Thursday, August 27, 2009

Will We See Change?

Part 1 in a series of posts exploring the “non-negotiability”
of Roman Catholicism’s teaching on homosexuality

The July 5 Wild Reed post “The Catholic Challenge” generated much discussion, and ensured the posting of quite a number of interesting and insightful comments. It was a discussion that centered on important questions to do with levels of church teaching, the non-negotiability of certain church teachings, and the idea of “creeping infallibility,” i.e., the tendency among some to elevate all church teaching to the status of unchangeable dogma.

It’s a discussion that reminded me of’s June 20 report concerning Bishop William Murphy, the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY, and his public confrontation with Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi for the Democratic politician’s declaration of support for gay marriage.

Sean Dolan, a spokesman for Murphy, said the bishop’s job is to instruct the faithful in Catholic teachings. Suozzi countered by saying that he considers himself a Catholic and attends Mass regularly.


In response, Murphy has written that the Roman Catholic bishops’ teachings against abortion and gay marriage are “unambiguous, faithful to the Lord and binding on all Catholics.”

He goes on to say that:

No Catholic is free to ignore or disregard this teaching. It is normative in the formation of the conscience of every Catholic who seeks to be faithful to the Lord and qualify as a ‘practicing Catholic.’ In saying this, I am not singling out Mr. Suozzi. I am speaking to all Catholics in our diocese and beyond, reminding them that what we bishops teach is not ‘another opinion’ among many that Catholics may choose or not choose. Instead, such truths are ‘non-negotiable,’ binding on all of us who claim to be ‘practicing Catholics.’

Yet the question has to be asked: is the bishop’s understanding of the “non-negotiable” status of the church’s teaching on homosexuality and same-gender relationships correct?

Hierarchy of Truths

To adequately explore and respond to this question, it will be helpful to first revisit what the Church teaches about the “hierarchy of truths.”

Richard R. Gaillardetz’s book, By What Authority: A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful, is an excellent resource for just such an exploration. Gaillardetz notes that the Second Vatican Council recognized a certain ordering of church dogma in its teaching on the “hierarchy of truths.” This hierarchy exists because the truth of Catholic doctrines “vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.” (Unitatis redintegratio #11). At this point it might be useful to note that all dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmas.*

Gaillardetz also observes that there is a “tendency among some today to artificially elevate all church teaching to the status of dogma,” i.e., those teachings found in the basic creedal statements of the church and concerned with such central aspects of the faith as the divinity of Christ and the bodily resurrection. “These teaching,” writes Gaillardetz, “are held to be irreversible in character.”

Issues such as contraception and same-sex relations, however, are not in this category of irreversible dogma. Neither are they in the next lower category of definitive doctrine – a category that includes teachings that are not divinely revealed but nevertheless irreversible as they are necessary for safeguarding and expounding divine revelation. Gaillardetz notes that one example of a teaching often placed in this category is the Council of Trent’s determination of the books included in the canon of the Bible.

A third category of church teaching is authoritative doctrine. It is within this category that moral teachings such as the immorality of directly targeting civilians in an act of war or the prohibition of certain reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization can be found.

From my study of Gaillardetz and others, it seems clear that the Church’s prohibition on same-sex relationships would also fall into this category , one in which teachings are proposed authoritatively yet to which the Church’s teaching office is “not ready to commit itself irrevocably.” According to Gaillardetz, this means that, “practically speaking . . . there is a possibility of error with respect to these teachings.” In other words, the Church is teaching with authority, but that authority does not exclude the possibility of error. Gaillardetz likens this to going to a doctor when experiencing chest pains: “I recognize that there is a remote possibility that the doctor will misdiagnose my condition,” he writes. “[However] I still grant the doctor authority even though I know her authority is not infallible. . . . My recognition of the remote possibility of error is not an impediment to acknowledging her authority.”

Finally, a fourth level or category of teaching exists, one that includes “any of a variety of teachings that, technically, would fall short of formal, authoritative doctrine.” An example that Gaillardetz gives of this category of teaching is the American bishops’ condemnation of first use of nuclear weapons. With regard to this issue, the bishops distinguished between “binding moral principles and concrete moral applications about which Catholics could disagree in good faith.”

A Disputed Question

Gaillardetz maintains that it is critical to remember that the status of church moral teaching is an “important disputed question” among theologians within the Church. He notes, for instance, that:

It is commonly accepted that some moral teachings of the Church do have dogmatic status, such as the law of love and the affirmation of the inalienable dignity of the human person. But what about more specific moral teachings like the Church’s prohibition of artificial birth control or its just-war teaching? Few theologians believe that teachings of this sort have been taught infallibly, but the more difficult question concerns whether they could be taught infallibly. In other words, does the scope of infallibility extend to more specific moral questions? Those who answer in the affirmative highlight the integrity of divine revelation and the way in which more specific moral teachings, even if they are not technically divinely revealed, are so closely related to divine revelation that they could also be taught infallibly. Other theologians argue that specific moral teachings like the prohibition of artificial birth control [and I’d argue same-sex relationships] depend too much on empirical data subject to change (e.g., embryological studies of what transpires in the earliest stages of contraception) to be able to be taught infallibly. Of course, they would insist, these teachings would still possess a normative status as authoritative doctrine.

