently, no one can renounce the right to self-defence out of lack of love for life or for self. This can only be done in virtue of a heroic love which deepens and transfigures the love of self into a radical self-offering, according to the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:38-40). The sublime example of this self-offering is the Lord Jesus himself. 
Moreover, "legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life, the common good of the family or of the State".44 Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason. 45 
56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offence".46 Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated. 47 
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. 
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person".48 (#54-56)

In 1997, the official text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised to reflect the concerns expressed in Evangelium Vitae:

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. 
2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67 
2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. 
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. 
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."68  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections #2265-2267, found at as of 12:05 PM on 8/22/18)

Pope John Paul II's reservations concerning the modern application of the death penalty have been echoed by his two successors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.  The culmination of these reservations has come only this month, as Pope Francis has now revised the text of the Catechism once again to reflect the position that, in these days, the death penalty is "inadmissable":

2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. 
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. 
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section #2267, revised version)

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a letter to bishops accompanying the publication of the revised text of the Catechism which provides further context and interpretation for it.  Here are sections #2, #7, #8, and #10 of this letter:

2. It is in the same light that one should understand the attitude towards the death penalty that is expressed ever more widely in the teaching of pastors and in the sensibility of the people of God. If, in fact, the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes, the deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State, and the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens have given rise to a new awareness that recognizes the inadmissibility of the death penalty and, therefore, calling for its abolition. . . .
7. The new revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by Pope Francis, situates itself in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine.[12] The new text, following the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in Evangelium vitæ, affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes. This conclusion is reached taking into account the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State, which should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal. Finally, given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people. Certainly, it remains the duty of public authorities to defend the life of citizens, as has always been taught by the Magisterium and is confirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in numbers 2265 and 2266. 
8. All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime. . . .
10. The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.

So the Catholic Church has come to the conclusion that, while the state has the power of the sword as a minister of God, and this power extends, in principle, even to the death penalty when this is necessary to protect the common good, yet in modern times the death penalty is not necessary to protect the common good, and so it is not morally permissible in these times to resort to it.  To continue to retain the death penalty in modern times would be to endorse unnecessary, and so unjustified, acts of killing.  All societies have a duty to abolish it or to work for reforms that will allow its abolition.

Why Not Today?

The text of the revised portion of the Catechism and the CDF's letter suggest three fundamental reasons why the death penalty is, in today's world, inadmissible.  In the CDF's words, these three reasons are "the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes, the deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State, and the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens."  Not a lot of commentary is offered explaining exactly what is involved in these three reasons, but, upon reflection, we can arrive at what I think are some helpful considerations.

The last reason is the most obvious.  In the past, it was harder to restrain criminals from repeating their crimes.  Now that we have better systems in place (or can potentially install better systems) to do this, the death penalty is no longer necessary to preserve the safety of society from repeat attacks from convicted criminals.  Of course, no system is perfect and absolutely risk-free, but the Church has judged that modern societies have reached a level of ability in this area that is sufficient to make the death penalty unwarrantable.

Secondly, the Church also speaks of an increased awareness regarding the dignity of the life of the individual person.  In earlier times, when penal sanctions have been developed and applied, there has been a tendency to pay less attention to the rights, concerns, and dignity of criminals than today we would typically consider proper.  There has been less attention focused on understanding all the negative effects penal sanctions might have on the condemned.  This seems obvious to me upon reflection.  Almost all of us would tend to condemn the conditions forced upon criminals in earlier times.  Many horrible forms of execution have been devised and implemented in the past, often with the apparent goal of combining a kind of torture with the execution.  Modern societies, on the other hand, consider most of these earlier forms of execution cruel and inhumane, and they work to develop forms of execution more in keeping with compassion for those to be executed.  Earlier societies have also maintained prison conditions and legal processes which we would tend today to regard as overly harsh and unjust.  In general, I think it is safe to say that earlier societies have tended to have less concern for "outcasts" - criminals, those with mental disorders, the physically deformed, and one could no doubt think of many other classes - than we tend to today, and I think most of us would view modern developments in this area as improvements.  We are pleased that society treats these sorts of people much better than they tended to be treated in the past.  Why has modern society (particularly in the West) developed in this way?  This is a big question which I won't attempt to answer here, but I might suggest that one reason is probably that the influence of Christian values in the West over the past two millennia has tended to bring with it a gradual growth in thoughtfulness and compassion - though, we humans being what we are, this growth has often been far slower than it should have been.

