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Theologians and the Magisterium

Theologians and the Magisterium

by Richard A McCormick, S.J.

From Corrective Vision, Explorations in Moral Theology, Sheed & Ward, 1994, Chapter 7.

Reproduced on our website with the necessary permissions.

"Oh no, not again" is likely to be the spontaneous reaction to the title of this chapter. In the past several decades the matter seems to have been talked to death. There is broad consensus among mainline Catholic scholars on many points. Yes, the pope and bishops are commissioned to protect the depositum fidei. Yes, they constitute the "authentic" magisterium. Yes, even their less than infallible utterances claim a special response from Catholics (obsequium religiosum). Yes, in discharging its teaching function, the magisterium has the right and duty to point out errors, even at times to discipline those responsible. As for theologians, they too are teachers, but do not speak in the name of the Church (in this sense, are not authentic or official). Their exploring and critical work is both public and indispensable. A modification of or distancing from past formulations (dissent) cannot be excluded in principle. When it occurs—relatively rarely, one would think, if the magisterium is operating in a healthy, open and nonideological way—it should be viewed constructively as a positive contribution to our growth in understanding and as a dimension of a theologian's loyalty. Points like these have been written about frequently, most recently in the document entitled "Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians."(1) It can be said that they are in pacific possession. There is little need to repeat such matters in a book such as this.

However, even careful and balanced statements about the rights and responsibilities of bishops and theologians in the teaching function of the Church remain frustratingly abstract and sterile. There is the uneasy sense that such statements leave the real problem untouched and unfaced. The real problem lies in the fact that not a few—bishops and theologians—qualify in practice what nearly all would admit in principle. For instance, there are bishops who assert that theology is indispensable to their teaching role, and yet who totally disregard it when certain delicate and controversial moral issues are being discussed. Similarly, there are theologians who, while admitting the exploratory character of their work, present it as the basis for pastoral practice. This day-to-day or in-practice inconsistency constitutes the context or atmosphere in which theologians relate to the magisterium. Unless we deal straightforwardly with this atmosphere and some of its supportive—but often unexamined and implicit—assumptions, we will not have faced the problem of the relation of theologians and the magisterium realistically.

As a way of approaching this atmosphere or context, I want to propose a series of ten theses. I expect some of these theses to be controversial. Indeed, if they were not, we would very likely not have the inconsistency noted above between in principle and in practice. I cannot in a brief period fully explain or validate these theses. I can only lay them out in adumbrated form, recipe-like in the expectation that others will add seasonings and variations.

Before doing this, I must explain terms that I shall use in several places: "culture one," "culture two." These are borrowed from Eugene Kennedy's recent study (1988).(2) "Culture," as used by Kennedy, refers to an outlook on religion, Church and world and to the elements that shape these differing outlooks. The designation "one" refers to an outlook that "rises from and finds its concerns as well as its imaginative expression in the traditional institutional structures of the Church in the United States." "Culture two" is "far less absorbed with the inner and outer life of institutional Catholicism." Kennedy richly elaborates the differences between these two cultures throughout his book. But I believe it fair to say that the key differentiating feature of the two cultures is found in concern for and commitment to the institutional aspects of Catholicism. Kennedy finds this feature a much more accurate description of the differences among Catholics than liberal-conservative. It is Kennedy's thesis that culture one is dying, indeed that culture two is subtly transforming the American Catholic Church in its own image. Now to my theses.

1. Lumen gentium (n, 25) needs updating.

I refer specifically to the notion of "religious submission of mind and will" to the authentic but noninfallible teachings of the magisterium. As is well known, this phrase is brandished as a veritable weapon to exclude any public dissent. Karl Rahner argued that n. 25 of Lumen gentium is an inadequate portrayal of the appropriate theological response to authoritative noninfallible teaching. He stated (1980, p. 373):

If, for example, the statements of Lumen gentium (n. 25) on this matter were valid without qualifications, then the world-wide dissent of Catholic moral theologians against Humanae vitae would be a massive and global assault on the authority of the magisterium. But the fact that the magisterium tolerates this assault shows that the norm of Lumen gentium (and many other similar assertions of the past one hundred years) does not express in sufficiently nuanced form a legitimate praxis of the relationship between the magisterium and theologians.(3)

