That the Church is in the midst of a crisis is, for those not blinded by enthusiasm, obvious.

Understanding the different levels of authority for the documents of the Church is one of the underpinnings of keeping sane and not falling off the knife's edge.

In this academic article Dr. Lamont has, I believe, provided the key to unlocking one of the locks  of this Crisis.  The documents of the Second Vatican Council.



Dr. John R. T. Lamont

Catholic Institute of Sydney
Strathfield, NSW, Australia

Source: Thomist


THE TEACHING OF THE Second Vatican Council on religious liberty in its declaration Dignitatis humanae has been a subject of bitter disagreement ever since the promulgation of that declaration. Presented by some as one of the council's main achievements, it has been condemned by others as a departure from the past teaching of the Church. Most seriously, perhaps, it has been celebrated as being both these things, and as thereby establishing that it is possible for the Church to change her teachings, however authoritative, in the light of a better understanding of reality.

There are two issues involved in this disagreement: the question of the content of the document's teachings, and the question of the level of authority of these teachings. These questions turn upon the more general issues of the nature of the principles to be used in determining the content and authority of Church teachings. These general issues are the topic of long-standing disputes in Catholic theology, disputes that are at least as important as those on religious freedom itself. This paper will attempt to resolve these disputes, partly as a preliminary to considering the issue of religious liberty, and partly on account of their intrinsic interest. It will not go on to apply its conclusions to Church teaching on religious liberty because of space limitations; this task will be undertaken in subsequent publications. However, the consideration of positions on the interpretation of church teachings and the consideration of Dignitatis Humanae are not entirely independent tasks. The debates on both these issues emerge from a common theological and ecclesiastical history, and the exposition of this history that is necessary for a consideration of interpretation of Church teachings will prove essential for an understanding of Dignitatis humanae.

None of the teachings of Dignitatis humanae are infallible pronouncements that of themselves demand the assent of faith. This is the case with all the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, since that council did not make any dogmatic definitions.(1) Dignitatis humanae thus raises the particular issue of the level of authority of noninfallible Church teachings. It is really only for this category of Church teaching that the question of level of authority arises in an important way, since infallible teachings by their nature have the highest level of authority, an authority that excludes rejection or doubt on the part of those who profess the Catholic faith. For theology, the question with respect to infallible teachings is not properly speaking their level of authority, but the means of identifying them. The question of how to identify infallible teachings has been fairly thoroughly discussed, and has in fact been the main focus of theological disputes about the authority of Church teachings. These disputes have generally been asking, what level of authority--fallible or infallible--does a given Church teaching have? The question that concerns us, however, is what are the levels of authority below infallibility that Church teachings can possess, and how are these levels to be identified?

I. Historical Context of Doctrine

In order to determine the content of a teaching (and, in some cases, the degree of its authority), it is necessary carefully to examine the circumstances in which it is issued. The relevant circumstances include the nature of the theological terms used and the theological approaches within which these terms emerged, the errors that are intended to be condemned, and the conciliar discussions that gave rise to the texts. The force of the forms used to promulgate a teaching may also vary with time, and requires some attention to context to be understood. Neglect of these circumstances has at times led to more or less serious mis-representations of conciliar teachings. A good example of this is the teaching of the Council of Trent on Scripture and Tradition as sources of revelation. The standard view of this teaching for many years was that it asserted that oral tradition was an independent source of revelation, in the sense that it contained and passed on divinely revealed truths that are not contained in Scripture. However, investigations of the deliberations of the Council of Trent have shown that the council cannot be said to teach this position.(2)

It is also necessary to interpret particular teachings in the context of Church teaching as a whole. All these teachings are issued by the same authority, which intends them to harmonize with and to interpret each other. The fact that teachings are intended to be read in the context of the whole of the Church's teaching is often explicitly stated in conciliar documents, in such phrases as "following the saintly fathers" (Chalcedon)(3) or "follow-ing without deviation in a straight path after the saintly fathers" (Constantinople III);(4) it was expressed at the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum 1 and Lumen gentium 51. The presump-tion is therefore that one teaching does not reject or contradict another, unless it is impossible to understand it except as doing so. The practice in the rare instances where a previous teaching is corrected by a subsequent one is for this correction to be made explicit (as in the condemnation by the Third Council of Constan-tinople of the teaching of Pope Honorius on Monothelitism).

This means that the meaning that we might attach to a teaching if taken in isolation may not be the meaning that we should understand as meant by the Church, when the whole of the Church's teaching is taken into account. This principle of interpretation is not confined to magisterial documents; as René Laurentin remarks, "when a pontifical document seems to go contrary to an opinion received by the Fathers or Doctors of the Church, notably by such a one as St. Thomas Aquinas, this doctrine should not be thought to be rejected by it, unless the papal document says so in so many words."(5)

It may be the case that the meaning of a given teaching is clarified by another teaching, even if the clarification occurs centuries later. An example is Pope Leo the Great's assertion about the divine and human natures in Christ, to the effect that  "the activity of each form is what is proper to it in communion with the other: that is, the Word performs what belongs to the Word, and the flesh accomplishes what belongs to the flesh."(6) On its own this expression could be understood in a Nestorian sense, as implying that the two natures are independently acting entities.

It was indeed understood in this way by many theologians, an understanding that contributed to the Monophysite schism. This understanding was however excluded by the Third Council of Constantinople, which interpreted Leo's claim as asserting that there is both a divine and a human will in Christ, and thus as being a rejection of Monothelitism.(7) Even if this meaning was not present in Leo's original statement, it became part of the meaning of that statement after the clarification of Constantinople III. This is because Leo was not expressing his private opinion, but teaching in his official capacity. The meaning of an official statement is determined by the authority that issues the statement, not by the individual who happens to exercise that authority at a given time; and the authority in question has the power to expand the meaning of its assertions. A humdrum example is British law on value-added tax, which states that bread is not subject to this tax but that cake is. The question arose as to whether bagels should count as bread or as cake; when it was legally decided that bagels were bread, the previous legislation then acquired the content of exempting bagels from value-added tax, a meaning that it did not have before that decision.(8)

The example of the Third Council of Constantinople is a case in which the clearer teaching occurs later than the less clear one. Although this is a sensible order in which to proceed, there is nothing about order in time as such that means that a later statement is to be used to interpret an earlier one rather than vice versa. Statements of greater authority are to be used to interpret statements of lesser authority, and clearer statements are to be used to interpret less clear ones, regardless of the temporal order of the statements in question. A case where earlier teachings are to be used to interpret later ones is where the later teachings repeat earlier ones that have been solemnly defined, as with the Christological teachings of the Second Vatican Council. The former teachings, those of the great Christological councils, are more authoritative than the latter, which are not solemn definitions. They are also more precise, because the solemn definitions were intended to settle specific controversies, whereas the appeal to this teaching at Vatican II was intended to give a more general picture.

There are particular principles of interpretation that have been proposed specifically for the teachings Vatican II that ought to be mentioned here. It is sometimes said that these teachings should be interpreted in the light of the "spirit" of the council, or the "location of the texts within that historical thrust . . . towards self-understanding by the Church and definition of its relationship with history,"(9) or should give "greater interpretative privilege to the thesis supported by the greater majority of voters."(10) The problem with such principles is not simply that they are not very specific, and are thus open to manipulation by people with their own agendas,(11) but that they are wrong, full stop. They violate the principle that a council is only to be interpreted as teaching what it manifestly and officially teaches.

