Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Father William Most Collection

Guide to Renewal for Teachers of Sacred Doctrine

[Catholic Educational Review 66 (April 1968) 217-29]

"... The crisis among Roman Catholic theologians has reached a major level of befuddlement."1

No, it is not some arch-conservative who speaks; it is the liberal Protestant theologian, Dr. Albert Outler, prominent in ecumenism, an observer at Vatican II. Nor could anyone, conservative or liberal, deny the sad fact: confusion is the order of the day, not only among the nonprofessionals, but even among theologians. Why is this happening? Father Andrew Greeley puts his finger on the sore spot when he writes:

Intellectual fads and fashions combine with the catchwords to create an unstable ideology that is not only a substitute for scholarship and for thought, but actually a pretext for rejecting precise scholarship and serious intellectual investigations.... These instant experts need no more evidence than their assertions, and no more credentials than their names. He who dares to produce research evidence against such infallible teaching authority is accused of dishonesty and conservatism or of having "sold out."2

As Father Greeley has so keenly noted, the trouble lies precisely in the anti-intellectual atmosphere so common now among "theologians." Or, to put it another way, scientific theological method has been scrapped by so many. The result is, quite naturally, befuddlement, a major level of befuddlement.

Problems for Religion Teachers

This creates severe problems in the field of Catholic education on all levels, problems that impact in a very personal way upon teachers of religion in the schools and theology in the colleges. It has gone so far, in fact, that one hears whenever teachers gather, fear and trepidation expressed regarding an assignment in this area. It may be helpful, therefore, to offer some reflections on the methodology of Sacred Doctrine as a basis for sound methods of classroom teaching.

Method is of prime importance in all fields of knowledge. The natural sciences provide a glaring object lesson. Back in the sixth century before Christ, Greek workers in science disagreed about the method to be used. One faction wanted to employ an armchair method of sitting down and trying to reason out what must be the cause of natural phenomena; the others wanted to use, in crude form, what we know now to be true scientific method. Unfortunately for science, the armchair men won out, with the result that until just a few centuries ago, science produced more fiction than fact. To sit down and try to reason out a problem is the ideal method in philosophy. But it is ruinous in natural science.

Theology, like other fields, has its own proper method. It is not a method imposed arbitrarily by a convention of scholars, or some magisterial authority. It is the inherent characteristics of theology itself that make it call for its special method.

Vatican II did not invent that method, nor did it attempt to impose it by sheer authority; but it did describe that method very well, in its decree on the training of priests.

Method of Theological Science

Theology is the science that tries to find out what is contained in the sources of revelation. As a result, it does not try to find truth by the use of unaided human reason-that is the technique proper to philosophy. Rather, theology studies what revelation, as found in Scripture and Tradition, tells us. But in studying revelation we should not-as not a few have done in the recent past-look for isolated, out-of-context quotes that at first sight may seem to prove a point. Instead, as the Council says, we ought to follow so far as possible the entire development of revelation. Hence the Council tells us that in the training of priests: "Dogmatic theology should be so arranged that the biblical themes are presented first. Students should [then] be shown what the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church contributed to the fruitful transmission and illumination of the individual truths of revelation, and also the later history of dogma and its relationships to the general history of the Church."3

After we have, in this process, exhausted the more immediate content of revelation, we should move out into a somewhat speculative area in which, by studying the implications of revealed truths, we arrive at deeper penetration into the deposit of faith. Were we to put our reasonings into the form of a syllogism-that, of course, is not required, we mention it merely as an easy way to make the situation clear-we would have one revealed, and one non-revealed premise.

Still later, after exhausting the resources of that second area, we would move out farther, and employ arguments that would have both premises non-revealed. As long as we would still have some general light from the entire structure of the truths of faith, we are still in the realm of theology. Passing beyond that, we are in pure philosophy. In regard to the speculative phase, Vatican II adds that we "should learn to penetrate more deeply with the help of speculative reason exercised under the tutelage of St. Thomas."4

Of course, the Council did not mean to canonize all the views of St. Thomas. It merely meant to say that St. Thomas provides excellent help, a fine framework, a sort of working hypothesis in the speculative realm. Perhaps a better help will come along in the future, but it has not yet come, and so, until that day, we do well to use the work of St. Thomas.