In another study, Rahner touches on noninfallible teaching and asserts that "even the second Vatican Council did not speak clearly enough about such authentic but reformable Roman doctrinal decisions." Moreover, "Roman procedure after the Council left something to be desired by way of straightforward clarity and modesty." (4)

Rahner does not say positively and explicitly how he would modify n. 25; but it is not difficult to infer this. Repeatedly Rahner has insisted that the authentic magisterium has been in error. Therefore, the obsequium religiosum must be understood in such a way that the possibility of error is foreseen and provided for in the expected response,

When Andre Naud first discussed this matter (5) in 1980, he found Lumen gentium (n. 25, "adherence of mind and will") "extremely ambiguous" when taken together with the type of freedom asserted in 1967 by the German bishops in their famous Konigsteinerklarung(6). He argued that there is a need to clarify the sense of n. 25. Naud (1987) has recently returned to this subject and criticized the unique emphasis on assent. This has given rise to an absolutist (Naud calls it "rigid") reading of obsequium religiosum, when as a matter of fact a careful reading of the text, especially in light of its history, does not support such a rigid understanding. A recent article by Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., made the same point.(7)

How we word what is needed depends very much on the contemporary context. Naud, Sullivan and others are suggesting a more nuanced understanding of n. 25. I use the stronger "updating." Why? Because the present ambiguity of the text will continue to yield and nourish the more rigid reading. A symbol of this is, of course, Cardinal Ratzinger's indictment of dissent in principle through his absolutist reading of obsequium religiosum in the Curran case. He wrote:

In any case, the faithful must accept not only the infallible magisterium. They are to give the religious submission of intellect and will to the teaching which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate on faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it with a definitive act. This you have continued to refuse to do.(8)

My first thesis calls for updating. The form this should take will be a synthesis and making explicit of the types of animadversions we find in Rahner, Naud, Sullivan, and others with regard to obsequium religiosum as applied to noninfallible teaching. In the past I have suggested a kind of shorthand for this synthesis. It reads: a docile personal attempt to assimilate the teaching, an attempt that can end in "inability to assimilate" (dissent).

2. The teaching of Humani generis about the impact of papal interventions in controversies is obsolete.

In Humani generis Pius XII wrote:

But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their statements (in actis suis) deliberately state an opinion about a matter hitherto controverted, it is clear to all that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, can no longer be held to be a question of free debate among theologians.(9)

This statement was repeated almost verbatim by John Paul II in 1987. At a meeting of natural family planning experts, he states; "What is taught by the Church on contraception does not belong to material freely debatable among theologians."(10)

I have treated this subject more at length in a recent book.(11) Suffice it here to say that it is now widely admitted by ecclesiologists that Pius XII was working out of a neoscholastic notion of the magisterium. Yves Congar, O.P., has cited Humani generis, and specifically the citation I have given above, as an example of this. Of the magisterium conceived in this neoscholastic way (with the ordinary papal magisterium demanding total obedience, and the task of theologians said to be strictly in the service and under the control of the magisterium), Congar asserts: Its pretensions seem excessive and unreal." He continues:

Today, theologians are going beyond the ecclesiastical work-category formulated for them by Pius XII and Paul VI; they are living according to a common standard of scholarly research.(12)

Though Avery Dulles senior does not in some respects reflect Dulles junior, still seventeen years ago he wrote:

As a result of the experience of the Council and the growth of critical theology, the neoscholastic theory of the magisterium is perceived as making insufficient allowance for distortion and possible error in the ordinary teaching of popes and bishops. Sophisticated Catholics of the 1970's are generally convinced that dissent and loyal opposition can play a positive role in the Church as well as in secular society. Any attempt by the hierarchy to settle disputed questions by unilateral decrees will inevitably be met by dissent or even protest on the part of some. (13)

Dulles is making two points here. First, the neoscholastic notion of magisterium is not theologically adequate. Indeed Pius XII's statement in Humani generis appeared in the original schema of Vatican II but was dropped in the revision. Second, it will not work. That is why I use the term "obsolete,"

3. Competence (as in "teaching competence") is an analogous notion.

I mention this because the overall effect of an absolutist understanding of obsequium religiosum is that all teachings are viewed by ecclesiastical authorities as practically of equal binding force. As Naud remarks:

