Does Donum Veritatis permit dissent?

Interlocutor kindly commented on my post “The Permissibility (or Not) of Dissent“, asking whether the instruction Donum Veritatis (DV), issued in 1990 by the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, doesn’t imply the allowability of a certain degree of dissent.  I hadn’t read DV, but having now had the chance to do so, here is my answer to that question:

DV first explains the role of theologians in the Church, which is “to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church” [para. 6].  This is for the purpose of seeking “the ‘reasons of faith'” and offering those reasons “as a response to those seeking them”, for “men cannot become disciples if the truth found in the word of faith is not presented to them” [para. 7].  In summary, the theologian helps the People of God to “contemplat[e] ever more deeply, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the contents of the faith itself” and to “present[] the reasonableness of the faith to those who ask for an account of it” [para. 5].

Theologians may use “the elements and conceptual tools of philosophy or other disciplines” from the “surrounding culture”, in order to “illumine one or other aspect of the mysteries of faith”, but when it does so, “revealed doctrine … itself must furnish the criteria for the evaluation of these elements and conceptual tools and not vice versa” [para. 10].  There may be “[f]reedom of research”, but in the context of theology such freedom “means an openness to accepting the truth that emerges at the end of an investigation in which no element has intruded that is foreign to the methodology corresponding to the object under study“.  In theology the methodology, as said before, consists in using as the criteria for evaluation “[r]evelation, handed on and interpreted in the Church under the authority of the Magisterium, and received by faith.”  To do otherwise is “to cease doing theology” [para. 12].

It then reflects upon the role of the Magisterium in the Church.  I will assume that Interlocutor and I know and agree what that role is.  If not our differences may become clearer after further correspondence.

It goes on to discuss the collaboration between theologians and the Magisterium:  “The theologian, to be faithful to his role of service to the truth, must take into account the proper mission of the Magisterium and collaborate with it” [para. 20].  It must work with the Magisterium, not against it.  “[T]he theologian is officially charged with the task of presenting and illustrating the doctrine of the faith in its integrity and with full accuracy” [para. 22].

Interlocutor writes, “the assent to infallible teaching (sacred assent) is different from assent to ordinary teaching”.  Maybe so, but is dissent allowed from either?

The way DV puts it is, “When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith.  This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.”  [para. 23].

“When the Magisterium proposes ‘in a definitive way’ truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held” [para. 23].

Finally, “[w]hen 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. 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.”  [para. 23]

Thus even the lowest form of teaching mentioned by DV requires “religious submission of will and intellect”.

It is only after setting forth these three levels of magisterial teaching, and the appropriate response to each, that DV begins to discuss “questions under discussion”, in paragraph 24, part of which Interlocutor quotes.  Frankly I’m not certain what “questions under discussion” refers to, but apparently they are of lower import than the three levels of Magisterial teaching just now set forth, since those were set forth in decreasing order of importance and immediately precede this paragraph.  In fact calling them “questions under discussion” seems to indicate that they are not teachings, per se, at all.  Thus to the extent that this paragraph implies the allowability of disagreement with the Magisterium, apparently it’s only to the extent that the Magisterium has not made a formal pronouncement on the question at all, which is why it remains a “question under discussion”.

Next, finally, is mentioned for the first time what might be conceived of as some slight degree of dissent on the part of theologians.  However it does not refer to “dissent” at all, but only says that the theologian may, “according to the case”, raise questions.  But before doing even that, he must “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” [para. 24].

Further on in paragraph 24, we get an admission that “some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies” — but this refers to “the question of interventions in the prudential order”, in other words questions having to do with practical matters.  This is the context of the other section of paragraph 24 which Interlocutor quotes, concerning “some judgments of the Magisterium” which may have contained “true assertions and others which were not sure”.  It is of these, i.e. Magisterial documents concerning practical matters, that it is said that some “filtering … occurs with the passage of time”.

DV continues, speaking of possible “tensions” which “may arise between the theologian and the Magisterium”, which, depending upon “the spirit with which they are faced” can become “a stimulus to both the Magisterium and theologians to fulfill their respective roles while practicing dialogue”.  [para. 25]  But “[e]ven if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions” [para. 27].  Thus the theologian must proceed with caution in disagreements with the Magisterium, even when they don’t involve doctrines of the faith.  How much more so when they do?

