Throughout history, there have always been Catholics who have wanted to dissent from the teaching of the popes.  Today, we see this attitude in theological “liberals” who do not like some of the “old fashioned” teaching of the Church, particular with regard to sexual matters.  We also see this attitude today in theological “conservatives” who dislike some of the more recent teaching of popes since Vatican II, some of whom find especially distasteful some of the recent teaching from Pope Francis with regard to pastoral discipline for those in irregular “marriage” unions as well as his recent teaching on the death penalty.  Some theologians have argued that dissent from papal teaching in certain circumstances is allowed by the Church. One of the main magisterial documents they have appealed to is a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called Donum Veritatis (“On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian”).

In light of this, I think it would be helpful to take a brief look at the Church’s rules when it comes to criticism and dissent from papal teaching, with some focus on the teaching of Donum Veritatis.

Religious Assent of Mind and Will is Required of All Magisterial Teaching

The basic teaching on this matter is expressed in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium:

Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place.(39*) For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old,(164) making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.(165) Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, 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.  (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, #25)

Here we see that the Church requires assent to all her teaching, whether that teaching comes from the universal episcopate of all the bishops or from the head of the bishops, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.  With regard to papal teaching, we must adhere to all of it according to the Pope’s intention in giving it to us, his “manifest mind and will.”

The Church has reiterated this in her Code of Canon Law as well:

Can. 750 §1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firmly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. . . .

Can. 752 Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it. . . .

Can. 754 All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

We see here that Church teaching, whether from the bishops as a whole or from the Pope, can be definitive or non-definitive.  The Church teaches definitively when she puts forth a teaching intended to be the final word on a subject, not subject to any revision or correction in the future.  The Church teaches non-definitively when she puts forward a teaching intended to be true and helpful, but not intended necessarily to be the final word on a subject.  Such non-definitive teaching may be subject to growth, revision, or even correction in the future to some degree. But notice that both forms of teaching, definitive and non-definitive, are to be adhered to.  Both are binding.

The supreme authority of the Church is tacitly acknowledged even by Catholics who try to argue that it is OK sometimes to dissent from the Magisterium.  The conversation usually goes something like this:

Person A: The Pope said X, and he’s wrong!  I refuse to listen to him.

Person B: But we’re supposed to accept the teaching of the Pope.

Person A: Not always.  After all, the Church has said that not all her teachings are definitive, and that we are allowed sometimes to disagree with her.  Let me show you (proceeds to quote from various Church documents).

Do you see the irony here?  Person A is trying to use Church teachings to prove that it is sometimes right to disagree with the Church, and when it might be right to do so.  But this is like an argument between children about whether one must always listen to mother:

Child A: Mom told me to clean my room, but I don’t have to.

Child B: But we’re supposed to obey Mom.

Child A: Not necessarily always!  Why, just the other day, Mom told me (proceeds to appeal to Mom’s authority to justify belief that one need not always follow Mom’s authority)

If you only dissent from someone when you can show that they’ve given you permission to do so, is it really dissent?  No, it is obedience. “I’ll dissent from you only when you say I can. If you say I can’t, I won’t.” How is this kind of “dissent” any different from “100% obedience”?

It is not surprising that those who wish to disagree with some aspect of what is being taught by the Church should try to justify that dissent by appeal to the authority of the Church.  Given Catholic epistemology, what else could one do? How else could one possibly know whether or not one can dissent from the Church or when one can do so without deriving that knowledge from the teaching of the Church?  Consider those who say (wrongly) that we only have to agree with the teaching of the Pope when he is teaching ex cathedra – that is, when he is solemnly and definitively defining a doctrine to be held by the whole Church.  Those who argue for this will probably appeal to the definition of papal infallibility in the documents of Vatican I.  But how does the arguer know that Vatican I is right about papal infallibility? “Well, Vatican I was an ecumenical council, and the Church teaches that ecumenical councils are infallible when defining doctrine.”  But how do we know the Church got that right? “Because the Church teaches it!” In other words, the very starting assumption of the argument is that the Church is right in what she teaches and we should listen to her in whatever she says.  Without that starting assumption, we could never learn from Church teaching when the Church is speaking infallibly and when she isn’t, for how would we know she was right in drawing the line where she does between infallible and fallible teaching unless we first trusted her general teaching?  Without that assumption, we could simply say the Church is wrong in thinking the Pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra, etc.  So, logically, given a basic Catholic worldview and epistemology, there must be the underlying assumption that the Church is to be believed and followed in whatever she teaches.

