Development, Dissent, and Infallibility, Part II

In the first part of this two-part series on the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium, we took an in-depth look at the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception as a “case study” of sorts. To sum things up a bit, there are three “categories of belief” in regards to Church teaching:

  1. Teachings that are divinely revealed,
  2. Teachings that are definitively proposed, and
  3. Teachings that are of the authentic ordinary Magisterium.

Recap: Infallibility and Contraception

As mentioned previously, the Church teaching on contraception falls into at least the second category if not the first. Teachings in those first two categories are recognized as infallibly taught. Jesuit Fr. John C. Ford and Germain Grisez shed more light on this in their paper “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium”:

The conditions for infallible teaching articulated by Vatican II make clear that if the Catholic teaching on contraception has been proposed infallibly, then this moral norm either is contained in divine revelation itself [the first category] or has been proposed by the teaching Church [the second category] because this was required for the magisterium to fulfil its responsibility to guard as inviolable and expound with fidelity the deposit of divine revelation.

Proof of this can be seen in the examples of papal statements over the centuries. In the last 100 years, several popes have spoken about the sinfulness of the use of artificial contraception. Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage) makes the gravity of such acts very clear. Ford and Grisez summarize Pius XI’s words masterfully:

Pius XI … invokes the constancy of tradition, saying that the Christian doctrine on contraception was handed down without interruption from the very beginning. He speaks on behalf of the Catholic Church, as God’s ambassador, and thus claims to restate nothing other than the demand of God’s will, which must be accepted as a condition of salvation. (Ford & Grisez 285)

Pope Blessed Paul VI also mentions how this doctrine of the Church pertains to salvation in his encyclical Humane Vitae. Towards the end of the document, he addresses priests, reminding them that in their “sacred office” they “act as counselors and spiritual leaders both of individual men and women and of families …” (HV 28). Reminding priests to be compassionate towards their flock, Bl. Paul reiterates: “Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ …” (HV 29). Just as Pius XI did, Bl. Paul makes clear that the teachings regarding marriage and sexuality not only pertain to our salvation but come from Christ Himself.

Unity of Christ and Church

Oftentimes, critics of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual morality will ask, “Where did Jesus ever prohibit and condemn contraception, homosexual acts, etc. in the Bible?” They then draw a line between Jesus and the Church. They make it seem that what the Church has pronounced throughout history is something alien to what Jesus Christ proclaimed, and therefore such teachings of the Church should be ignored.

This shows a lack of understanding regarding Christ’s relationship to the Church. What critics often forget is that the Church is Jesus’ Bride; meaning Jesus and the Church are one thing, and they cannot be separated. The reality critics must face is that the doctrine they reject is synonymous with what Jesus taught. Both forms of teaching are important, because they both come from the same divine source. The Catechism of the Catholic Church shows how intimate this relationship is between Christ and His Church:

Christ and his Church thus together make up the “whole Christ” (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ. The saints are acutely aware of this unity:

[Pope St. Gregory the Great:] “… Our Redeemer has shown himself to be one person with the holy Church whom he has taken to himself.”

[St. Joan of Arc:] “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

[St. Augustine:] “He speaks in his role as the head (ex persona capitis) and in his role as body (ex persona corporis). What does this mean? ‘The two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church.’ [cf. Ephesians 5:31-32] And the Lord Himself says in the Gospel: ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ [Matthew 19:6] They are, in fact, two different persons, yet they are one in the conjugal union … as head, he calls himself the ‘bridegroom’, as body, he calls himself ‘bride.’” (CCC 795-796)

False Comparisons

Unfortunately, many people that hope for change in certain Church teachings tend to make false comparisons to changes in teachings that were never infallibly proclaimed, or to a legitimate development of doctrine. For instance, using the ordinary magisterium, St. John Paul II infallibly declared that women could never be ordained to the sacramental priesthood. Oftentimes, those in favor of women’s ordination will cite that the Church’s teaching on usury has fundamentally changed. As David J. Palm explains, however, what changed in history was the nature of financial transactions, not the teaching of the Church. The Church hasn’t changed the teaching regarding the sinfulness of usury.