Except on questions of politics and economics, the reader has the impression that the magisterium knows only the language of certitude. Everything is affirmed or condemned with such firmness and such apparent assurance that an ordinary reader has constantly the impression of being confronted by declarations of absolute certitude, irreformable in character, engaging the irreversible thought of the Church.(14)

Karl Rahner made the same point when, after noting that the ordinary magisterium had "often" been involved in error, he added: "On the other hand, Rome was accustomed to put forward and insist on such decisions as if there could be no doubt about their ultimate correctness and as if any further discussion of them was unbecoming for a Catholic theologian."(15)

Once we have accepted the distinction between infallible and noninfallible teaching, we have thereby stated a distinction between infallible competence and noninfallible competence.

Let me put the matter as follows. On the one hand, the Church claims teaching competence in the area of the natural moral law, even its applications. On the other hand, Vatican II states that the charism of infallibility is coextensive with the "treasure of divine revelation" (what Vatican I called the depositum fidei). This would exclude from infallibility those moral questions that are not revealed. "Competence," therefore, is a very analogous concept. One can be competent without being infallibly competent. As we shall see, that is the case in concrete moral questions.

There are those who try to avoid this problem by including concrete moral questions under title of "truths of salvation."(16) The argument is: whatever affects our salvation is an object of infallibility; for that is the very purpose of the charism.

Here a very important distinction must be made, the distinction between moral goodness and moral rightness. Moral goodness refers to the person as such, to the person's being open to and decided for the self-giving love of God. It is the vertical dimension of our being. It is salvation. Therefore what we can say about the moral goodness of the person is a "truth of salvation."

Another level is the horizontal. This refers to the proper disposition of the realities of this world, the realization in concrete behavior of what is promotive for human persons. We refer to this as the rightness (or wrongness) of human conduct. We sometimes call this inner-worldly activity "moral" rightness or wrongness. But it is moral only in an analogous sense. That is, moral goodness contains an inclination, an intention, a good will, a readiness to do what is right. It is because of this relationship between personal moral goodness and material rightness that this rightness is called "moral." But this rightness is not directly and in itself concerned with personal moral goodness. Salvation (as in "truths of salvation"), therefore, does not have a direct relationship to right behavior, but to personal goodness. Concrete moral norms, therefore, are truths of salvation only in an analogous sense.

It is the failure to distinguish the pairs good-bad, right-wrong that leads to an uncritical notion that the Church is equally competent on all moral questions, a notion that does not make a great deal of sense in our time.

What is the right way of acting in different areas of human life is determined by human experience, human evaluation, human judgment. St. Thomas says; "We do not offend God unless we harm our own good." What is harmful to us is a human determination. Joseph Fuchs adds: "The Catholic lay people as Catholics, the priests as priests, the bishops and the pope as such do not have a specific Christian or ecclesiastical competence in regard to these matters."(17)

Earlier, Karl Rahner approaching this matter from the point of view of infallible teaching, stated:

Apart from wholly universal moral norms of an abstract kind, and apart from a radical orientation of human life towards God as the outcome of a supernatural and grace-given self-commitment, there are hardly any particular or individual norms of Christian morality which could be proclaimed by the ordinary or extraordinary teaching authorities of the Church in such a way that they could be unequivocally and certainly declared to have the force of dogmas.(18)

What Rahner is saying is that "particular or individual norms" (about rightness or wrongness) are not "truths of salvation" as this phrase is understood by certain "infallibilists."

These statements of Rahner, Fuchs, and others do not mean that the pastors of the Church should not offer guidance on right-wrong activity such as peace, economics, sexuality, abortion, etc. It merely suggests appropriate caution and tentativeness; for horizontal activity in this world does not belong to the Church's competence in the same way as the depositum fidei. In this sense we may say that the Church enjoys the assistance of the Spirit in offering concrete moral guidance, "but this assistance does not necessarily mean the specific assistance that, according to Vatican I and Vatican II, is promised to her, and guarantees infallibility under certain conditions."(19)

I believe that a discerning reader might easily detect a difference between the rather sweeping statements of, for example, Pius XII in Magnificate Dominum and those of Vatican II. There is a certain modesty in Vatican II on natural law. The Council applies the notion to universal principles. Only very egregious actions are listed and it is stated that the human conscience gives voice to these principles.

The point I am making—and in doing so I am following the lead of Rahner and Fuchs—leads to the conclusion that the term "competence" when applied to the teaching office of the Church is an analogous term—which means that it must be understood differently when applied to different realities, specifically the deposit of faith and the concrete applications of this. The Church has a definite mission to provide concrete moral guidance. For "faith throws a new light on everything, manifests God's design for man's total vocation, and thus directs the mind to solutions which are fully human."(20) But this mission with regard to concrete moral guidance (rightness-wrongness) is not precisely and directly concerned with "truths of salvation," and hence is not buttressed by the certainty and stability such truths can rightly claim. This is clear from the history of moral teaching in the Church. We cannot be accused of washing dirty linen in public when we candidly acknowledge that our tradition is not free of moral distortion and error.

It is also clear from the Pauline corpus. For instance, in Galatians, Paul refers to the good news that he has directly from the Lord. It is not "human knowledge." There are other matters that are indeed human knowledge (e.g., in 1 Cor 7, whether to live in virginity or not). The moral rightness-wrongness of concrete actions is in this latter category. And so are matters like capital punishment, abortion, business ethics, social ethics, contraception, and sexual ethics in general.

I mention this here because there is still a deep-seated hankering in the Church to "infallibilize" the ordinary activity of the magisterium, as Yves Congar has often noted. For instance, K. D. Whitehead, writing in the New Oxford Review, stated of past controversies: "What was better understood in the past, however, that is not so well understood today, is that where the teaching authority of the Church stepped into these controversies to decide some aspect of them, any further 'dissent' from the points decided meant that one was henceforth placing oneself in the ranks of the heretics."(21) To this the proper response is: What is better understood today is that Whitehead has fallen into serious theological error by lumping any dissent from a decision of Church authority with heresy. Such expansiveness only heaps ridicule on the teaching office of the Church. What is also better understood today is that the solution to complex moral questions cannot simply be "decided" by Church authority—if "decided" means resolved independently of evidence about the personally promotive or destructive character of the actions in question.

4. The notion of the assistance of the Spirit is analogous.

Above, Josef Fuchs was cited as stating that the assistance of the Spirit to the ordinary, noninfallible magisterium "does not necessarily mean the specific assistance that, according to Vatican I and Vatican II, is promised to her and guarantees infallibility under certain conditions." Clearly, then, this assistance is analogous—different when applied to different realities. Yet it is often presented in an univocal way, a way that makes any questioning of authentic noninfallible teaching out of order.

Andre Naud adverts to this while discussing the differences between the rigid and supple approaches to obsequium religiosum. Typically the more rigid approach invites assent not in virtue of the quality of the arguments invoked by the magisterium, but in terms of its authority. Thus, following Humanae vitae itself, the Spanish bishops wrote:

The Pope speaks as supreme pastor of the Church, and not as a private doctor. His authority does not derive from the scientific value of the arguments that he invokes, but from the mission he has received from Christ and from the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised to him.

The less rigid approach refuses to allow this radical break between arguments and conclusion. If the Spirit is assisting the magisterium, we should expect this assistance to show up in the quality of the arguments. For this reason, too, the less rigid approach allows more influence to theological opinion and the personal assessment of the competent person.

I have the distinct impression that the analogous character of the assistance of the Holy Spirit to the magisterium is neglected both in official statements and more popular exchanges.

5. The notion of the assistance of the Holy Spirit needs careful theological analysis.

I believe it is correct to say that the notion of the assistance of the Holy Spirit needs a good deal of theological attention. If it remains as opaque as it actually is in the documents of the magisterium, it is likely that the voice of the hierarchical magisterium will continue to be loudest and clearest when it says "authority and special assistance" and that of others loudest when it says "evidence and reasons." Both emphases are important, of course, but if they are left unrelated, are we not still vulnerable to the dangers of a simplistic notion of assistance?

What, then, is the meaning of "the assistance of the Spirit" where the authoritative noninfallible magisterium is concerned? Any who undertake to speak about the action of the Spirit, especially if they try to explain how the Spirit works, realizes in advance that they are more than ever likely to end up with a theological foot in their mouth and make an utter fool of themselves; for the operations of the Spirit are above all ineffable. Yet the possibility of gaining some understanding and the anticipation of charitable correction by others minimizes the arrogance of the attempt. With this in mind I should like to offer a possible approach.

