This summer, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem (“To Defend the Faith”), which, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. It explains the different levels of Church teaching, adds them to canon law, and makes clear the responsibility of Church leaders to uphold Catholic doctrine.

The letter was accompanied by a commentary from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which provides examples of Church teachings which are definitive and no longer subject to debate — for example, those dealing with euthanasia and the restriction of priestly ordination to men.

Both documents touched a nerve among “liberal” Catholics. The editors of Commonweal expressed alarm about “the Vatican's relentless pursuit of doctrinal conformity.” Richard McCormick, a prominent dissenter on moral issues, accused the Vatican of being “coercive.” Other writers on the Catholic left saw the dead hand of the Magisterium stopping the creative juices of theologians and local bishops' conferences everywhere.

Let's cut to the chase. Father McCormick says that he has little problem with giving assent to teachings proposed “definitively” by the Magisterium. In other words, by solemn pronouncements of the Pope or an ecumenical council. But solemn pronouncements are not the way the Church usually goes about teaching the faith. There are also the teachings of the ordinary Magisterium. In fact, most Catholic truths belong to what the First Vatican Council called the Church's “ordinary universal teaching.” They don't need to be solemnly defined in order to be part of the deposit of faith.

The Pope is the chief guardian of these truths, and he may use whatever means he chooses to preserve and teach them. As one writer puts it, the Pope does not invent truths, he locates them.

The Second Vatican Council was emphatic about the Pope's authority to teach in this manner. Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), says the following:

“Loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise that … one sincerely adhere to the decisions made by him … which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.”

When was the last time you saw these words quoted in Commonweal or any other “liberal” Catholic publication? They are a stumbling block for dissenting Catholics, who are seldom eager to discuss what the Council actually said about papal authority.

Since several of the teachings of the ordinary Magisterium — those relating to contraception, abortion, and priestly ordination — do not fit the mood of the times, heterodox theologians look for outs. One is to claim that any Church teaching not solemnly declared by the extraordinary Magisterium is fallible and therefore up for grabs. But this line of argument clearly violates both the letter and spirit of what the Council taught about papal authority.

A second line of attack is to say that statements by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith are not infallible and therefore not binding on Catholics. But this is mere technical quibbling: the Congregation's statements are a very serious exercise of Church authority, and the logic of such criticism would be to demand extraordinary papal declarations on every doctrinal question submitted to the Congregation. This would ultimately reduce the Church to solemnly defining every point of doctrine before it could be taken seriously. It would force the Magisterium into a legalistic mode of operation which is the reverse of Christ's way of teaching.

Catholic dissenters often accuse Pope John Paul II of being legalistic. But they don't hesitate to resort to legalisms about what is binding and what is not when it suits them.

Cardinal Ratzinger has warned that legalistic carping over the teachings of the Magisterium is a symptom of the kind of rationalism now rampant in the West, but which has still not infected the Eastern churches. More important than the concept of infallibility, Ratzinger writes, is that of auctoritas — authority which is humbly accepted because of what it is, without a constant demand for legal credentials. Such auctoritas has to be the basic assumption of any community of believers. And auctoritas cannot be limited to ex cathedra decrees. The living organism of the faith would suffer if reduced to a skeleton of solemn and binding pronouncements.

Catholic dissenters complain about the Pope's “hard sayings.” Their real problem is with the teaching authority established by Christ. They wish to take the Catholic Church down the road of doctrinal laxity. It is a road that mainstream Protestantism has traveled for the past 50 years. And we know exactly where it leads.

George Sim Johnston is a writer based in New York. He is the author of Did Darwin Get it Right? published by OSV.