The only way one can claim that a change in teaching is possible is if the Church has been wrong before on matters of faith and morals. Once it is discovered that no such change in 2,000 years has ever occurred regarding doctrine, no justification remains for changing Church teaching. Doctrine develops, as Bl. John Henry Newman points out, but the Church has never contradicted itself on matters of faith and morals. To say that intrinsically evil acts like direct abortion and contraception can be licit would not be a development at all; it would be a rupture with past teaching.

Infallibility and Intellectual Pride

As we all know though, moral codes in the Western world have drastically changed in the last 50 years or so. Therefore, many of the teachings on morality proclaimed by the Church have come into question only recently. However, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Theologian John F. Kippley expounds on this in his book Sex and the Marriage Covenant:

The teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium on morality is generally less solemn because for the most part there have been no really serious challenges. For example, up until recently no one who called himself a Catholic theologian have dared to say that Catholic teaching against sex outside of marriage was erroneous. … [Dissenting opinion] will be seen increasingly as the fruit of what appears to be an intellectual pride of the same sort that prompted [Fr. Charles Curran] in 1968 to declare the formal teaching of Humane Vitae erroneous and to lead the dissent against it. (Kippley, 116)

This “intellectual pride,” sadly, doesn’t just lead to having a problem with specific teachings, but with the Church itself. Look at Catholics for Choice (CFC) for example. They believe that the infallible teaching regarding direct abortion is wrong. They also reject the Church’s teaching on contraception. Neither of these teachings, they claim, have been declared infallible by any pope ex cathedra. What if they were though? From a 1985 article in The Christian Century:

It seems likely that the Vatican conservatives and Pope John Paul II himself are seriously out of touch with the mood of the global church on the birth-control issue, as well as on the wider question of the credibility of official church teaching authority. They do not seem to understand that a storm of dissent, and even ridicule, directed at infallibility itself would ensue from such a declaration.

Too bad for CFC that it already has been declared infallible through the ordinary Magisterium. But this selection shows that many dissenters will reject the sure teaching of the Magisterium (either ordinary or extraordinary) no matter what happens, and instead abide by their own erroneous conclusions. It should cause all of us great pain that Holy Mother Church is held in such contempt by some of her own children.

Dealing with Misgivings

So what do we do if we find ourselves (while not actively dissenting) having misgivings about a certain teaching on the Church regarding faith or morals?

We first must continue to pray. We must pray for understanding and wisdom, which are both gifts of the Holy Spirit. We can ask God to help us get past this difficulty that we are currently experiencing. We can pray along with the father of the possessed boy, “I believe [Lord]; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We can also pray for more trust in Jesus in such a situation. If we trust in Jesus, then we must trust in His Church; we must trust that the Church will never lead us into error.

Second, we must really try to proclaim with the psalmist that we delight in and love the Lord’s commands (cf. Psalm 119:47-48). Our Lord reminds us that “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me” (John 14:21). That extends to the Church’s commands, of which he is the Head.

Third, we must become docile to our Lord. This is something that many cannot wrap their head around. To be docile or submissive to the Church is seen as something contemptible. Instead, docility is something we Catholic Christians should strive for. A fundamental part of Christian life comes in conforming ourselves to Christ.

Epilogue: On Docility

In closing, we should reflect on the words of St. Josemaria Escrivá. It’s clear that we must accept what the Church teaches as infallible to be on par with what came from the lips of our Lord Himself. St. Josemaria helps us learn how to better receive Jesus’ teachings in our hearts and minds:

First of all docility, because it is the Holy Spirit who, with his inspirations, gives a supernatural tone to our thoughts, desires and actions. … If we are docile to the Holy Spirit, the image of Christ will be formed more and more fully in us, and we will be brought closer every day to God the Father. “For whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the children of God.”

… Our Lord has said: “Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is the old and well-known “way of childhood,” which is not sentimentality or lack of human maturity. It is a supernatural maturity, which makes us realize more deeply the wonders of God’s love, while leading us to acknowledge our own smallness and identify our will fully with God’s will.