And this growth has occurred not only in the broader society, but in the Church as well.  Just as individual Christians grow over time to become more consistent and aware in relation to all the demands of the gospel, so this same sort of growth occurs in the Church as a society.  When I think back on my earlier Christian life, I recognize several areas where my thinking and behavior was more "brutish" (if that is not too harsh a word) in some ways than I would be able to tolerate today.  By God's grace, I have grown in compassion, in thoughtfulness, in my awareness of how my actions affect others, etc.  And hopefully, by God's grace, I will continue to grow in these areas all of my life.  Similarly, when we look back at earlier periods of Church history, we sometimes see members and even leaders in the Church behaving in ways that we find unacceptable today.  It is not that the gospel itself has grown.  It's always been there in all its fullness.  But our awareness of what the gospel means in all the myriad areas of practical life has grown.  This is a legitimate form of "doctrinal development" as well as "practical development."  The Church has always had the full gospel, but she has also always been full of sinners who are in process of growth, and she has always recognized that her practical living out of the gospel reflects both of those realities.  God preserves the Church from error as she professes the faith, but he doesn't provide her with instant full clarity with regard to the full implications of that faith at any given time in her progressive life, whether we are talking about theoretical doctrine or practical living.

What Pope Francis and the CDF seem to be saying is that we have witnessed this very process of growth in the practical awareness of the Church in recent years with regard to the death penalty.  As the people of God have come to reflect more and better on the implications of the death penalty for criminals in modern times, they have come to see more and more that the death penalty, in these days, does not reflect an adequate application of the gospel with regard to how we should treat these people.  Our greater respect for the dignity of criminals has led us to see better the inappropriateness of assigning them to the death penalty in the circumstances of modern times.

Thirdly, the new documents speak of a "deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State."  What does this mean?

The CDF document, while not going into much detail on this, does supply some wording that may help us to get at what is being said here.  The document says that "This conclusion [that is, the conclusion that the death penalty, applied today, attacks the dignity of the person] is reached taking into account the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State, which should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal."  The document also states that earlier Magisterial teaching on the death penalty, which had a more positive emphasis, "can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently . . ."

Note that the CDF document talks about the death penalty as "applied by the modern State" (emphasis mine) and indicates that penal sanctions have been "understood differently" in the past.  So how, exactly, have penal sanctions been understood differently in the past, and what is peculiar about the application of the death penalty in the "modern" state?

Well, one thing the CDF may have in mind here is the sort of thing we've already talked about.  In the past, there was generally less thought given to the effects of the death penalty on the criminal considered from the point of view of compassion for the criminal.

The CDF document also mentions specifically that, in the modern state, penal sanctions "should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal."  Perhaps as our sense of compassion for the criminal has grown, the sense also has grown that the "rehabilitation and social reintegration" of the criminal is, at least for us today, a more important value to emphasize than whatever might be gained by bringing about the criminal's death.  Again, there are a number of moral values at interplay with each other in the death penalty as in all complex areas of social justice, and political prudence often largely amounts to figuring out how to give adequate weight to the various moral principles relative to each other in one's application of justice.  There may be "retributory" value in the death penalty - that is, the death penalty may have value as an enactment of "retribution" against the evils of particular crimes (I'll visit this more below).  And yet, in our day, it may be better to emphasize other goals in our legal and penal processes.  The goal of mercy towards criminals and working towards their rehabilitation may have greater weight today for various reasons, understood by the wisdom given by the Spirit to Mother Church.  Perhaps this is what the gospel calls us to in the particular circumstances of our times.

This change in our understanding of penal sanctions in modern times may also reflect more specific ideological changes that have taken place in modern societies over the past few hundred years.  To make this concrete, let's compare the society of Christendom in Europe in the Middle Ages to modern American society in the United States.  One of the most important differences is that Medieval Europe was an explicitly Christian and Catholic society, whereas the United States today is a pluralistic society that is not really Christian in any deep sense (though there are plenty of lingering Christian values) but is more explicitly Agnostic (as I would term it).  This has huge implications for the meaning of penal sanctions.

