who decides?

By Diogenes (articles ) | May 17, 2006

The only permissible response of a Catholic to the Church's teaching is to accept it. Not to accept is to say that you can be a good Catholic while rejecting Christ's Vicar on earth and the Magisterium that was divinely established in order that the deposit of Faith might be transmitted from generation to generation in all its purity.

Subtle as a 12-gauge barrel pushed under the jaw. Very few Catholics generally (and yet fewer Catholic academics) would not bristle at such an "un-nuanced" challenge addressed directly to the human will. What beery, bigoted monsignor could be so frightened of argument as to pull rank and start pounding his desk in such fashion? Are we really meant to [begin cliché alert] check our brains at the door and march mindlessly in step with a one-size-fits-all model of top-down obedience [end cliché alert] as suggested by the writer?

Well, the author of the challenge is Notre Dame's Prof. Ralph McInerny, and there are few persons on this planet of whom it is less true that they disengaged their intellects in order to swallow Church doctrine. In range as well as in profundity his grasp of the Catholic intellectual tradition is extraordinary. You may believe McInerny wrong, but absolutely no one could think him timid, brain-dead, or a blusterer.

I clipped this passage from the Pontifications blog some months ago, because it zeroes in on the fact that the Church's doctrinal "crisis" is not a conflict of rival theories, but a conflict of rival allegiances. Back to McInerny:

But what kind of Catholic rejects the solemn teaching of Christ and His Church? It is one thing to fall short of Catholic teaching in our lives, to sin; and it is quite another to reject the measure of action that is proposed by the Church. Too many Catholics have set themselves up as rivals to the Magisterium. The situation is not altered because they do so by taking the word of dissenting theologians that it is all right to do this.

Note the phrase "taking the word of dissenting theologians." The problem is not that Catholics impartially examine dissenters' arguments and find them unanswerably solid; the problem is that they let these theologians give them permission to do such-and-such. They submit will and intellect to one master in order to disobey another.

The pattern is clear: What began as a quarrel about sexual morality quickly escalated into a fundamental dispute as to what the Church is and where authority resides when it is a matter of what the Church teaches and what Catholics must believe…. There is simply no justification for refusal to accept the clear teaching of the Pope on matters of Faith and morals. There is no excuse for theologians' telling the faithful to ignore magisterial teachings with which those theologians have difficulties. If the matter of misleading the faithful and deforming consciences were not so serious, the situation would be rendered comical by the fact that the reasons -- theological and philosophical -- that dissenting theologians offer are so often risibly weak and manifestly defective.

The desire for sexual emancipation, though applauded by contemporary fashions, is not especially noble in itself, and academic shills have re-cast the conflict in more seemly terms, viz., as a struggle between enlightenment and obscurantism. McInerny's language calls to mind that of C.S. Lewis's essay The Abolition of Man, wherein Lewis protests against the pretense that those who belittle or subvert tradition are, for that reason alone, to be regarded as more intelligent than those who defend it. In reality, says Lewis, the innovators represent a breed of

Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. ... It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

Lewis was writing about educational theory, but the point holds true of Church doctrine: simply by proposing a change in traditional teaching one is accorded the status of intellectual ("a thinking Catholic"), regardless of low little thought or study went into one's position. Ultimately, it boils down to a question of discipleship: whom do we trust to speak with the mind of Christ? Here's McInerny again:

Which brings us back to the essential point: You do not need me or anyone else to tell you that the Church's theological arguments work and those of the dissenters do not. The crisis is not about arguments, but about the authority of the Church. ... This dispute cannot be settled by each Catholic appraising the arguments on each side. That would be impossible. For Catholics the question is, "Whose word should I take? Which authority should I follow?"

For dissenting theologians to have asserted their dubious authority against that of the Vicar of Christ is a scandal of the first magnitude. It has inflicted deep and lasting wounds on the Church. It has prevented Vatican II from bearing its intended fruit.

McInerny's point is scarcely disputable. All today's really hot-button issues boil down to a single question: who decides? The huge media coverage accorded the seminary Doomsday Doc and the condoms-for-married-Africans controversy --so disproportionate to their intra-ecclesial significance -- shows that the secular mind also intuitively understands what's at stake. The deposit of faith cannot be sub-divided into teachings that are suspect and those that are beyond suspicion, and it stands or falls together. No issue is too trivial: if the Catholic Church, on a matter on which she has already taught authoritatively, can be turned from a teacher into a disciple, the game is over.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 22 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2006 10:17 AM ET USA

    You are right; I also share your love for Sacred Scripture!

