Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

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.

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