The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to Fr. Charles Curran, dated Sept. 17, 1985, regarding his dissent from Church teaching on contraception. The Congregation explained that “the authorities of the church cannot allow the present situation to continue in which the inherent contradiction is prolonged that one who is to teach in the name of the church in fact denies her teaching.”

The congregation reminded Fr. Curran that “the church does not build its life upon its infallible Magisterium alone but on the teaching of its authentic, ordinary Magisterium as well.” The letter invokes the obligation to grant assent to non-infallible teachings according to Lumen Gentium 25, stating that “the faithful must accept not only the infallible Magisterium. They are to give the religious submission of intellect and will to the teaching which the supreme pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate on faith or morals when they exercise the authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it with a definitive act. This you have continued to refuse to do.”

Fr. Curran had his license to teach theology taken away and was removed from his tenured position as a theology professor at the Catholic University of America for refusing to yield to Church authorities on Humanae Vitae and other matters of Church doctrine on marriage and sexuality. In this case, the word “dissent” was ever-present in the discussion surrounding Curran to describe his response to Humanae Vitae and many traditional Catholic doctrines. He embraced the term himself, even using it in the titles of his published works: Dissent in and for the Church, Dissent in the Church: Readings in Moral Theology, Faithful Dissent, Vatican Authority and American Catholic Dissent, and Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian.

Curran had long argued that thoughtful, serious, and respectful dissent from non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium was acceptable for a theologian. He claimed that this notion was backed by a pastoral letter by the US bishops that taught, “There exists in the Church a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and also general norms of licit dissent. This is particularly true in the area of legitimate theological speculation and research. When conclusions reached by such professional theological work prompt a scholar to dissent from non-infallible received teaching the norms of licit dissent come into play.”

Unlike the liberals of Fr. Curran’s era, the most prominent voices of dissent in the Church today are on the right. Unlike Curran, who sought to convince the Church that the Magisterium needs to change and evolve in light of new insights gained during the passage of time, conservative dissenters typically argue that certain developments in doctrine and discipline are illegitimate because they believe these developments are ruptures in the Church’s tradition.

Complicating things further is that for most traditionalist and conservative Catholics, being an “orthodox Catholic” is essential to their self-identity. Therefore, when they encounter a Catholic teaching that they refuse to accept, they will not concede that they dissent from the Magisterium. Instead, they must come up with creative alternative ways to explain how their views are orthodox even though they disagree with official teachings promulgated by the Church’s magisterial authorities. Solving this cognitive dissonance demands that they create loopholes, such as inventing reasons for claiming that certain teachings aren’t magisterial at all. At other times, they’ll go as far as saying that faithful Catholics have a moral obligation to reject such teachings. As we’ve discussed before, many have accused Pope Francis of heresy, with some suggesting he has forfeited the office of the papacy. And they do all this openly and publicly.

Many of the words and actions of Catholics on the right are more damaging and scandalous to the body of Christ than the much more straightforward dissent of progressives. For example, one of the most prominent dissenters from Humanae Vitae, the theologian Bernard Haring, at least didn’t demand that Catholics reject it, advising that “those who can accept the encyclical with an honest conscience must do so, with all the consequences… Priests must instruct the faithful clearly about the Pope’s teaching,” but adding, “However, I do not see how they can be denied the right to speak out their own opinion with equal honesty.”

Compare this to a recent article in the Catholic World Report by a theologian named E. Christian Brugger, who said that “if popes assert anything contrary to divine revelation or good morals, even with the intention of formally teaching it or implicitly affirming it as true, the assertion enjoys no guidance by the Holy Spirit and so possesses no authority over the consciences of Catholics. In fact, Catholics are bound when they discover the error to reject such teaching.”

Note that none of these loopholes are found in the teachings of the Church, nor are they contained in Church law. In fact, Brugger seems to explicitly reject the key to understanding the teachings of the ordinary Magisterium – which is that we should interpret it according to the pope’s “manifest mind and will.” Lumen Gentium 25 says that our religious submission of intellect and will must show that “the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

Lumen Gentium does not suggest that any teachings on faith and morals promulgated by the pope should ever be rejected in such a way. In fact, other than in very precise circumstances and according to a fairly quiet process delineated in the CDF document Donum Veritatis, there’s not even a hint of a suggestion in Canon Law or the Magisterium that Catholics are ever “bound” to reject a teaching on faith and morals that the pope intends to promulgate as authentic Magisterium. In his article, Brugger suggests that Amoris Laetitia is one such teaching. He also projects that any possible development of the teaching on contraception would be another.

