by Alvin Kimel


How little can I get away with believing and still be considered a card-carrying Christian? This attitude might be described as the liberal Protestant disease. Those of us who are Episcopalians are well acquainted with this disease, and we know it afflicts most Christian traditions. But I confess that I am always a little bit shocked when I see Catholics expressing similar attitudes.

Consider, for example, the question of women’s ordination. In 1994 Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he declared that the Catholic Church did not have authority to admit women into the Priesthood and Episcopate. The concluding paragraphs of the letter seem to be clear and decisive:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

Wow, it’s hard to get much more definitive than this. The Pope didn’t just express his personal opinion about the matter. Speaking as pastor to the Church catholic and head of the Episcopal College, he solemnly declared that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the Priesthood and that this is to be held definitively by all Catholic Christians. Rome has spoken. Case closed.

Indeed, a layman might even be excused in believing that the Pope’s decree enjoys infallible status. After all, as Bishop Gasser explained to the bishops of Vatican I, for a papal decree to be infallible “there is required the manifest intention of defining doctrine, either of putting an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine or of defining a thing, giving a definitive judgement and proposing that doctrine as one which must be held by the Universal Church.” It is clear from the letter itself that John Paul II intended to bring closure to the debate by his declaration. Even an Episcopalian can figure out that if I am required to believe something definitively I am no longer permitted to question it.

But things are never as simple as they appear. Catholic theologians, canonists, priests, religious, and layfolk continue to debate whether women may be ordained to the Priesthood. Indeed, it appears that until the Pope actually says something like “HEAR YE THIS, I AM NOW SPEAKING SOLEMNLY, INFALLIBLY, AND DEFINITIVELY. WOMEN CAN’T BE ORDAINED. PERIOD. I REALLY REALLY MEAN IT. REALLY. SO PLEASE STOP DEBATING THIS ISSUE AND PLEASE STOP TELLING THE BRETHREN THAT THE CHURCH IS WRONG. THE MATTER IS CLOSED. HONEST TO GOD. I’M NOT GOING TO CHANGE MY MIND AND NEITHER ARE MY SUCCESSORS. WE JUST DON’T HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO ALTER THE DIVINELY ORDAINED STRUCTURE OF THE MINISTERIAL PRIESTHOOD … REALLY … I’M NOT KIDDING … WHICH PART DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?” progressive Catholics will not be persuaded. And even then I’m not sure.

For example, Progressive Catholic (this is my name for the writer, since I cannot find his name or handle on his site) has recently raised again the question of the status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Is the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium Infallible? Also see his even more recent Truth, Certainty, Infallibility, and Dissent. PC offers some interesting, thoughtful arguments. Unacquainted as I am with Catholic canon law, I cannot judge their cogency. In the end, though, I am left with the feeling that if one is determined enough, one can always find a reason to “conscientiously” dispute papal teaching, no matter how definitive it intends to be. This then raises a question for me: What’s the point in having a Pope at all?! Isn’t he there precisely so the buck can have a place to stop?

Consider the question of women’s ordination. I jumped on the bandwagon back in my seminary days and have had twenty-seven years to experience it in the Church. I know the arguments in favor of it, and several of them are pretty good. But are they so good and compelling as to override a definitive teaching to the contrary by the Supreme Pontiff (assuming one believes what Catholics are supposed to believe about the Pope)? Heck no. Pope John Paul’s judgment is very simple: The Church does not have the authority to confer priestly orders upon women. The buck has stopped and judgment has been made. That’s the way the system is designed to work, presumably under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If the other side had a clear biblical text authorizing women’s ordination, perhaps they might be able to challenge the Pope’s ruling; but they don’t have such a text. All they have are arguments, but arguments only go so far when confronted with historical institution. The situation is analogous to the use of bread and wine at the Eucharist. Why these elements? Because they were the elements used by Jesus and the Apostolic Church, and the Church has authoritatively confirmed their exclusive use. Perhaps it would be more convenient and helpful, especially, say, in Asian cultures, to use other foods and drinks for the sacrament; but the Church simply does not have the authority to change what appears to be dominical and apostolic practice, no matter how compelling the reasons might seem. This is all part of the contingency and historical givenness of the gospel (see my Rice-Jesus).

Now one might have doubts that the male priesthood essentially belongs to the apostolic foundation of the Church; but once the Vicar of Christ has given a definitive judgment on the matter, why continue to doubt? Unless, of course, one is a liberal Protestant at heart in whom private judgment reigns supreme. As Luther once remarked, “Every man is born with a Pope in his belly.”

