Everyone engaged with his or her faith has encountered situations where it seems hard, at least initially, to accept something a bishop or pope says. God has given the Church hard sayings to proclaim (John 6:60), and that means people will encounter difficulties. In 1990, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document titled Donum Veritatis. It deals with the role of theologians in the Church, and it discusses what they should do when they find it hard to accept Church teaching. The principles it offers apply, with modifications, to ordinary members of the faithful.
So what should you do when something the Church has said is hard to accept? Obviously, prayer is called for, but in addition to that, several practical steps need to be taken.
The first step is to make sure you understand what’s being said.
The Magisterium often uses specialized language designed for professionals—like bishops and theologians—to communicate in a very precise way. People not familiar with this language, or who read it without carefully attending to the way a statement is worded, can easily misunderstand.
The opposite problem also may be encountered, particularly in press interviews. Popes and bishops sometimes try to express complex theological ideas in a simple, accessible way, and in doing so they may use imprecise language, omit important qualifiers, or even misstate things as they formulate an on-the-spot answer. Worse, the press frequently gives only partial quotations, coupled with inadequate, inaccurate, and even sensationalistic summaries of the context.
Whether they’re writing in formal documents or giving press interviews, churchmen can use complex, hard-to-process sentences, and they often give only a partial statement, not a detailed treatment of the whole history of a doctrine.
All these factors make it important, when you encounter a statement that’s hard to accept, to take the time to give it a careful and considered reading. You should always look up the original text and read it in full. Do not take someone’s word for what a pope or bishop has said. Read it for yourself. Understanding a text may require assistance, and you may need to consult one or more experts to figure out its meaning.
It’s important that you pay attention to two things: what is being said and what is not being said.
The latter is important because the Magisterium tends to be very careful in how it phrases things. It does not want to inadvertently close off possible views on a subject. This means you need to pay careful attention to the details of what a statement says. If you don’t, then you might erroneously infer that the Magisterium is saying something it isn’t.
You also need to recognize that sometimes a magisterial statement is ambiguous and can mean more than one thing. Sometimes magisterial documents even use ambiguity deliberately as a way to avoid closing off possible views on a subject.
Determing the level of authority
If you’ve accurately determined the meaning of a statement and still find it hard to accept, the next step is to determine what level of authority the magisterial statement or “intervention” has. According to Donum Veritatis:
Here the theologian will need, first of all, to assess accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions, which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed (24).
Assessing a statement’s level of authority is a matter that is likely to require the assistance of experts. There are many possible levels, though they fall into three broad categories.
First, there are things the Church has taught infallibly. The Church’s infallibility extends both to things that are divinely revealed and to certain other matters. If the Church has infallibly defined that something is divinely revealed, it is known as a dogma.
Second, there are things that the Church has taught authoritatively but not infallibly. These have various levels of authority, from the rather tentative to the almost infallible.
Third, there are things that are not doctrinal statements at all. They may be expressions of pastoral concern, advice, or descriptions of the state of society or the findings of science. They may even be theological ideas that are being proposed for the faithful to consider without being imposed as matters that must be believed.
It’s important to know which categories a statement falls in, because each calls for a different response. It’s also important to consider the question as objectively as possible, because it’s easy to let your preferences influence your judgment. We have a natural tendency to view statements we like as more authoritative and statements we don’t like as less authoritative.
So, what should you do once you’ve determined what category a statement belongs to?
The easiest category to deal with is non-doctrinal statements. As a commentary in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano explains, “Such matters are received with respect and gratitude, but do not require an intellectual assent in the strictest sense” (“On Adhesion to the Second Vatican Council,” Dec. 1, 2011).
In other words, one should maintain a positive attitude toward non-doctrinal statements found in Church documents, but—precisely because they are not statements of doctrine (authoritative teaching)—they do not require intellectual assent. One thus should give them serious and favorable consideration, knowing that God is guiding the pastors of the Church, but the nature of these statements ultimately does not require you to agree with them.
By contrast, you do have to agree when the Church has infallibly taught something. If it has infallibly taught that something is divinely revealed, the response called for is divine faith, because God himself has revealed the matter, and God cannot lie. If the Church has infallibly taught something but not specified it as a matter of divine revelation, you must still hold to the teaching as definitively true because, by virtue of infallibility, God has protected the Church from teaching error on this point, and it’s guaranteed to be true.
Therefore, if you determine the Church has infallibly taught something you otherwise would be inclined to disagree with, the thing to do is remind yourself that God himself guarantees the teaching is true.
The middle category is the trickiest. What do you do when you’re inclined to disagree with something the Church teaches authoritatively but not infallibly?
Donum Veritatis notes that, in any given age, Church teaching can contain elements that are certain and elements that are less sure:
In order to serve the people of God as well as possible, in particular, by warning them of dangerous opinions which could lead to error, the Magisterium can intervene in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements. It often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent (24).
What to do while that process plays out? According to Donum Veritatis:
The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable [i.e., not infallible] must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions.
In other words: It’s possible to question whether a magisterial statement is being given at an appropriate time, whether it is phrased in an appropriate way, or even—in the case of non-infallible teachings—whether it is correct.
Donum Veritatis calls special attention to the way this can happen with prudential matters, such as in the Church’s social teaching:
When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question.
However, this doesn’t mean the Church’s prudential teachings can be ignored:
It would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral [i.e., complete] exercise of its mission.
You thus shouldn’t adopt a dismissive attitude toward the Church’s prudential judgments, such as in its social teaching. God is still guiding the Church, even if the Magisterium sometimes makes problematic prudential judgments that need to be corrected as doctrinal development progresses.
