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 CNS Story:

POPE-DISSENT June 30, 1998 (760 words) Analysis xxxi


By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With his apostolic letter "Ad Tuendam Fidem" ("To Defend the Faith"), Pope John Paul II has reinforced the limits on dissent in the church, saying Catholics must fully accept church teachings even on such controversial issues as women's ordination.

The pope's unexpected document, issued June 30 along with an even stronger declaration by the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, was the latest step in a Vatican effort to invoke the church's official teaching authority on issues still being debated by the world's Catholics.

In the Vatican's view, some Catholics -- and especially theologians -- are using the church's concept of a "hierarchy of truths" to justify selective dissent, especially from teachings that have not been infallibly defined.

The latest documents take aim at this trend, stating that the "ordinary magisterium," or church teaching authority, can also propose definitive teachings that require firm acceptance by Catholics. The church's positions against women priests, euthanasia and fornication were listed as examples.

The two documents' authoritative tone was matched with explicit references to penalties for those who refuse to accept such definitive teachings.

In the pope's words, "one who denies the propositions which are to be held definitively opposes the doctrine of the Catholic Church." He cited points of canon law that call for a "just penalty" for such dissent.

The commentary by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, put it even more strongly, saying that anyone who thus rejects Catholic doctrine "would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church."

In effect, the documents seem to place dissenting Catholics outside the fold, if they repudiate teachings proposed as definitive truths of Catholic doctrine.

One striking aspect of the pope's letter was his stated reason for writing it: "To defend the faith of the Catholic Church against the errors that arise on the part of some faithful, especially those dedicated to the discipline of sacred theology."

He said it seemed "absolutely necessary" for him to formally insist on adherence to definitive church teachings and remind the faithful of the canonical penalties for those who refuse.

The debate over dissent and how much can be tolerated among Catholics has been closely tied to the related and complicated discussion about the three-fold distinction of church doctrines. These distinctions were included in a church profession of faith issued in 1989, and the pope referred to it in his apostolic letter.

At the top of this hierarchy are truths that are divinely revealed and require the assent of faith. Examples include church doctrines on original sin and on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Next come "definitive" teachings about faith and morals that have an intrinsic connection to revealed truth; those definitive teachings must be firmly accepted and held by Catholics.

The third category includes teachings that are not intended as definitive, which call for "religious submission of will and intellect."

The problem, in the Vatican's view, is that these distinctions have led some Catholics to subscribe to a "hierarchy of agreement," in which only infallibly defined or revealed truths merit assent.

The doctrinal congregation's commentary made two interesting points in this regard. It said there was no difference in the "full and irrevocable character of the assent" owed to church teachings in the top two categories, those set forth as divinely revealed or those taught definitively.

It also said that when the pope confirms or reaffirms a doctrine, declaring that it belongs to the ordinary and universal magisterium as a truth that is divinely revealed or a truth of Catholic doctrine, "such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly."

The question of the different levels of papal teaching authority came to the fore after Pope John Paul's 1994 declaration that the church cannot ordain women priests, and that this teaching must be held "definitively" by all Catholics. It marked a new, more authoritative use of the church's ordinary teaching magisterium.

In late 1995, the secretary of the doctrinal congregation, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, used the example of women's ordination to warn that fundamental church teachings, even when not proclaimed as infallible dogma, must be definitively accepted by the faithful.

He said bishops should use their disciplinary authority, including canonical norms, to protect the faithful from false ideas about doctrine.

The pope, in his latest letter, has now placed additional canonical norms in the hands of bishops, lest there be any doubt.


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