Friday, March 13, 2009

How Much Can a Catholic Disagree with the Church?

By Dave Armstrong (3-13-09)

A Protestant asked: "Is my understanding correct that, as long as there is submission and no attempt at sabotaging unity, some disagreement is okay?"

My reply follows:

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Basically, the "line" is where the Church has established a dogma or solidly established doctrine. Most theological issues have been settled, and Catholics are not really free to disagree. They can have doubts, and not understand everything perfectly (who does, anyway?), but they are required to submit to all that the Church has decreed, and not only to not dissent in public, but even give internal assent. Most of the liberal dissidents are dissenting on matters of long since settled dogma (contraception, female priests, papal infallibility, various moral and sexual issues, etc.).

Some areas have not been settled. One classic example is the Thomist-Molinist disagreement on predestination, and exactly how God does that. Does He take into consideration foreseen actions of men in predestining the elect, using His middle knowledge, which is part of His omniscience)? The Molinists (my guys!) say that he does. Thomists disagree with that notion and are closer to the Calvinist position in that respect. No orthodox Catholic, however, believes that God predestines the damned to hell apart from their own free choice. The Church allows both positions, and hasn't settled it (probably because it is just about the deepest mystery in Christian theology).

One thing that has come up in recent years is capital punishment. The Church has not forbidden it altogether (indeed, it could not, because it believes in just war and police and prosecution of criminals). But recently, popes have taken a strong stand against it in almost all cases. Catholics ought to give the highest respect to the opinions of popes, expressed in official documents, even if they are not infallible. But a Catholic can still personally be in favor of capital punishment. My own position is to be against it in most cases, but to favor it in the very worst cases (mass murderers, etc.).

Another area is individual wars. The last two popes basically opposed the Iraq War. I respectfully disagreed with them, and as far as I know, I am allowed to do so (I wrote two papers about that). The reason is that popes do not have all the information in secret intelligence that states have. They take a position as peacemakers, by the nature of their job, but they recognize the jurisdiction of governments, according to Romans 13. It's not like abortion, where there is no argument whatever. As long as there is such a thing as a just war: at least in theory, then states can declare wars. The Church has not stated that they cannot do so. And honest, good men can disagree over whether a particular war is just or mostly just, or not.

I would argue, for example, that the Iraq War is many times more just in its execution than World War II was: when we fire-bombed and nuked cities and killed many thousands of non-combatant civilians (Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki). But in the Iraqi War we have "smart bombs" that are so exact that the highest care is taken to hit military targets. It's not perfect, but it's a great deal morally better than our methods in the 1940s. That would be one argument (which has considerable power, I think, because most people accept the overall validity of the Allied position in WWII, in opposing Hitler).

We can differ on methods and approaches and levels or degrees of things: for example, in ecumenical matters. We can have differences of opinion on matters of liturgy and custom and discipline.

The easiest way to analyze this is to bring up some specific examples that can be discussed. But I can tell you that most of the "major" issues are settled by the Church and dissent is essentially disobedience to the Church.

Your post suggests a whole lot more freedom than I would have thought. Ane, your Catechism passage suggests that blind obedience is not an option; that the Church requires thought and the application of conscience.

The "trick" is to maintain an orthodox balance: between the almost unlimited so-called "freedom" of (in a vastly-abused sense) "conscience" of the liberal, dissident, modernist Catholic, and the caricature of "no freedom of thought at all" / mindless / blind faith / obedient slave stereotype that we often hear from atheists and anti-Catholic Protestants alike, as if Catholicism remotely resembled that.

The true Catholic position is a freedom within orthodoxy: a freedom with sensible limits. G. K. Chesterton made an analogy of children playing on a hilltop that has steep cliffs all around. If there is no fence around the edge, they are always worried about falling over and so can't really enjoy themselves. With a fence they feel safe and secure and don't have to worry about falling over the edge and killing or seriously injuring themselves.

The fence is dogma and orthodoxy. The top of the hill is the Church, and the children are us! And of course, falling over represents heresy, schism, and damnation (and overall human unhappiness and unfulfillment).

Bingo! And that makes me feel better about asking all these questions. Not because I'm trying to foment rebellion, but because I'm looking for safety. Y'know, Chesterton was so smart, I'll bet we could find some Ukrainian lineage in him. And, Boss, you look like you have a genetic predisposition to borsht and garlic, too. (those are compliments, by the way).

I love garlic but it kills my stomach . . . Does that mean I ain't Ukrainian? My first girlfriend was, though (which must count for sumpin' huh?).

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On 23 September 2010, I wrote the following on the CHNI discussion forum:

One can also distinguish between acceptance of Catholic doctrines on the authority of the Church (assent and implied agreement to not dispute them in public) and not knowing all the ins and outs of them (not having full understanding). I would argue that this is actually the case for virtually every Catholic, since there is so much depth and fullness in theology that one person can hardly know everything there is to know about all of it.

But if you accept by the authority of the Catholic Church that what it teaches is true, because it is protected by the Holy Spirit from error (itself an act of faith, but not without reason) then you can accept also (as part of the overall "package"), doctrines or practices that you don't fully understand. It's all in how you approach it.

If a person withdraws assent because they haven't totally figured out some particular doctrine(s); if they think it is their burden to arrive at all true theology by being the final arbiter in each doctrinal case, then they are still in the driver's seat. That is what is called "private judgment" and is a thoroughly Protestant attitude. If someone thinks like that, they are not yet Catholic and ought not formally become a member, because they could hardly even say the words required to do so.

But if one says, "I don't fully understand doctrines x, y, and z, but I have seen enough to know and believe that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, and has an authority and understanding far above my own; therefore, I give assent to doctrines x, y, and z on her authority and will cease disputing about them -- all the while seeking to better understand them and their rationale as time goes on."

One with this latter attitude can become a Catholic in good conscience. There is no conflict or cognitive dissonance or "dueling opinions" taking place.

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