In facing this question two extremes must be avoided. The first would explain the assistance of the Spirit to the magisterium in a way which dispenses with human processes. The second would simply reduce this assistance to human processes. The first is the notion of a special assistance by the Spirit which represents a new source of hierarchical knowledge, arcane and impervious to any criticism developed out of Christian experience, evidence, and reasoning. Such a notion of assistance results in a form of fideism which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see how any authoritative utterance is not thereby practically infallible. Furthermore, this notion of assistance is a summary edict of dissolution for the scholarly and theological fraternity.

The second extreme is such an emphasis on analysis and reasons that the action of the Spirit is simply identified with the shrewdest thinkers in the community and ultimately imprisoned in the best reasons they can unravel. This is an extreme for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is a form of neorationalism which overlooks the complexity and developmental character of moral cognition, especially by bypassing the real significance of the communitarian aspect of moral knowledge, and especially of the sensus fidelium. If the action of the Spirit is primarily directed to the Church as a whole, and secondarily and in subordination to the needs of the Church, to its pastors as pastors, then surely this fact must influence the emergence of moral knowledge, the operations of the magisterium, and the notion of the special assistance of the Holy Spirit to the magisterium.

It would seem that any explanation of the assistance of the Holy Spirit to the magisterium (noninfallible) must be adequate to four factors: (1) the judgmental competence of the hierarchy within the whole teaching process, (2) the activity of the Spirit in the formation of such judgment, (3) the possibility and fact of error in these judgments, and (4) the relevance of the experience and reflection of the whole Church in forming these judgments.

I should like to suggest that the middle course we seek is one which would associate the activity of the Spirit with human processes without identifying it with them. The nature of this association can perhaps be illumined by a reflection on error. When error occurs in human judgments, it would seem to occur in either of two ways; in the gathering of evidence or in the assessment of the evidence. Obviously there can be many reasons why either of these processes would function inadequately, but it is the breakdown of one of them to which judgmental error can be traced. If this is true, then is it not reasonable to think that at least the proper implementation of these processes is generally required to avoid error in complex decisions?

When this is applied to the magisterium, we might say that error could occur either through evidence-gathering or evidence-assessing. Hence at least adequate evidence-gathering or evidence-assessing are required if error is to be avoided. Evidence-gathering is inadequate when consultation is not broad enough to allow the full wisdom stimulated by the Spirit's activity in the whole Church to emerge. Evidence-assessing breaks down when consideration of the evidence is insufficient to allow the Spirit to aid in the emergence of its meaning. In the contemporary world these inadequacies would seem to be traceable to a failure in the fullness of the collegial process at all levels.

Now the magisterium of the Church has special advantages to overcome these handicaps in arriving at moral truth. First of all, bishops as pastors are in a unique position to be in contact with the convictions, problems, beliefs, joys, sufferings, and reflections of all groups in the local Church. That is, they are positioned to consult the experience and convictions (the wisdom) of their flock. As collegial pastors they are in a position to pool this wisdom and weigh it through a process of dialogue and debate. In this sense the episcopal and papal magisterium have sources of information which exceed those available to anyone else. Summarily: negatively, the magisterium is in a wonderful position to reduce the barriers which bind the Spirit; positively, it is positioned to engage the total resources of the community and thus give the Spirit the fullest possible scope.

Therefore, though we cannot capture in human categories the operations and assistance of the Holy Spirit, can we not identify the human processes within which the Spirit must be supposed to operate? And since the hierarchy is uniquely situated to implement these processes, is it not open to the assistance of the Spirit in a special way when it does so? That is, the ability of bishop-pastors (and through them the pope) to range beyond the isolation of their own reflections or those of restricted groups is the foundation for the confidence that in doing so they will be specially open to the Spirit, and that their authentic pronouncements will show this.