Before you disagree
Before concluding that you disagree with something the Magisterium has said, several conditions need to be met. According to Donum Veritatis:
Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable. Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine (28).
This identifies three grounds that are insufficient for disagreeing with a Church teaching (see below). But, as the Vatican document emphasizes:
There should never be a diminishment of that fundamental openness loyally to accept the teaching of the Magisterium as is fitting for every believer by reason of the obedience of faith (29).
If you do conclude that there are significant reasons to doubt a teaching of the Magisterium, the next step is to make a study of it and see if the difficulty can be resolved:
The theologian will strive then to understand this teaching in its contents, arguments, and purposes. This will mean an intense and patient reflection on his part and a readiness, if need be, to revise his own opinions and examine the objections which his colleagues might offer him (29).
Just as a theologian would be wise to consult his colleagues when making such a study, an ordinary member of the faithful would be wise not to rely solely on his own judgment but talk to others, including catechists, his priest, his bishop, and whatever theological experts he may have access to.
The principles from Donum Veritatis we’ve discussed so far apply both to theologians and ordinary members of the faithful, but now we come to one that applies in a special way to theologians: dialogue with the Magisterium.
Theologians have a special responsibility, in view of their training, to alert the Magisterium when they sense a problem:
If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties (30).
As long as he or she maintains a fundamentally positive attitude, a theologian’s questions can be a constructive experience:
His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.
In his dialogue with the Magisterium, the theologian needs to be cautious about how much confidence he places in his own views:
Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the people of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom. 14:1-15; 1 Cor. 8, 10:23-33). For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them (27).
The document underscores the fact the dialogue needs to take place discreetly:
In cases like these, the theologian should avoid turning to the “mass media” but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth (30).
The natural starting point for a theologian needing to dialogue with the Magisterium is his own bishop, who may bring in the national bishops’ conference’s committee on doctrine or even the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The natural starting point for an ordinary member of the faithful in need of a similar dialogue is his own pastor or bishop, and the same principles apply to him as to a theologian: he should be cautious in advancing his own views, make a sincere effort to resolve the difficulties, and be discreet rather than publicly opposing Church teaching.
In recent decades, a great deal of damage has been done by the scandal of Catholics publicly opposing Church teaching. This happened on a large scale following Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which dealt with contraception. Within days of its release, the American moral theologian Fr. Charles Curran began a public campaign against its teaching, and the campaign grew to international proportions.
This forced the Magisterium to deal with large-scale opposition to its teaching within Catholic circles. Donum Veritatis notes:
The Magisterium has drawn attention several times to the serious harm done to the community of the Church by attitudes of general opposition to Church teaching which even come to expression in organized groups. In his apostolic exhortation Paterna cum Benevolentia, Paul VI offered a diagnosis of this problem which is still apropos. In particular, he addresses here that public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church also called “dissent,” which must be distinguished from the situation of personal difficulties treated above (32).
It’s important to note dissent is being defined here. In a 1992 document titled The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine observes:
[Donum Veritatis] restricts the meaning of the word dissent to “public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church, which must be distinguished from the situation of personal difficulties” (DV 32). This should be noted because in American usage the term dissent is used more broadly to include even the private expression of rejection of reformable magisterial teaching (p. 18).
This means the personal difficulties you may have accepting a non-infallible teaching don’t constitute dissent as long as they don’t take the form of public oppostion. The Committee on Doctrine notes:
Obviously, “public opposition” does not encompass the private denial of teaching on the part of an individual. More important, however, it does not seem appropriate to apply the term public to the professional discussions that occur among theologians within the confines of scholarly meetings and dialogues or to the scholarly publication of views.
As to the point at which disagreement becomes dissent:
When, however, a judgment rejecting magisterial teaching is widely disseminated in the public forum (dissent in the proper sense as formulated by [Donum Veritatis]), such as may occur through popular religious journals or through books intended for mass distribution or through the press and electronic media, then a situation of public dissent is at hand.
Most members of the faithful don’t write articles for popular religious journals or books for mass distribution, but today everyone has access to social media and blogs. This means that, when you have a disagreement with Church teaching, you shouldn’t start trash-talking it on Facebook or YouTube—or, for that matter, with the people you encounter in the real world.
Living with difficulties
Donum Veritatis notes that it’s not always possible to clear up difficulties with Church teaching:
It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question. For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail (31).
Theologians—and ordinary members of the faithful—thus may find themselves having to live with an unresolved disagreement with Church teaching, which is certainly a painful experience.
If this happens to you, that pain should be offered up for the sake of the Church, and, as Donum Veritatis indicates, you should remain prayerful and open to re-examining the question.
A consolation you can have in this time is that, if the Magisterium really is wrong on something, that situation will not last, for ultimately the Holy Spirit will guide the Church “into all truth” (John 16:13).
Sidebar: Insufficient Grounds for Disagreeing
- It isn’t enough that the basis of a teaching isn’t obvious to you. The Magisterium has been given teaching authority by God (1 Tim. 3:15), who guides it. That means you need to be receptive to its teaching. The Magisterium doesn’t have to prove a teaching to you before you have an obligation to accept it.
- It isn’t enough that another view merely strikes you as more probable. Again, in view of the divine guidance the Magisterium receives, there would need to be significant reasons in favor of another view before you’d be warranted in disagreeing.
- Your subjective conscience isn’t “an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine.” Therefore, appeals to it aren’t sufficient. There need to be significant, objective reasons for disagreement.
Ordinary members of the faithful should be especially cautious in these matters because they often don’t have specialized training in theology.