At the beginning of this article, we outlined a Catholic view of civil authority.  In the modern US, this theoretical framework would not be admissible, as it is "religious" and indeed specifically Christian and Catholic.  In our more Agnostic society, civil authority is thought to have a completely different foundation.  Instead of civil authority coming from God, and being subservient both to reason (understood in the context of Christian theism) and revelation, modern US society sees civil authority as rooted in the will of the people.  No one has any intrinsic authority over me, and no one has any intrinsic authority over you.  The only way, then, so the thinking goes, that we can legitimately be subject to a set of laws in society is if we can formulate and promulgate those laws on the basis of the authority of our own "consent".  (I've outlined an Agnostic development of these ideas here.)

In Catholic thought, penal sanctions, in addition to protecting the "secular" rights of citizens, helping to rehabilitate criminals, etc., also have a "retributory" function.  The civil magistrate is an "avenger" to execute "wrath" on those who do evil (to use St. Paul's language in Romans 13).  There is an objective moral order derived from God and his moral law, and the duty of the civil authority is to use legislative and penal means to regulate society in accordance with that objective moral order.  Thus, when a crime is punished, this not just a pragmatic attempt to protect people from being harmed; it is an application of God's objective justice to the human civil realm.  In such an ideological context, the death penalty can be seen as a reflection of God's just wrath against a serious crime that distorts the proper order of society.  Human beings do not belong to each other.  I do not own you, and you do not own me.  We all have an individual autonomy that must be respected.  But God is the master of us all.  When civil authority punishes a crime, this is not the imposition of some people's desires on other people; it is the imposition of God's authority on human beings created by God and subject to him.  When the death penalty is administered, this is not a reflection of an absolute ownership of some people's lives by other people; it is a testimony to the ownership of God over all human lives.

But none of this makes any sense in an Agnostic ideological context.  In modern US society, the imposition of penal sanctions cannot be seen as an imposition of God's objective moral authority, for the US has no official view regarding the nature of God.  Rather, penal sanctions are an imposition of the will of the whole people on some of the people.  They are justified (supposedly) not by the authority of God but by the "consent of all the governed."  In such a context as this, what does the death penalty mean?  How could it not tend to communicate the idea that individual human lives are subject to the general will of the people, as if the civil society owns these lives?  The death penalty, in this context, will have a tendency to communicate the idea of an absolute slavery, where "the people" have an absolute, life-and-death ownership over the lives of criminals.

I would argue that an Agnostic worldview has a difficult time accounting for civil authority in general, but this is not the time to launch into this argument in its fullness.  The Church certainly affirms the legitimacy of modern governments, even when they are not Christian, just as St. Paul affirmed the legitimacy of the Roman government in Romans 13.  Such affirmation does not necessarily imply that a particular society has an adequate ideological foundation for its own use of political authority.  Rather, it implies that even when states cannot adequately account for their own authority under their own adopted principles, they still have authority because God - however unrecognized - has given it to them.  Even non-Christians generally recognize - even when they cannot account for - the value of human life (at least to some degree - but see below), and thus the value of protecting human life within society.  Therefore the Church applauds modern states when they make laws to defend human life.  She encourages them to do so and condemns them when they don't.  Even if they cannot fully ideologically justify what they are doing, they are still doing right when they make just laws.

