e-mail us
Giants dissent, gently, over authority

NCR Staff

Theologians from around the country looked on as two eminent Jesuit theologians, Fr. Avery Dulles and Fr. Richard McCormick, debated the role of authority and dissent in the church during a pre-convention gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Dulles, a systematic theologian, is a strong supporter of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Moral theologian McCormick, like many theologians, objects to their heavy-handed use of authority and resistance to doctrinal debate.

Under John Paul and Ratzinger, investigations of theologians have become common events, often with negative results for church careers. Resistance to doctrinal development is most notable in moral theology, as opposed to social teaching, where flexibility remains the norm, McCormick said.

Dulles and McCormick agree that a “presumption of truth” should be granted to magisterial teaching -- that is, to pronouncements emanating from the church’s hierarchy -- and that theological dissent has a time-honored place in the search for truth.

They differ strongly, however, on the relative weight that should be given to the two spheres, reflecting what Dulles said was “a major fault line in contemporary Catholic theology.”

While acknowledging the legitimacy of debates over “the conditions and limits of infallibility,” Dulles charged that an increasing number of theologians refuse to grant popes and councils a role in defining revealed truths. The epistemological position of those theologians -- that revelation is “an ecstatic encounter with God that has no doctrinal content,” -- is “irreconcilable with the Catholic tradition,” Dulles said.

Calling on theologians to “energetically strive to heal existing rifts” in the church, Dulles sharply criticized “aggressive patterns” of dissent and “a general climate in which dissent from noninfallible doctrine is considered courageous, authentic and forward-looking, while submission is viewed as cowardly, hypocritical and retrograde.”

“Can anything justify the actions of those who go to the extremes of organized resistance, recruiting a constituency, calling press conferences, publishing paid advertisements, soliciting signatures to petitions and setting themselves up as a kind of alternative to the magisterium?” he asked. “It has become common to speak of public dissent as though it were as desirable and normal in the church as in civil society,” a line of reasoning, he said, that “obscures the distinctiveness of the church” and weakens it as “a community of faith and witness.”

McCormick said the problem is rather the attitude of Vatican officials who act as if all doctrines except social teachings “are written in stone” and treat any talk of doctrinal development as “confrontational.”

“Practically speaking, most theologians believe the church’s moral teaching is proposed infallibly,” he said. He noted that canon law asserts that “nothing is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is clearly established.”

Further, McCormick said, a variety of circumstances can affect the strength of the “presumption of truth” due a given doctrine. Among these, he said, is a prevailing atmosphere of oppression and careerism in the church.

McCormick referred to an article in the May 28 NCR that described “the shock of Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, for 14 years head of the Congregation of Bishops, at the ‘amazing careerism’ in the ranks of the episcopate.” Such an atmosphere, McCormick said, could easily lead to “suppression of one’s true thoughts and convictions.”

McCormick also said that the presumption due a doctrine is weakened where “official teachers overlook or neglect certain sources essential to the accuracy of a moral position.” If public dissent has become a problem, McCormick said, it is “largely because of the attitudes and statements of John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger,” who suppress authentic development through an overly rigorist stance.

Theologians praised the courteous tone of the debate as a model for others, but some challenged its neo-Scholastic model of determining truth through authoritative dogmatic definitions and determining doctrinal “levels”: that is, whether a doctrine should be considered infallible.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, moral theologian from Boston College, said, “I think that, to a lot of people in the church, this discussion is very arcane. The whole point of the conference,” apart from the Dulles-McCormick debate, “has been to show that doctrinal development is a much more fluid, organic process,” she said. Recent Vatican efforts to gain more control over theologians are occurring “because no one is paying attention to that model,” Cahill said. “In and of itself, it doesn’t have as much claim as it used to.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999