This teaching was elaborated upon by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a document written up as a commentary on a required profession of faith promulgated by Pope John Paul II (“Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei).  In this document, the Congregation defines more particularly the nature of the non-definitive teaching of the Church and the form of adherence required with regard to it:

10. The third proposition of the Professio fidei states: “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” To this paragraph belong all those teachings­ on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect.18 They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with these truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.19

A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore ‘tuto doceri non potest’.20 . . .

As examples of doctrines belonging to the third paragraph, one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.38

Again, we see that the non-definitive teachings of the Church, just like the definitive teachings, require the assent of the faithful.  We are not allowed to dissent from them. However, there are “degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested.”  The intention of the bishops or the Pope, as they manifest this intention in their teaching, determines the degree of adherence required in any particular case.  This is of particular importance to emphasize, because this is where those who wish to dissent erroneously from papal teachings often go wrong. They recognize, correctly, that there are degrees of adherence required of various magisterial teachings.  As they say, and as we’ll see more in a moment, this does indeed mean that we can criticize and even disagree with some of things the bishops and the Pope say. But the real question is, Who determines the degree and form of assent required in any particular case?  The erroneous dissenters make themselves and their own judgment the determining factor in deciding what they are required to assent to and to what degree they are required to assent. But the Church teaches that it is the bishops and the Pope who make that determination.  We don’t get to subject the teachings of the bishops and the Pope to our own judgment and decide, even against their intentions and requirements, what we will agree with and what we will disagree with.  We must assent to their teaching according to their manifest mind and will.

Donum Veritatis

As I mentioned, erroneous dissenters sometimes appeal to the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called Donum Veritatis to justify their dissent.  (As I mentioned above, there is a kind of logical absurdity in this endeavor, actually–to appeal to Church teaching in order to justify refusing to submit to Church teaching.  If one can subject Church teaching to one’s own judgment and reject what one doesn’t approve of, why trust the judgment of Donum Veritatis to confirm one in this practice?)  So let’s see what Donum Veritatis says about when we can criticize or disagree with Church teaching:

23. When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.

When the Magisterium proposes “in a definitive way” truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.(22)

When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively”, teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect.(23) This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.

24. Finally, in order to serve the People of God as well as possible, in particular, by warning them of dangerous opinions which could lead to error, the Magisterium can intervene in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements. It often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent.

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions. Here the theologian will need, first of all, to assess accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed.(24)

When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission. In fact, the theologian, who cannot pursue his discipline well without a certain competence in history, is aware of the filtering which occurs with the passage of time. This is not to be understood in the sense of a relativization of the tenets of the faith. The theologian knows that some judgments of the Magisterium could be justified at the time in which they were made, because while the pronouncements contained true assertions and others which were not sure, both types were inextricably connected. Only time has permitted discernment and, after deeper study, the attainment of true doctrinal progress. (Donum Veritatis, #23-24)

Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable. Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine. (#28)

We see here the same reiteration of the various forms of Church teaching we saw earlier.  We also see here the same requirement of assent to all Church teaching, whether definitive or non-definitive.  We do see that sometimes “a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions.”  So some criticism and disagreement may be allowed. But notice two things: 1. The rule is submission. Unless one can prove a basis for disagreement, there must be submission.  The burden of proof is on those who advocate disagreement. 2. The forms and degrees of criticism and disagreement allowed are determined by “the authoritativeness of the interventions which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed.”  This the same language we’ve seen before. How do we know when and to what extent we can criticize? We must look to the manifest mind and will of the magisterial teachers. Donum Veritatis does not alter or even add anything to what we’ve already seen.  It reaffirms that we are to submit to all Church teaching, definitive or non-definitive, to the extent and in the form required according to the intention and requirements of the magisterial teachers.  Once again, we are not allowed to decide for ourselves, even against the intentions and requirements of Church teachers, when and how much criticism and disagreement is permitted to us.

As we saw above in section #24, Donum Veritatis acknowledges that, in the Church’s prudential instruction, a distinction can sometimes be made between the solid doctrinal and moral principles of the Church and more conjectural assessments of how best to apply those principles within the particular circumstances of the world.  This passage is a bit obscurely worded (in my opinion), and could do with a few concrete examples illustrating what exactly it is talking about. Perhaps a good example of what I think this passage is getting at might be the Crusades. I’m not going to get into a big explanation of the Crusades now, but the short of it is that the Crusades were a project the Church took up in order to free holy sites from Muslim rule (they had earlier been Christian sites, but the Muslims conquered them) in order both to make those sites more accessible to Christian pilgrimage as well as to liberate the Christians who lived in those areas from Muslim rule.  Having read a reasonable amount about the Crusades, especially some of the earlier ones, my sense is that the Crusades were motivated by good intentions and solid moral principles, but were not necessarily pursued in the wisest manner possible (to put it mildly). For example, the Popes called for Christians from all over Christendom to “take up the cross” and assist in the Crusades, but those who did so often ended up going in groups that were poorly organized, and a lot of the people who went brought along with them a good many “barbaric” tendencies, and so they often tended to loot towns and villages on the way and commit many other crimes, including eventually the famous sacking of Constantinople.  In hindsight, I think that Catholics are allowed to believe that the valid moral principles and concerns that underlay the Crusades might have been applied more wisely. Also, on hindsight, although the Church would never, in principle, have supported unjust treatment of Muslims (and Jews), Church leaders were not sufficiently cognizant at the time of the negative effects the Crusades often had on both. They were too short-sighted with regard to all the implications of what they were promoting.