Therefore who would doubt that when the magisterium actually draws upon the wisdom resident in the entire Church, and actually submits itself to an adequate evaluative process, it is better positioned than any individual or group of individuals to relate this to Christian conduct? A prudent and sensitive Catholic would be willing to accept such conclusions precisely because (and providing that) he or she had the assurance that they proceeded from a store of wisdom far beyond the solipsism of his/her own insights. And for this reason one would find it quite acceptable to say with Humanae vitae that acceptance of these judgments is owed "not only because of the reasons adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order that they may illustrate the truth." On the other hand, one may legitimately expect that this "light of the Holy Spirit" will manifest itself concretely in the "way the question itself is handled. That means in the solid presentation of proofs from human experience and with good arguments."(23)

6. A coercive ecclesial atmosphere is counterproductive in every way.

By "coercive ecclesial atmosphere" I refer to a gathering of symptoms familiar to all. Bishops are appointed by ideological conformity. Theologians and bishops are disciplined. Obedience is demanded to all teachings. Judicial processes fail the criteria of due process. Consultation is secret and highly selective, only those qualifying who agree with a pretaken position. I believe I am describing an actual situation. The wounds inflicted by a coercive atmosphere I see as the following:


Here we should recall the theological force of episcopal agreement described in Lumen gentium, no. 25. If the bishops around the world are united with the pope in their teaching, then that teaching can achieve a greater level of stability and certainty, and indeed achieve infallible status if the teaching is a proper object of infallibility and is presented as something to be held definitely. But the unity must be genuine and clear.

In a coercive atmosphere both the genuinity and clarity are put in serious doubt. First, the genuinity. Here we would recall one of the arguments made during the deliberations of the so-called Birth Control Commission. It was contended that the Church could not modify its teaching on birth regulation because that teaching had been proposed unanimously as certain by the bishops around the world with the pope over a long period of time. To this point Cardinal Suenens replied: "We have heard arguments based on 'what the bishops all taught for decades.' Well, the bishops did defend the classical position. But it was one imposed on them by authority. The bishops didn't study the pros and cons. They received directives, they bowed to them, and they tried to explain them to their congregations." In a coercive atmosphere people will repeat things because they are told to and threatened with punishment if they say anything else. Episcopal unity is revealed as enforced, not genuine.

As for clarity, the more likely scenario in a coercive atmosphere is that the bishops (some at least) will say nothing if they disagree. In such circumstances, to read episcopal silence as unanimity is self-deceptive.

When the genuinity and clarity of episcopal agreement have been cast into grave doubt by a coercive atmosphere, the episcopal magisterium itself has been undermined. The meaning of consensus has been eviscerated. The bishops should be the first ones to protest this diminishment of their magisterium, and the atmosphere that grounds it.


This follows from the first point. If bishops are not speaking their true sentiments, then clearly the pope is not able to draw on the wisdom and reflection of the bishops in the exercise of his ordinary magisterium. When this happens, the presumption of truth in papal teaching is weakened, because such a presumption assumes that the ordinary sources of human understanding have been consulted, as the late Karl Rahner so repeatedly argued. That is why what is called the "enforcement of doctrine" is literally counterproductive. It weakens the very vehicle (papal magisterium) that proposes to be the agent of strength and certainty.


Coercive measures will almost certainly have the effect of quieting theologians, at least on certain issues. This further erodes both the episcopal and papal magisterium by silencing yet another source of understanding and growth. Many bishops, most recently James Malone, have noted the absolute necessity of theology for their work. In Malone's words, "As a bishop in an episcopal conference which had devoted substantial time and energy to the place of the Church in the world, I can testify to the irreplaceable role of the theological enterprise."(25) If reputable theologians are marginalized, the magisterium is proportionately weakened. And it is no response to exclude from the "reputable" category those with whom one disagrees. That begs the (or any) question.


When juridical coercion (which is not altogether out of place) too easily dominates the Church's teaching-learning process, priests (and other ministers) become demoralized because they are expected to be official spokespersons for positions they cannot always and in every detail support. Thus they become torn by their official loyalties and their better judgment and compassion. Archbishop John Quinn adverted to this in the Synod of 1980.(26)


Coercive insistence on official formulations tells the laity in no uncertain terms that their experience and reflection make little difference. This in spite of Vatican II 's contrary assertion: Let it be recognized that all of the faithful—clerical and lay—possess a lawful freedom of enquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence."(27) If such humble and courageous expression counts for nothing, we experience yet another wound to the authority of the ordinary magisterium. The search for truth falls victim to ideology.