All of this might apply to the death penalty as well, if the death penalty is necessary in order to preserve life in society.  But, as the Church has now said, in modern times the death penalty is not necessary to preserve life.  We can adequately protect the sorts of values modern society is still able to protect without recourse to the death penalty.  So what could possibly be the justification for continuing to have the death penalty today?  In the absence of its necessity in order to protect life, it can have no legitimate meaning.  It cannot continue to be applied as an expression of God's just moral order, for the modern secular state does not affirm this in any clear way.  So all that is left is for the death penalty to be the expression of less worthy values and motives.  It will tend to reflect what Pope Francis has called the "throwaway culture" so prominent in modern times.  It will tend to reflect the idea that human lives belong to us to dispose of as we see fit (even when the safety of our own lives is not at stake).  It will tend to communicate the idea that criminals' lives are not deserving of our protection, but are rather at our disposal, which implies a kind of absolute slavery of some people by others.  In these ways, the application of the death penalty in modern societies, without any necessity arising from the need to protect the lives of citizens, becomes an unjustified attack on the fundamental dignity of criminals.  In this way, the change that has occurred in our modern understanding of the meaning of penal sanctions has a hugely significant effect on the practical justifiability of the death penalty within this new context.

And all of this is augmented by the fact that our Agnostic society today has difficulty in many areas with valuing life.  Pope John Paul II has famously described our culture as a "culture of death," a culture that celebrates a supposed "right" to abortion and euthanasia, a culture that has promoted a self-centered pursuit and use of resources to the point of depleting and damaging the environment, etc.  Agnostic Naturalism cannot account for any objective value in life, and so it has difficulty providing a basis for standing up for what is right when the "value of life in general" comes into conflict with "what I want to make my own personal life more enjoyable."  In the context of a culture like this, standing up for the dignity of life may require an emphasis in criminal justice away from "doing away with" criminals and more towards ways of punishment that better highlight the value of every human life.

In conclusion, the CDF document does not affirm that the death penalty has always been inadmissible.

If, in fact, the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes, the deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State, and the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens have given rise to a new awareness that recognizes the inadmissibility of the death penalty and, therefore, calling for its abolition.

Perhaps the death penalty has been applied in inappropriate ways in the past as well as in the present.  (This is certainly the case, at least sometimes.)  Perhaps the application of the death penalty in the past has been partially rooted in a lack of adequate moral awareness regarding the dignity of the criminal, and a less than adequate realization of all that the gospel requires of us.  But it may also be the case, given a different social and political context, that the death penalty has at times been the right and best thing to do.  What the Church wants to say is that, whatever may have been the case at other times and places in the past, today, in modern societies, the death penalty is inadmissible, and we must therefore work for its abolition.  The theoretical duty and right of the state, in certain circumstances, to protect the common good in such a way as to end the lives of some individuals is just as valid as ever, but, in our day, circumstances do not justify the application of this power.

Published on the feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Saturday, August 18, 2018

When Are We Allowed to Dissent from the Magisterium of the Catholic Church?

When are we allowed to dissent from the Magisterium of the Catholic Church?

Fortunately, the answer here is quite simple:


No Dissent

This follows logically from Catholic epistemology.  In the Catholic view, the Magisterium of the Church has been given authority from God to authentically and authoritatively interpret and apply the revelation of God to the Church and to humanity.  Therefore, we have no right to oppose their interpretation and application.

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7) 
But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. 
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.  (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, #10)

Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place.(39*) For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old,(164) making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.(165) Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.  (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, #25)

God gave us the Magisterium in order to ensure that we could find and follow the truth and not get hopelessly lost in a maze of confusion.  Therefore, if we follow the Church's guidance, we will do well; but if we dissent from her guidance, we will do badly.

888 Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task "to preach the Gospel of God to all men," in keeping with the Lord's command.415 They are "heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers" of the apostolic faith "endowed with the authority of Christ."416 
889 In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a "supernatural sense of faith" the People of God, under the guidance of the Church's living Magisterium, "unfailingly adheres to this faith."417 
890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:  (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #888-890)

This is tacitly acknowledged even by Catholics who try to argue that it is OK sometimes to dissent from the Magisterium.  The conversation usually goes something like this:

Person A: The Pope said X, and he's wrong!  I refuse to listen to him.

Person B: But we're supposed to accept the teaching of the Pope.

Person A: Not always.  After all, the Church has said that not all her teachings are definitive, and that we are allowed sometimes to disagree with her.  Let me show you (proceeds to quote from various Church documents).

Do you see the irony here?  Person A is trying to use Church teachings to prove that it is sometimes right to disagree with the Church, and when it might be right to do so.  But this is like an argument between children about whether one must always listen to mother:

Child A: Mom told me to clean my room, but I don't have to.

