MIAMI—Jesuit Father Avery Dulles is worried about “growing numbers of theologians” who question even “revealed doctrine” and who resort to petitions, press conferences and demonstrations as if they represented an alternative magisterium.

The Fordham University professor and writer made his observations at the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America in June.

Register Radio News correspondent Rich Rinaldi recently spoke with Father Dulles.

Rinaldi: It is not always easy to understand the varying degrees of authority that accompany Church teachings. Can you offer some guidance?

Father Dulles: One thing I have often done is to simply summarize the three grades of doctrine that are distinguished in the profession of faith and which have now been incorporated into canon law by Pope John Paul. The three grades are, in the first place, certain truths that are revealed by God and taught as such by the Church and which all must believe if they wish to be Catholic Christians. Then there are truths that are inseparably connected with revealed truth but are not themselves revealed. And the third category includes other Catholic teachings which are more or less loosely connected with revelation but are still obligatory doctrine because they are authoritatively taught by the magisterium.

Can all three experience some level of change or development?

The development is somewhat different in the case of those different kinds of doctrine. The first two categories are irreversible or infallible so they can still develop but only incrementally — not by way of being contradicted. The third category could be at least modified in the course of history, and so there is a little more scope for change there.

The meaning of the word ‘dissent’ is difficult to pin down.

Can the third category be considered infallible?

While obligatory, they are not infallible.

In what category would the Church's position on women priests be located?

That has been discussed, particularly by Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger [the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith]. He maintains that women's ordination is in the second category, at least provisionally. [It is] something that is intimately connected with revelation. He said that, at the present stage, it would be too early to affirm that it is in revelation, but in the course of time it might become apparent that it really is a part of revelation itself. But in either case he would maintain that it is infallible, and he said so in a formal response to a question that was put to [the Holy See]. The Holy Father himself has used the word “definitive” — it must be definitively held by all the faithful, which seems to be equivalent to infallible teaching.

Is the teaching on contraception infallible, or can it be said that it is still in development?

It seems to me that neither the Pope nor the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has taken a clear position on that, but there was a Roman document that did say — in a very passing statement — that it was irreformable. I have an idea that it will not be reformed; it has been so emphatically taught by five popes of this present century and there are no signs that it's up for reconsideration.

So we should not expect a change from Humanae Vitae?

Well some people, of course, are pressing for change of Humanae Vitae, but I think they are diminishing in numbers, and their cause becomes more difficult to defend as the years go on.

Is there a place for a Catholic theologian to dissent, and what is the Holy Father's position on this?

The meaning of the word “dissent” is difficult to pin down. Often when the Pope is discussing it, he's thinking of a kind of a noisy dissent in which people are challenging the magisterium and are setting themselves up as a kind of alternate magisterium. They are trying to gather disciples to their own position which is contrary to that of the Church. He maintains that this is not a proper attitude for Catholics in respect to the magisterium.

What about personal dissent, especially for a theologian?

If an individual has difficulties of conscience in maintaining a particular doctrine and cannot bring himself or herself to assent, that's understandable enough and that happens sometimes. In that case they should express their difficulties to colleagues or [other] and try to obtain further light. [They should] try to see whether they are correct or whether they made a mistake somewhere, and pray for further light and seek to unite their minds with the teachings of the Church, if they possibly can. That kind of dissent, if it should even be called dissent, is quite understandable and even proper for Catholics.

Rich Rinaldi is director of Register Radio News.