Canon Law, dissent and the theologian who is Catholic

There has been much comment on blogs and in published letters over the past couple of weeks about the role and duty of Catholic theologians or theologians who are Catholic. Much of this comment pays  no heed to the Church’s authoritative sources on this important matter. Protect the Pope is publishing a short series of posts so that there is informed debate based on objective Church teaching.

The Code of Canon Law is one of the most authoritative sources of the ‘regula fidei’ which is binding on all those who are baptised in the Catholic Faith.  The Code of Canon Law contains a number of canons that are important for theologians who are Catholic if they are to remain in communion with the Catholic Church.

Can. 748§1 All are bound to seek the truth in the matters which concern God and his Church; when they have found it, then by divine law they are bound, and they have the right, to embrace and keep it.

This is not a mandate to make up one’s own personal truth but is basedon Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae (para 2) which sets out the fundamental principal of religious freedom in civil society , ‘This right of the human person to religious freedom must be given recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right’.

Theologians who are Catholic  often justify their dissent by selectively quoting from Dignitatis Humanae. They like paraphrasing this quote from para 3:

‘On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.’

But they invariably miss out paragraph 14:

‘In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church.(35) For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.’

Can. 750. Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, which is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred magisterium. All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines.

The sources of this canon are the documents of Vatican II, including Lumen Gentium 25, and Dei Verbum 5 and 10.

Theologians who are Catholic often justify their dissent by claiming a mandate from the Spirit of Vatican II, but the Code of Canon law is based on the actual letter of Vatican II.

Lumen Gentium 25 makes clear what should be the attitude of theologians who are Catholic to the teaching authority of the pope and bishops in communion with him:

‘Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be revered by all as witnesses of divine and Catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops’ decision, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.’

There is an obligation on theologians who are Catholic to obey the magisterium of the Church with regard faith and morals. It’s not good enough to state one does not question the dogma of the Trinity, or the Incarnation, and then go on to reject the Church’s doctrine on abortion or homosexuality.

Can. 751. Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith. Apostasy is the total repudiation of the christian faith. Schism is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

It has to be asked, if a theologian who is Catholic obstinately denies or doubts the Church’s doctrine, say, on abortion, homosexuality, contraception, divorce and the restriction of priesthood to males, does this mean he or she is in a state of heresy? One of the signs of heresy is that it is conscious and wilful. It must also be conscious and wilful dissent from truths to be believed by divine and catholic faith set out in can. 750.

It should also be asked, if a theologian who is Catholic withdraws submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church is that theologian in a state of schism?

Only the CDF and Holy Father can come to a judgement over whether a Catholic is a heretic or schismatic, after long and careful deliberation. But every Catholic engaged in serious and prolonged dissent should  question themselves in conscience about the matter. Protect the Pope does not want to encourage readers of this post to speculate over whether any individual is a heretic or schismatic. The purpose of this post is to encourage awareness of what canon law states on these matters.

The Code of Canon Law sets out serious penalties for these offences. Under the heading, ‘Offences Against Religion and the Unity of the Church’ Can. 1364§1 states:

‘An apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication..’

‘a latae sententiae excommunication’ means an automatic excommunication from liturgical life and public role in the Church.

Canon 18 clearly states that these penalties must be strictly applied if such offences against the law of the Church take place.

Can. 752. While the assent of faith is not required, a religious submission of intellect and will is to be given to any doctrine which either the Supreme Pontiff or the College of Bishops, exercising their authentic magisterium, declare upon a matter of faith or morals, even though they do not intend to proclaim that doctrine by definitive act. Christ’s faithful are therefore to ensure that they avoid whatever does not accord with that doctrine.

A commentary on Canon Law states the following which explains the significance of this important canon for theologians who are Catholic:

‘The ‘authentic’ magisterium of the Pope and of the College of Bishops is distinguished from their infallible magisterium, as is the corresponding response of the faithful. When either teaches authentically, but not infallibly, the faithful are required to give ‘a religious submission of intellect and will’ and an avoidance of whatever is not in keeping with the doctrine proposed. This means a real internal assent. (cf. Lumen Gentium 25), not just an external adherence, but it does not call for ‘the assent of faith’. It does not preclude either a development and deeper understanding of the doctrine in question, or the ‘just freedom’ of research acknowledged in Can. 218 to competent people. (Cf. CDF, The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian).’ (Letter and Spirit, p.419).