Child B: But we're supposed to obey Mom.

Child A: Not necessarily always!  Why, just the other day, Mom told me (proceeds to appeal to Mom's authority to justify belief that one need not always follow Mom's authority)

If you only dissent from someone when you can show that they've given you permission to do so, is it really dissent?  No, it is obedience.  "I'll dissent from you only when you say I can.  If you say I can't, I won't."  How is this kind of "dissent" any different from "100% obedience"?

It is not surprising that those who wish to disagree with some aspect of what is being taught by the Church should try to justify that dissent by appeal to the authority of the Church.  Given Catholic epistemology, what else could one do?  How else could one possibly know whether or not one can dissent from the Church or when one can do so without deriving that knowledge from the teaching of the Church?  Consider those who say (wrongly) that we only have to agree with the teaching of the Pope when he is teaching ex cathedra - that is, when he is solemnly and definitively defining a doctrine to be held by the whole Church.  Those who argue for this will probably appeal to the definition of papal infallibility in the documents of Vatican I.  But how does the arguer know that Vatican I is right about papal infallibility?  "Well, Vatican I was an ecumenical council, and the Church teaches that ecumenical councils are infallible when defining doctrine."  But how do we know the Church got that right?  "Because the Church teaches it!"  In other words, the very starting assumption of the argument is that the Church is right in what she teaches and we should listen to her in whatever she says.  Without that starting assumption, we could never learn from Church teaching when the Church is speaking infallibly and when she isn't, for how would we know she was right in drawing the line where she does between infallible and fallible teaching unless we first trusted her general teaching?  Without that assumption, we could simply say the Church is wrong in thinking the Pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra, etc.  So, logically, given a basic Catholic worldview and epistemology, there must be the underlying assumption that the Church is to be believed and followed in whatever she teaches.

So can we disagree with what the bishops of the Church teach?  Can we disagree with papal teaching?  Only to the extent that they allow us to.  There can be no dissent.

Levels of Teaching

The Church has made clear that there are different levels of teaching.  Sometimes, the Church (that is, the bishops in communion with the Pope or the Pope directly) proposes a teaching as definitely true.  What do you think our duty as Catholics is in such a case?  Obviously, our duty is to accept the teaching as definitely true.  Sometimes the Church proposes a teaching without claiming it to be definitely true.  It is put forward as a claim of truth, but it is not made clear that it will be the last word on the subject, or if the claim might be subject to revision in the future based on new or corrected knowledge.  What is our duty in such a case?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (which Pope John Paul II, who promulgated it, called "a sure norm for teaching the faith"), #892, answers our question:

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent"422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

In other words, no dissent.  If the Church teaches something as true, we are assent to it as true.  If the Church teaches something as definitive, we are to accept it as definitive.  If the Church teaches something as probable, we are to receive it as probable.  And so on.  And how do we know what the Church is trying to say?  We read the words, look at the context, consult previous teaching for further context, etc.  If we are baffled after all of that, we can ask the Church for clarification.  We have not just a dead page, but a living voice, guided by the Holy Spirit!  But what if the Church hasn't yet clarified something?  Then it is unclarified, and we won't be dogmatic about it.

The Church has made it clear over and over again that all her teaching must be adhered to.  She has many times addressed the loophole sought by Catholics who think they are free to ignore any teaching that is not "infallible" or "definitive" or "ex cathedra" or whatever.  Pope Pius XII, for example, addressed this in his encyclical Humani Generis, section 20:

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me";[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

In other words, if a Pope tells us we ought to believe something to be true in an encyclical letter, if we reject it, we are rejecting Christ.  "He who heareth you, heareth me."

The Church has reiterated this in her Code of Canon Law as well:

Can. 750 §1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them. 
§2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firm-ly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. . . . 
Can. 752 Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it. . . . 
Can. 754 All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has published a handy guide to the different levels of Church teaching and the various levels of submission that are required of them.  Now, before we go any further, what is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?  Do I have to listen to them?  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is an arm of the ordinary magisterium of the Pope assigned with various tasks, including defending and clarifying the doctrine of the Church.  You can read all about it here in the Church's official description of it.  And yes, we have to listen to it, because it is an arm of the ordinary magisterium of the Church.  The document I just mentioned says this:

Decisions issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith are doctrinal or disciplinary, depending on the nature of the case; and, because of their great importance, in some cases they must be approved by the Pope. Doctrinal documents, always approved by the Holy Father, participate therefore in the ordinary magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff.