These proposals for reading Vatican II stem in fact from a transposed ultramontane heritage. The extreme ultramontane position on the extent of the authority of the pope, and the ultramontane psychological attitude towards that authority, were expressed by W. G. Ward:
Take the obvious illustration of a parent; and suppose it were revealed to me, that my mother's guidance is infallible in every particular of moral and religious training. That I should accept with unquestioning assent the very least detail of her explicit instruction, is but a small part of my submission to her authority. I should be ever studying her whole demeanour in my regard--her acts no less than her words--in order that I may more fully apprehend her implied principles of conduct, and gather those lessons of profound wisdom which she is privileged to dispense.(12)
This ultramontane attitude is simply transferred by some theologians to the Second Vatican Council. The faithful, in relation to the council, are to be like the slaves in the psalm keeping their eyes on the hands of their master. In reality, this attitude is only appropriate towards God. It can be applied to pope or council when these entities are exercising the divine authority, but this attitude is only called for when this authority is exercised in proper form. Otherwise, it is not faith but a regression to childishness, to seeing pope or council as a parental authority whose every word and intention is to be uncritically accepted.

II. "Historical Conditioning" of Doctrine

The purpose of the investigation of the context of Church teachings is to find out how these teachings represent reality. Acceptance of these teachings consists in holding that reality is indeed how they say it is, on account of their saying that it is. This seemingly banal clarification needs to be made because it is rejected by some currently influential accounts of the interpretation of doctrine.

One such account was given in clear and summary form in an address by Julius Cardinal Döpfner to a conference of European bishops in 1969:
All the dogmas in the strict sense of the word, in turn call for interpretation. Although they also contain, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a "timeless" truth, i.e. an objectively valid truth for all times, they still present this truth in a time-bound language. Dogmas are always statements which are historically determined in a conceptual system; they are tied to a particular time and a particular way of thinking. Dogmas come to be in a concrete situation because of a specific set of causes. Doctrinal statements, therefore, always express the truth which is their object in an inadequate and fragmentary way which, nonetheless, is valid from a specific perspective, namely, the perspective of a certain group of hearers. In order to understand a doctrinal truth, one must be familiar with these circumstances. Insofar as these circumstances have changed, the context of a certain dogma no longer exists for us.(13)
This notion of the historical conditioning of doctrine is derived from Karl Rahner. I have criticized this notion in an earlier article,(14) and will simply recapitulate in brief the contents of that criticism. This understanding of the way doctrine is historically conditioned takes the perfectly true claim that doctrinal statements are conditioned and limited by the historical circumstances in which they are made, and adds to it the further claim that this limitation must result in their not being perfectly true. But the former claim does not justify the latter one. Every statement of any kind at all must be subject to limitations of this sort, since every human being and every institution composed of humans exist in historical circumstances that shape and limit what they can know and express. These limitations do indeed mean that there are things that people in a given set of circumstances will be unable to know or comprehend. Such limitations are part of the explanation for the development of doctrine; as conceptual horizons expand, new questions about the subject matter of the faith can be put that require an answer.

The existence of limitations on knowledge and comprehension, however, does not imply that there is nothing that can be fully known or comprehended. That men are mortal, or that water becomes solid if cooled sufficiently, are examples of statements that describe reality entirely truthfully, and that are com-prehensible to anyone with a normal human conceptual appara-tus. The claim that the Holy Spirit guides the Church into the truth is to be understood as asserting that the Holy Spirit guides the Church to teach only statements that fall within the conceptual capacities of the Church, at the time the teaching is made, for describing reality as it is--and, furthermore, that succeed in describing reality as it is. The idea that at some times the limits on the conceptual capacities of the Church have prevented her from accurately describing reality is no more than the disguised assumption that the Holy Spirit does not in fact guide her into the truth. This notion of historical conditioning is simply an expression of unbelief.

So understood, belief in the historical conditioning of Church teaching denies the teaching of Vatican I that "if anyone says that it is possible at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands; let him be anathema."(15) It thereby asserts some of the tenets of the Modernist heresy.(16) However, unlike Modern-ism, it does not amount to a coherent view. It faces the difficulty that if historical conditioning means that some aspects of past doctrines are not to be accepted as part of the faith, it follows that we cannot now know what the faith is. We, like believers in other epochs, exist in history, and hence are subject to historical conditioning that limits our perspectives. Because we cannot get outside our own historical situation, we have no way of finding out what those limits are, and hence no way of knowing what part of our own beliefs is historically conditioned and not objectively true. We thus cannot determine what features of our own understanding of the faith are historically conditioned, and hence untrue.

The Modernists did not face this problem, because they discarded the idea of faith as giving any "objectively valid truth for all times" at all, and evaluated religious beliefs solely by their conformity to the needs of a given time. This makes it unlikely that the origins of this notion of historical conditioning are to be found primarily in Modernism. It is probably more the result of belief in progress and the superiority of the present--of the assumption that people in the past were inevitably ignorant and prejudiced in comparison to us, and that their views have to be altered in order to take into account our greater knowledge. This assumption explains why "historical conditioning" is attributed to past teachings, but its implications for present teachings are not considered.

There is a particular version of the historical-conditioning notion that requires further discussion. It is frequently maintained that the concepts used in particular Church teachings change over time, and thus that the teachings have to be re-expressed in different concepts in order to preserve their original message. Taken as stated, this notion can be straightforwardly dismissed. The notion of a concept usually designates a component of the mental life of a particular individual. In this sense, the content of Church teachings cannot depend on particular concepts, because concepts of this sort are not publicly available, and Church teachings are expressed in language. Since language is a public means of communication, its meaning can only be acquired by reference to interpersonal things and events that are publicly identifiable. This familiar point about language means that the vicissitudes of people's concepts are not relevant to the content of Church teaching. They are only relevant to the degree of comprehension that a given individual may possess of them.

We can also use the term "concept" to refer, not to the components of the mental life of a particular individual, but to the content of such components. The point made in the preceding paragraph about the teachings of the Church applies to this notion as well. Since these teachings are expressed in language, their content must be given by the elements of the external, publicly observable world that provide meaning to language. The relation between external things and the vocabulary of the language that determines the meaning of this language is that obtaining at the time of the teachings. This does not change; it refers to a relation obtaining at a single specified time, and change of the meaning of language must occur over a lapse of time. Careful investigation, of the sort described above, is often necessary to discern the exact nature of this relation--since languages and their expressive resources change over time--but there is no such thing as conceptual change that this investigation needs to take into account.

However, many of the theologians who talk about changing concepts seem in fact to have a different notion in mind. They point out that Church teachings are expressed not just in terms that derive their meaning from the external publicly observable world, but also in terms taken from theories that attempt to give a philosophical account of the external world, and that in so doing elaborate concepts that go beyond what is evident to observation. They argue that Church teachings are not intended to advance philosophical theses, and that the Church has no authority to settle philosophical questions. Since the philosophical concepts in Church teachings stand or fall with the truth of the philosophical systems of which they are a part, such theologians conclude that these concepts do not form a constitutive part of these teachings, and can be dispensed with or replaced by other philosophical notions. The specifically philosophical element of Church teaching is thus identified as a historically conditioned element that does not demand the assent of faith. These are the concepts that can change, and that need not be retained.

If this view is correct, the question of the teaching of Vatican II on religious liberty, for example, would at once be settled. Liberty is a notion that must be explicated in philosophical terms, and any statements about it would thus be disqualified from forming part of the teaching of the Church. This consequence is a good example of why this view is untenable. It is not possible for Church teaching to be expressed without making use of philosophical notions, because the subject matter of this teaching is inherently philosophical. It deals with such ultimate realities as the nature of God, of humanity, of knowledge, of good and evil. These are philosophical realities; philosophy itself came into being as the investigation of them. Divine revelation does not have a subject matter that is entirely separate from that of philosophy. Where it differs from philosophy is in the reason for belief that it offers, and in conveying some truths that philosophy is incapable of reaching. To reflect on many central theological issues just is to venture into philosophy, and the accurate formulation of claims about them will necessarily use philosophical notions (cf. Fides et ratio 66). This is apparent in the early councils that dealt with Christological issues; these described Christ using the philo-sophical conceptions of substance, nature, hypostasis, and person. It is necessary to use these notions not only to accept, but to reject, these conciliar teachings; the only way to avoid philo-sophical characterizations of Christ would be never to think seriously about him at all--which is scarcely an option for theology or faith. The claim that particular philosophical concepts cannot be an intrinsic part of Church teaching is false.