Speaking as an outsider, I find the phenomenon of Catholic dissent strange. Most agree that the Pope has only dogmatized infallibly on two occasions—the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. It is unclear to me why the Popes felt it necessary to exercise their extraordinary magisterium on behalf of these two doctrines. Neither doctrine was being seriously contested in the Catholic Church; hence Catholics readily and uncontroversially assented to them. Talk about magisterial overkill. When the Church really needs a Pope, though, is during times of protracted theological controversy, during times when there is a need for resolution and the restoration of unity. And this is when the rubber hits the road, because if the Pope comes down on the other side of the issue I feel passionately about, I am then faced with the demand to submit my will and mind to the magisterial teaching. It is in situations like these that submission becomes true obedience. Not to submit is to engage in private judgment; it is in fact to be Protestant.

“But I thought you didn’t believe in the Horn, Trumpkin,” said Caspian.

“No more I do, your Majesty. But what’s that got to do with it. I might as well die on a wild goose chase as die here. You are my King. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s the time for orders.” (C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian)

Bunches of modern Catholics refuse to submit to the authoritative teaching of the Church. Each has his reasons and arguments; each is convinced that his reasons and arguments justify dissent. Apparently, the Pope is only to be obeyed when he agrees with what we have already determined to be true.

Cardinal Newman provides an interesting lesson here. As is well known to Pontifications readers, Newman hated private judgment. The whole point of the Catholic Church, for Newman, was churchly infallibility. “To believe in a Church,” Newman says, “is to believe in the Pope.” Thus Newman severely rebuked as “uncatholic” the spirit “which starts with a grudging faith in the word of the Church, and determines to hold nothing but what it is, as if by demonstration, compelled to believe. To be a true Catholic a man must have a generous loyalty towards ecclesiastical authority, and accept what is taught him with what is called the pietas fidei.” Newman rejected the position that Catholics should only submit to the judgments of the Pope on matters infallible. As the Vicar of Christ, the Pope deserves the full-hearted assent of Catholics.

There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, an, in obeying him, we are obeying our Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us.

The See of Peter, Newman writes, “is not in all cases infallible, it may err beyond its special province, but it has in all cases a claim on our obedience.” And lest Newman be dismissed as old hat, we find the same posture of obedience expressed by Vatican II: “Religious submission of mind and of will must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking” (Lumen Gentium 25).

But even Newman found his obedience tested. Though a strong proponent of papal infallibility, he did not believe that the Church should dogmatically define the doctrine. After the Vatican Council passed the definition in 1870, he withheld his assent for many months, hoping that it would not be received by the Church. He urged several of his correspondents to be patient. One of these correspondents, an Anglican, told Newman that his refusal to assent to the conciliar dogma was not unlike the position that he had earlier advocated as a member of the Church of England. Newman found himself at a loss of words and could not refute the objection. Eventually Newman surrendered and gave his full assent to the conciliar definition, as evidenced by his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

For the past forty years, progressive Catholics have found themselves combatting the Pope on one issue or another. They claim the right to dissent and see themselves as the loyal, courageous, and of course enlightened opposition. It appears obedience is not the virtue Catholics once thought it to be. Everyone can now act the Protestant and protest the decrees and decisions of the Bishop of Rome—always in the name of conscience. Assent to a papal decree with which one disagrees is no longer expected. As Anglican priest, Geoffrey Kirk, quipped: “Liberal Roman Catholics long ago adapted the doctrine of papal infallibility to mean the infallibility of the next Pope but one.”

Which brings us to Charles Curran. Curran is America’s most famous Catholic dissenter. In his recent article, A Place for Dissent, Curran continues his heroic battle against the Inquisition—and especially against the morbid Augustinian who once hurt his feelings and who is now Benedict XVI. If Curran is sure of anything, he is sure that he is right and Rome is wrong. Curiously, he rejects the charge that he is nothing but a “cafeteria Catholic”:

I have often appealed to the well-known Catholic distinction between infallible and noninfallible teaching to distinguish what is essential in Catholic belief and what is somewhat peripheral. I strongly object to being called a “cafeteria Catholic.” Here the insistence on what is necessary and central to our faith is most important. One cannot be a good Catholic and disagree with necessary beliefs such as the Trinity, the creative role of God, the saving role of Jesus, the sanctifying mission of the Holy Spirit, revelation in the Bible and in tradition, the sacramental life of the church, and the role of bishops in the church. But one can disagree with some teachings that are not infallible, not central, and not certain.

Something feels wrong about this statement; but I do not know Catholic theology well enough to state precisely what it is. Curran appears to be saying that the essential Catholic beliefs are those beliefs that the Church has explicitly, extraordinarily, and infallibly defined; but if this is what he is saying, he is clearly wrong. The dogmas of faith certainly state some of the core Christian beliefs, but they do not exhaust them. The catholic faith is richer and deeper than the dogmas that controversy has compelled the Church to define. The catholic faith is a whole. The truths of revelation cohere together in a beautiful tapestry, each mutually illumining the others (analogia fidei).

