Agellius attempts Catholic ecclesiology

Kelly Wilson posted on Vox Nova something similar to things he’s posted in the past, regarding three “gradations” of Catholic teaching, and the level of assent required to each. I am posting my response here because if I posted it as a comment to his post there is only a 50/50 (or 40/60?) chance that he wouldn’t delete it.

I don’t dispute the main point of his post, which is that the Church doesn’t  teach that anyone who disagrees with Church teaching is automatically excommunicated.

What I think calls for a response is the part about the three gradations. In my opinion, Kelly doesn’t make clear what his point is when he discusses that issue. But as best I can figure, judging by the context of this post, he’s saying that dissent from the Church’s teaching on the male-only priesthood (for example) is not dissent from an infallibly defined doctrine, therefore it doesn’t merit excommunication.

Then again, he’s not really saying that it’s not infallibly defined. He’s saying that whether or not it’s infallibly defined is a matter of interpretation. He concedes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stated in response to a dubium (which response was pre-approved by the Pope) that the teaching has been infallibly taught; and also that Pope John II stated in an address to the German bishops that the teaching possesses the “central character of infallibility”.

But, Kelly argues, this doesn’t make the teaching infallible, because neither the statement of the CDF nor that of John Paul II, when they said it was infallible, were *themselves* infallible. Do you get that? The Pope and the CDF have said it’s infallible, but since they haven’t said *infallibly* that it’s infallible, we’re free to believe it’s not infallible.[1]

I’m not saying that Kelly himself takes the tack of refusing to believe anything that isn’t an expressly infallible teaching. I have never heard him state whether or not he accepts, for example, the Church’s teaching on the male-only priesthood. But he does seem to think it important to assure those who would take that tack on one issue or another, that they may do so with a clear conscience.

But for all this rigamarole about whether the teaching falls into the second gradation or the first, it bears pointing out that whether it falls into first or the second, you still have to believe it. This may be shown from two magisterial documents which Kelly cites in his own post.

First, Lumen Gentium says that

[R]eligious 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.

Lumen Gentium 25 (empasis added).

Second, Donum Veritatis discusses the three gradations of magisterial teaching and the response due to each. Teachings of the first or highest gradation require the response of “theological faith”; those of the second “must be firmly accepted and held”; and those of the thrid require “religious submission of will and intellect”.   (Cf. “Does Donum veritatis Permit Dissent?”)

In this light, it’s hard to understand why it’s a big deal whether the teaching on the male-only priesthood falls into the first or second gradation, since in niether case may the teaching be rejected, but at a minimum must be “firmly accepted and held”.

Kelly writes,

The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is moving towards — we Catholics believe — a greater realization of God’s expectations. The person in the pew may indeed be mistaken about the capacity of the Church to develop its teachings in ways that would be agreeable to that particular person, but even if that person is mistaken in his or her optimism, it is a mistake motivated by something true: The Church is moving towards a greater realization of God’s expectations. If he or she is taught to believe that communicated through his or her conscience is, to quote the Victorian John Henry Newman, him “who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil” then such a person is to follow what he or she believes to be God, and because such persons also believe the Holy Spirit is leading the Church, it is natural for that person (even if it is not necessarily correct), for that person to believe that there will be eventual correspondence between that conscience and the teachings of the Church.

So a Catholic is to follow what “he or she believes to be God”, because he or she has been taught that God is communicated through his or her conscience. And that being the case, he or she is justified in believing that some day the Church will come around to his or her way of thinking. This is a natural expectation, since God has (apparently) communicated to him or her that he or she is right and the Church is wrong.

Where, I wonder, would Kelly say that “religious submission of mind and will” enters into this scenario? I wonder if the person who was taught that God is communicated through his or her conscience, was also taught that he or she must sincerely adhere to the teachings of the Roman Pontiff, even when they’re not taught ex cathedra? If not, why not? I wonder if Kelly, once he becomes a priest, would tell such a person that this is what he or she must do? (Then again, what if the person rejects Kelly’s advice on the ground that his imparting of infallible teachings is not itself infallible?)