As for the Church not being in the business of teaching philosophical systems, it is true that the falsity of a philosophical system can entail the nonapplicability of the concepts that make it up, but making use of philosophical concepts to describe the world does not amount to embracing a complete philosophical system. Such concepts can be elements of more than one system. The necessary employment of philosophical concepts by the Church in her teaching thus does not constitute an endorsement of a particular philosophical system, and cannot be rejected on that account. Such employment does limit the available philo-sophical options by excluding philosophies that do not admit these concepts, but the rejection of philosophical views that are incompatible with the faith is an unexceptionable and necessary element of the Church's teaching--one could hardly say that a condemnation of solipsism, to take an extreme example, would go beyond the authority of the Church because it settles a philosophical question. It is thus false to say that the Church lacks the authority to settle philosophical questions (cf. Fides et ratio 50).

The nonexistence of a core content in Church teaching that is independent of philosophical concepts means that if one main-tains that the philosophical concepts in Church teachings can be changed, such teaching becomes a nose of wax, able to be twisted into any shape called for by one's philosophical convictions. Because the essence of these teachings is expressed philo-sophically, a change in philosophy produces a change in their essence. The exercise of finding examples of such twisting in contemporary theology I leave to the reader; it does not require very extensive research.

A) Twentieth-Century Debates over Historical Context and Historical Conditioning

The importance of historical context in understanding Church teaching, and the falsity of notions of historical conditioning of this teaching, are at the heart of twentieth-century debates in Catholic theology--debates that retain their importance today. The first of these theses is a key theme of thenouvelle théologie-- the theological approach associated with the Dominicans of Le Saulchoir and the Jesuits of Lyon-Fourvières--and the basis of its principal achievement; the second is its fatal flaw.

The crucial achievement of the nouvelle théologie, produced by the application of its program for investigating the historical context of doctrine and theology, was the discovery that the generally accepted conception of Catholic theology in fact had serious shortcomings. This conception was inherited from the baroque Scholasticism of the Counter-Reformation period. What the nouvels théologiens brought to light was the fact that baroque Scholasticism had lost some of the key insights of previous Catholic theology, and had acquired severe flaws not present in that earlier theology.(17) These problems were largely the result of the thought of the Counter-Reformation not having sufficiently emancipated itself from the nominalism of the late Middle Ages. The nouvels théologiens connected the problems in the Church with the need to remove these flaws, and to return in theory and in practice to the better understandings that had existed before the disaster of nominalism, a disaster that bore much of the responsibility for the Reformation.

The better understandings that needed to be restored were variously described. Some were sought in the Fathers, especially in the Greek Fathers; but a significant strand of ressourcement-- inspired above all by Marie-Dominique Chenu--looked for these understandings in St. Thomas himself. It is this strand of ressourcement that will be considered (and argued for) here. Its program involved a rejection of the form of Thomism accepted by neo-Scholastics, which accepted and built upon the thought of baroque commentators on St. Thomas, such as Cajetan and John of St. Thomas. These commentators, and their neo-Scholastic heirs, were alleged to have imbibed certain nominalist assump-tions, and to have introduced errors of their own. As a result, the "Thomism" of the neo-Scholastics was a significantly changed and impoverished version of the thought of St. Thomas, many of whose deep insights needed to be restored.

Not surprisingly, the neo-Scholastics reacted violently to this accusation. They conceived of the relation of the baroque commentators and themselves to St. Thomas as analogous to the relation of physicists working on general relativity after Einstein to Einstein himself. Einstein's successors simplified and extended his theory a great deal, but their work was based on and in-corporated the fundamental insights developed by Einstein himself as the discoverer of general relativity. The notion that the work of later Thomists could be corrected by reference to St. Thomas himself struck the neo-Scholastics as being like the notion that later physicists could be corrected by reference to Einstein's pioneering work (although they would see later Thomists as more dependent on St. Thomas than later physicists on Einstein). Apparent differences between St. Thomas and his followers would result from the fact that reflection over the centuries would express St. Thomas's original conceptions in clearer ways, and attempts to show that St. Thomas was different in significant respects from his followers--the "palaeo-Thomism" mocked by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange--were simply trying to take advantage of the inevitable occasional unclarity to be found in the founder of a school of thought, in comparison with later elaborations of that school.

It is not clear whether or not the neo-Scholastics can fairly be described as being hostile to historical research in maintaining this view--as the nouvels théologiens claimed--or whether they should rather be described as having a historical thesis about Thomism that happened to be wrong in some respects. After all, they held a historical view about the development of Thomism, and they looked to history to find the favored sources of their ideas, namely, the baroque Scholastics. Whichever of these is the case, the fact remains that the nouvels théologiens were right about baroque Scholasticism and its heirs being different from, and inferior to, the thought of St. Thomas himself.

This endorsement of this claim of the nouvelle théologie needs to be qualified; it is not as if the neo-Scholastics got St. Thomas totally wrong. Some of them were in fact responsible for reviving and building on important aspects of his thought--for example, Garrigou-Lagrange's work on spiritual theology (a synthesis of the views of St. Thomas and of St. John of the Cross on contem-plation), which was crucial to Vatican II's teaching on the universal call to holiness. (The value of this synthesis illustrates  the fact that the Counter-Reformation, producing as it did a theologian of the caliber of S. John of the Cross, was not barren of theological achievement.) This observation about the contribution of some neo-Scholastics to the broader program of ressourcement brings out the fact that that program was not peculiar to the nouvels théologiens or to the subjects they considered. The Thomist revival promoted by Leo XIII, particularly its historical element, was both a precondition and to some extent a form of ressourcement. Moreover, the program of ressourcement was carried on past Vatican II and persists up to the present.(18) The newly revived understandings of the notions of conscience and right that prove to be crucial to the discussion of religious freedom, for example, are a product of ressourcement.

The fatal flaw of the nouvelle théologie was the espousal, by many of its significant figures, of forms of the theses about historical conditioning of Church teaching described above. These theses were expressed most clearly by Henri Bouillard,(19) and criticized courteously and effectively by M.-M. Labourdette in an article that is still worth reading (a criticism that earned him dismissal from teaching duties by the Dominicans after the council).(20) They were criticized more bluntly by Garrigou-Lagrange, who answered his own question "La nouvelle théologie où va t'elle?" by "Le modernisme."(21) As applied to the historical-conditioning element of the nouvelle théologie, Garrigou-Lagrange was right, as the postconciliar period was to show. The verification of this claim has contributed to a guarded and partial rehabilitation of Garrigou-Lagrange by Fergus Kerr, who admits that Garrigou-Lagrange was right in criticizing Maurice Blondel's rejection of truth as adaequatio rei et intellectus, and that M.-D. Chenu was wrong in effectively siding with Blondel on this issue.(22) It is most unfortunate that the truth of the position of the nouvels théologiens on the general need for ressourcement contributed to the force of neo-Scholastic criticism of other aspects of their views being ignored.