But the Council added something else on theological method which is of still greater importance than the foregoing: "The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."5 This same principle was underscored strongly by Pope Paul VI in his address to the closing session of the International Congress on the Theology of the Second Vatican Council:

... the immediate and universal norm of the unfailing truth can be found solely in the authentic Magisterium of the Church ... You especially will more surely possess that truth, the more wholeheartedly you are joined with the Church's Magisterium. If in your search for truth you wander away from this Magisterium ... it might even expose you to the danger of deviating from the right path, choosing your own judgment, not the thinking of the Church, as the criterion of truth.6

In other words, at some point-before, during, or after the process of studying revelation through the method recommended by the Council-every theologian must pause to check his thinking with the teaching of the Magisterium.

Role of the Magisterium

We can see how right a noted Protestant philosopher was, when he observed recently that neither the apostate Father Davis, in his self-defense, nor Father Gregory Baum, in his reply to Father Davis, was really following Catholic theological principles and method:

The issue is the importance of a particular history institution and its teaching authority as it has developed. If your basis is biblical [he means, biblical studies done by merely private interpretation] then you may feel free to break from one institution and join or form another....If Roman Catholicism has really changed as much under Vatican II as Father Baum believes, we Protestants have won; it is we who should ... start talking about how we can now accept back our brothers....7

Dr. Sontag is right: the touchstone in Catholic theology is whether or not one conforms to the Magisterium of the Church. Were a man to agree with every one of the Church's teachings but do it not because the Church teaches these things, but merely because he had convinced himself of each item independently-that man would still be a Protestant, not a Catholic. Hence the title of Sontag's article pointedly asks: "Are you a Catholic?"

Nor will academic freedom excuse anyone from this submission to the Magisterium. For academic freedom presupposes that a man is using the method proper to his field of knowledge. For example, what would happen today to a "scientist" who would insist on the methods of Pliny the Elder instead of true scientific method? He would not only not be guaranteed a place on a science faculty by the demands of a howling mob-he would rather be laugher out of the councils of the learned. Similarly, a "theologian " who, in the name of academic freedom, ignores the Magisterium, should be dismissed as a quack: he does not follow the method of theology. He who refuses to follow the method of his field of knowledge cannot claim that academic freedom should defend him. That freedom is for those who know the field and work according to its proper method.

Vatican II insists on this submission, and not only to solemn definitions. Were that enough, we could ignore any and all teachings of Vatican II itself, for it defined nothing. Rather, the Council said, speaking of the Ordinary, non-infallible Papal Magisterium: "... religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that ... the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to."8

Is it impossible to believe something that is non-infallible? By no means. Most things we accept are non-infallible. In fact, most of us daily stake our very lives on a non-infallible belief when we eat canned food that has not had a lab check for botulism. If it is present, we will most likely die. Yet we do not worry; the possibility, though not to be denied, is so far out, so remote, that the normal man does not even think of it. Similarly, the noninfallible Magisterium could be wrong, but the chances are even more remote than they are with canned goods.

Clearing the Confusion

We can see, then, a means of helping to clear away the befuddlement. When any theologian today says: Lo, here is Christ! we need to check his credentials. Is he really following theological method, as proclaimed by Vatican II? If so, he may have made progress-we still need to check further, of course, on how well he has used the method, and on additional details. But if he does not use that method, if he instead just emotes and bubbles: "Before, we used to believe this; but now, thanks to good Pope John and the Council, we believe that"-such a man is no theologian, but a quack. He does not even deserve a hearing. Of course, if he can quote a teaching of the Council or the Pope, and then show, by careful study, precisely what its meaning is, we will gladly accept it. But all too often there is no quote from the Council, still less, any careful study of a Council statement. There is merely a general, vague, appeal to the Council and/or "its spirit." For example, some say now there is only one good form of religious life: one with little or no structure, habit, etc., and with its work in the inner city or slums. Now the Council did approve that sort of life: it was actually approved before the Council. It is a Secular Institute pattern. But the Council was not so narrow as many "liberals." It recognized many good forms of religious life, e.g., speaking of contemplatives, it said: "No matter how urgent may be the needs of the active apostolate, such communities will always have a distinguished part to play in Christ's Mystical Body, where all members do not have the same function."9 As to active communities: "The religious life ... takes on many forms ... it serves the pastoral work of the Church so usefully by educating the young, caring for the sick, and discharging other services."10 And it reaffirmed the value of the old spiritual ideals saying: "... the counsels [poverty, chastity, obedience] contribute greatly to purification of heart and spiritual liberty. They continually kindle the fervor of charity."11 And again: "The members of each community should recall above everything else that by their profession of the evangelical counsels they have given answer to a divine call to live for God alone not only by dying to sin but also by renouncing the world."12