Anyway, in that handy guide put out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and therefore official and authoritative for the Church), we find this comment on non-definitive teaching of the Church:

10. The third proposition of the Professio fidei states: "Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act." To this paragraph belong all those teachings­ on faith and morals - presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect.18 They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with these truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.19 
A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore "tuto doceri non potest".20 . . . 
As examples of doctrines belonging to the third paragraph, one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.38

So, again, the Church has made her position clear.  We are to assent to her teaching, whether she teaches definitively or non-definitively.  We are to believe it in our mind and follow it in our choices - to the degree and in the form that she requires it.

Some Nuances

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put out in 1990 a document on the vocation of theologians (Donum Veritatis: On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian).  This is an interesting document, because it deals with the question of situations where theologians might find themselves at odds with the Church's teaching and goes into some detail about how such a situation might be handled.

First of all, it makes clear that theologians are never permitted to disagree with what the Church has definitively defined as part of her doctrine of faith.  Then, it reiterates what we've seen above several times with regard to the submission required even for non-definitive teaching:

When the Magisterium, not intending to act "definitively", teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect.(23) This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.  (#23)

The document goes on to acknowledge that, in the Church's prudential instruction, a distinction can sometimes be made between the solid doctrinal and moral principles of the Church and more conjectural assessments of how best to apply those principles within the particular circumstances of the world:

Finally, in order to serve the People of God as well as possible, in particular, by warning them of dangerous opinions which could lead to error, the Magisterium can intervene in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements. It often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent. . . . 
When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church's Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission. In fact, the theologian, who cannot pursue his discipline well without a certain competence in history, is aware of the filtering which occurs with the passage of time. This is not to be understood in the sense of a relativization of the tenets of the faith. The theologian knows that some judgments of the Magisterium could be justified at the time in which they were made, because while the pronouncements contained true assertions and others which were not sure, both types were inextricably connected. Only time has permitted discernment and, after deeper study, the attainment of true doctrinal progress. (#24)

This passage is a bit obscurely worded (in my opinion), and could do with a few concrete examples illustrating what exactly it is talking about.  Perhaps a good example of what I think this passage is getting at might be the Crusades.  I'm not going to get into a big explanation of the Crusades now, but the short of it is that the Crusades were a project the Church took up in order to free holy sites from Muslim rule (they had earlier been Christian sites, but the Muslims conquered them) in order both to make those sites more accessible to Christian pilgrimage as well as to liberate the Christians who lived in those areas from Muslim rule.  Having read a reasonable amount about the Crusades, especially some of the earlier ones, my sense is that the Crusades were motivated by good intentions and solid moral principles, but were not necessarily pursued in the wisest manner possible (to put it mildly).  For example, the Popes called for Christians from all over Christendom to "take up the cross" and assist in the Crusades, but those who did so often ended up going in groups that were poorly organized, and a lot of the people who went brought along with them a good many "barbaric" tendencies, and so they often tended to loot towns and villages on the way and commit many other crimes, including eventually the famous sacking of Constantinople.  In hindsight, I think that Catholics are allowed to believe that the valid moral principles and concerns that underlay the Crusades might have been applied more wisely.  Also, on hindsight, although the Church would never, in principle, have supported unjust treatment of Muslims (and Jews), Church leaders were not sufficiently cognizant at the time of the negative effects the Crusades often had on both.  They were too short-sighted with regard to all the implications of what they were promoting.

To recognize such things about the Crusades is not to "dissent" against the Church, because the Church has never claimed that she always acts as wisely as she should in all her prudential actions.  She claims guidance in her doctrinal and moral teaching, but she also recognizes the principle of "doctrinal development," which can include a growth in awareness that can have a significant impact on her practical life and actions in the world.

