Monday, September 1, 2008

Catholic dissent

Many American Catholics disagree with Church teaching on matters such as contraception, pre-marital sex and lying. Moreover, while in the case of lying, the disagreement might be attributed to ignorance of the Church's teaching, in the case of contraception and pre-marital sex, the media ensure that almost everybody basically knows what the Church teaches in this area (albeit not why).

I want to argue that the dissent should worry even those liberal theologians who themselves disagree with the Church's teaching. Why? For I suspect, albeit without scientific data, that the following are true of typical dissenting American Catholics in the case of disagreement with the Church's moral teaching:

  1. They are unaware of the best theological and philosophical arguments given for the Church's teaching, both historically and presently.
  2. They do not know the degree to which they themselves rely on Catholic tradition in the case of the teachings they do accept (such as those on the Trinity, or those against targeting civilians with nuclear weapons).
  3. Their reason for dissent is not due to having a knock-down theological or philosophical argument for their position, but rather their disagreement with the Church can be explained by a combination of the following factors: (a) certain perceived benefits of acting not in accord with Church teaching, (b) the fact that the surrounding society sees the Church's teaching on this matter as absurd, and, let us charitably suppose, (c) the individual conscience's failure to prohibit the activity which the Church prohibits.

Now let us say that the liberal theologian agrees with the typical dissenting American Catholic on the concrete matter—they both think, say, that contraception is not wrong. Nonetheless, the liberal Catholic theologian should not be pleased about the dissent. For if dissent is ever permissible, surely it is only permissible after one has reviewed the very best arguments in favor of the Church's teaching. There is, after all, a presumption that the Church is right—surely to accept such a presumption is essential to Catholicism—and to overcome that presumption, a very strong argument is needed. This strong argument requires an examination of the arguments to the contrary, unless the argument against the Church's teaching is a knock-down argument, which it is not (point (3)). Hence, (1) is going to be a serious problem.

Dissent from the Church's teaching is a serious decision. It should be important to the liberal theologian that the decision be made on the right grounds, in a sufficiently knowledgeable way, on consistent principles. Point (2) is a problem here. The liberal theologian may have a story as to why she accepts the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Trinity and the impermissibility of targeting civilians in war, while rejecting the impermissibility of pre-marital sex, even though the rejected teaching is about as well supported by tradition and Scripture as the accepted teachings. The story may involve a sophisticated account of what is central to the Christian life. (I doubt that in the end such an account would do the job here, but the liberal theologian may think it will.)

Finally, observe point (3), which should particularly worry the liberal theologian. According to the liberal theologian, the typical dissenting American Catholic rightly thinks pre-marital sex is permissible. But in light of (3), this rightness is merely a matter of good luck. As the liberal theologian will be among the first to argue, there are often things that a society takes for granted as permissible, and opposition to which society thinks absurd, that are in fact wrong. Until recently, many racist and sexist behaviors were like this. Currently, many Americans think it is obvious that they have no duty to give up some of their property to feed the starving. It is seen by many as obvious that one can do with one' s property as one wills, as long as one does no positive harm.

Insofar as the dissent from the Church's teaching on, say, pre-marital sex is driven by conformity to the views of surrounding society, the liberal theologian should be very concerned. Nor should the liberal theologian allow for dissent on the grounds that someone's conscience is silent on an issue. After all, it is a sad fact that the individual's conscience often does fail to condemn activities whose permissibility our society takes for granted. Here it is important to note that one cannot attribute to conscience the statement that something is permissible. Conscience speaks in a "stern voice", to use Cardinal Newman's phrase: it says what one must do or not do, but not what one may do. What we call conscience's permission is really conscience's silence. And the argument from silence is always weak. We should always be prepared for the possibility that our conscience is insufficiently sensitive. (A complication is that in some cases, a liberal Catholic might there is a positive duty to contracept or use pre-marital sex, in which cases conscience might affirm this duty. Such cases are, I think, rare, given the availability of alternatives.)

And the mere fact that benefits can be listed for the prohibited activity is not sufficient reason to dissent, since we are not utilitarians. One can likewise easily list the benefits of targeting the civilians in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in that doing so terrorizes the population into surrender, but to target the civilians was or would have been clearly wrong (I suspect civilians were in fact targeted, but that is a historical question).

Thus, the liberal theologian should be deeply concerned about the fact that the widespread dissent among U.S. Catholics is insufficiently informed, and is largely a reflection of the views of surrounding society, rather than of a theologically or philosophically deep rethinking of the issues.

There is an asymmetry here between dissenting from and agreeing with the Church's teaching. If a Catholic dissents, even if the dissent is permissible, the onus is her to justify her dissent. If she agrees with the Church's teaching, she simply goes along with the presumption that the Church is right. Thus, while may be in some ways unfortunate, it is not a serious problem if someone agrees with the Church's teaching without much knowledge of the issue. But to disagree, if it is permissible at all (I suspect not), one has to have much knowledge. After all, one has to think that one knows better than the Church does.

[Edited: Fixed a typo--thanks, David.]


David said...

If the theologian were extremely liberal, couldn't he hold that it's morally wrong to believe that contraception is morally wrong, and that it's better that you lack this belief than that you have it, even in case doing so involves rejecting without a good argument a teaching of the Church?

[I think there is a typo here:
"Now let us say that the liberal theologian agrees with the typical dissenting American Catholic on the concrete matter—they both think, say, that contraception is wrong." should be "is not wrong."]