Really, there are two ways in which progress can come in theology: by the teachings of the Magisterium, and by the work of private persons. We have already seen how the Council would have us check on what we can or cannot accept of this private work. Now we should take a look at what changes the Council itself made. As Dr. Sontag said in the passage cited above: "... if Roman Catholicism has really changed as much under Vatican II as Fr. Baum believes, we Protestants have won ..." To find out, the only scholarly procedure is to go through each of the sixteen documents of the Council with a fine comb, and compare each statement with previous teaching, so as to find out precisely what changes have been made. Then, at the end, we can add up our notes and produce a list.

The present writer has attempted that task. He readily confesses that he is very fallible and so has possibly, even probably, missed some items of change. Yet, as a means of beginning a sound appraisal, to which others may contribute, here is a list of the results found. It is to be noted that this list does not include changes in legislation, but only in teaching. Nor does it mention changes in slant or stress of varied presentations: it is concerned only with the substance, with new truths or new certitudes that were previously not had.

Doctrinal Development

1. Karl Rahner,13 along with some other theologians, had taken a very narrow interpretation of the Encyclical on the Mystical Body. They thought Pius XII said that baptized Protestants could in no sense be called members of the Church. Other theologians took a broader view, and said that baptized Protestants are members, though in a lesser way. The Council endorsed the broader view, and settled the debate. In the decree on Ecumenism it said: "Men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are brought into a certain though imperfect communion with the Catholic Church."14 In fact, the Constitution on the Church could be understood so as to imply that even unbaptized pagans who follow their conscience are members, in a still lesser way: "All who belong to Christ, having His spirit, form one Church."15 We can see the implication if we recall that St. Paul, in Romans 8, 9 & 14 said: "if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ" but "whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." Now a pagan who follows his conscience is, though he may not realize it, led by the Spirit. So, by following the Spirit, he belongs to Christ, and so meets the description given by the Council of those who form the one Church.

2. In the Constitution on the Church we read: "Just as by the Lord's will, St. Peter and the other apostles constituted one apostolic college, so, in a similar way, the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter, and the bishops as the successors of the Apostles, are joined together."16 Now of course, no one had denied this fact, but yet, it had not been brought out so explicitly. Hence we have progress here.

3. Before the Council just a few Catholics had held strange ideas on the guilt of the Jews for the Passion of Christ. In the decree on non-Christians, the Council settled all doubts saying: "What happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today."17

4. The decree on religious freedom says this: "The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part ... of any human power.... Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs ... within due limits."18 We need to notice carefully precisely what the Council said, for the wording of this statement was hammered out with special care. It says men are to be immune from external coercion: It does not say that men have a right to error as error-a right to be wrong. For it is one thing to say that a man may, even must, follow his conscience, even if that conscience happens to be in error. It is a different thing to say he has a right to error as such. Further, even in this, there are "due limits," which the Council does not spell out. Some are obvious, e.g., some tribes of headhunters used to say their religion required them to take heads. The Council, of course, could not even tolerate that. Again, U.S. civil law forbids polygamy, even though some religions approve. Probably the Council would concur with our civil law on this. But, and much more important, the Council makes another qualification, in § 1 of the same document: "... it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."19 So the Council considers that it is not contradicting traditional teaching, but rather, is developing further in the same line. Actually, Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Immortale Dei had said: "The Church is accustomed to take great care that no one be forced to embrace the Catholic faith unwillingly, according to the wise admonition of St. Augustine: A man cannot believe except willingly."20

5. The Council made further development in the teaching of the Church on the lay apostolate. The Church had often spoken of a lay apostolate that was a participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. The Council continues to speak of that, in the Constitution on the Church. But it also brings out another aspect, in the same paragraph:

The lay apostolate ... is a participation in the saving mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate ... the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can she become the salt of the earth.21

Again, we have further clarification, without contradiction of the older teaching.

