Why Catholic Teaching Is ‘Increasingly Embarrassing’ to Church Leaders (Part 1)

In the first of this two-part interview, philosophy professor Thomas Pink explains why forgetting that we live in a fallen, unconverted world of largely unbaptized people has led many Church leaders to falsely believe the Church can peacefully dialogue with it.

Professor Thomas Pink.
Professor Thomas Pink. (photo: YouTube)

Over recent decades, some Church leaders have become ever more reticent in standing up for Catholic teaching, especially when it comes to morality.

Rarely do these prelates defend the unborn from the pulpit, condemn the intrinsic evil of artificial contraception, or speak out against same-sex “marriage” — topics guaranteed to bring them into conflict with the modern world.

This can be seen at the current Youth Synod in Rome where the Church’s moral teaching was hardly mentioned, except in the sense of avoiding moralism. 

Instead, attention is generally drawn to safe moral social justice issues such as combating poverty, migration, climate change, and promoting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

According to Professor Thomas Pink, a philosophy lecturer at King’s College London, this is due to a failure of the contemporary Catholic Church to recognize inevitable spiritual conflict when dealing with a largely non-baptized, secular world. 

Pink believes that although Church dialogue with the fallen world is obligatory, “you shouldn’t expect to live at peace” with it “unless and until it is converted.” 

This truth has been largely forgotten by Church leaders, he argues, which has inevitably led to the Church’s teaching becoming “increasingly embarrassing” to many bishops and senior clergy, consequently leading to changes in “official theology” that are inconsistent with or even contradict magisterial teaching. 

In this recent interview with the Register in Rome, Professor Pink explains how and why this situation came about, and what can be done to recover “a realistic expectation of conflict, without being disturbed by it.”


Professor Pink, let’s start with your view of dialogue with the non-baptized: what is your main thesis in this regard, and why is it of concern to you that the Church is trying to dialogue with the non-baptized? 

There’s nothing wrong with dialogue and indeed it’s an inevitable part of human life; that you constantly try and find areas of agreement to enable you to cooperate where cooperation is required for normal human life to go on. No one wants conflict, and certainly not for its own sake. But dialogue isn’t always possible without some degree of conflict where fundamental values are at stake. Conflict, of course, needn’t be violent. It can be spiritual. A very, very important aspect of Christian faith is that we are in a state of spiritual conflict, not with other human beings as human beings, with whom we are to be in a relationship of love. We are in a spiritual conflict with the fallen side of human nature, in our own selves as well as other people. Behind that, of course, is an absolutely uncompromising spiritual conflict with the Devil. 


How does this relate to the present situation in the Church?

One of the problems about the present state of the Church — and I think it’s deeply involved in the current crisis around [Pope Francis' post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family] Amoris Laetitia — is that the Church has become afraid of admitting the necessity for spiritual conflict, particularly in the public sphere. This goes back to the last council, the Second Vatican Council. I’m not going to suggest in any way that there’s anything problematic in the strict magisterial teaching of the Second Vatican Council. I’m not claiming that there is, and I’ve spent a lot of time investigating one particular declaration: Dignitatis Humanae, the declaration on religious liberty, which a lot of people on the traditionalist side of the Church have claimed is in conflict with past magisterial Church teaching. 

Dignitatis Humanae does not address the authority of the Church, or what the state might do when acting as an agent of the Church, so there’s no clash with previous magisterial teaching. 

The problem is not with Vatican II’s magisterial teaching, but with an underlying official theology. 


What do you mean by official theology?

The Church may issue magisterial teaching, which invokes the Church’s authority and an obligation on the faithful to believe on the basis of that authority. But the Church at an official level may also make statements that though official are not themselves magisterial teaching. They are statements that are official – made by officeholders in their public role – but they simply explain what the magisterial teaching means, or what the Church’s policies and practices are, without those statements of themselves imposing any obligation on our part to believe them. 


Is this a modern distinction?

Official theology is nothing new, it’s always existed in the Church, and indeed it has got to exist. The Church has got to be able to explain herself at an official level without having to turn every such explanation into fixed magisterial teaching. 

Official theology often changes over time, and not in a constant direction. The to-ing and fro-ing over unbaptised children [the doctrine on limbo] shows that the official theology of one time can contradict the official theology of another time. And if past official theology of the Church can be mistaken, so too can modern official theology. 

You can even get modern official theology that contradicts historic magisterial teaching. If this happens, we definitely do have a problem — and then it is the historic magisterial teaching we have to believe, not the more modern official theology.


So would you say that those supporting a radical interpretation of Amoris Laetitia are right in a sense because doctrine evolves? 

If you’re talking about doctrinal development, you’re talking about magisterial teaching — doctrine proper, not mere official theology.   And magisterial teaching does not develop by denying earlier magisterial teaching — that would be doctrinal self-contradiction, not development. 

Amoris Laetitia seems to have been written to avoid clear and unambiguous contradiction of earlier magisterial teaching. But it has come with a lot of official theology, often from the highest level in the Church, that claims to explain the content of Amoris Laetitia — and that explains it in a way that clearly does contradict previous magisterial teaching. That’s very problematic. It looks as though we do have to reject that explanatory official theology as erroneous.


How can the problem of error in official theology be resolved? 

Well I think you’ve got to go back to look at the roots of the official theology. You’re not going to solve this by hopping up and down and saying the Pope’s a heretic, because that’s not going to change any minds. What you’ve got to do is to go back and look at what might have caused the situation, and that involves looking at how the official theology works and what its roots are. And then, since we are not under any direct obligation to believe it, actually criticize that official theology intellectually to see whether it makes sense in its own terms and whether it works. 