It then discusses theologians who “might have serious difficulties … in accepting a non-irreformable magisterial teaching”.  But note that it mentions only “difficulties” in accepting — it gives no permission for outright dissent.  If someone does have difficulties, he may not base them on the ground that “the validity of the given teaching is not evident”, or that “the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable”, nor even on the grounds of “the subjective conscience of the theologian” [para. 28].

Such a theologian must undertake “an intense and patient reflection” and “if need be, … revise his own opinions and examine the objections which his colleagues might offer him” [para. 29].  If after this his difficulties remain, he “has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented”.  He must do this “in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties” [para. 30].

Note DV’s consistent use of the term “difficulties” in this context, as opposed to “dissent”.

Even then, the theologian’s “difficulty” might remain, “because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him”.  In this case, when “[f]aced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent”, is the theologian now permitted to dissent from magisterial teaching?  On the contrary, he “has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question. For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, 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.”  [para. 31]

Finally DV gets around to discussing “dissent” per se — identifying it immediately as a bad thing, in the chapter heading titled, “The problem of dissent”.  It turns out Paul VI issued an apostolic exhortation of “this problem”, “which must be distinguished from the situation of personal difficulties treated above” [para. 32].  So difficulties in accepting magisterial teaching are not the same as dissent.

Dissent has “diverse forms” and multiple “remote and proximate causes”, such as “[t]he ideology of philosophical liberalism, which permeates the thinking of our age” and “[t]he weight of public opinion when manipulated and its pressure to conform”.  In any case, “[w]e are dealing … here with something quite different from the legitimate demand for freedom in the sense of absence of constraint as a necessary condition for the loyal inquiry into truth.”  [para. 32]  Indeed, “[t]he freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent” [para. 36].  And “[f]inally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent.”

So in answer to your question, “Surely development must entail a degree of dissent?”, DVs answer is a clear “no”.  Difficulties may arise, but when that happens, theologians “should seek their solution in trustful dialogue with the Pastors, in the spirit of truth and charity which is that of the communion of the Church” [para. 40].  “To succumb to the temptation of dissent, on the other hand, is to allow the ‘leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit’ to start to work” [para. 40].

As Newman famously wrote, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”  It seems to me that by the same token, it may be said that a thousand theological difficulties do not justify dissent from the authoritative teaching of the Church.  According to DV, one must work through difficulties in concert with the Magisterium, without resorting to the rebellion against authority which is necessarily entailed in dissent.

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3 thoughts on “Does Donum Veritatis permit dissent?

  1. Hi Agellius,
    Nice analysis of DV. I want to be clear that I am viewing the issue of dissent from a similar angle as many conservatives, e.g. Dulles statement that “Even in the sphere of nondefinitive teaching, theologians should normally trust and support the magisterium and dissent only rarely and reluctantly, for reasons that are truly serious. Dissent, if it arises, should always be modest and restrained. Dissent that is arrogant, strident, and bitter can have no right of existence in the Church.” I think the teaching on that is pretty clear from DV, LG, and canon law as I said before.

    But I do think that “raising questions” can unfortunately be construed as dissent, if those questions are seen as contradicting the (commonly viewed – more on that below) meaning of the text, rather than say adding to it or expanding upon it. Now development of course should not negate what came before if dealing with infallible matters, but it *can* negate the reformable elements of teaching in order to refine it, elements that may very well have been previously interpreted as authoritative! This is why I was bringing up art. 24. You equate the contingent elements of teaching with those “concerning practical matters” which might be the case, but the issue still stands that those elements can be viewed for a time as inextricably mixed with the immutable elements, until discussion and time allow the distinction between the 2 and necessary correctives to emerge. This is why there are many debates amongst theologians (not just liberal vs. conservative) in interpreting magisterial documents that are viewed as infallible as to what exactly is infallible (single sentences, the outline and supporting arguments, which parts of the historical context it came from have no bearing on the timeless meaning (contingent vs necessary elements), and so on).

