Pope's new Apostolic Letter puts theological dissenters on notice

Pope's new Apostolic Letter puts theological dissenters on notice

Pope John Paul II has adopted a tougher line on theological dissent in the Catholic Church.

In a 3-page Apostolic Letter - Ad Tuendam Fidem (To Defend the Faith) - which authorises key additions to the Code of Canon Law, the Pope explains that these were necessary in order to "defend the faith of the Catholic Church from errors that arise on the part of some faithful."

These errors have been especially prevalent over the past 30 years in many of the Church’s higher education bodies such as seminaries, theology institutes and universities, as well as in a host of publications.

The Vatican "please explain" regarding Fr Paul Collins’ book, Papal Power, and Archbishop Pell’s more recent move against Fr Morwood’s book, Tomorrow’s Catholics, both seemed reflective of a tougher, no-nonsense approach to dissent in the light of a continuing problem.


The Apostolic Letter was distributed by the Vatican press office on 30 June, together with a commentary written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As with the earlier Vatican document on the proper roles of the non-ordained in helping clergy with their priestly tasks, the ultimate impact of the Pope’s Apostolic Letter will depend heavily on the readiness of the world’s bishops to implement it faithfully.

Since 1989, bishops, theologians and others in responsible teaching positions have been required to take an oath of fidelity and make a profession of faith when assuming office. The Pope’s present document enshrines this requirement in Canon Law, with an additional paragraph to Canon 750 of the Latin code, and Canon 598 of the Eastern code, extending the obligations of Catholics beyond simply believing "all that is contained in the written Word of God and all that has been proclaimed as being divinely revealed."

The new paragraph, which underlines the assent required when dealing with Church teachings that have not been proclaimed as divinely revealed, but have been taught as belonging to the Catholic faith and its unbroken tradition, states:

"Each and every thing definitively proposed by the magisterium of the Church regarding faith and morals, that is those which are required in order to piously safeguard and faithfully expound the deposit of faith, also must be firmly accepted and held; one who denies the propositions which are to be held definitively, therefore, opposes the doctrine of the Catholic Church."

The second change ordered by the Pope applies Church penalties to those who deny any such "definitive teachings".

The Holy See regards these changes as necessary because many Catholic theologians have been using the concept of the "hierarchy of truths" to justify dissent against teachings not infallibly defined. Hence Ad Tuendam Fidem states that the "ordinary ma-gisterium," or Church teaching authority exercised by the Pope and College of Bishops, can also propose definitive teachings that require firm acceptance by Catholics.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary noted that the Pope’s letter reaffirmed the three traditional levels of Church teaching and the type of assent required by each. In the first category were:

"The articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine on the immortality of the spiritual soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being."

Identified as in the second category were doctrines "connected with revelation by a logical necessity", as "for example, the development in the understanding of the doctrine connected with the definition of papal infallibility."

A more recent example was "the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men ... to be held definitively, since, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium."

Moral doctrines

Moral doctrines in the second category included "the illicitness of euthanasia, taught in the Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, and of "prostitution and of fornication."

The Cardinal did not specify examples of doctrines belonging to the third category, but noted that "one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way" which deserved a "religious submission of will and intellect."

Ad Tuendam Fidem indicates that "the full and irrevocable character of assent" is owed equally to both the first and second levels of doctrines. The first, as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it, "is based directly on faith in the authority of the Word of God, while the second is based on faith in the Holy Spirit and the infallibility of the Church’s teaching authority."

Finally, as in the early centuries of the Church when the great struggle over the definition of the nature of Christ was in full swing, there is a vital role for laity in defending orthodoxy right down to the parish level.

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