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2006 12:13 AM ET USA

    The "Mary" in the Bible are 4 to include Mary the Mother, Mary of Magdala (a small town on the Sea of Galilee), and Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. I do wish more Catholics would read their Bibles - and as much as I do like Leo the Great, apparently he didn't, either! But with each example I list those specifically connected to Mary, the Ever-Virgin to Sin. The Scriptural List from the Catholic Study Bible INCLUDES... Mk 3:31-35, Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55-58, Jn 2:12, Acts 1:14 - all agree with me.

  • Posted by: - May. 20, 2006 11:58 PM ET USA

    Centurion, I have never read the works of St. Leo, as far removed from the times of Gospel composition as we are today. I think what is necessary to understand is that Mary was the Ever-Virgin to ALL SIN - even Original Sin. The best argument to my soul through the Holy Spirit FOR half-siblings is the number of times in original Greek it's indisputable what was said (not Latin). Yet, John-not those, was given to Mary at the Cross - but probably because she would stay in Jerusalem, not Nazareth.

  • Posted by: - May. 19, 2006 10:46 AM ET USA

    The ordinary Catholic might not know better in some cases, but theologians do. Church teaching is the mind of Christ. Dissent injures intimacy with Christ as well as His Church. Protestantism is largely dissent in good conscience. If more Bishops preached these truths, less Catholics might be Protestants. Dissent mostly stems from, or focuses on, sex, whose sins are least among serious sins, because there we are most weak, most passionate, and so, most stupid. "Non-Serviam"???

  • Posted by: - May. 18, 2006 7:42 PM ET USA

    Sterling: We are never to judge MOTIVES, but we are indeed to judge ACTIONS. My own Holy Communion distributing, tithing, RCIA-teaching parents, teach their 5 children to use birth control by their actions and words. Abort. Divorce. Contracept. Sodomize. These are actions worthy of judging. No one judged my parents, and the sour fruits of their sexual sins have been meted out on their 5 children. Might some priest have done the CHARITABLE thing and judged them way back when, if only to save us?

  • Posted by: - May. 18, 2006 10:14 AM ET USA

    Just call me a: "12 gauge Catholic"

  • Posted by: - May. 18, 2006 9:51 AM ET USA

    The DaVinci Code is: "Faith seeking misunderstanding." Patent pending.

  • Posted by: - May. 18, 2006 9:38 AM ET USA

    Church teachings are only strengthened by faith and obedience. Only a proud fool would challenge God! McInerny could not be challenging VCII, unless VCII challenges the doctrinal Council of Trent. I am waiting for a logical explanation of how the precipitous drop in belief in the Real Presence can be renewal. Anyone that believes the sacrilege that Mary had other children cannot be a practicing Catholic. I have long been impressed by the loyalty and logic of Ralph McInerney.

  • Posted by: Eleazar - May. 18, 2006 8:49 AM ET USA

    Wheresthemoney: On faith and morals, I agree, but on social teaching and other matters, I'm not so sure. Even on some "faith and morals issues," e.g. Communion for dissenting politicians, the Church's teachings, and by that I mean the teachings of our bishops, conflict. How can individual Catholics, seeking the Truth, discern it? How, or even should we support a Church that tolerates the abuses that are so well and frequently documented in this space?

  • Posted by: - May. 18, 2006 3:09 AM ET USA

    John Sullivan, I see that there are still those who think Mary had children other than Jesus. That issue was dealt with long ago by Pope St. Leo the Great. When he rendered his decision this issue became moot. She is the "Ever Virgin" Mary. The terms brother and sister are used in a broader sense than you interpreted. Also there were other women named Mary who were named in the Gospels. They at times led to some confusion regarding reference to them. Pope Leo was quite emphatic on this.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - May. 17, 2006 9:19 PM ET USA

    Theology is "faith seeking understanding," and that understanding will, as language changes, be expressed in different ways during different times. But, as Newman insisted, there is no fundamental change in the reality, and what the Church considered evil in one age has never been considered good in a later age.