When a rigid orthodoxy is imposed on seminarians in the name of unity and order, the very ability of these future priests to minister to post-Vatican II Catholics is seriously jeopardized. I have seen this happen. Many thousands of Catholics have studied and struggled to assimilate the Council's perspectives. They do not understand and will not accept a new paternalism in moral pedagogy. This means frustration and crisis for the minister trained to practice such a pedagogy.


Coercive insistence that the term "official teaching" is simply synonymous with right, certain, sound and unchangeable (an identification powerfully supported by the suppression of any public dissent) will lead to the public perception that the role of Catholic scholars is an "intellectual form of 'public relations,' " to borrow from Clifford Longley.(28) That means the serious loss of theological credibility in precisely those areas of modern development (e.g., science and technology) where the Church should desire to exercise a formative influence. The present pontiff wants both to unite the Church and to shape the world, both utterly laudable apostolic objectives. The means to the former could doom the latter.

7. There are significant indicia that many officials view the magisterium and their positions in a narrowly culture one way.

I shall mention but a few. During November 1988, Archbishop Alberto Bovone, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, expressed concern to the American bishops about a draft of the document "Doctrinal Responsibilities" on relationships between bishops and theologians. He referred to "an attitude which tends to equate bishops and theologians appears to inspire the whole orientation of the document."(29) Why this nervous fear that the two (bishops and theologians) are "on an equal footing"? Does this not point to the primacy of position as a dominant concern?

Another example. There appeared on January 23, 1989, in L'Osservatore Romano an article on Donum vitae, the 1987 instruction of the CDF on reproductive technology.(30) It was concerned with the doctrinal authority of Donum vitae. The article argues strenuously that Donum vitae is authoritative and demands "obedience of judgment and practice." It refers to the contrary practice of four European Catholic universities as a "most serious rebellion." Whether a document is absolutely accurate cannot be collapsed and identified with whether it is authoritative. The two are different notions. An overriding concern with the authority of a teaching is too easily associated with diminished concern for its validity and persuasiveness. The demand of obedience to a teaching is too often transparent of its analytic fragility.

A third example is the new oath being required of theologians and others at the beginning of their tenure in certain positions. The imagination is not stretched dangerously when it is stated that loyalty oaths suppose and reflect an attitude of suspicion. Behind such suspicion is an intense preoccupation with authority and conformity to its prescriptions and proscriptions.

Finally, when a group of Italian theologians expressed concerns similar to those made public in the so-called "Cologne Declaration," the pope himself responded, reminding the bishops that they are the veri dottori of their dioceses.(31) Since theologians are certainly true teachers in their own right—even if by different title—veri can only mean official (or authentic). Once again the preoccupation with officialness.

8. Modern Catholics, especially of the culture two description, want a magisterium that is truly effective in the world.

"True effectiveness" is associated with a teaching office that attempts to inspire, enlighten, lead, invite, encourage. It does this above all by its own priorities, processes and personnel. Contemporary men and women want a magisterium that truly educates, i.e., opens eyes to unsuspected beauty and challenge in our lives. They want teachers who truly teach and maximize the potential of those taught. They will continue to reject a teaching office that is more concerned with control. The symptoms of control and the controlled group are well known. In "teaching" there is dominance of the negative, the condemnatory and the intolerance of pluralism. In administering there is oppressive centralization. There is avoidance of risk, conformism, "don't-rock-the-boatism." In policy planning there is waffling, fear of the fresh issue, enslavement to traditional phrases, anger at uncertainty. The use of power is secretive. Discussion is closed and draws on limited competence. The controlled are told what they may and may not do, not what they can achieve. They are reminded of the importance of a structure, not their own importance. They are constrained, not challenged; forbidden, not stimulated. The personality traits of the controlled are equally clear: fear, anxiety, joyless security, rejection of creative risk, growing apathy. In Catholicism there is a suffocating and cloying ultramontanism.

If the above describes anything in the reality of the contemporary Church, it substantiates my thesis that Catholics—as well as many others—want a truly effective magisterium. They will no longer tolerate one that identifies teaching with controlling.