I agree with Kelly that this theoretical person-in-the-pew is not automatically excommunicated for believing that he knows better than the Church, nor should he be kicked out against his will if he won’t go willingly, as some have apparently suggested. But more important than that, is this person’s ignorance of the fact that even when a teaching is “merely” in the second gradation of Church teaching, he still has to submit to it.  This shows how poorly his conscience is formed. I would be interested to hear how much importance Kelly places on this woeful state of affairs, and how he plans to address it once he has received ordination.

Notes

[1]   I am reminded of a quote from “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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17 thoughts on “Agellius attempts Catholic ecclesiology

  1. Agellius, your engagement identifies not disputing with the main point of my post (which you perceive to be “that the Church doesn’t teach that anyone who disagrees with the Church teaching is automatically excommunicated”). That is not the main point. The main point is that persons leaving the Church, as a result of their own disagreement with particular teachings, need not feel that the necessary consequence some are presenting it as.

    You suggest I am not clear enough in identifying the point I am attempting to make when speaking of the gradations within the Church’s teachings. That is fair enough: There are always ways in which one — in this case myself — can speak with greater clarity, and I will reflect more upon this. I think, though, you get at it a little when you state that I “seem to think it important to assure those who would [disagree with what the Church presents as true], that they may do so with a clear conscience.”

    I wouldn’t go that far. It’s not “you disagree with what the Church presents as true = you act in good conscience,” but rather, to quote the Canadian Bishops, it’s that individuals who have tried sincerely, but without success, to keep the directives of the Church, may be assured that “whosoever honestly chooses that course of action which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” All of this presupposes significant work in terms of forming one’s own conscience, but also includes a previous paragraph that had reminded Canadian Catholics that those who find the Church’s teaching on contraception either “extremely difficult or even impossible to make their own” should “not be considered or consider themselves, shut off from the body of the faithful.”

    None of this is to say that the Church is wrong about, for example, artificial methods of regulating birth, but it is to say that the process of faith (and not simply its contents) needs to be taken into account, and when done, evaluations of Catholicity will usually be seen as being not our place.

    Faith, Agellius, really can be a struggle for some. There is a difference between the sorts of orthodoxy tests fundamentalism motivates and authentic Christianity. I don’t believe orthodoxy is something to be scorned, but what persons who have a different psychological disposition need to realize is that there are certain types of persons for whom the appropriation of orthodoxy will vary, and as Unitatis redentigratio identifies, there exists a hierarchy of truths. If someone can recognize that in Jesus, God has been uniquely revealed, and that in the Church he continues to present himself, then that’s a touch more important to me than truths connected to these central ones. Those matters which my own upbringing or environment might have helped me to see as a logical or historical result of the kerygma, might, for another person and for all sorts of different reasons, unfold and be appropriated at a different pace. It is my view that in the Church such people should always find a safe place to interact and develop, and that is why I react as I do when I hear the suggestion that such persons leave.

    I don’t hear you making that suggestion, but some certainly would benefit from more patience surrounding the pace with which a person would normally appropriate such truths.

    (You raise a further issue of importance. Regardless of a gradation “you still have to believe it,” you say. Let’s come back to this if we can. I have considerations of time which prevent me from responding).

    I thank you for the engagement with my post, and will look forward to future encounters.

    Kelly.