David said...

In my post, "even in case doing so involves rejecting without a"

should be "even in case lacking this belief involves rejecting. . ." Sorry.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I fixed the typo.

I think the liberal theologian is more likely to think that there are circumstances where not contracepting is immoral, and circumstances where preaching against contraception is wrong, but I think she is unlikely to say that the belief itself is immoral.

Nacisse said...

if i thought that some group of liberal theologians had counter arguments to the church position on an issue and that those liberals were well informed couldn't i just rely on the liberal theologian without knowing the arguments first-hand?

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a good question. I think the answer is that this generally not going to workThe reason for that is that even if a Catholic thinks the Church is fallible, she should surely trust the Church more than any particular theologian or group of theologians.

Our main reason for trusting the Church is that she is guided by the Holy Spirit. The liberal theologian thinks this guidance allows for fallibility, but it seems hard to deny this guidance and still think that, say, Nicaea was authoritative. But what reason do we have to think that some particular group of theologians, liberal or conservative, are guided by the Holy Spirit in this way?

Well, maybe if miracles are occurring around the theologians, that might be some evidence. Maybe the liberal theologian gives a talk about how contraception is permissible, and immediately an amputee in the audience regrows an arm. That would be some evidence. (Fallible, because one would have rule out the hypothesis of demonic miracle.) But I don't think this sort of thing has been happening.

Another form of evidence would be that the liberal theologians might be shining examples of the love of God and neighbor. But just as some liberal theologians appear to be filled with the love of God and neighbor, so too do some conservative theologians. I suppose one could try to calculate the degree to which different liberal and conservative theologians are afire with love for God, and then add up the total amount of fiery love, but I think we can easily come up with half a dozen problems with this approach.

Now, maybe the ordinary Catholic might personally know a liberal theologian, admire her wisdom, and see with great clarity the theologian's love of God and neighbor. In that case, a case could be made that it is reasonable for the ordinary Catholic to accept this theologian's teachings (I think the case would still be faulty; for we know of lots of people whose lives have shone with love and who have been quite orthodox--people like Mother Teresa, John Paul II, John XXIII, Thomas Aquinas, and various living folk whom I shall not name not to give them occasions to sin through pride, etc.)

But this kind of a case is, still, rare. In fact, I hypothesize (perhaps falsely) that a lot of American Catholics would be hard pressed to name any living Catholic theologian except their pastor, bishop and pope (if the first two are indeed theologians).

I suspect that the main reason why people disagree with the Church while agreeing with the surrounding culture is not because they trust some particular theologian, but because of the surrounding culture. And this conformity with culture should worry us, whether we are on the left or on the right.

There is, though, a different route a liberal theologian might take. She might admit that the average dissenting Catholic simply follows culture. But she may think that our culture is to some extent guided by the Holy Spirit, that changes in a culture tend to be for the better. As a general progressivist view, this is surely refuted by the regimes of Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Or perhaps something like American Messianist could be involved. But American Messianism is rare (an understatement) on the political left these days (praise be to God).

Anonymous said...


3(a) is complicated by certain formulations of the doctrine favored by some Catholic theologians known collectively as Compensationism

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's a good point, when it's a question of action. Compensationalism would let one, in a position of genuine doubt, opt for liberty more easily when the benefits of doing so were greater. However, compensationalism would not let assent to the claim that the action is objectively permissible. But the dissenter, I think, assents to the claim that actions the Church forbids are objectively permissible--she does not merely do the actions (in fact, she might not do the actions at all--thus, the dissenter may well think homosexual acts are permissible, but herself be heterosexual).

(It's also unclear that one could use any version of probabilism to justify an action contrary to the unanimous historical teaching of the Church.)

Joseph Charles said...

You mention miracles as possible evidence, specifically the regeneration of amputated limbs, and I don't know if that particular example was meant to be humorous or not. Have there been such documented miracles of limb regeneration in the church's history? Could you point me in the right direction with the relevant names of those cases?

entirelyuseless said...

Joseph Charles: the miracle of Calanda (, where someone appears to have recovered an amputated leg, is very well documented.

Alexander R Pruss said...

At the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, people who have experienced healings leave tokens of gratitude that are on display. For instance, if they were healed from a heart problem, they might leave a little heart medallion. One of the things I saw on display was an artificial leg. Now, what kind of a healing makes *that* be the appropriate token?! Of course, that's not very *strong* evidence without further investigation. But if one has, as I do, high priors for miracles surrounding Our Lady of Czestochowa, then even that weak evidence might be enough.

And, while this is not quite recovery on an amputated *limb*, one of the miracles associated with St Pio was the instant regrowth of a missing eye. I remember reading that the doctor caring for the patient became a theist as a result of that one. Readers may have more data.

Joseph Charles said...

Thank you both for this information.

Joseph Charles said...

One more question, Alexander—the regrowth of a missing associated with St Pio, just getting some sense of the literature on him, was that the healing of Gemma de Giorgi described in Padre Pio: The Wonder Worker? Or is that a different case? I only ask because the one you allude to sounds quite fascinating and I would love to find as much info about that I can. If you can't recall the exact name, don't worry about it, I'll do the legwork, I just thought if you knew it offhand it might be helpful.

But thank you again for the information here. I just discovered your blog a few days ago and find it quite interesting!

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's been a long time since I looked at this...