Hermeneutics of Vatican II
Part II.5: The Problem of Dissent
By Jeremy Hausotter
Oct. 3, 2020, Revised Jan. 30, 2022
Table of Contents
5. The Problem of Dissent
5.1. Personal Disagreement
5.2. On Dissent
5.3. Dissent and Vatican II
5. The Problem of Dissent
Our guide for the problem of dissent is the CDF document Donum Veritatis, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. A distinction needs to be made when discussing disagreement with a teaching of the Magisterium between personal disagreement and dissent.
5.1. Personal Disagreement
Personal disagreement, according to Donum Veritatis, follows an existential approach in regards to the theologian, his or her subjective disposition, and his or her disagreement on a non-definitive teaching. This existential approach is situated within the context of a dialogue. The theologian in disagreement is envisioned as working together with the bishop and local Church in understanding the truths of the faith in collaboration. The nature of this dialogical collaboration in pursuit of truth hence is a stimulus for both the Magisterium and theologians in the vocation for truth. This collaboration is threatened when one becomes combative and hostile.
This dialogue must follow a twofold rule: when it is a question of communion of faith the principle of “unity in truth” is to be followed, and when it is a matter of differences a “unity of charity” needs to be preserved.
The theologian in disagreement with a non-definitive teaching must accept a norm of humility in his research. He cannot, for example, present contrary views as if they were non-arguable conclusions nor untimely promote them publicly through the media and other outlets.
The CDF rejects three reasons for disagreement with a non-definitive teaching: 1) the validity of the teaching is not evident; 2) a disagreeing opinion seeming more probable; and 3) objections from conscience. On this last point the CDF rejected conscience as a legitimate grounds for disagreement because “conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine.”
The existential framework of the disagreeing theologian is within this dialogical collaboration in “unity in charity” and humility has many implications for such theologians. Out of this framework the theologian needs to be obedient and loyal to the Magisterium such that he or she will strive to understand the teaching “in its contents, arguments, and purposes.” This requires intellectual humility to authentically investigate the matter, to be ready to revise one’s opinions, and examine objections to his or her own views.
If after this process the theologian is not convinced and still disagrees, then he must inform the Magisterium and continue his inquiries in the desire to resolve his difficulties with the teaching. This framework also requires that when one does reach out to the proper magisterial authorities, that is, he is not to use mass media to exert public pressure since such practices do not serve the pursuit of truth. Now if the theologian after this lengthy process is still not persuaded to give assent to the particular teaching, he still has the duty to remain open to deeper examinations of the doctrine and its truth. Notice that this model of collaborative dialogue is teleologically oriented towards the theologian’s understanding and assent to the truth.
5.2. On Dissent
In contrast to the ideal described by the CDF in the case of the theologian in personal disagreement with a teaching is the theologian in dissent. Dissent can take on many forms such as a democratic freedom, public opinion, or majority view seen as normative, or that dissent is a variation of political protest but reinterpreted into a theological setting.
Another form of dissent condemned by Donum Veritatis is the view that the theologian is not bound by any teaching which is not infallible. Non-definitive teachings are understood to be non-obligatory in this view and hence one is free to assent or dissent from them at will. Such a theory the CDF dubbed theological positivism.
The CDF next outlines five arguments used to justify dissent. The first is a hermeneutical approach where the Magisterium’s documents are considered debatable and the dissenting theologian forgets the correct hermeneutical principle that due to the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit the Magisterium possesses an authority and validity beyond argumentation.
The second argument is invoked in a theological pluralism setting that rejects normative theological truths, resulting in a relativism. The Magisterium becomes the product of one theology amongst many without authority since each theology is equally valid. In these two approaches to dissent the CDF notes that a sort of “parallel magisterium of the theologians” arises in direct competition to the Magisterium itself.
Thirdly, another form of dissent is a sociological approach where truth is equivocated with majority opinion. From this a false sense of the sensus fidei is proposed and identified with a majority view or public opinion. Such a view divorces the sensus fidei from the Church when in reality it is by nature in agreement with the Church and Magisterium for it is a property of theological faith and the faith of the Church, and hence the sensus fidei cannot err. There is an indissoluble bond between the sensus fidei and the Church.
The fourth argument advocating for dissent is based on the theological truth that the act of faith is a free act of self-determination. Related to this is the appeal to man’s rights as a basis for dissent based on religious liberty. The CDF rejects these types of argumentations because religious liberty, while is grounded in man’s freedom for the truth and the freedom of the act of faith, does not grant a right for a Catholic to dissent for religious liberty is restricted by due limits which includes both the objective moral order and particularly in the case of a dissenting theologian by the fact that Catholics are under the jurisdiction of the Church’s laws and she can punish accordingly. It can, furthermore, be pointed out that religious liberty is in the service of pursuing objective truth, which the dissenting theologian has placed himself or herself in direct opposition to such a pursuit through his or her act of dissent.