Not Truths Complete in Themselves

It is also important to note that in his discussion of dogma, the highest level of church teaching, Gaillardetz reminds us that as Catholics we believe that “dogmas are but specific historical meditations of the one revelation of God” (expressed in an “unsurpassable manner in Jesus of Nazareth”). When we forget this, says Gaillardetz, when we “treat dogmas as if they were revelation itself, instead of meditations of God’s revelation, we flirt with a kind of fundamentalism.”

“This Catholic fundamentalism,” he says, “is every bit as dangerous as biblical fundamentalism; in both instances a written text or statement is viewed as revelation itself rather than an inspired or Spirit-assisted testimony, manifestation, or mediation of God’s saving reality. . . . In Catholicism, church teaching remains important, not as an end in itself, but because of the way in which it can direct our gaze toward God, illuminating for us the ever incomprehensible mystery of God.”

These important insights call to mind Jesuit Philip Endean’s observation that “dogmas of tradition exist not as truths complete in themselves, but rather as resources for helping us discover the ever greater glory . . . of the God whose gift of self pervades all possible experience.”

* Writes Gaillardetz: “A dogma is any propositional formulation which is (1) divinely revealed and (2) proposed as such by the magisterium, either through solemn definition of a pope or council, or by the teaching of the college of bishops in their ordinary and universal magisterium.” It should be noted that this third way of teaching infallibly - the ordinary, universal magisterium - entered the mainstream of Catholic thought at the First Vatican Council of 1870. In his book, Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic, Philip S. Kaufman writes that “under [this third way], without coming together in council, the Pope and the bishops around the world could agree that a teaching had been divinely revealed and ‘must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.’” However, according to Kaufman, Vatican I “didn’t define this third way of teaching infallibly.” (Issues of infallibility will be discussed in future installments of this series.)

A doctrine, writes Gaillardetz, is “any authoritative or normative formulation of a belief of the Church, whether revealed or not. A church doctrine is intended to articulate a formal belief of the Church that it draws in some fashion from its reflection on divine revelation even if it may not itself be divinely revealed.”

NEXT: In responding to this series title question, the concept of infallibility will be explored.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic Challenge
The Treasure and the Dross
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Examining Conflicting Models of Church and Revelation
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
The Vatican Considers the “Lesser of Two Evils”
How Times Have Changed
Getting It Right
A Surprising Finding Re. Catholics and Gay Marriage
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
The Pope’s “Scandalous” Stance on Homosexuality
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
The Challenge to Become Ourselves
Francis of Assisi: God’s Gift to the Church
The Gifts of Homosexuality


Mark Andrews said...

I have two questions about this.

First, its amazing how exacting people become when trying to parse out a place for their position. To mix a metaphor, an almost mathematical attention to doctrinal and dogmatic definition in an effort to squeeze into, or out of, some binding proposition. I call this "theological gerrymandering."

Second, don't Progressive Catholics have their own, operationally defined, doctrine and dogma? From which its impossible to dissent from and remain a Progressive Catholic? In this case, creeping infallibility, in the operational sense - even without a single, infallible teaching authority - is not distinctive of the so-called Institutional Church.

YCP said...


I thank you for being so thoughtful about your Catholic faith and sharing your reasoning with whomever wishes to read it. It has challenged me to be more thoughtful about my faith and to articulate it better in light of our areas of disagreement. I believe you have been led astray and have gone down a path our Lord does not intend for you, and I pray for you that your eyes will be open to His will in your life (a prayer I think we can agree on even if we disagree about what that might be!)

And I think we should pay close attention to what the Catholic Church teaches and what weight these teachings have, so that we don't go beyond or come up short of the Truth. To borrow a line put in the mouth of a Jewish rabbi on Law & Order, "There are no technicalities in the Law, there is only Law."

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Mark,

Richard Gaillardetz is a well-respected theologian specializing in ecclesiology. I do not consider his scholarly output as an example of "theological gerrymandering." For a start, it lacks circular logic - which I consider a hallmark of actual "theological gerrymandering." (For a prime example of this, see here.)

The primary question in your comment seems to be: "From what is it impossible to dissent from if one is to remain a "progressive Catholic"?

I certainly can't speak for all those who consider themselves "progressive Catholics," but for myself I would say that it would be the idea that the Church has the capacity to grow and change, along with the idea that nothing is off limits for discussion if the need for such discussion arises.

Also, I think the idea/recognition that we are all called to a life of consciousness, compassion, witness, integrity, and service - both as individuals and as members of the wider church community. Such living should be honored and recognized as having the potential to inform and shape the church's ongoing development in reflection on - and understanding of - a range of issues.

These are all aspects of our tradition that have come to be termed "progressive" - as if somehow they're optional or only applicable to only certain people. In actuality, they're an intrinsic part of what it means to be Catholic - as are, no doubt, certain aspects of the tradition that some (either approvingly or disapprovingly) term "conservative."