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.
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”.
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.
 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]