The document goes on (in sections 24-31) to discuss what should be done if a theologian were to find himself intellectually unable to submit to some non-definitive teaching of the Church.  I won't quote the whole section, but the gist of it is that the theologian is required to submit to the Church's judgment as best he can.  If he has an intellectual problem with the Church's teaching, he is to dialogue with the Church, trying as hard as he can to understand the Church's point of view and to allow the Church to show him where he may be going wrong.  He is not to go out and promote his concerns in the mass media, putting himself in opposition to the Church.  He is not to present his "opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions" (#27).  He can criticize and disagree with the prudential judgments of the Church that don't involve matters of the doctrine of the faith to the extent that the Church allows him to do so (such as with the example of the Crusades mentioned above), but he is not to think that the Church's non-definitive teaching is "up for grabs."  The document strongly criticizes the idea that "the theologian is not bound to adhere to any Magisterial teaching unless it is infallible."  In such a case, "a Kind of theological positivism is adopted, according to which, doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility are said to have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not. The theologian would accordingly be totally free to raise doubts or reject the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium particularly in the case of specific moral norms" (#33).

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions. Here the theologian will need, first of all, to assess accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed.(24) (#24)

The document acknowledges that there might be some situations where a theologian, trying as best he can, simply cannot bring himself intellectually to accept certain non-definitive teachings.  In such a case, the Church wants to show mercy to him and sympathizes with him, knowing that "such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail" (#31).  In the meantime, he must remain humbly in dialogue with the Church, open to being corrected, and not make himself a public opponent of the Church's teaching or form some kind of movement of "dissent."

Is this document saying that the Church gives permission to theologians to disagree with non-definitive teachings of the Church?  Hardly.  It is rather saying that they have a duty to submit intellectually and practically to the Church's non-definitive teaching as far as they are able to do so, but that the Church wants to be sympathetic and merciful to them if they find themselves stuck with regard to some point, provided they remain humble and open to correction and don't join or form a movement of "dissent."  But the teaching of the Church is still not "up for grabs."  We are not allowed to treat it as if it is merely the expression of an opinion which is not binding on us, as if we have the right to consider it and reject it if we find some other position more probable.

Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable. Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine. (#28)


To reiterate the conclusion which has been stated repeatedly throughout this article, we are required to submit to all the teaching of the Church's Magisterium.  We are never allowed to dissent from the Church's teaching.  If the Church does not teach something as binding upon us, then it is not binding upon us.  If the Church says that something is binding upon us, then it is binding upon us.  This applies both to definitive teachings of the Church and non-definitive, reformable teachings.  The different levels of Church teaching form a spectrum, and there is also a spectrum in terms of the degrees and forms of assent that are required.  But the important thing is that it is the Church who defines that spectrum, not the private theologian or individual.  If one attempts to use the Church's own teaching as a justification for putting oneself in opposition to other teaching of the Church, then this is not acceptable.  If the Church tells you that you can't hold or promote a certain opinion, then you can't hold or promote it.  If you find yourself believing or defending or promoting or practicing ideas, and the Church is in the meantime telling you not to do that, then you are in unjustifiable dissent.  If you find yourself voicing opinions, and the Church has no problem with it, then you are not in unjustifiable dissent.  It is as simple as that.  Certainly, in some cases, it may be unclear what is required of us.  We may need to seek clarification.  But the fundamental principle under which we must operate is clear.

