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Shedding Light on Church Teachings

Shedding Light on Church Teachings

by Catharine A. Henningsen [= CAH in the text]

The American Catholic Talks with Bishop Raymond A. Lucker,
January/February 2001 issue

Recent books, such as Garry Wills’ Papal Sin have made much of the fact that the Catholic Church will not change its teachings because it fears giving the impression that a previous pope may have been in error. Such seems to have been the case when Paul VI issued his birth control encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Can the Catholic Church ever reverse itself? In the course of addressing the CTA national conference in November, Bishop Raymond A. Lucker mentioned that he had compiled a list of at least 65 teachings of the church that were once taught as authoritative—albeit reformable—teachings, but which have since been changed [See list below].

Given the controversies over various church teachings, such as birth control and women’s ordination, we decided to talk to Bishop Lucker about how the church arrives at what it teaches and about what’s going on in church teaching today. To keep us on track, Bishop Lucker also gave us an outline of the four levels of church teaching which comes from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith [see the box below].


Changes in Authoritative, Non-Irreformable Teaching

LUCKER: We’ve all heard that “The church can never make mistakes, because the church is Jesus Christ.” The trouble is, when you’re talking about the church, you’re talking about the human side too. The pope did a wonderful thing acknowledging the errors and sins of the church’s past, but what he would never say is, “the church did thus and so....” What he said was “some members of the church.” And I say, “Fine, but only if you’re including the leaders of the church, including its popes.” Look at the first list. [on the right] This is a list of things that at one time the church proclaimed as official, authoritative teachings. They’re actually called, “Authoritative, Non-Irreformable” teachings. And what’s another way to say non-irreformable? Reformable. But, if at one time you’d stood up and said, “Now wait a minute. I don’t agree with that” you’d have been in real trouble. Take, for example, the theologians who began to work with ecumenical contacts back in the 1930s. They were told that Catholics may not participate in ecumenical meetings because that was “akin to indifferentism” and that we would then be saying that one religion was as good as another. So, if you’d said, “That’s ridiculous, I’m going to go to these meetings,” you’d have been in serious trouble.

CAH: How does a teaching become authoritative?

LUCKER: An authoritative teaching is basically a theological opinion which has the support of a large number of people in the church. For example, let’s say we say “we have a preferential option for the poor.” Now that’s a very good theological opinion/position. It’s not divinely revealed, but it’s very close to divinely revealed to say that we ought to have a preferential choice for the poor. Now, the people of the church—let’s say those out of liberation theology who are listening to the poor—could say, “Why is there so much poverty?” “Why is there no running water?,” etc. And they ask these questions in the light of the Gospel and they say, “This is not right.” Then the church leadership—including local bishops, local pastors, local church leaders, and the laity say, “Yes, we have to change this.” Then the pope’s and the various other episcopal teachings will come down on that side. So then you have an authoritative teaching. Now, take a look at the levels of teaching [see box further down] [Bishop Lucker notes that various theologians have attempted to put levels on different teachings and there’s a difference of opinion on what should be on that list. ] Authoritative teachings call for “religious submission of will and intellect,” and people gave that to these teachings—in some cases under great suffering—until finally there were people who said, “Wait a minute, we have to look at this again.” And finally there was enough “critical mass” on the part of scripture scholars, bishops, etc., and then the pope, to change the teaching. One of the best examples is Biblical criticism. The church once taught that you couldn’t read Scripture in the light of its historical and cultural context. Well, we suffered under that for at least 75 years until Pius XII issued his famous encyclical on biblical studies and freed the whole thing.