  • Posted by: Sterling - May. 17, 2006 8:46 PM ET USA

    The same Church that teaches "don't use birth control" also teaches "don't judge rashly." Both are sins. The Catechism teaches we must assume the the best about people's motives (2477, 2478). How can we say for sure that people believe false theologians simply because they want permission for such-and-such? Read what Fr. Hardon has to say about judging motives. If we subscribe to this kind of detraction, we need to remove the log from our own eyes before we go after the motes of others.

  • Posted by: miasarx - May. 17, 2006 8:22 PM ET USA

    To be a Catholic is by definition to believe that Jesus is Lord, that He actually did (and does) send the Holy Spirit to protect and guide his *HOLY BRIDE* the Church. If He can't do that He isn't God. If He can't do that, then the Father of Lies wins. To deny the infallibility of the magisterium is to deny the divinity of Jesus, pure & simple.

  • Posted by: Fr. William - May. 17, 2006 8:03 PM ET USA

    Amen, Ralph McInerny. Amen, Diogenes. I, too, am not smarter than Jesus and His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And God have mercy on those prideful/self-centered/arrogant "theologians," "cardinals/bishops" & "liturgists" who lead the people astray and who actually claim to know better than Jesus and His Vicar here on earth, the Holy Father, and the Church and the Magisterium.... Saint Josemaria Escriva, pray for us.

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2006 6:19 PM ET USA

    Who decides? This is God's Church. I deeply resent what comes from man alone being crammed down a Parish or Diocese as "Church Teachings" when they are only political platforms. Can a person who believes that Mary was perpetually a virgin to sin yet gave Jesus 4 named half-brothers and 2 half-sisters as described in the Gospels themselves be a good Catholic? You bet. Theologians live in an abstract unreal world, and I ignore almost all of them. But ExCathedra Papal pronouncements? That's God.

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2006 5:52 PM ET USA

    One more thing - get the whole posting at the blog and email it to every dissenter you know. Brilliant statement

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2006 2:06 PM ET USA

    GOR, You are right. I see it as a lack of humility, but even more an overabundance of PRIDE . What makes these people think they know so much more than the Pope and the Church?

  • Posted by: Gene Church - May. 17, 2006 1:25 PM ET USA

    There is a difference in questioning and obeying. The raising of questions is part of the Church's recognition of the interweaving of faith and reason. But we equated a lack of submission with a lack of intellect. Don't tell that to the Doctors of the Church.

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2006 12:45 PM ET USA

    Good question,Eleazar. But let me ask you a different question. What is the most important thing for us to do in this life? More important than Mass or the Sacraments or anything. It is to do God's will joyfully totally and completely as best we can. And has God made His will known? YES - He gave us a Church guided by the Holy Spirit transmitting all truth. Find the heart of the Church and embrace it. Then you will know and accept and LOVE God's will for you.

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2006 12:41 PM ET USA

    I agree totally. Catholic teaching is based on 2000 years of sound theology and philosophy from the brightest minds. It is childish, prideful, and arrogant to assume you know better. However, today's church largely highjacks her mission by tolerating and allowing dissenting theologians to roam the country-side like a dragon devouring souls. Dissenting bishops have been appointed and nothing has been done to reign them in. In effect, we now have a parrellel dissenting mirror church.

  • Posted by: Eleazar - May. 17, 2006 10:02 AM ET USA

    The demand for unquestioning acceptance has been troubling me lately; the discussion in Catholic circles sounds more like a demand for submission, i.e., Islam. Taken to its logical conclusion, McInerny’s position could be said to challenge VCII, especially the roles of the laity and subsidarity. On the other hand how do Church teachings develop or become strengthened if they are not questioned or challenged? Or are we merely spectators, required only to pray, pay and obey.

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2006 8:52 AM ET USA

    When I began studying Theology years ago, I reached an early conclusion: "This is dangerous stuff!" Questions were raised about things I had accepted without question. I guess I was not a 'thinking Catholic' - just a believing one. I have remained a believing Catholic, thank God, even while doing a little thinking along the way. What some 'theologians' lack is humility. We will never know it all in this life, so stick close to the Church. She does, and Deo volente so will we one day...