What is the difference between radical dissent and non-assent?

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

When Bl. Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, which taught that any act which impedes the effect of conjugal intercourse before, during or after intercourse is immoral, theologians and laity both dissented from the teaching publically and often vociferously.

The Holy Father actually wrote:

11…..The Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain open to the transmission of life.

12. That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the Pope Francisunitive meaning and the procreative meaning. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman. By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination toward man’s most high calling to parenthood. We believe that the men of our day are particularly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.

The Holy Father was wrong in believing that people would see how reasonable his teaching was. Immediately, dissenting theologians and bishops taught that if one’s conscience dictated something wasn’t wrong, one could follow it as God’s will for him or her. Further, theologians and professors who vigorously argued in print against this teaching were normally left in their positions of authority both in the seminary or a Catholic university. Such an “edict” of the Holy Father was interpreted to be cruel and unusual punishment for the ordinary Catholic who could not afford more than two or three children. Couples subjectively found themselves in an impossible situation and since God does not demand the impossible, this ruling of the Pope was deemed not obligatory, except for the heroic person. Prolonged abstention from conjugal acts, and even natural family planning, seemed like heroic acts and, therefore, asking too much of the ordinary Catholic person. Famous theologians from Vatican II, preachers and even bishops more or less taught publically their dissenting views as catholic teaching: namely, that the Pope was wrong and the married were permitted to use contraceptives for good solid reasons. Furthermore, they claimed, the Pope’s teaching was not infallible anyway, not being a defined as a matter of faith.

Some fifty years later, the effects of such radical dissent from papal magisterium has led to a series of evils predicted by Humanae Vitae when he also wrote:

17a. ….Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up toward conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men—especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point—have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anticonceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.

17b. Let it be considered also that a dangerous weapon would thus be placed in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies. Who could blame a government for applying to the solution of the problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples in the solution of a family problem? Who will stop rulers from favoring, from even imposing upon their peoples, if they were to consider it necessary, the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious? In such a way men, wishing to avoid individual, family, or social difficulties encountered in the observance of the divine law, would reach the point of placing at the mercy of the intervention of public authorities the most personal and most reserved sector of conjugal intimacy.

Further, a grave deterioration of church-goers, both to Mass and Confession, has occurred in most Catholic countries of the West because, as Aquinas reminds us (ST I 153, 5), a habit of non-chaste acts leads one to hate God.

However, what happens when a papal document seemingly dissents from previous papal teaching? Congregation of Divine Faith in 1990 intervened with the Instruction of the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, whereby theologians (bishops included) were given many guidelines:

29. In any case there should never be a diminishment of that fundamental openness loyally to accept the teaching of the Magisterium as is fitting for every believer by reason of the obedience of faith. The theologian will strive then to understand this teaching in its contents, arguments, and purposes….

30. If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question.

31. For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.

Alas, a plethora of arguments have been raised by many theologians and bishops in the public forum of the internet not unnoticed by the dicasteries in Rome all pointing to a series of “ambiguities” in Amoris Laetitia that undermine previous teaching, not only pastoral guidelines. What was thought to be a rarity, that is, a lack of clarity in Catholic teaching by a Pope. actually occurred.

We find in Amoris Laetitia, citations from Lumen Gentium, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. John Paul, Pope Benedict XVI, St. Thomas Aquinas, among others which are used to buttress its teaching, but seemingly undermine what is being taught by these sources. This situation prima facie seems like radical dissent from previous papal teaching, not a rigorous homogeneous evolution of sacred doctrine. If Amoris Laetitia no longer wishes to teach that there are absolute norms regarding chastity in marriage, yet other sacred sources teach the opposite, then it is a question of both assenting to solid Tradition and not assenting to sections of Amoris Laetitia if seeming ambiguities side step sacred Tradition.

While still maintaining fidelity to Pope Francis as the authentic successor of Peter, theologians need not declare the Pope is in error, but should rather assert that papal thought is ambiguous and needs further clarification with distinctions so that the teaching truly evolves the Catholic understanding of chaste conjugal morality and sacramental practice from previous magisterial sources. Words may be changed but the same meaning should even be clearer than previous formulations. Insisting on blind obedience in practical matters may do for Jesuits but obedience of mind and heart relies on sacred sources manifestly in continuity with each other so that even a grandmother can understand what is being taught.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
Articles by Fr. Cole: