Friday, September 12, 2008

Canonical Safeguards for the Doctrine of the Faith

My nephew graduated from a prestigious Catholic university. Some years ago, when he was still in that institution, he cheerily announced over breakfast that his theology professor openly confessed in class that he was an atheist. His mother—my sister— promptly took it up with the school authorities, and she was told that indeed a good number of the professors of the Theology Department of that university were avowed atheists, but that it was part of academic freedom to respect their views on that subject. My sister was dumbfounded, since she had precisely put her son in a Catholic university to avoid such erroneous ideas. I had forgotten this incident but a more recent episode—this time involving a niece in a Catholic school for girls—has moved me to seek clarification. From what I gathered from my sister, the religion teacher in that school told my niece’s class that the CBCP’s position against contraception is just one position, and there are other Catholic positions on the matter. Does Canon Law not safeguard the teaching of
sound doctrine in Catholic institutions?

The Canonical Safeguarding of the Doctrine of the Faith

“Guarding the deposit of the faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to his Church, and which she fulfills in every age.”[1] This is part of the teaching office of the Church. However, the munus docendi—as the above-recounted incidents would illustrate—would be seriously hampered were the juridical system to lack the mechanisms to enforce the propagation of the correct doctrine and to proscribe erroneous ones. Thus Canon Law indeed contains the adequate juridic safeguards for the authenticity of the Gospel message and its propagation. This safeguarding is anchored on three institutions, which have enjoyed re-formulation in recent years.

a. The Professio fidei

Historically, the requisite of a public profession of faith in specific circumstances finds its origin in the first centuries of the Christian era—e.g., for the catechumens before baptism, and for priests and bishops before their ordination. This public profession of faith implied a formal manifestation of the Christian faith before the ecclesiastical authority and according to the dispositions of Canon Law.

The present Code of Canon Law stipulates that the following persons are obliged to make a profession of faith personally in accord with the formula approved by the Apostolic See (c.833):
1º all persons who take part with either a deliberative or consultative vote in an ecumenical or particular council, in a synod of bishops, or in a diocesan synod;
2º those promoted to the sacred college of cardinals;
3º all persons promoted to the episcopacy and those equivalent to a diocesan bishop;
4º the diocesan consultor;
5º vicars general, episcopal vicars and vicars judicial;
6º pastors, the rector of the seminary, the professors of theology and philosophy in seminaries, those to be promoted to the order of deacons;
7º the rector of an ecclesiastical or Catholic university at the beginning of his term of office, and teachers in any university who teach disciplines which deal with faith or morals (italics added for emphasis);
8º the superiors in clerical religious institutes and societies of apostolic life, in accord with the norms of the constitutions.

The Code was of course alluding to the Professio Fidei extant at that time—promulgated by the S.C. for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1967.

b. Canonical Definition of Assent and Penalization of Unlawful Dissent.

On 9 January 1989, the S.C. for the Doctrine of the Faith published new formulas for the Professio Fidei and the Iusiurandum fidelitatis in suscipiendo officio nomine Ecclesiae exercendo, which were approved by the Roman Pontiff in a special Rescript dated 19 September of that same year. The Professio Fidei enumerates three specific kinds of propositions that the Magisterium teaches and to which the believer is obliged to adhere.

1st Category of truths: De fide credenda. The formula states: With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church either by a solemn judgment of by the ordinary and universal Magisterium sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed. These are truths definitively proposed by the Universal Magisterium (either solemn or ordinary) to be believed as formally revealed—i.e., contained in the sources of Revelation. The faithful are duty-bound to adhere to them with an act of faith in Revelation itself. This paragraph appropriately confirms and is provided for in c.750 of the present Code of Canon Law.

2nd Category of truths: De fide tenenda. The formula further states: I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals. This refers to teachings also definitively proposed by the Magisterium, but not as formally revealed—i.e., not as specifically contained in the sources of Revelation. The faithful are obliged to give accept and hold these truths—not insofar as these belong to Revelation, but insofar as they are being definitively proposed by the Church. It was for the safeguarding of this category of truths that a §2 was added to c.750 of the CIC 83 through the Motu Proprio Ad Tuendam of 1998. Thus, c.750 of the Code of Canon Law now consists of two paragraphs: [2]
§1. Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ's faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.
§2. Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held, namely those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

3rd Category of truths: Finally, the formula states: Moreover I adhere with 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. This paragraph has its corresponding legislative expression in c.752 of the Code of Canon Law: A religious respect of intellect and will, even if not the assent of faith, is to be paid 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; therefore the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid whatever is not in harmony with that teaching.
Since these teachings are not proposed definitively, they do not enjoy the note of infallibility. It is this datum that has caused a number of misconceptions, which we should clarify with the following observations:
a) “Not infallible” is not equivalent to “fallible”. The note of infallibility is a precise phenomenon—juridically determined—which has to do with the manner in which a teaching is proposed, and not directly about the intrinsic truthfulness or certainty of the teaching.
b) “Not infallible” is not equivalent to “questionable”. Faced with a teaching that does not enjoy the note of infallibility, there is no reason for a Catholic to adopt a posture of doubt or criticism, but rather one of positive acceptance, with the assurance that in this way he is serving the Church.
c) The contrary behavior is typified as a delict—as pointed out earlier (cf. c.1371, 1º). Aside from an intellectual assent to the doctrine, an assent of the will is required, manifested by an external actuation in accord with it.
d) The distinction between “infallible” and “simply authentic” Magisterium should not be confused with the distinction between solemn (extraordinary) and ordinary Magisterium. This is the kind of formalistic error that tends to reduce infallibility to formal solemnity without regard to the more important (substantial) note of definitiveness.


From the foregoing discussion, it is quite clear that the theology professors in the Catholic university and the religion teacher in the Catholic school for girls are in clear violation of Canon Law. The aggrieved parties—in this case any student, their parents or guardians—can bring the matter to the attention of the competent ecclesiastical authority, which in this case would be the Local Ordinary (or bishop of the diocese). Failing in that, they can raise the matter to the Holy See through the Papal Nuncio.

[1] John Paul II, Apost. Const. Fidei Depositum (11.X.1992).
[2] The typification of the corresponding delict was also made by making the corresponding modifications in c.1371, 1º to refer to the new c.750,§2:
Canon 1371 — The following are to be punished with a just penalty:
1° a person who, apart from the case mentioned in c.1364, §1, teaches a doctrine condemned by the Roman Pontiff, or by an Ecumenical Council, or obstinately rejects the teachings mentioned in c.750, §2 or in c.752 and, when warned by the Apostolic See or by the Ordinary, does not retract.

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