Étienne Fouilloux sees an evolution in Chenu's thought. It began with the idea of ressourcement, but moved to an acceptance of the notion of historical conditioning.(23) The key to this evolution was a philosophical assumption that Chenu inherited from nominalism, via the baroque Scholastics he despised. The nominalist account of concepts described them as particular contents of individual minds, which relate to the things in the external world that they are concepts of through signifying these things.(24) This view is repeated in the "Thomist" account of John of St. Thomas.(25) On this understanding, concepts are signs of things, of a kind that serve as intermediaries between the person understanding and the things that are understood. The assumption of this understanding of concepts is what permitted Chenu to hold that concepts are capable of failing adequately to represent the things they signify, and are susceptible of being replaced by other concepts that do the job better--and, in consequence, that the same can be said of propositions, which are made up of concepts. Chenu thought, furthermore, that the mystical encounter with God that is basic to faith is not mediated through concepts, and that it is higher than any conceptual encounter; he described propositional assent as the medium for supernatural illumina-tion.(26) Hence his claim that every theology is the expression of a spirituality; a theology is the expression, in conceptual terms, of a higher spiritual encounter.(27) Hence, as well, his view that theology must be adapted to the historical situation of the theo-logian. This historical situation affects the conceptual capacities of the theologian (to deny this is to deny that the theologian exists in history). The theological enterprise must therefore respond to the historical situation, must respond to the "signs of the times"--a demand that Fouilloux claims was adopted by Vatican II from Chenu(28)--rather than pretend to an atemporal under-standing of truth, an understanding that would inevitably be ossified and cut off from the living object of faith.

This position on concepts led Chenu to his support of Blondel's definition of truth, and to his belief that the Modernists, with their concern to adjust doctrine to historical circumstances, had important insights.(29) It also contributed to his view, shared by the other nouvels théologiens, that the faith ought to be expressed in terms of contemporary philosophies, as well as--or instead of--Scholastic categories. This view was in effect an acceptance of a version of the Modernist heresy. A particular philosophy gives a global account of reality, and significantly different philosophies are different just because they give different accounts of reality. To change the philosophical systems and concepts that are used to express the faith is thus--as noted above--to change the content of the teachings of the faith; the replacement of the notion of transubstantiation by that of transsignification is a contemporary example. Part of the nouvels théologiens' motiva-tion for adopting contemporary philosophies was no doubt an apologetic intention coupled with a lack of understanding of what philosophy is, but the baroque Scholastic understanding of concepts would also have played a role.

Chenu's views are an instance of an important failure of ressourcement: its glaring omission, in its researches into medieval Scholasticism, of the central role that logic, philosophy of language, and semantics played in medieval thought.(30) Chenu's historicism was not entailed by his view of concepts as signs, since one can accept this view without holding that the relation of a given concept to the world can be improved or changed. But the view of concepts as signs gives room for Chenu's historicism, whereas St. Thomas's understanding of concepts does not. Saint Thomas does not consider concepts to be signs that can represent reality more or less accurately, because he holds that the content of concepts is identical with the natures of the realities that they are concepts of: "intelligibile in actu est intellectus in actu"(31) (STh I, q. 14, a. 2). Concepts may be of more or less general types of realities--the concept of 'man' is more specic than the concept of 'animal'--but a concept cannot represent reality inaccurately, because all there is to the content of a concept is the feature of reality that it is about. Nor does St. Thomas consider that there can be a grasp of reality, aside from sense experience, that is nonconceptual; for him, to grasp reality in a way that is not seeing, touching, hearing, etc., just is to have a concept, or to understand a proposition that is composed of concepts. This latter position is easily established. We cannot have a grasp of reality that does not present what we grasp as having a determinate character. We cannot grasp a feature of reality as being no more than a "something I know not what"; that is not a grasp of anything. But to have an intellectual grasp of a feature of reality as having some determinate character just is to have a concept of the character in question. What else is it to have a concept?

The substantial philosophical topic of whether or not concepts are signs does not have to be fully addressed in order to dispose of Chenu's position. The understanding of concepts as signs has been attacked by Wittgenstein, Peter Geach,(32) and Hilary Putnam, and St. Thomas's understanding has been defended by Geach(33) and in at least some respects by Anthony Kenny.(34) The idea of concepts as signs, or as mental representations, has nonetheless retained a large following, largely because of its perceived usefulness in offering a physicalist account of thought.(35)It is not however accepted by philosophers in any form that could lend support to Chenu. In these theories, there is no form of nonconceptual understanding that can provide a superior nonrepresentational grasp of reality. Propositions are true if they accurately represent the world; if their representation of the world is something that can be corrected (as opposed to supplemented by the provision of more information), that means that they are not true. To accept a theological assertion or a Church teaching as true, on these theories, is thus to admit that they are not susceptible of correction.

There are a number of ironies about this debate between the nouvels théologiens and the neo-Scholastics. Henri de Lubac, although he came to the defense of his Jesuit colleagues in the debates with Labourdette and Garrigou-Lagrange, did not in fact accept the historical-conditioning notion at all; he thought that his claim about human nature as such being ordered to the beatific vision was true, in the immutable, essentialist way attacked by Daniélou. The neo-Scholastics, in holding to the classical Aris-totelian definition of truth, were being loyal to tradition, while the nouvels théologiens, in distinguishing concepts and intuitions, conceptual values and religious perceptions, supernatural illumination and propositional assent, a catalogue of propositions and living material, and in claiming that theology investigates events rather than the nature of things,(36) were committing the sin of which they accused their opponents--that of imposing an anachronistic philosophical framework on Catholic tradition that falsifies and obscures it (in this case, a mixture of Cartesian, Enlightenment, sub-Kantian, and existentialist ideas).

More generally, the neo-Scholastics, in attacking the views of the nouvels théologiens on historical conditioning by offering a reasoned philosophical case against them, were following in the footsteps of St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas.(37) The nouvels théologiens,for their part, did not attempt any substantive reasoned reply to this criticism. It is doubtful whether they could have managed to offer one; they did not think philosophically. This is shown by their enthusiasm for Blondel, and by their taking Pierre Teilhard de Chardin seriously. Blondel was a confused thinker(38) and Teilhard was an intellectual charlatan; but both were gifted rhetoricians, and their rhetoric made the nouvels théologiens accept them as philosophers. Indeed, rhetoric was what the nouvels théologiens understood philosophy to be. In this they were children of the Counter-Reformation. Rhetoric, unlike philosophy, uses appeals to desires and emotions to affect belief-- that is, it uses factors connected with the will. This revulsion from philosophical thought on the part of the nouvels théologiens was a much more radical departure from Catholic tradition than anything of which the neo-Scholastics were guilty.(39) If belief is seen as obedience to a command, in the characteristic fashion of Counter-Reformation theology, rhetoric will be the natural way to produce it, and rhetoric, rather than philosophy, will be the appropriate tool for addressing issues of faith.(40)

B) Problems with the Neo-Scholastic Approach to Doctrine, and Their Remedy

The ideas about the interpretation of Church teachings that have been criticized so far emerge from "progressive" theological currents that have become widely accepted only since the 1950s. Immediately before this period, the predominant approach to the interpretation of Church teachings was that of neo-Scholastic theologians, itself a development of the views of baroque Scholastics. Although this approach is still the one generally used by theologians who reject the heterodoxy of the progressive notions, resorting to the neo-Scholastic approach is not a satisfactory method for evaluating certain conciliar teachings, such as that on religious liberty. While this approach is not heterodox, it nonetheless has serious shortcomings. Remedying them requires some constructive work on the issue of the interpretation of Church teachings.

One class of shortcomings arises from its dependence on a mistaken theory of revelation, which I have dubbed the "magis-terial" theory of revelation, and criticized elsewhere.(41) This theory underlies the neo-Scholastic system of theological notes, which divides teachings into the categories of de fide divina, de fide divina et catholica, de fide catholica, de fide in genere, theologice certa, doctrina catholica, and proxima fidei. The falsity of the magisterial theory and of the theories of the development of doctrine that are associated with it means that these classifications are mistaken or inadequate.(42) However, since most of these notes are intended to be applied to teachings that are infallibly taught, we need not go into their shortcomings in detail. The feature of the neo-Scholastic system that does concern us closely is its general approach to Church teachings, which conceives of assent to these teachings as primarily obedience to a command.