It is important to emphasize these things, because we see in the Catholic world today, particularly in the USA (I mention the USA both because I think the problem is particularly pronounced here and because I know more about the situation here, being an American), a situation in which many Catholics seem to feel themselves justified in making themselves opponents of the teaching of the Church.  Many of these individuals and groups try to justify their dissent, ironically, by appeal to the teaching of the Church (like a child who acts in utter defiance of his parents' commands based on his own private interpretation of other things his parents have said).  For example, we have the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), an entire dissident organization, claiming to be faithful to the Church and its Tradition and Magisterium while at the same time rejecting the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and much subsequent teaching, refusing to follow the instructions of the Magisterium and therefore remaining in a state of illegality according to the Church's rules.  We have a number of Catholics who refuse to accept that it is the infallible, definitive, and irreformable teaching of the Catholic Church that women cannot be priests, despite the Church's explicit and clear affirmations to the contrary.  We have Catholics who refuse to accept the Church's teaching opposing artificial contraception and who even continue to use it, despite clear and explicit teaching and instructions to the contrary (such as in Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church).  We have Catholics who declare that they will never accept Pope Francis's teaching regarding the possibility of people in irregular unions receiving sacraments articulated in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (see here and here).  Most recently, we have Catholics who have put themselves into a condition of public and strident opposition to Church teaching regarding Pope Francis's recent teaching on the death penalty (see herehere, and here), teaching which he has inserted into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is intended as a compendium of official Catholic teaching and which Pope John Paul II called "a sure norm for teaching the faith."  To quote a particularly strident example from LifeSiteNews,

With this move, Pope Francis has shown himself to be openly heretical on a point of major importance, teaching a pure and simple novelty—“the boldness of a personal opinion becoming a completely new and unprecedented ‘teaching’ of the Church,” as Rorate Caeli stated. “The current Pope has far exceeded his authority: his authority is to guard and protect the doctrine that was received from Christ and the Apostles, not to alter it according to his personal views.” . . . 
Whether Francis is a formal heretic—that is, fully aware that what he is teaching on capital punishment is contrary to Catholic doctrine, and proves pertinacious in maintaining his position in spite of rebuke—is a matter to be adjudicated by the College of Cardinals. No doubt exists, however, that orthodox bishops of the Catholic Church must oppose this doctrinal error and refuse to use the altered edition of the Catechism or any catechetical materials based on it.  ("Pope’s Change to Catechism Contradicts Natural Law and the Deposit of Faith," LifeSiteNews, August 2, 2018)

Now, as we saw earlier, there are situations where it may be permissible to dispute certain contingent aspects of the Church's non-definitive teaching, to the extent that the Church herself allows this.  But, at the very least, to say (and publicly!) of a teaching that the Pope has placed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that it is "heretical" and that "orthodox bishops . . . must oppose this doctrinal error and refuse to use the altered edition of the Catechism" is certainly a far cry from the attitude of humble loyalty and submission required by the Church towards even her non-definitive teaching.  This is clearly a kind of "dissent" that the Church has warned against.  It is certainly permissible to wrestle with the recent teaching, to struggle to understand it better, to ask questions about it, to be in dialogue with the Church about it, voicing to the Church any concerns one might have in an attitude of humility and loyalty.  But it is not permissible to put oneself into a state of public opposition to the Church, to refuse to submit to what she requires, or to treat even her non-definitive teaching as if it were a mere non-binding opinion one is free to disagree with if one finds some alternative view more probable.

But the Church has always struggled with "dissent" in her ranks.  There have been many classic examples throughout history.  We can think of St. Cyprian's refusal to accept Pope St. Stephen's ruling on the baptism of heretics.  (Even the "saints" are not always perfect!)  We can think of the Jansenists, who refused to accept that Cornelius Jansen's book contained heresy even after the Church repeatedly proclaimed officially and formally that it did.  We can think of the Gallicans, who continued to insist that a General Council could contradict and correct a Pope despite centuries of Church and papal teaching to the contrary.  It is helpful to remember that issues we face today are seldom new, but have been present throughout history.  This can illuminate our understanding of our own times, and it can also illuminate our understanding of the past.  (For example, we can think of anti-Catholic apologists who use examples from the earlier days of the Church like that of St. Cyprian's opposition to Pope Stephen in order to support a claim that the early Fathers did not hold a view acknowledging the authority of the papacy, despite plenty of other evidence to the contrary.  They fail to note that even today, plenty of Catholics, such as those in the SSPX, who profess the high view of papal authority and infallibility articulated at Vatican I, are quite capable of inconsistently putting themselves in a position of opposition to the Pope and to the Church for various reasons.)

Let us strive by God's grace to humbly submit to the authority of the Church founded by Christ himself, to all her Magisterium, and to the Chair of St. Peter.

ADDENDUM 10/3/18:  I've written up a follow-up to this piece that narrows in on the question of whether or not the Church can err.