  1. Academic Freedom
  2. Animal Rights
  3. Astrology
  4. Biblical Criticism
  5. Election of Bishops
  6. Canonization of Saints
  7. Capitalism
  8. Church and State
  9. Church as perfect society
  10. Church can err
  11. Collegiality
  12. Communism
  13. Confession (ways of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance)
  14. Creation in six days
  15. Democracy
  16. Development of Doctrine
  17. Dissent
  18. Eastern Schism
  19. Ecclesiology
  20. Ecumenism
  21. Ensoulment
  22. Error has no rights
  23. Galileo
  24. Gospels – authorship of the gospels
  25. Holy orders – forms of the sacrament
  26. Inculturation
  27. Inequality in the church
  28. Infallibility of Encyclicals
  29. Jews
  30. Justice in the church
  31. Laicization of Priests
  32. Laity – participation in the church
  33. Latin – use of
  34. Local church
  35. Marriage – Definition of
  36. Marriage – inferior to celibate life; religious life superior
  37. Freedom of the Press
  38. Membership in the church
  39. Modernism
  40. Monarchy
  41. Moses – author of the Pentateuch
  42. National independence
  43. Openess to the World
  44. Original Sin and Monoganism
  45. Papal Authority
  46. Papal States
  47. Pluralism
  48. Preferential option for the poor
  49. Religious Liberty
  50. Revelation
  51. Sacramental Theology
  52. Salvation outside of the church
  53. Sexuality
  54. Slavery
  55. Social Classes
  56. Social Teaching
  57. Suicide
  58. Support of Colonialism
  59. Teaching role of Bishops
  60. Torture
  61. Tridentine Missal
  62. Usury
  63. Vicar of Christ title
  64. Women
  65. Worship – changes

Levels of Teaching (by Bishop Raymond Lucker)

Level of Teaching Requires Contrary Examples
1. Divinely revealed truth
Doctrine definitively taught by the church as revealed
– infallible – dogmas:
1) Solemnly defined by pope – by Council
2) Taught by ordinary and universal magisterium
Response of faith
(divine faith)
assent to revealed truth
Blessed Trinity
Real Presence
Immaculate Conception
Assumption (defined by pope)
Redemption – Jesus is savior
Sacraments – instituted by Jesus
Love God – love one another
Forgive one another
2. Definitive Non-Revealed Truths
Proposed as Infallible
* Matters of faith and morals that “even though not revealed themselves, are required to safeguard the integrity of the deposit of faith, to explain it rightly, and to define it effectively”
* “Necessary and intrinsic relationship to the truths of faith”
Firm assent
Acceptance of the teaching as true
Principles of the natural law
Sacraments – seven
Condemnation of destruction of cities and centers of population in total war
All terms of discrimination based on race, sex, social condition to be condemned
Human dignity and equality
Human rights
Immortality of the human person
Life is a basic good, but not an absolute one
Action on behalf of justice is constitutive to the church
Racism, sexism are evil
3. Authoritative but non-irreformable teaching
“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”
* Non-definitive teaching
* Also called authentic, but non-infallible teaching
“Religious submission (respect, obedience) of will and intellect”
“Obsequium religiosum” religiously grounded obedience
Membership in the church
Biblical criticism
Preferential option for the poor
Definition of marriage
Formula for sacraments
Religious liberty
Authorship of first five books of the Bible
Union of church and state
Discrimination against Jews
Heart of Jesus as symbol of God’s love
Anglican orders
Artificial birth control
Non-ordination of women
Term “transubstantiation”
Certain “in-vitro” fertilization procedures
4. Disciplinary rules
* Universal laws of the church
* Particular laws of a diocese
* Liturgical norms
* Church practice
Fasting rules
Feasts of obligation
Celibacy of clergy
Directives from curia on religious life
Music – ceremonies
Art – architecture
First Confession before First Communion
5. Theological Opinion
* Applications of moral norms
* Way of expressing teachings
* Cultural expressions of teachings
difference of opinion
sometimes warning given on dangerous opinion that could lead to error
Applications of moral principles
Conclusions about the humanity of Jesus
6. Pious practices and devotions Invites:
following encouragement
personal preference
Saying the rosary
Going to Lourdes
Wearing medals

CAH: There’s been a great deal of controversy over the fact that the pope’s encyclical against the ordination of women, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, was declared as a definitive teaching. Can you tell us more about that?