It should be pointed out that criticism of this conception does not involve rejecting a crucial principle of interpretation of Church teachings. Such teachings both convey information and impose an obligation on believers to accept that information as true. The content of the teaching and the fact of its promulgation must be made manifest. To the extent that the teaching is not made clear and binding, it does not convey information or impose an obligation.(43) The need for clarity and promulgation is common to teachings of the faith and to commands. Nor is criticism of this approach meant to imply that there is no such thing as obligation in faith. The trouble with the neo-Scholastic view is that it loses sight of the primary form of obligation that faith involves. This obligation is not the obligation to obey an order from a superior, but the obligation to believe the assertion of a trustworthy speaker (cf. 1 John 5:10). This mistaken perspective of the neo-Scholastic view emerges in two of its characteristic features.

The first of these features is the classification of Church teachings according to the sin involved in rejecting them, rather than the degree of rational conviction that they should be given. This feature is neatly expressed in Sixtus Cartechini's diagram of the various kinds of teachings, to each of which is attached the degree and nature of the sin incurred by disbelief in them.(44) This kind of classification is certainly what is needed by a confessor dealing with very erudite penitents. However, it is of less use to theologians, for whom it is not the sin involved in rejecting a teaching, but its truth and degree of warrant, that are of interest. These features of a teaching cannot always be simply read off from the degree of sin (if any) that is involved in rejecting it. In a particular individual, blameless ignorance and stupidity will affect the degree of culpability of disbelief, but not the degree of warrant of a teaching. And when we consider teachings taken in themselves and abstract from the effects of ignorance and stupidity, the degree of sin involved in disbelieving them is not a fine-grained enough measure to identify the degree of warrant they deserve. For one thing, sin can attach only to the fact of disbelief as such; there is no sin in accepting a Church teaching as true, but not awarding it the degree of probability it deserves.

The second characteristic feature is the predominant neo-Scholastic view that Church teaching should be interpreted in such a way as to minimize as far as possible the obligation of Catholics to believe. This view results from combining the notion of faith as obedience with the position in moral theology known as probabilism. It is usually expressed with regard to infallible teaching, but the general principle that Catholics should only have to believe the minimum that can reasonably be expected of them applies a fortiori to noninfallible teaching. It is stated by Carte-chini in his manual for theologians of the Holy Office: "Condemnation, as an odious thing, is to be restricted. . . . Since infallibility demands a sacrifice of the mind, the Church requires this sacrifice to the minimum extent possible."(45)

The same teaching is also advanced by a great name, John Henry Newman. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, he writes,
So difficult a virtue is faith, even with the special grace of God, in proportion as the reason is exercised, so difficult is it to assent inwardly to propositions, verified to us neither by reason nor experience, but as depending for their reception on the word of the Church as God's oracle, that [the Church] has ever shown the utmost care to contract, as far as possible, the range of truths and the sense of proposition, of which she demands this absolute reception.(46)
Newman was not giving here the fruit of his personal investi-gation and reflection on this topic. He was accepting Fr. Ignatius Dudley Ryder's account of the Catholic theology of faith, and Ryder in turn was repeating the standard baroque Scholastic view. It is Ryder's criticism of W. G. Ward that Newman cites as the source of his position.(47) Ryder later gave a clear and characteristic identification of faith with obedience: "What probabilism is in moral, that is minimism [Ryder's own view] in dogmatic theology; they are both based upon a common principle, 'lex dubia non obligat.'"(48) Cartechini quotes this very maxim, "lex dubia non ob-ligat," in his handbook.(49) Newman's espousal of this view found expression in his criticism of the definition of papal infallibility: "When has definition of doctrine de fide been a luxury of devotion, and not a stern painful necessity?"(50)

This view can only be maintained if we do not think about the fact that the object of faith is the gospel of Christ. When we do think about this, we realize that what Newman, Ryder, and Cartechini are saying is that the faithful should be asked to believe as little of the gospel as possible, and hence that they should be required to know as little of the saving truth of the gospel as possible, and to make the minimum possible number of those acts of charity that are acts of the virtue of formed faith. This view implies that professing the Catholic faith is a stern painful necessity; that the faithful would be better off in some respects if there were fewer books of the Scripture and fewer articles of the Creed; and that Christ's hearers became worse off in some respects when they heard him explain how he was the fulfillment of the Scriptures, because this explanation imposed on them a sacrifice of the mind, through requiring them to believe more things as a matter of faith. It ignores the fact that faith gives us the most important truths.

The premise from which these absurd conclusions follow is, not surprisingly, a false one. For the principle "lex dubia non obligat" to be applicable to faith, not only would probabilism with respect to laws have to be true, but in addition an act of faith would have to consist in obedience to a command, which is not the case. The fact that disbelieving God is a sin does not entail that the object of an act of faith is a command. Faith is belief in God's testimony,(51) and an act of believing someone's testimony is not an act of obedience to a command; it is an act of accepting their claim as true, on account of their saying it.(52) The criteria for determining what it is that someone is saying are simply the criteria for understanding expressions in human language. There is nothing that requires or permits "contracting as far as possible the sense of a proposition" that is believed on the basis of someone's testimony.

The fact that faith is belief in God's testimony reveals the mistake in Newman and Cartechini's claim that increasing the content of the faith as such means increasing the difficulty of faith. Believing another dogma is not like having to donate another $1000 to the poor. The basic psychological and intellectual difficulty of faith lies in accepting that the Church, to outward observation simply a human group, is in fact speaking for God in announcing the faith. If this difficulty is overcome, it is not intrinsically more difficult to believe more doctrines than less; just as if we accept that a given individual is a competent doctor, we go on believing the advice he gives us about our health, without taking into account the volume of the advice he gives. We may have difficulty in believing him if his advice seems contrary to other evidence, but it is the seeming contradiction that gives rise to the problem, not the volume of advice he gives as such. The same applies to believing the teachings of the Church.

The minimizing view of belief is often supported by appeal to the fact, noted above, that teachings of the faith, like ecclesiastical laws (which are commands), require manifest promulgation in order to be binding. It is thence concluded that the requirement of manifest promulgation justifies the application of the principle "lex dubia non obligat."(53) However, we can see the fallacy in arguing from the need for manifest promulgation to a minimizing view of doctrine by considering a parallel with systems of civil law. Such systems usually include the requirement for a law to be promulgated in some manifest way in order to be binding. In Canada, for example, federal law must receive the royal assent from the Governor General, and then be published in the Canada Gazette. This does not however enable Canadian lawyers to apply a probabilist kind of minimizing to Canadian law. The issue of manifest promulgation bears on the question of whether a law exists, not on the question of what the content of a law commands; and it is in relation to the latter question that the issue of minimizing arises. It is of course possible to attempt to minimize obligations by questioning the existence rather than the content of Church teachings, but this is rarely feasible in practice, because systems of promulgation are deliberately arranged to make the fact of promulgation clear. Thus, for example, since the issuance of the constitution Promulgandi pontificias by Pope St. Pius X (29 Sept. 1908), publication in the Acta apostolicae sedis is required for a law of the Holy See, unless the Holy See provides otherwise through some other recognized form (e.g., an apostolic constitution). This should not be taken as implying that certain precise forms of promulgation are required for a Church teaching to be promulgated and thus binding. Given the varied circumstances of the Church throughout the centuries, such a requirement would be impractical. All that is necessary is that the form of words used and the method of their being communicated clearly manifest the intention of addressing a binding teaching, of whatever level, to the whole Church.(54)

In addition to the need for manifest promulgation, there is also a requirement that the content of a teaching be clear; we are obligated to believe only what is clearly taught. However, the fact that clarity is a necessary condition for the existence of a Church teaching is not a ground for minimizing. The clarity of the content of a teaching is a function of the meanings of the sentences used to express it, which in turn is a function of the rules of meaning for the languages in which the sentences are uttered, taking into account the context. These rules will determine the degree of clarity--that is, of lack of vagueness and/or ambiguity--of a teaching. But there is no rational basis for attempting to minimize the content determined by these meaning rules. In fact, the rules themselves incorporate standards for determining the amount of content that should be attributed to utterances. Provided that there is some clear content to a teaching, the nature of its content is simply that which is determined by the rules of the language used; and that content is what we have a duty to believe, without any maximizing or minimizing.