But more importantly, it appears that Curran has arrogated to himself the role of judging what is essential to the Catholic faith and what is not. He sounds just like the typical Episcopal priest. We all have Popes in our bellies!

6 May 2005


In his correspondence with Anglicans wrestling with the claims of Catholicism, Cardinal Newman would often cite the doctrinal unity of Catholic witness. In an 1879 letter to Miss Whingates, for example, Newman writes: “There may be many opinions among its members on points which it does not teach, but not on those points which it teaches as the truth revealed. It teaches and its theologians believe only one and the same doctrine. There must be no differences as to the way of salvation.”

What a different Catholic world we live in today. It sometimes seems that the Catholic Church is as theologically divided as any Protestant denomination. A wide diversity of opinions exist on just about any theological topic. All manner of nonsense is preached from Catholic pulpits. Catholic theologians seem to think it is their divinely mandated role to challenge the historic teaching of the Church. Is it really part of a Jesuit’s job description to push the heresy envelope? Newman would be horrified. But would he be surprised?

Probably not. Newman knew that he was living in a privileged time in the history of the Catholic Church. “The idea and the genius of Catholicism has triumphed within its own pale with a power and completeness which the world has never seen before. Never was the whole body of the faithful so united to each other and to their head,” he declared in 1850. “Never was there a time when there was less of error, heresy, and schismatical perverseness among them.” But Newman knew his Church history too well not to conclude with this warning: “Of course the time will never be in this world, when trials and persecutions shall be at an end: and doubtless such are to come, even though they be on the horizon. But we may be thankful and joyful for what is already granted us; and nothing which is to be can destroy the mercies which have been.” Newman did not have to wait too long before the dark clouds of apostasy arose on the horizon. Twenty-nine years later, in his famous Biglietto speech, Newman would bemoan the spirit of liberalism “overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth.” Who today can doubt that this spirit has infiltrated deeply the Catholic Church.

Yet the present theological chaos within the Catholic Church is easily misunderstood. Mark Horne recently trumpeted that “the idea that Roman Catholicism is ‘a coherent, comprehensive, and self-conscious church body’ is totally hallucinatory. It is laughable.” Horne is responding to the observation of Carl Trueman, affirmed by Richard John Neuhaus, that Catholicism enjoys “clearly defined authority structures, creeds, and an identifiable history—in other words, a self-conscious identity.” But Horne protests. Catholicism is just as badly off as Protestantism, he tells us. Horne is evidently worried that Protestants are in danger of being seduced by a romanticism that ignores the fractured realities of the Catholic Church.

Horne is quite right. Any Protestant who is considering Catholicism must put away all romantic fantasies about life on the other side of the Tiber. Greg Krehbiel offers precisely the dose of needed realism in the January issue of Crisis, “Why I am still Catholic.” The Catholic Church is not utopia. The widespread theological dissent from magisterial teaching is embarrassing and destructive. But please note, that is precisely what it is—dissent. The Catholic Church remains, as she has always been, a teaching Church, a dogmatic Church. She still claims to be inspired and led by the Holy Spirit. She still claims that her definitive teaching is protected from error and is thus binding upon Catholic consience. She still claims to be the guardian and steward of “the faith once delivered to the saints.” The authoritative teaching of the Church is given in her Catechism for all to read. Every Catholic knows what they should believe, must believe, even if they willfully choose not to.

G. K. Chesterton once remarked that the Catholic Church is “much larger inside than it is outside.” This is certainly true theologically. Athanasius and Bonaventure, Augustine and Maximus the Confessor, Bellarmine and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Jesuits—all find their home within her walls. The diversity of intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual witness is truly breathtaking. Because she is the Church, and not a narrow confessional community, she is able to welcome this wondrous symphony of testimony as the Spirit guides her into the fullness of truth. Such freedom in the Spirit is possible precisely because of the Church’s commitment to irreformable dogma and the authoritative guidance of the Magisterium.

It may well take another generation or two for the Catholic Church to reassert her magisterial authority over her priests and theologians. Thank goodness, those who were most profoundly influenced by the modernist “spirit of Vatican II” are finally being called home by the Lord. To adapt a saying of Max Planck, orthodoxy in the Catholic Church is presently advancing “funeral by funeral.” Let no one be deceived. The Catholic Church is as she has always been—a self-conscious theological and spiritual community, a community rooted in the testimony of the Apostles, saints, and martyrs. She knows the Truth she has received, and she knows the solemn duty laid upon her to secure this Truth in the world. Peter remains the rock upon which Christ has built his Church. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

7 January 2006

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