LUCKER: When the pope proclaimed this teaching on the ordination of women [Ordinatio Sacerdotalis] and Ratzinger said that was a definitive teaching, that would mean it was put in the second level—that is, a teaching that is so close to a revealed teaching that it must be held by all the faithful.

CAH: How did it happen that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was put on the definitive list?

LUCKER: That’s the whole issue. When Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was published, Ratzinger gave us a list of things he considered to be in the definitive column. [In his Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei, Ratzinger listed the ban on the ordination of women, the canonization of saints, the invalidity of Anglican Orders and the doctrine on euthanasia among the teachings he considered to be definitive. In that document he also stated that, “Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.”] What he’s saying is, these things have not been revealed, but they’re so close to being revealed and so connected to revealed teaching that we hold them to be definitive. Some theologians would question this listing. For example, I’ve come up with one that I believe could correctly be called definitive. We believe as a revealed teaching of the church that Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. We accept that from Scripture where Jesus says, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” etc. Take our belief in Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist and you take it one step further and you say, since Jesus is present in the Eucharist then we ought to give reverence and adoration to Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. That would be a definitive teaching—one that is so closely connected to the teaching about Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist that we would hold it as definitive.

CAH: But when you look at Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which the church has proclaimed as a definitive teaching, there is nothing in Scripture against the ordination of women.

LUCKER: That’s right. The teaching on the ordination of women is one of the most difficult issues that we face. The Biblical scholars will say that there’s nothing in Scripture that will prove it one way or the other. Where do you prove it from then? Well, it’s basically a question of practice. We haven’t done it. Does this mean that’s the source of the doctrine? Well, the pope came up with two new reasons against ordaining women when he proclaimed Ordinatio Sacerdotalis definitive. First, he said, “Well, there were no women at the Last Supper.” But do we really know that? No. We don’t have any proof of that. Then he said that Jesus ordained the disciples at the Last Supper and there were no women there, so it was not Jesus’ intention to ordain women. Well, we can’t prove Jesus ordained anybody. Basically, the church’s argument against the ordination of women—which has been taught for at least 800 years—is that women are inferior. But we don’t believe that women are inferior any more. There is a lack of argumentation for the teaching. And the argumentation is weak.

CAH: The church teaching which holds that women are inferior is the teaching on complementarity?

LUCKER: Yes. And complementarity—that is, the teaching that women and men are equal, but have from God different roles— is an authoritative teaching. And one that is important to John Paul II.

CAH: I see on your list of the levels of teaching that the belief that sexism is evil is a definitive teaching. How can the church teach that sexism is evil and teach complementarity at the same time? Do they not believe that complementarity is sexist?

LUCKER: We would all say that we believe in the equality of men and women— after all we are all equally created by God—but then in the same breath the teaching says BUT in the plan of God, we have men and women who complement each other and therefore have different roles and those different roles are defined by the patriarchs. In practice I believe this means inequality.

CAH: Where does the teaching about birth control fit into this discussion?

LUCKER: Some say birth control is a definitive teaching, others that it is an authoritative teaching. Now you have some very conservative theologians—a whole bunch of them over in Rome—who claim that the teaching about birth control is definitive. Some even wanted to ratchet it up to infallible! To say, the ordinary teaching magisterium of the church for centuries has taught it this way. Almost every theologian except the very conservative ones would say that birth control is an authoritative teaching — a teaching which has been expressed by theologians and supported by the magisterium. Or let’s take the catechism of the Council of Trent. That was basically a pretty good book by the way— a wonderfully well-stated summary of the teaching of the Catholic faith in narrative form. But in that catechism it advised married couples to refrain from sexual intercourse before going to communion. In the present catechism we finally have for the first time the teaching that sexual relations between a husband and wife are good. That was the teaching of Vatican II. But then it says, quoting Pius XII, that they should exercise due moderation. It’s sort of like saying, “Keep it within bounds.” Instead of just saying, “Go for it,” there’s that negativity again. They’re saying ‘It’s okay, it’s good even, but don’t enjoy it too much. Now that’s an official teaching, so if at that time, say the 18th or 19th century, you stood up and said, “I don’t agree with that” you would have been in trouble.