Lastly is the argument from conscience. Conscience cannot legitimate dissent because the domain of conscience is practical judgments and decision making while what is at stake is doctrinal truths which are outside of this domain. Conscience is a fallible organ that requires formation and which one is duty bound to correctly form, shaping it with moral norms, theological truths, and a will ordered to the true good. Dissenting theologians are in reality acting out of bad conscience for a theologian in right conscience “presumes not only faith in the word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium.” Those who dissent based on an argument from conscience similarly set up a parallel magisterium to the Church where one’s conscience is given supreme authority. Such a view the CDF notes is contrary to the mission of a theologian and a correct understanding of the economy of revelation for it makes theological truths products of the individual’s research. Keep in mind that the dissenting theologian, while appealing to conscience, acts in bad conscience since he or she is not acting out of loyalty and love for the Magisterium, because if this were so then he or she would act according to the proper existential attitude and outlook as outlined in the CDF’s idealized theologian with a personal disagreement on doctrine. His conscience would be placed under the trusting care of the Magisterium who is the only one that can unerringly help form a correct theological conscience.
After these analyses the CDF reaffirms that the Church is like a sacrament of the communion between God and men, and that theologians and pastors have a duty to defend the Church’s communion and build up the Church in truth. Dissent does not serve these goals for it divides and creates discord. It is a temptation from Satan for “to succumb to the temptation of dissent… is to allow the ‘leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit’ to start to work.” Dissent draws the individual away from Christ.
5.3. Dissent and Vatican II
It is one thing to disagree with a teaching of Vatican II, but another to dissent from it. To be a faithful Catholic in disagreement requires the right ordering of the self towards the Church in charity and loyalty with the self-understanding that one has a duty to investigate the matter and not give up. And once this is completed and if one is in disagreement still, the faithful Catholic must still acknowledge the Church’s authority and remain in principle open to deeper understanding and examination of the subject. One cannot reject a teaching of Vatican II based on hermeneutical principles contrary to what the Magisterium proposes nor out of conscience. Doing such is an act of disobedience to the Magisterium and mischaracterizes the Church’s own authority.
The Magisterium through the papacies, 1985 Extraordinary Synod and CDF have clearly stated that a hermeneutics of continuity is to be used in understanding Vatican II and its authority in light of the deposit of faith and previous Ecumenical Councils. With this comes a warning, those who fail to interpret Vatican II accordingly are not fulfilling his or her vocation as a member of Christ and a theologian (if one is trained to be so). Vatican II’s continuity is not open for debate. We must remember that the bishops in communion with the Pope taught with authority at Vatican II, even if no new infallible doctrines were taught. The words of Pius XII are worth recalling on this matter:
Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me"; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.
What is at stake in the debate around Vatican II’s authority and continuity is the fact that Jesus Christ gave His promise to the Church that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. A rejection of Vatican II in its continuity or authority calls this promise into question, for if such a view is true then hell has prevailed and Jesus is a liar. The Holy Spirit likewise would be a failure since He has the task of protecting the Church and her Councils.
One could reply that God cannot be a liar and failure, but to affirm this and the proposition that Vatican II erred requires the proposition that the Church at large has apostatized and only a “remnant” remains faithful. Such views betray themselves in their duplicity for they imply: 1) private parties and their interpretations possess an authority which the Magisterium lacks; and 2) that Christ can divorce Himself from His Bride the Church.
What is fundamentally called into question is whether Christ can put away His Bride because any claim that the Church as a whole has apostatized according to the fantasy mentioned above or that an Ecumenical Council has erred is an affirmation that Christ is no longer joined to the Church. Just as Christ affirmed that man cannot divorce his wife, neither can Christ divorce His Bride.
When we consider the CDF document Donum Veritatis, the key to understanding a teaching of the Pope or an Ecumenical Council which is non-definitive, but taught when either are exercising their teaching offices as pastors, is that a religious submission of mind is still required to those teachings. This is because the Pope and such a Council possess legitimate authority over the Catholic Christian. When submission to teachings are understood in a manner that only accepts infallible statements and calls into question any non-definitive statement, then the real issue is one of undermining the Church’s authority (we have already cited Pius XII on this matter above). As Ratzinger points out, the Church’s authority cannot be reduced to infallibility. Those who do so fundamentally misunderstand the role and purpose of authority within a community.
 This can be found on the Vatican website and as Appendix G in Dulles’ Magisterium.
 Donum Veritatis 25.
 Ibid, 26.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 30.
 Ibid, 31.
 Ibid, 32-33.
 Ibid, 34.
 Ibid, 34.
 Ibid 35.
 Ibid, 36-37. Paragraph 37 in particular defends the Church’s jurisdictional authority. Part I of my Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae defends the interpretation of “due limits” as natural law. Part IV in addition examines the jurisdiction of the Church’s law in regards to the teachings of the secular arm or temporal sword.
 Ibid, 38.
 Ibid, 40.
 Humani Generis 20. Claren, Claudia, ed. The Papal Encyclicals: 1939-1958. Pierian Press, 1990.
 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology (Ignatius Press, 2016), 113.
 Cf. ibid, 111-113.
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