Church's 'Definitive Teachings' Defended in Papal Letter

New document aimed at keeping dissenting theologians in check

VATICAN CITY—Pope John Paul II has issued additions to the code of Church law in a bid to safeguard the faith from dissenting opinion.

In an apostolic letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem (To Defend the Faith), the Pope said he was adding two items to the Code of Canon Law. This was necessary, he explained, “to defend the faith of the Catholic Church,” particularly when dealing with teachings that are “definitive” but have not been solemnly proclaimed as infallible.

The letter, issued June 30 along with a commentary by the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, is particularly aimed at theologians who use the Church's concept of a “hierarchy of truths” to justify selective dissent. The papal document enshrines into Church law an oath obliging theologians to accept teachings such as the Church's positions against women priests, euthanasia, and sex outside of marriage.

A top Vatican official told the Register, the apostolic letter is ultimately meant to protect ordinary Catholics from false ideas about doctrine.

“Some theological debate goes so far as to question definitions of the faith,” said Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). “The Pope reminds the faithful that the authenticity of these truths cannot be undermined.”

The document states the “ordinary Magisterium,” or the Church's teaching authority, can propose definitive teachings that require firm acceptance by Catholics.

According to the accompanying CDF commentary, “on questions of faith and morals, the only subject qualified to fulfill the office of teaching with binding authority for the faithful is the Supreme Pontiff and the college of bishops in communion with him.” Those who reject such teachings, it states, “would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.”

Archbishop Bertone explained the threat of disciplinary action is intended to bring the dissenter back into the fold.

“The new formulation of the canon presented in the Holy Father's Motu Proprio (done by the Holy Father exclusively) does not establish a specific penalty; it says the person must be admonished with a ‘just ecclesial penalty,’” the archbishop said. “Of course, one must keep in mind that the penalty has as its aim the correction of the error, and thus, a return to full communion within the Church and a full assent to the teachings of the Church.”

On a practical level, the new apostolic letter will bring little change. It can be considered a simple progression of events that began in 1989 with the requirement by the Pope that theologians and others take a solemn oath before they teach in the name of the Church.

Part of that oath is a profession of faith, during which a candidate for Church office such as a bishop, theologian, or papal collaborator reads the Apostles' Creed. Then, the candidate expresses a belief in “divinely revealed truths,” and those “definitively proposed by the Church regarding teachings on faith and morals.”

The candidate also promises to “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect” to teachings as enunciated by the Pope and the college of bishops.

Pope John Paul II's stated reason for now enshrining this oath into canon law was “to defend the faith of the Catholic Church from errors that arise on the part of some faithful, especially those dedicated to the discipline of sacred theology.”

The debate about dissent and how much can be tolerated among Catholics has been closely tied to the related discussion of a three-fold distinction of Church doctrines.

Truths contained in the Word of God and those teachings that the Church holds as divinely and formally revealed are in the first category. Those who “obstinately” doubt or deny the first category of truths fall “under the censure of heresy,” according to the CDF commentary.

Truths in the first category include everything in the Creed, the solemnly defined dogmas regarding Christ, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the infallibility of the Pope and “the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being,” the doctrinal congregation said.

The second category includes dogmatic and moral teachings, “which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed.”

Truths in the second category have a logical or historical connection to the truths in the first category, the CDF said. It gave several examples: Church teaching against euthanasia, the canonization of saints, the legitimacy of the election of the Pope, and the teaching that only men can be ordained.

The third category refers to other teachings of the Pope or of bishops that are not intended to be definitive. The congregation did not provide examples, but said such teaching deserves a “religious submission of will and intellect.”

Pope John Paul II's three-page letter and his changes to canon law deal only with the second category of Church teaching.

The CDF said every believer “is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters.”

It said the fact that they have not been proposed as “formally revealed” does not diminish their authority, nor does it rule out the possibility that some day a Pope or a Church council will promulgate them at the higher level.

The question of the different levels of papal teaching authority came to the fore after Pope John Paul II's 1994 declaration that the Church cannot ordain women priests, and that this teaching must be held “definitively” by all Catholics. It marked a new, more authoritative use of the Church's ordinary teaching Magisterium.

In late 1995, Archbishop Bertone used the example of women's ordination to warn that fundamental Church teachings, even when not proclaimed as infallible dogma, must be definitively accepted by the faithful. He said bishops should use their disciplinary authority, including canonical norms, to protect the faithful from false ideas about doctrine.

With this latest papal document, bishops will have recourse to additional canonical norms.

In the commentary that accompanied t h e new apostolic letter, the Vatican said the ban o n women priests is an example of a Church teaching that, although not specifically dogmatic, is a doctrine that has been “set forth infallibly” and “constantly applied in the tradition of the Church.”

It said the same concept applied to euthanasia. Although nothing about euthanasia appears in the Gospels, Scripture “clearly excludes every form of the kind of self-determination of human existence that is presupposed in the theory and practice of euthanasia.”

Pope John Paul II has in the past called to task theologians who deviate from tenets of the faith. Most recently, Sri Lankan theologian Father Tissa Balasuriya OMI was censured for challenging papal authority and essential teachings. The measure was later repealed when he signed a profession of faith.

Other reprimanded theologians include Father Hans K?ng of Switzerland and Father Charles Curran, barred in 1987 from teaching at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Stephen Banyra writes from Rome