Canon 218 is important for the research, publications and public statements of theologians who are Catholic:

Those who are engaged in fields of sacred study have a just freedom to research matters in which they are expert and to express themselves prudently concerning them, with due allegiance to the magisterium of the Church.

This canon sets out three criteria for those Catholics involved in fields of sacred study and not just those with licenses from the Holy See:

  1. Theologians who are Catholic have a just freedom to research matters in which they are expert. For example, if a Catholic  has done their phd in some area of Marian studies this doesn’t mean they are experts in sexual morality or sacramental theology.
  2. Theologians who are Catholic must express themselves with prudence in their area of expertise. The key word here is ‘prudence’.
  3. And, theologians who are Catholic must show due allegiance to the Magisterium.

Protect the Pope comment: Of course, if the theologian who is Catholic rejects the authority of Canon Law he or she cannot honestly present themselves as Catholic.  Also, Catholic universities should apply a basic test to theologians who are Catholic before inviting them to lecture, does that person accept the authority of canon law and adhere to the canons set out above?

Any bishop who says in support of a dissenting theologian ‘Though I don’t share your positions in some areas I do support your right to express your dissent’ ignores canon law.

The next post in this short series on Protect the Pope will examine the CDF document, The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.  This document has also been completely ignored in the recent comments on the role and duty of theologians in the UK.

17 comments to Canon Law, dissent and the theologian who is Catholic

  • Augustine

    “It has to be asked, if a theologian who is Catholic obstinately denies or doubts the Church’s doctrine, say, on abortion, homosexuality, contraception, divorce and the restriction of priesthood to males, does this mean he or she is in a state of heresy? One of the signs of heresy is that it is conscious and wilful. It must also be conscious and wilful dissent from truths to be believed by divine and catholic faith set out in can. 750.”

    I think it is neither wise nor charitable for users of the internet to speculate about who might be a heretic. It is a very serious charge to make – and it is for the Church’s highest authorities to judge both the matter of the doctrine being denied and whether this denial (or “dissent”) is indeed “conscious and wilful”.

    It is useful to remember that even in the extreme case of Fr Charles Curran, the Congregation for Doctrine and the Faith (under the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) withrew his mandate to teach Catholic Theology in 1986 – but did NOT choose to label him a heretic or to excommunicate him.

    From Fr Curran’s Wikipedia entry:

    In fact Fr Curran freely acknowledged that he DENIED (rather than merely “debated”) Catholic teaching on divorse, artificial contraception, masturbation, pre-marital intercourse and homosexual acts – but he claimed that he was free to do as a Catholic Theologian because none of these teachings had been taught “ex Cathedra”.

    But following the same warped logic, Fr Curran could also have claimed that he was free to deny Catholic teaching on wilful murder.

    • Deacon Nick Donnelly

      Augustine, I agree with you about the seriousness of the matter and the importance of not speculating about individuals. But I do think it important that there is greater knowledge of the fact that ‘heresy’ and ‘schism’ are grave offences. The words are not used nowadays, but remain terrible possibilities. Deacon Nick

      • Augustine

        Dear Deacon Nick,

        “Only the CDF and Holy Father can come to a judgement over whether a Catholic is a heretic or schismatic, after long and careful deliberation.”

        I agree completely.

  • Augustine

    I suspect that part of the problem is that there are now many lay Catholics who have studied theology in British Universities – and may indeed have Doctorates in Theology.

    But they have not studied Catholic Theology – and so they are not experts in Catholic Theology – either Doctrine or Moral Theology.

    As the late Kenneth Williams once said: “A specialist nowdays is someone who knows more and more about less and less. So the ultimate expert is someone who knows absolutely everything about absolutely nothing.”

  • This is very interesting, thank you. I felt the whole Catholic Theologian vs Theologian who is a Catholic distinction was a very thin justification for saying whatever you think. Likewise the assertion that there is a difference between “central doctrines” and “moral and social teaching” in terms of what a baptised Catholic is free to dispute, so your post is both welcome and helpful.