    I guess I’m not seeing how a view of no dissent ever on authoritative non-infallible/reformable teaching can accomodate necessary correctives that must emerge for development to progress. Do you agree that if we followed the interpretation by the crafters of Unam Sanctam and Cantate Domino – just as 2 examples, I’m sure you can come up with many others that are always brought up in discussions of infallibility – as well as the interpretation by the majority of the hierarchy following the promulgation of those documents, that we would be obliged to be papo-caesarists and Feeneyites, respectively? Obviously thisis not the case, there was development or else LG and DH would have to be scrapped as heretical, but if the attitude had been to never question the interpretation given and spread by the hierarchy to the faithful, then the correctives that negated the contingent elements and deepened the meaning of the immutable/core principles would not have emerged. Otherwise, it seems that if the evidence is clear that Magisterial authors intend to teach a doctrine D with their full authority, then even though D is neither stated by the pertinent document nor logically follows from its statements, Catholics are obligedto believe D. You may say, of course I disagree with that, but “logically follows” is the issue – sometimes it is not discerned for centuries that what has been viewed as “logically following” by most/all actually does not and either is very deficient or erroneous altogether. Now if and when later, actual Magisterial statements make it clear that D is in fact binding, then yes one should assent.

    Related to this, and I realize this is a bit of a tangent, but the only way I see how to reconcile authoritative non-infallible teaching with the indefectibility of the church is to maintain that although authoritative teaching could be erroneous, it would never be erroneous to such a degree as to be harmful to the soul or affect salvation (though even with this caveat, there are historical examples that give pause). So those who do follow a commonly held interpretation of magisterial documents that is later refined or discerned as erroneous are not as culpable as those who then follow the erroneous interpretation after the more defined teaching has emerged. And of course the shepherds are held to a higher account than their flocks. I do not know if this view is shared by many theologians or not, but a seemingly well-informed lay catholic shared my sentiments and expounds quite a bit on the view of dissent that I think should be acceptable at http://www.catholicplanet.com/TSM/assent-dissent.htm.

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  2. Interlocutor:

    Thanks for another very good comment. You are making me think about things I would not have thought of on my own.

    You, and Dulles, et al., may be using “dissent” in a way different from how DV uses it. But don’t you agree that dissent, as DV uses the word, is disallowed by DV?

    Indeed part of the confusion may arise from the lack of a clear and consistently used definition of “dissent”. If you (and Dulles) are using “dissent” in the sense in which DV uses “difficulty” and “question”, then we may be in agreement. In my dictionary “dissent” is defined as either “withholding of assent” or “refusal to submit to religious authority”.

    To my mind what DV dictates is that if a theologian has difficulties he should make a decision to assent, or at least keep an open mind, rather than making a deliberate decision to withold assent — while continuing to explore his difficulties in interaction with the Magisterium; even if that should constitute a trial to him and an occasion of suffering. And of course, he should not engage in public activities or make public statements indicating open dissent, or try to stir up public opinion in order to sway the Magisterium, as if the Church were a democracy; or teach those in his charge that the Magisterium is wrong; all of which would demonstrate a lack of trust in the divine assistance promised to the Magisterium.

    You write, “You equate the contingent elements of teaching with those ‘concerning practical matters’ which might be the case, but the issue still stands that those elements can be viewed for a time as inextricably mixed with the immutable elements, until discussion and time allow the distinction between the 2 and necessary correctives to emerge.”

    I won’t argue with that, but what DV allows in that situation is for the theologian to “raise *questions* regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions” — but not to dissent. This may beg the question of what part may be dissented from and what may not, but I think the answer is that the whole thing may not, until such time as the distinctions and correctives you mention have “emerged”.

    You write, “I guess I’m not seeing how a view of no dissent ever on authoritative non-infallible / reformable teaching can accomodate necessary correctives that must emerge for development to progress.”

    I think the answer, again, is that DV allows questioning between theologians and the Magisterium, and the expression of “difficulties”, but that is not the same as outright dissent. The theologian may say to his bishop, or the CDF, or whomever, “I *question* whether or not this aspect of this pronouncement is correct, for these reasons”, which presumably would lead to a discussion or a decision on the question; but he may not say, “I *reject* this aspect of the pronouncement for these reasons”, until such time as the competent authorities say that he may.