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  2. I find myself with serious doubts as to the fact that it is the will of the Holy Spirit that there be no married priests or women priests, thus I don’t believe that the statements regarding women priests is infallible…and can find theologians much better educated than I who believe this also…however, I also believe that as a Catholic, it is my duty to prayerfully submit my will, and trust that if I am right the Holy Spirit will lead the Church in that direction, and if I am wrong, the Holy Spirit will show me at some point. I take as my guide the example of Yves Congar…who submitted his will to the Church, and was ultimately vindicated. (I compare only my attempts at prayerful submission, and clearly not my intellect) There are any number of examples of faithful dissent even among saints

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  3. Kelly:

    You write, ‘It’s not “you disagree with what the Church presents as true = you act in good conscience,” but rather, to quote the Canadian Bishops, it’s that individuals who have tried sincerely, but without success, to keep the directives of the Church, may be assured that “whosoever honestly chooses that course of action which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” All of this presupposes significant work in terms of forming one’s own conscience …’

    Well, this is its own issue. I find the statement “whosoever honestly chooses that course of action which seems right to him does so in good conscience” to be vague and ambiguous. In fact, isn’t it really just a tautology? Since acting in good conscience means doing what you believe is right, all it’s really saying is that whoever acts in accord with his conscience acts in accord with his conscience.

    It may “presuppose significant work in forming one’s conscience”, but nevertheless it really says nothing; yet it gives the impression of saying, “As long as you do what seems right to you, you’re fine”, which is not very useful as a moral guideline. Everybody does what seems right to him; nobody needs the Church to tell him that. The Church’s role is to tell people what *really is* right and what *really is* wrong, in the light of revelation, regardless what may *seem* right or wrong to any individual. The role of the individual is to either believe this is the Church’s role, or to deny it. Those who believe place their faith in the Church, while those who don’t, don’t.

    In a similar vein: You imply that the central truth of the faith is that “in Jesus, God has been uniquely revealed, and that in the Church he continues to present himself”; and that this is more important than truths “connected” to these. But that simple statement implies all kinds of other truths, truths *about* God and *about* Jesus, *about* the Church and *about* the ways in which Jesus “presents himself”. Now, does faith call for each individual to decide for himself what “seems right to you” to believe about Jesus? Or does faith involve submitting your own personal conjectures about Jesus to the Church’s objective teachings about him, in light of the fact that it’s the Church that Jesus authorized to teach in his name?

    Declining to place your faith in the Church may not require you to leave it, but it does beg the question what is the point of remaining a member while declining to place your faith in it. One could do so, I suppose, for the purpose of fellowship or some vague idea such as finding “inspiration” in it. But that is not the Church’s own view of its function, which is to bear witness to the *truth* so that people may come to *faith* through its preaching.

    Again I’m not saying that people who don’t choose to place their faith in the Church (for whatever reason) must leave it. But I do think such people are in need of catechesis as to the role and function of the Church and the requirements of faith. Once they understand the response that faith calls for, then they can decide whether or not to make that response; at which point they need no longer have one foot in and one foot out, believing yet not believing, so to speak. Do you disagree?

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  4. Hi Brian:

    Nice to hear from you as always.

    You say you don’t believe the Church’s teaching regarding priestly ordination is infallible. You also indicate that in the meantime it is your duty to submit your will. What I’m not clear on is, do you believe the Church’s teaching on this issue is true, or do you believe it’s false, or are you suspending judgment?

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  5. It means that my opinion is just that, my opinion, and after much thought and prayer still do not understand the Church’s reasoning, if indeed in Christ there is no “male and female, no slave or free” and if we are truely all “made in the image and likeness of God”. But I am not a theologian…I read things and study things in my spare time based on what I feel called toward studying, so I cannot put my meager intellect and understanding above that of theologians…however our culture seems to want to make it sound as though everyone’s opinions are equal in value. (It is probably pretentious of me to even comment here.) So based on that, and on my understanding of dissent within the Church, it is my duty to say that my understanding may well be incomplete, and pray that if it is, I will be enlightened, and in the meantime, accept the authority of the Church and not do things that go against the Church. So for example, while I may think that the Church will someday come around on this issue, I have no belief that what the Woman Priest movement does is right or acceptable, and I cannopt support it. Does that clarify? I guess what I’m saying is that I believe that the church’s teaching is true as follows: it is within what the Holy Spirit has opened to the Church at this time. I think that in the future, God through the Holy Spirit may open up revelation more that allows people to see that there may be more room than previously understood. Thus it would be a growth or further opening of understanding, rather than new revelation…which, if I am correct in my understanding, doesn’t happen.