CAH: How is it that we as progressives are labeled “cafeteria Catholics” by conservatives and yet many conservative groups think nothing of defying the teachings of the Second Vatican Council? Ratzinger and others think nothing, for example, of asking for a return to the Tridentine Mass. Are they not being censured simply because they’re in power?

LUCKER: Exactly. So obviously it becomes a power issue, a patriarchal issue and a political issue. When the people in Rome want to have a theological discussion on a particular topic, they will bring in theologians from around the world, but they’re all hand-picked, so they all say the same thing. They’ll say, “We consulted broadly on this issue and this is what we hear,” but really, they’re only listening to one side of the question. We give great weight to officially held positions, and we arrive at them, as I described before, through listening to the theologians, having free and open discussion of these questions and listening to the people. It’s out of all of that that you arrive at an authoritative teaching. But too often, we squelch our theologians and what happens is the whole process gets side-tracked. And it works the other way too. There are a lot of very conservative people who are really in dissent against Catholic teaching.

CAH: Like LeFebvre?

LUCKER: No, he’s really a schismatic. A heretic. I’m talking about these ultra conservatives who are the rubrics police and condemning people for holding their position, etc. Well, the fact is that their position—let’s say we’re talking about the exploitation of workers or the destruction of the earth in terms of ecological damage or their very vicious attitudes towards immigrants. Now, because they’re conservative and let’s say following the Republican line, somehow they don’t realize that they’re going against authoritative, papally proclaimed teaching. And some of the neo-conservatives are holding forth on the value of capitalism as though it were a papally approved system for the welfare of the world. Well, the pope has made some very strong, very good statements on a lot of these issues which the conservatives don’t accept. They will claim to be orthodox and yet they are going against papal teaching—which would be authoritative teaching on a lot of these issues.

CAH: What about Ex Corde Ecclesiae? [In May any theologian seeking to teach in a Catholic College or University will be required to obtain a mandatum from the local bishop.] Can you tell us a little more about that as it relates to church teaching?

LUCKER: Father Bob Nugent had a letter in the January 6th issue of The Tablet responding to all the discussions we’ve been having about Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the mandate that theologians will be required to obtain to teach. He says, “The Catholic bishops in the United States have not really drafted a “loyalty test” for Catholic theologians. As part of the implementation of the Pope’s apostolic constitution on Catholic education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, they have simply offered a model letter for Catholic teachers, requesting a mandate in which the theologian promises to teach within the “full communion of the Catholic Church”. . . But if a bishop demands the inclusion of this phrase in any request for a mandate, serious problems will arise. Would a theologian, for example, who has personal difficulties with the definitive teaching of Ad Tuendam Fidem on the invalidity of Anglican orders therefore be judged as not teaching in “full communion” with the church? Would it be sufficient for the theologian simply to forgo any public dissent or questioning? If charged with doctrinal ambiguity, could he or she be coerced by a higher Vatican authority to manifest personal, internal adherence by signing an individually crafted profession of faith on this teaching?” And, of course, Nugent is really going for the jugular here with Ratzinger, because that’s exactly what the Vatican demanded of Father Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick. And that has never happened before in the church ever. The doctrine of the church has always dealt with public teaching and never with conscience.

CAH: Does church teaching change to accommodate advances in scientific and other knowledge?

LUCKER: Expressions tend to be human and they also tend to be time-conditioned or culturally conditioned. Even when you talk about divinely revealed truths we could find better words while leaving the meaning the same. For example, nowhere do you find in the New Testament the way we express the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. We say that in God there are three persons, but Jesus never talked about persons. The word person is very helpful to us though, because it expresses the understanding that each member of the Trinity has a separate identity. So, even when you are talking about divinely revealed truth, you could find better ways of expressing the same truth down the centuries. We say, for example, that Jesus is fully human, but as we have better anthropology, we are much better able to understand what being human really means. We can come to a deeper understanding and that’s the role of theology—to understand the dogmas.

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