It could be maintained that although minimizing ought not to be applied to the content of a Church teaching, the degree of obligation to believe a Church teaching, once its meaning has been ascertained, is subject to the principle "lex dubia non obligat," and ought thus to be minimized. This would not apply to teachings that have been taught by the Church as a matter of faith, but might be claimed to apply to noninfallible teachings. This claim-- as Ryder says--stands or falls with the truth of probabilism, of which this principle is a maxim. The issue of the truth of probabilism is an important one, that will be addressed in subsequent work on the issue of religious freedom; it will there be argued that probabilism is a harmful mistake that has had de-structive effects in the Church. But even if probabilism is true, the claim will still be one that is relevant to the confessor, rather than the theologian, for the claim professedly bears upon the moral obligation to believe a teaching, rather than the rational degree of assent that the teaching merits.

In attacking the minimizing view as absurd, some explanation is called for as to why, if absurd, it came to be generally accepted. One of its sources, the notion of faith as obedience to a command, was partly a result of attitudes inherited from nominalism, which conceived of the moral life entirely in terms of obedience to commands. Since faith is a virtue, it follows from this view that faith is a disposition to obey commands. This notion was reinforced by the habits of mind produced by the measures adopted to deal with the emergency of the Reformation. The project of the Counter-Reformation relied crucially upon the substitution of seminaries for universities as the means for training clergy, and upon the Society of Jesus. Both these institutions exalted obedience as the supreme virtue, and discouraged independence of mind. This was particularly true of the Jesuits on account of their requirement that Jesuit scholars teach as true the more common Jesuit opinion, as opposed to the one that struck a given Jesuit as best supported by reason. The other source of the minimalist view, the probabilist approach to obedience, was also a result of the nominalist inheritance (and of measures taken to deal with the results of this inheritance).

The ultramontane attitude to belief also strengthened the minimizing approach, once ultramontanism became powerful in the nineteenth century. From a psychological point of view, the minimizing approach is a sort of adolescent rebellion against the infantile features of the ultramontane attitude. The minimizing approach in turn strengthened the ultramontane approach, by giving rise to alarm about the risk of eroding the faith of believers--a danger against which the ultramontane approach presented itself as a shield. The two fed on each other, at the expense of an approach dedicated to finding out exactly what the Church taught, without attempting to minimize or maximize, and then believing it.

This conception of faith as obedience to authority, and the general nominalist outlook from which it sprang, had an important influence on the debate over religious liberty and the production of Dignitatis humanae. It meant that objections about Dignitatis humanae contradicting previous teaching were not taken very seriously by most bishops at the council. If one's fundamental model of faith is that of obeying a command rather than that of grasping reality, it is psychologically easier to accept a Church pronouncement that seems hard to reconcile with earlier teachings, because it is quite permissible--and even necessary-- for an authority to issue one command at one time, and a contrary command at a later time. The effect of this fundamental model can be seen in the expression "the contemporary magisterium." Theologically this expression is nonsensical, because there is only one Church with one teaching office, and the pronouncements of this teaching office, from the apostles to our own time, are to be interpreted as a whole. If however these teachings are seen as commands, it is reasonable to conceive of a "contemporary magisterium" distinct from the past magisterium, and to conceive of the deliverances of the former as superseding those of the latter. The continued debates over the morality of contraception and the possibility of women's ordination reflect this conception of the faith (as well as the acceptance of notions of the historical conditioning of doctrine criticized above). Church teachings on these subjects are conceived of as orders that could in theory be countermanded, rather than as what they in fact are--descriptions of reality that are true beyond a reasonable doubt.

The debate over Dignitatis humanae was also influenced by this conception of faith in a more general fashion. The notion of belief as obedience to authority had a blighting influence on the philosophical culture of the Church, because it tended to destroy the habits of mind needed for philosophy. This can be seen by comparing the philosophical achievements of the clergy before and after the Counter-Reformation.(55) Some of this philosophical decline is no doubt due to the fact that Counter-Reformation systems incorporated incompatible elements from earlier thinkers. (The principal incompatibility was the acceptance of nominalist concepts while allegedly following St. Thomas.) This meant that one could not adhere to these systems if one thought deeply about philosophical issues; probably this was partly a product and partly a cause of clerical intellectual weakness. Leo XIII's attempt to revive Thomism had limited success in reforming this short-coming, in part because many of its supporters tried to impose this revival principally as a matter of obedience. This shortcoming fatally handicapped discussion of the right to religious freedom, a discussion that centered around difficult philosophical issues.

C) The Degrees of Warrant of Noninfallible Church Teachings

Having established the unsuitableness for theological purposes of considering belief in noninfallible Church teachings in terms of obedience to authority, we can set about the positive task of describing the degrees of warrant that can attach to such teachings. There are four basic categories of warrant that they can possess.

  • (A) Taught with such a degree of authority that it is unreasonable to suppose that there could ever be any good evidence against their being true.
    • In understanding this category, it is important to remember the character of infallible teachings. These teachings have the highest degree of warrant that a human belief can have; they are as certain as that 1 + 1 = 2. This is the degree of warrant that attaches to beliefs where there is no logical possibility of their being false, and where the nonexistence of such a logical possibility is known with certainty. (This is not a claim that infallible teachings are of this character. They are not, since if they were, belief in them could not be voluntary and could not be an exercise of faith. It is rather a claim that infallible teachings have the same degree of warrant, and demand the same degree of assent, as statements of this character.)
    • Beneath this strength of warrant, which in matters of faith belongs only to infallible teachings, there is a lesser degree of warrant, according to which the logical possibility of a belief's being false is admitted (e.g., the belief that I am not deceived by an evil demon in the way described by Descartes, or the belief that the world did not come into existence five minutes ago with all the apparent traces of its past built into it), but where it is unreasonable to suppose that any good evidence for their being false will ever turn up. Sufficiently authoritative Church teachings which nonetheless fall short of infallibility fall into this category.
  • (B) Authoritatively taught, and without any evidence against their truth, but where the real possibility of there being such evidence is not excluded.
  • (C) Authoritatively taught, and with existing evidence against their truth, but where the evidence against them is not strong enough to justify rejecting them.
  • (D) Authoritatively taught, but contradicted by evidence that is so strong that they ought reasonably to be rejected.

Any discussion of the truth of a noninfallible Church teaching will effectively be assuming that that teaching does not belong to category (A), and discussing whether or not it belongs to category (D).

Such discussion must begin by identifying the sense of the teaching in question. In making this identification, we must take into account the point, made above, that we ought to understand a given individual teaching as having a sense that is true and that harmonizes with the rest of the teachings of the Church, unless the way in which such a teaching is expressed makes such an understanding impossible. The sense we attribute to a given in-dividual teaching may thus not be the one we would have ascribed to the sentences that express it, if we had encountered those sentences in a different context. This could be described as giving these sentences a nonnatural sense, or as giving them a pious interpretation. Such descriptions are however misleading, because they imply that we are interpreting the sentences in question in some kind of unusual or nonstandard way. This is not the case; we are simply applying the principles that are to be used in understanding utterances generally.(56) What makes the result of this application seem unusual is the fact that the application is not to the utterances of Pope X or Council Y taken in isolation, but to the utterances of the Catholic Church, who speaks through these instruments, and whose meaning is not therefore to be understood as corresponding to what these individuals or groups might be understood as saying if they were speaking on their own behalf.

