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Can clear guidelines for dissent be formulated?
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Can clear guidelines for dissent be formulated?

There have been many attempts to set up precise guidelines for handling dissent but really no rules can cover every single case. Ultimately there is no substitute for the learning, prudence and wisdom of those who are involved in the case. (16)

16. Concerning the non-infallible magisterium, the German episcopate in a “working paper” (for the internal use of their conference?) dated September 22, 1967 (that is, before Humanae vitae), acknowledged that

“. . . it is a fact that the teaching authority of the church in the exercise of its office can make mistakes and has made mistakes. The church has always known that such occurrences are possible, kept stating it in its theology, and has provided guidance for handling such situations.”

Obviously dissent from such mistakes cannot be wrong. To my best knowledge this paper has never been officially published but has been widely quoted; Karl Rahner commented on it. My reference is Hans Waldenfels “Von der Sprachnot in der Kirche” in Stimmen der Zeit 112 (1987), pp. 222-223.

The bishops of the United States allowed dissent from non-infallible teaching provided there is no attack on the teaching authority itself and no “scandal” is caused among the faithful. See in Human Life in Our Day A Collective Pastoral Letter of the American Hierarchy (Washington, DC: USCC, 1 968).

The hierarchy should certainly do everything to maintain a favorable climate for creative work; the church needs it. This includes generous trust in the persons who do the work of research and reflection; they should be allowed a reasonable margin for honest mistakes. After all, who would ever join a research team on the condition that no mistaken hypothesis can ever be proposed? (17) Besides, the church is strong enough to bear with some dissenting elements.

17. It belongs to the very essence of research that on the basis of the data available various working hypotheses are proposed; then, each is checked out to see that it covers the facts to be explained but does not go beyond them. Under this aspect, theological research is not different; as a rule, the right hypothesis is found only after a number of incorrect ones have been discarded. But how could they be discarded, unless they were proposed? Aquinas rejected the hypothesis of the immaculate conception because for him it contradicted the dogma of original sin; Duns Scotus retained the doctrine of immaculate conception because he found a way of reconciling it with the belief in original sin. In more modern times, Pius XII in his encyclical Humani generis condemned the doctrine of polygenesis (as applied to the human race) because it did not appear how such a theory could be “composed” with the traditional teaching about the transmission of original sin; but by saying so he left the door open to the acceptance of polygenesis as soon as there is a hypothesis which can harmonize it with the tradition that we all are born with original sin (cf. DS 3897). Since then several such hypotheses have been proposed although none of them succeeded in winning the consensus of theologians.

The main point here is simple: there is no progress in any science, theology included, unless there is enough room for hypotheses to be proposed and to be discarded. Presumably, the more the merrier—within reason.

For some mysterious reason, there is a widespread intolerance toward theologians: they are expected to come up with the correct solution, to be right the first time!

To be fair to all sides, the theologians too have to abide by the rules of this game; never on any account should they call a hypothesis the final truth.

The researchers can help to create this climate if they are aware of their own limits; that is, if they have a good perception of how much they do not know. To claim that theologians should be left alone and ultimately be subject to correction by their peers only ignores the warnings of history: all too many times in our Christian past “faculties of theology” in various universities have been wrong altogether. (18) Besides, if such a claim were taken literally, it would imply that the theologians have the assistance of the Spirit to decide ultimately cases of conflict in doctrinal matters. I do not think that either Magister Gratianus or Frater Thomas would have accepted that.

18. The faculty of the University of Paris helped to provide the “justification” for the condemnation of Joan of Arc. Cf. Regine Pernoud & M.-V. Clin, Jeanne d’Arc, (Paris Fayard, 1986), pp. 167-169. The theologians of the same university also provided leaders and arguments for the movement of extreme conciliarism in the 15th century.

“When the famous scholar and poet Fray Luis de Leon was arrested in 1572 [by the Spanish Inquisition], he succeeded in identifying some of his accusers by the simple means of naming most of his colleagues at the University of Salamanca as possible personal enemies;. . .” Quote from Cecil Roth, The Spanish Inquisition, (New York Norton, 1964), p. 89. Eventually, after some years in prison, he was acquitted.

The time of the Reformation both on the Continent and in England could provide ample examples of vacillations and tergiversations by “Faculties of Theology.”

Thus, to maintain a climate for creativity and to do creative work is a fine balancing act; the result of many prudential judgments. The best one can say is that when a concrete case presents itself, it must be judged on its own merits—and those merits may significantly differ from one case to another. This is not to say that there should be no guidelines, but it is to say that not too much trust should be put into the guidelines.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 3. Read the whole chapter here.

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