9. Theologians must be pastorally sensitive.

"Pastorally sensitive" means many things, one of which is not "theologically supine." Theologians must present their analyses with due modesty. Their claims to prophecy should be reluctant and rare. Furthermore, they should help the public understand that it is sometimes necessary for the magisterium to take an authoritative position, even if it is tentative. Theologians must write, speak and act in a way that fosters respect for the magisterium. Finally, they should be ready, willing and able humbly to admit mistakes.

10. The public needs much more effective education than we have so far achieved.

The concrete needs are the following:

a. The Catholic public must have a much more accurate notion of the place of the magisterium and scholarship in the Church. The gigantic character of the educational task becomes apparent when we recall that many priests have not achieved this accuracy.

b. The public must be educated to understand that the Church does not have all the answers, or an immediate one to a new question. Vatican II acknowledged this openly.

c. The Catholic public—and most especially competent professionals—must be educated to the responsibilities inseparable from their own competence.

d. The Catholic public must be educated much more than they are to two facts: i) priests do not always speak accurately and critically on religious and moral issues; ii) moral theologians, in their public statements, do not always speak for the Church, or even for all other moral theologians. Sometimes their views are strictly personal, and we have to find a way of clarifying this.

e. Finally the Catholic public should know that the media thrive on confrontation. Many issues are not nearly as confrontational as they are made to appear.

These ten theses do not describe the relationship—codependent and cooperative—of theologians and the magisterium. Rather, they point up aspects of the contemporary scene that constitute the atmosphere or context in which this relationship must be lived out. The ultimate aim, I would think, is the delightful conspiratio that prevailed during Vatican II.


1. Origins 19 (1989) 97-109.

2. Eugene Kennedy, Tomorrow's Catholics Yesterday's Church (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

3. Karl Rahner, S.J., "Theologie und Lehramt," Stimmen der Zeit, n. 198 (1980)363-375 at 373.

4. Karl Rahner, S.J., "Dream of the Church," Tablet 180 (1981) 52-55.

5. André Naud, "Les voix de l'Église dans les questions morales," Science et Esprit 32 (1980) 161-176.

6. Documentation catholique, n. 1511, 1968, col. 321-324. -

7. Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., "Note sulla nuova formula per la professione di Fede," Civiltà Cattolica, n. 3338 (1989) 130-139.

8.Charles E. Curran, Faithful Dissent (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward 1986) 269.

9. AAS 42 (1950) 568.

10. L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, n. 27, July 6, 1987, 12-13.

11. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., The Critical Calling (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1989).

12.Yves Congar, O.P., "A Brief History of the Forms of the Magisterium and Its Relations with Scholars," in Readings in Moral Theology n. 3, Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J., eds., Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1982, 327.

13. Avery Dulles, S.J., "The Theologian and the Magisterium," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 31 (1976) 235-246 at 241-242.

14. André Naud, Le magistère incertain (Montreal: Fides, 1987) 227.

15. Karl Rahner, S.J., see note 4.

16. G. Ermecke, "Die Bedeutung von 'Humanwissenschaften' für die Moraltheologie," Munchener Theologische Zeilschrift 26 (1975) 126-140.

17. Joseph Fuchs, S.J., "Moral Truths—Truths of Salvation?" Christian Ethics in a Secular Arena (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1984) 57-58.

18. Karl Rahner, S.J., "Basic Observations on the Subject of Changeable and Unchangeable Factors in the Church," Theological Investigations (New York: Seabury, 1976) 14.

19. Fuchs, as in note 17, 61.

20. Documents of Vatican II, 209.

21.Cf, Richard A. McCormick, S.J., Notes on Moral Theology 1981-1984 (Lanham: University Press of America, 1984) 108.

22. As in Naud, note 14, 240.

23. Bernard Haring, "The Encyclical Crisis," Commonweal 88 (1968) 588-594.

24. As cited in Robert Blair Kaiser, The Politics of Sex and Religion (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1985) 170.

25.James Malone, "How Bishops and Theologians Relate," Origins, 16 (1986) 169-174.

26. John R. Quinn, "New Context for Contraception Teaching," Origins 10 (1980) 104.

27. Documents of Vatican II, 270.

28. Clifford Longley, "Cynicism and Sexual Morality" (London) Times August 4, 1986.

29. Origins 19 (1989) 104.

30. Cf. The Wanderer, July 27, 1989.

31.The Tablet 243 (June 10, 1989) 660.

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