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  6. Brian:

    Yes, that does clarify, thanks. I do see things differently. Take, for example, birth control: On a personal level, if the Church had not told me that birth control was sinful, I doubt that I would have guessed that it was. Since the Church has taught me that it’s sinful, I fully believe it’s sinful, without a shadow of a doubt. I don’t divide my personal opinion from the Church’s teaching, as if to say, I personally believe this, but, as a separate act of the will I make a conscious decision to accept what the Church teaches, even though it conflicts with my personal belief. Do you see what I’m saying?

    My faith in the Church causes me to supplant my personal opinion on the matter, because I’m convinced that the Church knows better than I do. Therefore when people ask me whether birth control is sinful, I simply say “yes”, rather than saying, “Personally I don’t consider it sinful, but I accept the Church’s teaching on it.”

    It’s that divide that’s mysterious to me, when it occurs in people who consider themselves believing Catholics.

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  7. “My faith in the Church causes me to supplant my personal opinion on the matter, because I’m convinced that the Church knows better than I do.”
    Or, as I stated, I may not have yet been granted better understanding, and pray that if that is the case, it will indeed be opened to me, and in the meantime…see your statement
    We do not disagree. I cannot at this time be conversant with you in regard to “particular levels” of required obedience…so I will err on the side of obedience

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  8. Brian:

    Let me just say that I’m not arguing who is right or wrong right now, just that I don’t think we really agree.

    The difference between us is this: You say you doubt whether it’s the will of the Holy Spirit that there be no women priests. You say you trust that if you are right, the Holy Spirit will guide the Church in that direction, and if you’re wrong, the Holy Spirit will enlighten you at some point.

    The very fact that you can say “if” I’m right then the Holy Spirit will correct the Church, and “if” the Church is right then the Holy Spirit will correct me, shows a dichotomy between your personal opinion and the teaching of the Church: If A is right then B is wrong, and vice versa. A and B can’t both be right. I realize that you are willing to submit your *will* to the Church’s teachings and not act against them. But your *opinion* is still at odds with the Church’s teaching. This is the divide that I was speaking of.

    Further, if you are right, if it’s not the will of the Holy Spirit that only men be priests, then the Church’s formal teaching on this matter is wrong; i.e., if you doubt that it’s the will of the Holy Spirit, then you doubt the Church’s teaching.

    Whereas I have no doubt about any formal teaching of the Church, whatsoever.

    Again in saying this, I’m only trying to point out where we differ. There is a division in your mind concerning this teaching, that doesn’t exist in my mind on any teaching. I’m not saying one of us is better, only that we differ.

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  9. Agellius, I feel no need for clarification: You had suggested that the main point of my post was that “the Church doesn’t teach that anyone who disagrees with the Church teaching is automatically excommunicated.” I have corrected your reading by identifying how, in fact, that was not the main point. The main point was that persons leaving the Church, as a result of their own disagreement with particular teachings, need not feel that the necessary consequence some are presenting it as.

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  10. agellius,
    Let me pose a question…has there ever been anything the Church taught that you didn’t agree with…or at the very least, it made no sense to you? How do you handle that.
    Also, as far as Church Teachings… the Church taught that the earth was the center of the universe…until science proved that notion wrong…
    and while they may not have dissented from formal church teachings…many saints and theologians have differed significantly… St. Thomas Aquinas I believe drew from Greek Philosophy that people were instructed not to study..
    John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar and others were threatened and/or silenced because areas they were exploring were thought to be outside of Church teaching, yet they formed a significant part of the groundwork for Vatican II. Most any reform movement within the Church was first seen as dissent.
    St. Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic…right?

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  11. Brian:

    Sorry for the delay in responding. In answer to your question (“has there ever been anything the Church taught that you didn’t agree with…or at the very least, it made no sense to you? How do you handle that”), see my next post.

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  12. Pingback: The incoherence of the “right to dissent” « Agellius's Blog

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