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:
- 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.
- Theologians who are Catholic must express themselves with prudence in their area of expertise. The key word here is ‘prudence’.
- 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.