To understand how the present crisis over Amoris Laetitia has arisen, I think we’ve got to go back to the Second Vatican Council and look at something like Dignitatis Humanae and examine not simply its strict magisterial teaching, but the official theology behind it. That is where the roots of the present crisis lie — not just in the current pontificate, but in that official theology underlying the last Council.

Fundamental is a general vision — that the Church can live at peace with an unconverted world. Jacques Maritain was a very influential philosopher and theologian who helped inspire Dignitatis Humanae, and he applied this vision to the political. The Church, he thought, can live at peace and harmony with a state that is religiously neutral and so unconverted. 

I think that’s false. The 19th century popes were very clear on this. They say the state must be Christian, and indeed Catholic. The state must unite with the Church in a single Christian community, enjoying the life of grace at the political level, and not just the level of the private life of citizens — otherwise Church and state will be in deep conflict.


Why is that? 

Well, we live in a fallen world. … The Fall has not only denied us heaven, it has also denied us the fullness of nature. The Fall has denied us the ability to lead a fully natural human life, even on this earth, because it has disturbed our reason. … It’s damaged our ability to understand and live according to the natural law, which is the law of reason governing human nature. 

Which is why, in a fallen world, while people don’t completely lose morality and the natural law, they very often misunderstand particular applications of it. So they get funny ideas about how gladiatorial shows are fine or about how it’s all right to expose infants at death, to look at the pagan world, or in our world now, about how you can marry someone of the same sex. Or, about how it is all right, or even obligatory, to put people out of their misery through euthanasia. 

So what grace does is two things. It elevates us to take us to heaven. It elevates us above what human nature is naturally capable of. But it also heals. It repairs the damage done to human nature and enables us, amongst other things, to understand the content of the natural law, in its fullness, and live according to it, provided we actually receive grace. To receive grace, ordinarily, we need baptism, and we need to live in accordance with the teaching of the Church by receiving the sacraments, going to confession, and repenting of sins that disturb our friendship with God and lose us grace. 


So what you would say then, is: dialogue is okay with the fallen world, but only if you’re bringing them to baptism, bringing them to conversion.

You can dialogue with the fallen world — indeed, you’ve got to. But you shouldn’t expect to live at peace with the fallen world — unless and until it is converted. 


So yes to dialogue — but with the ultimate goal of baptism.

Well, you cannot expect spiritual peace with people without their baptism and conversion.

You need to baptize out of love for these people, as people who are not baptized may not be saved. I say ‘may not be saved’ because the Church has always left room for God to work outside the visible sacraments. … Read Pius XII in Mystici Corporis. He makes it very clear. While people may be saved outside the visible structures of the Church, until they join those visible structures through conversion they face many obstacles to salvation. 

So life within the visible Church is required to repair the damage done by the Fall to take us to heaven. If people aren’t in that position, you dialogue with them, but you also try and baptize them, both for their own good and fully realizing that if they remain unconverted, you will face spiritual conflict. That doesn’t remove the relationship of love you have towards them, but it involves being ready for constant confrontation with what they believe.


Do you think that this unwillingness to confront an unconverted world is what’s weakening the Church? 

I think that’s right. And I think the reason why the Church is not currently as willing spiritually to confront the unconverted world is she once was, is that current official theology thinks the Church doesn’t need to. The official theology thinks that harmony between Church and world is available without the world’s conversion. That, as I say, was deeply part of [Jacques] Maritain’s political theology. But as the case of the state shows, it’s clearly not true because, as we’ve seen, as soon as you have political secularization, you immediately get Church-state conflict involving the state abandoning important elements of the natural law. It’s happening continuously, so you get a conflict on laws concerning abortion, marriage, euthanasia, a whole range of issues on an ever-widening front, and there seems no stop to it. 

If Maritain had been right, this wouldn’t have happened. Political secularization would have allowed for continued harmony between Church and an unconverted, religiously neutral state within a shared framework of allegiance to natural law. But there has been no such harmony, and natural law has been a point of division not unity. The 19th century popes were entirely accurate in what they predicted. Pius IX says in Quanta Cura that where the authority of Jesus Christ is removed from the political community, then natural justice and right will be lost. 


Do we therefore need to perhaps go back to that, to that way of teaching?

Certainly, that way of teaching. You aren’t going to get a Catholic state, but at least what you will get within the Church is a realistic expectation of conflict, without being disturbed by it. Because the problem is when you get conflict, and you think you should have harmony, and you misunderstand why you’re not getting harmony, then things can go wrong. 

So, the Church meets conflict with an unconverted world — just because the world is unconverted. But official theology no longer accepts the inevitability of this conflict. Official theology now thinks that harmony should still be possible even when the world isn’t converted. 

That same official theology is then liable to think that since the problem cannot simply be with the world’s lack of conversion, the problem must in some way lie with the Church. Official theology will try to remove the conflict — but from the Church’s side. What official theology will especially try to do is to remove the Church’s magisterial teaching as a source of conflict. 

The official theology will often deny that there has been any change in magisterial teaching. That’s because many bishops and theologians are still fairly reluctant to contradict past magisterial teaching, at least openly — though reluctance here is alas no longer universal. 

The change will be presented initially not as a change in the teaching, but in its pastoral application. The aim of the change: to blunt or remove the conflict-causing differences between how Catholics are called to live and how the unconverted world wants people to live.

(See Part II of this interview here).