    I really think Newman’s distinction between difficulty and doubt is instructive, and indeed analogous: You may have difficulty understanding the Trinity, but you nevertheless assent to the doctrine, because of the trust you place in Christ’s revelation to the Church, even while trying to work through your difficulties. Theologians have for centuries discussed the difficulties they had with that doctrine, all the while never questioning its truth.

    Of course that doctrine has been infallibly defined. But I don’t see why a doctrine defined non-infallibly can’t be treated the same way: Assented-to out of faith while nevertheless having difficulties and questions raised in its regard. The difference would be that a non-irreformable doctrine might someday be reformed as a result of the discussions, but I see no reason it could not be assented to by faith until such time as it is reformed by the Magisterium.

    You write, “Do you agree that if we followed the interpretation by the crafters of Unam Sanctam and Cantate Domino – just as 2 examples, I’m sure you can come up with many others that are always brought up in discussions of infallibility – as well as the interpretation by the majority of the hierarchy following the promulgation of those documents, that we would be obliged to be papo-caesarists and Feeneyites, respectively?”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “papo-caesarist”, but I guess what you mean is that Unam sanctam (US) calls for the pope to rule the temporal power? If so, I don’t see US that way at all. I had occasion to read it within the past year (and just re-read it), and all I see it saying is that the rulers of a Catholic country have an obligation to submit to the Pope’s judgment on matters of morality — as do all Catholics (and indeed all persons, even though non-Catholics would not admit such an obligation). So that if a Catholic king made a decree legalizing abortion, and the pope said, ah, no, you can’t do that, the king would be obliged to submit: “For with truth as our witness, it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgement **if it has not been good**.” It does not call for the Church to actually run the temporal government: “the former [spiritual sword] in the hands of the priest; the latter [material sword] by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest”.

    In short, all Catholics are subject to the pope, even if they are kings. I don’t see anything suprising or controversial about that. Even DV says, “What concerns morality can also be the object of the authentic Magisterium because the Gospel, being the Word of Life, inspires and guides the whole sphere of human behavior. The Magisterium, therefore, has the task of discerning, by means of judgments **normative for the consciences of believers**, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those which, on the contrary, because intrinsically evil, are incompatible with such demands.” “Normative for the consciences of believers” would apply to any king, president, congressman, etc., who calls himself a Catholic.

    So no, I don’t agree that US obliges us to be papo-ceasarists in that sense.

    You write, “… if the attitude had been to never question the interpretation given and spread by the hierarchy to the faithful …”

    But neither I nor DV disallows questioning an interpretation.

    You write, “… the only way I see how to reconcile authoritative non-infallible teaching with the indefectibility of the church is to maintain that although authoritative teaching could be erroneous, it would never be erroneous to such a degree as to be harmful to the soul or affect salvation …”

    Yes, I think that is necessarily implied, since if you believed that obeying the Magisterium could harm your soul, then trusting it would not be justified. If you believed that trusting the Magisterium most of the time would not harm your soul, but sometimes might, then the onus would be on you to decide when to trust it and when not to. But then that really makes you the Magisterium, doesn’t it?

    You might say, the way you judge when to trust the Magisterium and when not to, is by the criterion of infallibility: When something is infallibly defined you can trust it for sure, but when it’s not, it’s up to you to decide when to trust it. But is this really trust?

    I happen to be reading “The Enemy Within the Gate” by John McKee. In it he says, “[S]ome who are utterly sincere in reprobating anything which smacks of ‘legalism’ still betray a juridical approach towards papal authority because of a hypnosis induced by the first Vatican Council’s definition of papal infallibility. They have discarded their son-to-father, or flock-to-shepherd, relationship in a way undreamed of by the Council Fathers, a way against which tradition cries out …. Human beings being frail, this imbalance has naturally been rife mainly among those who were already deviating from Catholic doctrine even if only by a minor angle of deflection. To them, papal decisions have been disagreeable, and they have received them, not with ‘Peter has spoken through the mouth of Paul,’ but with the words, ‘Is he speaking infallibly? If not, I need not accept.’ Such an attitude is out of touch with the realities of life. It is as if people would agree to travel by train only if guaranteed that the driver was incapable of error; rather, as if the flock refused to follow God’s appointed shepherd without a written guarantee ruling out any possible slip.” [p. 60]

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  3. Pingback: Agellius attempts Catholic ecclesiology « Agellius's Blog

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