6. The Council similarly amplified the role of priests. We had always known that priests should be interested not just in their own particular assignments, but in the entire Church. The Council adds on to this, in the decree on the life and ministry of priests, saying: "Every priestly ministry shares in the universality of the mission entrusted by Christ to His apostles."22

7. The Council also settled a strange debate. Some theologians had actually asserted that when a man dies, he ceases to be a member of the Mystical Body. Others said that, according to St. Paul, it is only inasmuch as a man is a member of Christ the he is saved. The Council decided in favor of the latter, saying, in the Constitution on the Church: "The Church ... will attain her full perfection only in the glory of heaven."23

8. The decree on Christian education makes a very courageous new statement: "Public authority ... ought to see to it, out of a concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are allocated in such a way that, when selecting schools for their children, parents are genuinely free to follow their consciences."24 It is obvious that in the U.S. system, parents are pressured. According to the Council the American system is not merely unsuitable, but definitely unjust.

9. In past centuries a few-not all-theologians had been too narrow in their views on the lawful use of marriage. The Council, on the contrary, insists that the use of the rights of marriage within marriage is not only lawful, but even adds: "the actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones ... these actions signify and promote that mutual self giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a thankful will."25

Certain voices at the Council had tried to get the Council to go farther, to say that conjugal love is a primary purpose of marriage on the same level with procreation. The Council not only did not go so far, but it at least seemed to say the opposite, in no. 50 of the same constitution: "Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children." Now if one thing, conjugal love, is ordained, that is, directed or aimed at another thing, namely, procreation, then the one thing exists for the sake of the other thing, and hence, is hardly of equal rank. Instead, it is subordinated.

10. Finally, there is a most important teaching, which, strange to say, has been overlooked by so many who claim loudly that they are following the Council. It is found in the constitution on the Church: "... the body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief."26 Really, this statement is not entirely new: what is new is its great clarity. But that very clarity makes it all the more strange that it has been overlooked. It means simply this: Even if the Magisterium of the Church has not yet defined a point, still, if only the whole Church believes it, that is, accepts it as revealed, then there cannot be any error. Such a universal belief is equivalent to a solemn definition.27 Yet there are so many who often say: "This matter is not defined, so let us doubt it." And they do not stop to see if the point in question is part of the belief of the universal Church, even though it may not yet be formally defined. This is for certain a real sleeper in the Council texts. If the noise makers would follow just this one teaching of the Council, a great step would be taken to remove the plague of confusion and befuddlement.

We should add, too, in this connection, that the Council makes clear that this statement on the infallibility of the believing Church does not reduce the function of the Magisterium to merely repeating what the people believe. Rather, the very same section of the same constitution says: "All this it does under the lead of a sacred teaching authority, to which it loyally defers."28 Pope Paul VI strongly underscored this teaching more than once, e.g., in his general audience of July 5, 1967: "The Apostle is the teacher. He is not merely the echo of the religious conscience of the community. He is not merely the expression of the opinion of the faithful..."29

If now we stop to ask ourselves: Does all theology need to be rewritten because of the changes made by the Council, we can see that the answer is definitely NO. Such claims are pure fraud, perpetrated on the ignorant, who have not taken the trouble to read the actual texts of the Council. Not one of these changes has contradicted previous teachings. Rather, each has made progress by moving farther ahead in the same line. Really, to cancel out past progress would have been retrogression.