Over three years ago, I described those who hold to such notions as “Followers of the Imagisterium,” because they seemed to think that they could appeal to their own imaginary Magisterium to veto authoritative Church teachings on faith and morals. They have no such authority, and the highest doctrinal authority we have is the living Magisterium, the pope and the bishops in communion with him.[1]

Back in 1999, Notre Dame historian R. Scott Appleby wrote about this unique challenge faced by Catholic conservatives whenever they decide that Church leaders have succumbed to worldly and modernist trends.[2] Unlike fundamentalists in other religious traditions – Protestant, Jewish, Muslim – Catholic ecclesiology offers no “escape.” Appleby writes about how in the years following the Council, “Would-be Catholic ‘fundamentalists’ were faced with a problem unique to their ecclesial tradition: the ideological and organizational difficulty, if not impossibility, of separating from the One True Church. … However angry conservatives became when progressives or ‘neo-modernists’ seemed to gain ascendancy in seminaries, universities and other Catholic institutions, they continued to profess loyalty to the Church and to the See of Peter; indeed, many Catholics who otherwise demonstrated the separatist mentality considered such professions of obedience to be a sine qua non of ‘traditional’ Catholicism.”[3]

In other words, there are no easy outs for someone who wants to claim that they have fidelity to the Church while rejecting the teachings of Church authorities. The Council fathers taught in Dei Verbum 10, “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” The fathers also describe the purpose and scope of this teaching office, made up of the pope and the bishops in communion with him: “This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

Still, conservative dissenters in the Church try to solve the contradictions. For example, in response to the teaching above, they typically interpret this clearly descriptive statement incorrectly, arguing that it is instead prescriptive. They suggest it’s basically a set of guidelines for the pope, telling him not to be above the word of God, that he must teach what has been handed on, with the implication that the pope might opt to do otherwise. Papal primacy is thus reduced to a pontifical instruction manual, and it’s the job of the papal critic to make sure he follows it. Many conservative and traditionalist papal critics clearly believe our pope has decided to reject his marching orders. They seem to think the faithful have no real assurance that his Magisterium is orthodox, even when clearly exercising his role as Roman Pontiff and promulgating teachings on faith and morals to the entire Church.

This view becomes even more incoherent when considered in light of the next passage of Dei Verbum 10, which teaches “that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” Tradition, Scripture, and papal authority are so closely linked that they cannot be separated. Based on this, there’s simply no room for individual Catholics to take it upon themselves to overrule the pope and his authority in the way that Brugger has done.

This phenomenon is not new in the US Church, but its impact has reached new heights. A combination of Francis’s papacy, the Trump presidency, and contemporary social media have exacerbated a problem that the Hungarian Cistercian theologian Roch A. Kereszty identified in Communio in 1987, when he wrote: “Right wing ‘theologians’ have an active and influential audience among the Catholic laity. They create a climate of mistrust toward the modern world in general (and toward the historical-critical method and natural sciences in particular), exaggerate the errors of the left and make it difficult for the Magisterium to mediate a right understanding of Vatican II to the Church.”[4]

During his address to US bishops during his 1987 visit to Los Angeles, Pope St. John Paul II spoke to them about their “fruitful dialogue” with theologians. He said that theologians have a right to a “legitimate freedom of inquiry,” but said that “They, on their part, will recognize that the title Catholic theologian expresses a vocation and a responsibility at the service of the community of faith, and subject to the authority of the pastors of the Church.” In what way does Brugger’s article subject itself to the pastors of the Church if it is explicitly calling for rejection of teachings of the ordinary Magisterium?

This isn’t the first time Brugger has tried to publicly undermine the office of the papacy and take up the mantle of self-appointed Church authority. His 2018 appeal to the bishops of the world was an attempt to “influence the decisions of the Pope,” and in which he said to them, “I am willing to assist you in any way I can—with summaries of concerns, talking points, diocesan guidelines, etc. Please do not hesitate to contact me.” Such an offer suggests he is willing to do anything he can to assist the Church in becoming closer to what he wants it to be. It also betrays a lack of confidence in the promise of Jesus Christ to Peter.

In his more recent article, Brugger says in his conclusion, “If this pope or a future pope should attempt to teach contrary to his predecessors on contraception, he will run up against the irreformability of the traditional doctrine. This does not mean he will not try. Should he try, every Catholic needs to know, whether he or she agrees with the Church’s teaching or not, that the pope has absolutely no authority to teach in this way.” It’s difficult to imagine how any of that can be squared with Catholic doctrine on the papacy.

Since the promulgation of the Vatican I constitution Pastor Aeternus, which taught on papal primacy and infallibility, subsequent popes, canon law, and the Second Vatican Council have only expanded on this teaching. Theologians like Brugger seek to place checks and balances on the pope without realizing that the pope is the check and the balance, at least according to Catholic Tradition. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, “Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.”

Many traditionalist critics lament “hyperpapalism” and the “Spirit of Vatican I.” They lament that so many teachings since the First Vatican Council seem to point to the pope as the authority in the Church who can resolve theological disputes and authentically interpret Sacred Tradition. They feel this way, I have to imagine, simply because the Magisterium doesn’t agree with them. I don’t think Vatican I and subsequent Magisterial teaching was an unfortunate coincidence, but rather serve the Church today as a providential “safe guide” for faithful Catholics to reject the seduction of traditionalism and the incoherence of conservative Catholic dissent and an instruction to follow the “sure interpreter of the commands of God,” the successor of Peter.

Where Peter Is, there is the Church.


[1] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 100.

[2] Appleby, R. Scott. “The Neo-Americanist Center and the Limits of Conservative Dissent.” U.S. Catholic Historian 17, no. 1 (1999): 13–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25154655.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Roch A. Kereszty, O. Cist. “Theological Dissent in the North American Church,” Communio. Summer 1987: 96.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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