    • Deacon Nick Donnelly

      Recuasant, Canon Law is invaluable because it helps us cut through the fog of words thrown up by dissenting Catholics. You should read the nonsense spouted in early Gnostic texts. It seems that one of the perennial signs of dissent is twisting the meaning of words, and making false distinctions. Deacon Nick

  • I think the real problem is not one deluded soul who claims to be a theologian (I do not mean anyone specifically of course…). The real problem is the attitude of Church authorities. In the Orthodox Church, theology is not seen simply as an intellectual endeavor or academic discipline. It is seen as a way to know God better and deeper. The problem in the West (I don’t think it’s just the British phenomenon), that theology mutated into something quite unrecognizable from the original discipline. It more resembles hastily cooked cake with few basic ingredients – philosophy, theology (historical) and it is spiced up with radical feminist and homosexual agendas (prof. Tina). Now the Catholic Church has a powerful tool how to discipline and bring back to the Truth renegade theologians, but it is unwilling to use it. I am talking about the Church Canon of course. If properly executed, the so called “theologians” would be stripped of their Catholic status very quickly. More importantly, it is a great scandal those in power are unwilling to do so. Heretics are, were and will be with us until the end of the world, but the shepherds must do their duty to protect the flock from wolves.

    • Deacon Nick Donnelly

      agent.provocateur, canon law is a fundamental instrument of pastoral care, and it’s abandonment over the past twenty years has harmed the Church at so many levels. There is an anti-law mentality among the 1970/80′s generation of clergy, which has left us all unprotected and vulnerable to the arbitrary exercise, and misuse, of power. The failure to properly use legitimate powers being a basic misuse of power. How many souls are being lost because the shepherds are not only failing to protect the flock, but are refusing to use the instrument God’s providence has given the Church to defend us from wolves? Deacon Nick

      • Augustine

        REPUGNO “There is an anti-law mentality among the 1970/80′s generation of clergy.”

        NEGO: Not so. You will find in this generation some of the most eminent Canon Lawyers in Great Britain. And you will also find many orthodox priests and deacons.

        CONCEDO: There is an anti-law mentality among SOME of the 1970/80′s clergy.

        There is of course a reason for this.

        The present Code of Canon Law was promulgated on 27 November 1983. So those priests who were trained in the 1970′s and early 1980′s were taught the old Code of Canon Law – and soon afterwards were told that there was a new Code in force. I am sure that some priests thought: “What’s the point of learning Canon Law or following it, if it can be changed?”

        Of course, the Church can always change its discipline – but not its doctrine. Unfortunately some people fail to distinguish one from the other.

        Furthermore I suspect also that few dioceses gave in-service training to their priests about the new Code.

  • I couldn’t agree more Deacon Nick…Kyrie eleison!

  • Robin Leslie

    Surely we cannot simply dismiss dissent ‘prima facie’, that is simply reaction, an attitude and habit that is rather prejudiced. When hearing of dissent we have to try to enter into the mind of the dissenter and understand what is the real message being addressed there. Dissent comes in many forms and guises and not all are straightforward expressions of disagreement or conflicts with teaching. On occasion a dissenter may be dealing with a personal difficulty or wound he/she has received from fellow Catholics, that is then projected through a selected issue onto the Church.
    In many instances as with the pressure for women priests it springs from an intense rivalry,
    a struggle for power, a desire to displace male priests in order to have that power and
    attention themselves. It may of course be a genuine difficulty with relationships within
    the Church and the complexities that are perceived as barriers to ‘loving’ others.
    There are usually multiple motives and reasons for dissent and we must try to see how the dissent arose in the first place and what it is really aiming at! During the present period
    in the circumstances of the collapse neo-liberalism, systemic nihilism, vacuous humanism
    and a determined secularism, dissent against the Church’s teaching and practice takes on a very different hue and we must all be vigilant in our love for the Church.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Augustine: Any practising civil lawyer will tell you that the civil law changes the whole time. That is what Parliament and the Courts are there for – to change and develop the law. If changing Canon Law once in a blue moon is an excuse for being ignorant of the law then God help us. The problem with Canon Law is that the administration thereof is a complete farce. I took the advice of Canon Lawyers in presenting a case to the Papal See. The strongest advice was that I should bind the evidence in such a way that it would be difficult to put into a shredder. Having sent the case in to the appropriate authority I received no acknowledgement whatsoever despite reminders. It was the kind of non-response that you might expect from a pantomime third-world utterly corrupt banana republic.