To sum up: there are two procedures needed to remove confusion and befuddlement. For progress can be made within a Council (or within Papal teaching) and it can be made outside of a Council. To remove confusion on what changes the Council itself has made, we need only to study the actual texts-and to avoid most commentators and second hand sources. To remove confusion in regard to claims of progress made outside of the Council, we have only to judge the claims according to the criteria laid down by the Council. Examined under such principles, some claims, especially many in the biblical field, turn out to be true, but many others turn out to be purely fraudulent. They are the "intellectual fads" which are "a pretext for rejecting precise scholarship and serious intellectual investigations" of which Father Greeley complains.

Following the teachings and principles of the Council we can have true renewal of theology. In the opposite direction lies quackery and befuddlement and the negation of scholarship evidenced by Daniel Callahan:

Now it seems to me, Mr. Bozell's model of a Christian ... is someone who is secure in his faith, does not have doubts, is respectful of authority.... And I suppose the kind of model I'm putting forward is a rather different one, namely, that of the prototype Christian as a terribly disturbed person ... who does not really know what orthodoxy is any more ... he is so bewildered by the contemporary world that his style is one of casting about, and very often in an unscholarly way. Now I'm a bit disturbed by an emphasis on scholarship. [Though] I think scholarship makes considerable sense in the academic setting.... What we need in the Church is a healthy dose of relativism, skepticism, indifferentism, and subjectivism. We need these much maligned attitudes when we talk about orthodoxy.30


1National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 1967, p. 9.
2"Adolescent American Catholicism," Sign (November 1966), p 16.
3Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (ed.), "On Priestly Formation," § 16, The Documents of Vatican II, trans. Very Rev. Msgr. Joseph Gallagher (New York: Guild Press, 1966), pp. 451-52. Page references to Council texts in subsequent notes are all to this edition.
4Ibid., p. 452.
5Abbott, "On Divine Revelation," pp. 117-18 (Italics added.)
6Catholic Messenger, Davenport, Iowa, Nov. 10, 1966, p 7 (Italics added.)
7Frederick Sontag, "Are You a Catholic?" America, November 4, 1967, p. 504.
8Abbott, "On the Church," p. 48.
9Ibid, p. 47.
10Abbott, "On Religious Life," pp. 472, 473.
11Abbott, "On the Church," p. 77.
12Abbott, "On Religious Life," p. 470. (Italics added.)
13Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, II (Baltimore: Helicon, 1963), pp. 1-88.
14Abbott, "On Ecumenism," p 345.
15Abbott, "On the Church," p. 81.
16Ibid., p. 42.
17Abbott, "On Non-Christians," p. 666.
18Abbott, "On Religious Freedom," pp. 678-79.
19Ibid., p. 677.
20DS, 3177.
21Abbott, "On the Church," p. 59.
22Abbott, "On Priests," p. 554.
23Abbott, "On Education." p. 644.
24Abbott, "On the Church," p. 78.
25Abbott; "The Church in the Modern World" p. 253.
26Abbott, "On the Church," p. 29.
27This principle may turn out to be the key to the solution to the question on birth control, if the Magisterium, namely, decides that the previous acceptance by the Church of the teaching on birth control was really an acceptance of a teaching as revealed, and not merely an acceptance based on natural law.
28Abbott, "On the Church," p. 30.
29National Catholic Reporter, July 12, 1967, p 3. Cf. also Paul VI, general audience of February 22, 1967 (National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 1967, p. 1). "We know unfortunately that nowadays certain trends of thought which still describe themselves as Catholic attempt to attribute a priority in the normative formulation of the truths of faith to the community of the faithful."
30National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 1966, p. 6 and March 22 p. 6. Cf. Daniel Callahan, "Simple Child, Doubting Parent," Commonweal May 26, 1967, esp. p. 287: "But there is now a new problem among many Catholic parents.... That is the problem of trying to communicate a set of religious values which, in the minds of the parents, are no longer fixed and certain at all.... Even if they only read the daily newspaper, they will know that whatever the Pope might say, the Church is confused on birth control, celibacy, authority, mariology, the nature of the Church the meaning of the priesthood.... If they read the more advanced Journals they will also know that there is much nervousness about whether God is a 'person,' about 'the empty tomb," about hell, Jesus' self-knowledge, papal infallibility...."



To Most Collection home page