To recognize such things about the Crusades is not to “dissent” against the Church, because the Church has never claimed that she always acts as wisely as she should in all her prudential actions.  She claims guidance in her doctrinal and moral teaching, but she also recognizes the principle of “doctrinal development,” which can include a growth in awareness that can have a significant impact on her practical life and actions in the world.

Donum Veritatis goes on (in sections 24-31) to discuss what should be done if a theologian were to find himself intellectually unable to submit to some non-definitive teaching of the Church.  I won’t quote the whole section, but the gist of it is that the theologian is required to submit to the Church’s judgment as best he can. If he has an intellectual problem with the Church’s teaching, he is to dialogue with the Church, trying as hard as he can to understand the Church’s point of view and to allow the Church to show him where he may be going wrong.  He is not to go out and promote his concerns in the mass media, putting himself in opposition to the Church. He is not to present his “opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions” (#27). He can criticize and disagree with the prudential judgments of the Church that don’t involve matters of the doctrine of the faith to the extent that the Church allows him to do so (such as with the example of the Crusades mentioned above), but he is not to think that the Church’s non-definitive teaching is “up for grabs.”

It is acknowledged that there might be some situations where a theologian, trying as best he can, simply cannot bring himself intellectually to accept certain non-definitive teachings.  In such a case, the Church wants to show mercy to him and sympathizes with him, knowing that “such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail” (#31).  In the meantime, he must remain humbly in dialogue with the Church, open to being corrected, and not make himself a public opponent of the Church’s teaching or form some kind of movement of “dissent.”

33. Dissent has different aspects. In its most radical form, it aims at changing the Church following a model of protest which takes its inspiration from political society. More frequently, it is asserted that the theologian is not bound to adhere to any Magisterial teaching unless it is infallible. Thus a Kind of theological positivism is adopted, according to which, doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility are said to have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not. The theologian would accordingly be totally free to raise doubts or reject the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium particularly in the case of specific moral norms. With such critical opposition, he would even be making a contribution to the development of doctrine.  (Donum Veritatis, #33)

So does Donum Veritatis say that the Church gives permission to theologians to disagree with non-definitive teachings of the Church?  Hardly. It is rather saying that they have a duty to submit intellectually and practically to the Church’s non-definitive teaching as far as they are able to do so, but that the Church wants to be sympathetic and merciful to them if they find themselves stuck with regard to some point, provided they remain humble and open to correction and don’t join or form a movement of “dissent.”  But the teaching of the Church is still not “up for grabs.” We are not allowed to treat it as if it is merely the expression of an opinion which is not binding on us, as if we have the right to consider it and reject it if we find some other position more probable.

In conclusion, then, we are indeed allowed at times to criticize and even disagree with the teaching of the bishops of the Church and of the Pope.  But, if we want to do this, we must first show that the bishops or the Pope have allowed disagreement in any particular case. If we cannot do this, we must submit and assent to the teaching.  If the evidence says that the bishops or the Pope intend their teaching to be binding and accepted by the faithful, then the faithful are required to submit. In this way, truth and unity will be preserved and error and schism avoided as we all agree in mind and will with what the Church is teaching us.

This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.  (Vatican I, Chapter 4, Section 7, as found on the EWTN website.  “The translation found here is that which appears in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils ed. Norman Tanner. S.J. The numbering of the canons is however found in Tanner’s text.”)

For more, see here.


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Mark Hausam lives in Columbia, MO, with his wife Desiree and his nine children, where they are members at Our Lady of Lourdes parish. Mark teaches Theology at Fr. Tolton Catholic High School as well as Philosophy at State Fair Community College in Boonville, MO. He runs a blog at https://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/ and is the author of Why Christianity is True and No Grounds for Divorce: Why Protestants (and Everyone Else) Should Return to the Unity of the Catholic Church.

When are Catholics permitted to dissent from teachings of the Pope?
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