    Now for theologians. I agree one should be careful of calling people heretics or indeed theologians on grounds of charity etc as you suggest. But in being just to one person who has promulgamated a heresy what about the thousands of people who will have their beliefs undermined by such promulgation and be led astray and eventually end up in perdition? Are they to be ignored? The problem is one of scandalizing ordinary churchgoers and there is very little sign of anybody in the clerical world doing anything about it.

    After the letter to the The Times from Beattie et al was there a reply pointing out its errors from a member of the clergy versed in such matters? I do not read that paper so I do not know. Can anyone enlighten me?

    My experience of asking a priest about such matters and difficulties and doubts one has is that all one get is “Um, Err etc” and jumping from one foot to the other. One is lucky if one does not actually get anger at one daring to raise the topic. As to getting replies to letters or asking for an interview forget it. Contrast that with the response one gets from the average MP – whom most people regard as a fairly low form of life!

    In the absence of action by the clergy in respect of the multiple scandals in the Church comment is left to ordinary lay people who perplexed and distressed and lacking expertise probably make mistakes in their response. We watch as the multiple institutions built up over the last two centuries are gradually stripped of “Catholic” both in name and reality basically because the hierarchy do not want to be bothered.

    • Augustine

      I am sorry that you had such a bad experience with (I presume) the Roman Rota. Happily I have never had to have dealings with them. But I have had good experiences with my local Chancery in England.

      I do realise that I live in a different diocese to you – and if I lived where you do, I might well wish that the diocesan bounderies were different to what they are at present. Possibly a latter day Moses might persuade the Almighty to divert a river or two?

      However in writing “In the absence of action by the clergy” I think you may have perhaps overlooked the fact that this blog is run by a member of the clergy….

  • Augustine

    Please read what Fr Francis Marsden wrote (regarding dissenting Catholic theologians) in “Protect the Pope” of September 6, 2012.

    Incidentally, my own Parish Priest made the Profession of Faith on Oath when he became Parish Priest during the main Sunday Mass.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I perhaps was not very clear. I do appreciate that Deacon Nick and other brave members of the clergy do run very useful blogs. What I am looking for is a clear statement from a cleric in authority e.g. a bishop refuting what Beattie and others have said. The letter in The Times dissented from what the Bishops in this country have said. Should they not have replied pointing out that it is not possible for faithful Catholics to support same-sex marriage? Instead we just seem to have silence. Not surprising when they have ‘recognised’ same-sex civil partnerships.

    I must have read Father Marsden’s excellent contribution on 6th September as I see I contributed a morsel to that particular discussion. However he is just speaking (bravely) for himself; he is not that authoritative voice that I seek.

    By the way is there a quick way to get back to 6th September? I had to trawl back through all the posts to get to it. Not a bad thing really as I was abroad for six weeks from then on and missed the subsequent posts. Reading them now I am more and more astonished as to what has been going on and the lack of action by the hierarchy.

    The situation is really dire with the upcoming legislation on same-sex marriage which is going to lead to our children being forcibly taught that same-sex marriage is a good thing with the blessing of the Catholic Education Service unless they have changed their spots subsequent to the departure of Oona Stannard. Professor John Haldane has predicted that the English hierarchy will do nothing to stop this. Has anyone else got a different take on this? A tiny minority of Catholic clergy abused a very few young people. It would now seem that the wholesale corruption of all the young is going to be allowed.

    • Deacon Nick Donnelly

      Nicolas, I share your very real concerns about the silence of Catholic leaders in this country in the face of defiant, public dissent from The Tablet, Catholic academics and some clergy. Our Catholic leaders silence is being taken by the dissenters as positive encouragement of their dissent because it creates the conditions for such ‘creativity’. (Just read some of the things Prof Beattie has been writing about this recently). George Weigel has written a stinging indictment of this silence in The Tablet, of all places!:

      ‘What is striking about the British situation, though, is the polite pusillanimity with which this secular assault is often met by Catholic leaders…an entrenched British Catholic attitude of preemptive surrender – leave us alone, please, and we promise not to be obstreperous publicly..’(3/11/12).

      I’d go further, in saying that the same pusillanimous attitude is being taken towards public dissent in this country. The only strong words issued in recent years were aimed at the loyal and orthodox group ‘Pro ecclesia et pontifice’, when they were told to hold their tongues.

    • Augustine

      Nicolas, I suspect that the Apostolic Nuncio will have noticed this as well – but it would do no harm to make sure that he is aware of the lamentable situation.

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