This principle of interpretation has implications for the question of whether or not a particular Church teaching is false. The whole body of Church teaching forms a harmonious whole. The minimal form of harmony that can exist between a particular Church teaching and the whole body of Church teaching is that of absence of contradiction. Typically, however, because Church teaching is a unified whole dealing with a particular subject matter, this harmony will consist in a particular Church teaching's repeating and/or elucidating other teachings. Because Church teaching as a whole cannot be false, the latter kind of harmony makes it difficult for an individual teaching to be false, and impossible for it to be a radical misrepresentation of reality. Ascribing a sense to a given Church teaching that harmonizes with Church teaching as a whole will thus also be ascribing a sense to it that makes it unlikely to be false, and that is not a radically wrong description of reality. This in itself will make it unusual to identify a Church teaching that falls under category (D).

If, however, there is no option but to ascribe to a given Church teaching a sense whose truth seems doubtful, there are a number of considerations that need to be kept in mind in evaluating it. One consideration is that although there is by definition a (low) possibility of any noninfallible teaching that is not in category (A) being false, this does not imply that there is a possibility (however low) of all these teachings being false; no such possibility exists. These teachings are brought into being by God for the purpose of teaching the faithful, and this purpose would be frustrated if a majority of them--or even a greater proportion than an extremely small minority--turned out to be false. It is impossible for God to be frustrated, so it would be impossible for this to happen. It follows that if there is a sufficient weight of teaching in favor of some doctrine, the possibility of the doctrine's being false must be excluded, even if none of the teachings taken individually is infallible or in category (A). This fact has traditionally been recognized by theologians, who have accepted that a sufficient weight of teaching in favor of a doctrine has the effect of making that doctrine a teaching of the faith, even if each individual teaching that asserts the doctrine could in itself possibly be false.

This is connected to a general point about theological investigation that is pertinent to questions such as those of religious liberty. Such investigation can only be focussed on the authority of a particular noninfallible pronouncement respecting it when it is a question of whether or not that teaching is in category (A). For the other levels, what is needed is an investigation of all the factors that are relevant to the question, where the Church teachings that will have to be considered cannot be restricted to one pronouncement that addresses the question, but must instead be Church teaching taken as a whole in so far as it has any bearing on the subject at hand. Focussing upon particular magisterial utterances, when it comes to teachings that are not infallibly taught, is (except for category [A]) an inappropriate transfer to fallible teachings of an approach that properly belongs to the consideration of infallible ones. With infallible teachings, this approach is correct, because particular infallible teachings are capable on their own of finally settling a debated question, and are typically intended to do just that. Noninfallible teachings in categories (B), (C), or (D), on the other hand, are not suited to being considered except within the whole context of Church teaching and tradition that bears upon the subject they address. Since the contents of Dignitatis humanae certainly do not belong to category (A), this is the approach that needs to be taken to the question of the teachings of the Church on religious liberty.

If there is a real case for the falsity of a given teaching, either because it contradicts another teaching or because there is very strong evidence against it that is external to Church teaching, two issues will arise: (1) proving its falsity, and (2) explaining its falsity. These will be related, since it will be easier to conclude that a teaching is false if a plausible explanation for its falsity is available. Such explanation is called for, because an authoritative Church teaching is not the sort of thing that can just turn out to be false every once in a while, in the way that the conclusions of statistical inferences with a probability of .95 will just happen to be false one time in twenty. Such teachings have the function of conveying the truth, and the Church has the capacity to communicate the truth through them--that is why they are authoritative. If they fail in this function, it is because something has interfered with this capacity. Nothing could bring it about that the Catholic faith could itself contain any falsehood, so the explanation for a false Church teaching can only be a failing in the human instruments who formulate it. Such failings can result either from error or from deceit in these instruments, these being the two possible explanations for the falsity of any form of teaching. A claim that a given Church teaching is false, if it is to be plausible, must thus include reasons for believing that the human instruments who uttered it on behalf of the Church were either deceitful or in error.


This account of the methods for identifying the content and degrees of authority of noninfallible Church teaching does not make any radically new proposals. Instead, it systematizes and to some extent makes explicit principles that theologians have always been practicing. This is how it should be; a radically new account of how to determine the content and degree of authority of Church teachings would imply that theologians have been badly mistaken about these teachings for two thousand years, which is absurd if Catholicism is true. The need for this explicit systematization arises from the development of approaches to Church teaching that are radically new--approaches that have described and criticized above. These radically new approaches have promoted distorted understandings of the Church's teachings on a number of subjects, and especially in the field of religious liberty. Application of this systematized approach will be valuable in correcting this distorted understanding. However, as the account of this approach given above makes clear, its application requires a thorough consideration of the Catholic tradition on the questions at issue; and this consideration must be undertaken in a further discussion.


1. This was asserted by Paul VI, in his discourse closing the council on 7 December 1965. Umberto Betti claimed an authority for the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium that virtually reached the level of infallible teaching (Umberto Betti, "Qualification théologique de la Constitution," L'Église de Vatican II, vol. 2,Commentaires, ed. Y. Congar [Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1967]). This claim was contested by J. Ratzinger (J. Ratzinger, "Announcements and Prefatory Notes of Explanation," in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 1, ed. H. Vorgrimler [New York: Herder and Herder, 1967]). Ratzinger, in describing Betti as taking a view that "raises most of the Council's declarations practically (though not technically) to the status of dogmas" (ibid., 299), ignores the fact that Betti bases his evaluation of the degree of authority of Lumen gentium principally on the prefix "dogmatic" that is applied to it: "Avant tout, il s'agit d'une Constitution dogmatique. Ce qui importe, ce n'est pas la denomination de Constitution - qui aurait pu aussi bien être remplacée par d'autres, comme Décret, Bulle, etc., mais la qualification de 'dogmatique'. Celle-ci indique que le magistère universel a pour tâche comme tel de proposer la doctrine contenue dans la Constitution," (Betti, "Qualification théologique," in Congar (1967), 214-15). Betti's maximizing interpretation of the authority of the conciliar documents thus expressly applies only to those constitutions described as "dogmatic"--which excludes Dignitatis humanae.

2. This thesis was advanced by J. Geiselmann in "Un malentendu éclairci. La relation Écriture-Tradition dans la théologie catholique," Istina 5 (1958): 197-214; and by George Tavard in Holy Writ or Holy Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1959), ch. 12. A more satisfactory treatment is J. Ermel, Les sources de la foi (Tournai: Desclée, 1963); his findings are summarized in John Lamont, Divine Faith (London: Ashgate, 2004), 174-76.

To say that that Council of Trent did not teach this position does not mean that it denied it. Nor, it should be pointed out, does the denial of this position imply that all of revelation can be extracted from Scripture independently of tradition.

3. Norman Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 1:86.

4. Ibid., 1:124.

5. Fr. René Laurentin, Mary's Place in the Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1965), p. 97; tr. by I. G. Pidoux of La question mariale (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1963).

6. "agit enim utraque forma cum alterius communione quod proprium est, verbo scilicet operante quod verbi est, et carne exequente quod carnem est" (Tanner, ed., Decrees, 1:79).

7. See ibid., 1:128-29.

8. I am grateful to Katharine Allen for providing me with this example.

9. M.-D. Chenu, quoted in Daniele Menozzi, "Opposition to the Council (1966-84)," in The Reception of Vatican II, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo, Jean-PIerre Jossua, and Joseph A. Komonchak (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 328.

10. Ormond Rush, "Dei Verbum Forty Years On," Australasian Catholic Record 83 no. 4 ( Oct. 2006): 408.

11. The principle about accepting the thesis supported by the majority of conciliar voters, for example, would scarcely be applied by its author to the thesis about the nature of papal infallibility that was held by the majority at Vatican I.

12. W. G. Ward, The Authority of Doctrinal Decisions Which Are Not Definitions of Faith (London: Burns, Lambert, and Oates, 1866), 82. Ward makes this claim in the course of correctly opposing the view that the only obligation in matters of belief to which Catholics are subject is the obligation to believe solemnly defined doctrines. His error, of course, lies in ignoring the possibility of a mean between his view and this minimizing approach.

It may be noted that the view expressed in this passage was the view of Ward's friend Cardinal Manning, the leader of the majority at Vatican I.

13. Julius Döpfner, "Das Bleibende und Sichwandelnde in Priestertum," Herder Korrespondenz 23 (1969): 369-70; quoted and translated in Piet Schoonenberg, "The Theologian's Calling: Freedom, and Constraint," in Authority in the Church, ed. Piet Fransen, S.J. (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1983), 104. Fransen presents Döpfner as replying to, and rejecting, the claims made by Paul VI in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, in which the view of historical conditioning criticized here is rejected. Fransen's article provides a good explanation and a good illustration of this view. The fact that in this paper Fransen, professor of theology at the Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven, gives the coeternity of the three divine persons as one of the teachings that can be considered as due to historical conditioning, rather than as part of the faith (ibid., 111), illustrates how this notion of historical conditioning has been used to reject the most central Christian teachings.

14. John Lamont, "The Historical Conditioning of Church Doctrine," The Thomist 60 (1996): 511-35.

15. Tanner, ed., Decrees, 2:811.

16. Current sympathizers with Modernism have made attempts to rehabilitate it, but these cannot survive examination of the beliefs of the principal Modernists. George Tyrrell, for example, thought (some time before the publication of the anti-Modernist encyclical Pascendi) that Jesus had not intended to found a church, and that the pope was an Antichrist; see David F. Wells, "The Pope as Antichrist: The Substance of George Tyrrell's Polemic," Harvard Theological Review 65 (1972): 217-73.

17. The term "baroque Scholasticism," and the insight that this Scholasticism already contained many of the key elements of modernity, seem to have been originated by Karl Eschweiler in his Die zwei Wege der neueren Theologie (Augsburg: Benno Filser, 1926). Henry Donneaud sees Eschweiler's work as an inspiration for M.-D. Chenu; see Henry Donneaud, "La constitution dialectique de la théologie et de son histoire selon M.-D. Chenu," Revue Thomiste 96 (1996): 48-49.

18. My own book Divine Faith is an attempt at ressourcement in the theology of faith.

19. In Henri Bouillard, Conversion et grace chez S. Thomas d'Aquin (Paris: Aubier, 1941); see esp. 220-24.

20. See. M.-M. Labourdette, "La théologie et ses sources," Revue Thomiste 46 (1946): 353-71; and Aidan Nichols, "Thomism and the Nouvelle Théologie," The Thomist 64 (2000): 2.

21. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, "La nouvelle théologie où va t'elle?" Angelicum23 (1946): 126-45, followed up by "Vérité et immutabilité du dogme," Angelicum 24 (1947): 124-39.

22. See Fergus Kerr O.P., Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 30-32; idem, "A Different World: Neoscholasticism and Its Discontents," International Journal of Systematic Theology 8 (April 2006): 128-48. The work by Chenu that Kerr singles out for criticism is his "Vérité évangélique et métaphysique Wolfienne à Vatican II," Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 57 (1973): 623-40. Kerr does not mention that Chenu's position in this paper is anticipated in M.-D. Chenu, Une école de théologie: Le Saulchoir (repr.; Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1985); see, e.g., 125, 139-40.

23. Étienne Fouilloux, Une Église en quête de liberté (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1998), 135-36.

24. For discussion and bibliography on this nominalist view and its contrast with the view of St. Thomas, see Henrik Lagerlund, "Mental Representation in Medieval Philosophy," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, ( Complementary discussions and bibliographies are to be found in Stephan Meier-Oeser, "Medieval Semiotics," in Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition) (; and Gyula Klima, "The Medieval Problem of Universals," in Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition) (

25. See John of St. Thomas, "Super libros perihermeneias," in Cursus philosophicus thomisticus, vol. 1: Ars logica (Rome: Marietti, 1948), 702-7. Jacques Maritain, in his Formal Logic (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937), took John of St. Thomas as a guide.

26. Chenu, Une école de théologie, 130. In addition to this work, the important reference for Chenu's views on this subject is his "Position de la théologie," Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 24 (1935): 232-57, collected in La parole de Dieu, I: La foi dans l'intelligence (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1964).

27. Chenu, Une école de théologie, 75.

28. Fouilloux, Une Église en quête de liberté, 140.

29. Chenu's opinion of the Modernists was shared by Bruno de Solages and Yves Congar: see ibid., 79-80.

30. This omission was first remedied in a significant way by J.-M. Bochenski, A History of Formal Logic (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1961), trans. and ed. by Ivo Thomas (orig., Formale Logik [Freiburg and Munich: Verlag Karl Alber, 1956]), and Peter Geach, Reference and Generality (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962). Both authors were Catholics, but neither of them were theologians or had any connection to the nouvelle théologie. Serious consideration of medieval logic, a topic essential to the understanding of the medieval philosophical and theological heritage, is still confined almost entirely to analytic philosophers.

31. STh I, q. 14, a. 2 (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars [Madrid: Bibilioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1951], 106).

32. Peter Geach, Mental Acts (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), a work that also discusses St. Thomas's view.

33. Peter Geach, "Aquinas," in Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach, Three Philosophers (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1961).

34. Anthony Kenny, Aquinas on Mind (Routledge: London, 1993).

35. This motivation is evident in David Pitt, "Mental Representation," in Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition) (

36. See Chenu, Une école de théologie, 123, 116, 130, 132, 137; also J. Daniélou, "Les orientations présentes de la pensée réligieuse," Études 249 (1946): 5-21.

37. Kerr remarks of Garrigou-Lagrange that "he had a more informed and better-balanced picture [of modern philosophy] than many philosophers, let alone Thomists, at that time . . . . Ironically, when this inveterate adversary of the historico-contextualist approach considers the philosophical options adopted by philosophers in his own day, he becomes a model of how to engage with the philosophical issues about being, truth, and so on" (Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians, 13, 16).

38. Gilson remarked of Blondel that "je suis allergique à la prose d'un esprit qui pense qu'à force d'écrire il finira par savoir ce qu'il veut dire" (Fouilloux, Une Église en quête de liberté, 150).

39. In recounting this history it is worth noting the lone figure of Gilson, a personal and intellectual opponent of Garrigou-Lagrange, who espoused the importance of historical investigation--and practiced it on a much higher level than any of the nouvels théologiens--and sided with Labourdette in the debate over historical conditioning. See "'Correspondance Étienne Gilson - Michel Labourdette," Revue thomiste 94 (1994): 479-529.

40. Eugène Marcotte, in a very important and neglected paper, described the development of this conception of belief in the theologians of the Counter-Reformation: a conception where the argument from authority becomes the centerpiece of theology, and the allocation of theological notes to a conclusion that specify its degree of authority becomes the highest task of the theologian (citing A. Gardeil O.P., "Lieux théologiques," in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique vol. 9 [1926], col. 736). Marcotte identifies Melchior Cano as the main influence on this theological approach, in Melchior Cano, De Locis theologiis, lib. 12, c. 4. See Marcotte, "De Saint Thomas à nos manuels," Revue de l'université d'Ottawa 154-74.

41. Lamont, Divine Faith, chap. 7. Fergus Kerr agrees with this dismissal of the magisterial account; see his review of Divine Faith in New Blackfriars 88 (2007) 499-501.

42. Examples of this classification are found in M. Nicolau and I. Salaverri, Sacrae theologia summa, I: Theologia fundamentalis, 4th ed. (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1958), 805-15; Sixtus Cartechini, De valore notarum theologicarum (Rome: Typis Pontificae Universitatis Gregorianae, 1951); G. van Noort, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 3, The Sources of Revelation: Divine Faith, trans. and rev. John J. Castelot and William R. Murphy (Cork: Mercier Press, 1961), 290 (a version in English). Rejection of these theological notes should not be construed as involving rejection of the standard theological censures of the Church (on which seeDictionnaire de théologie catholique, s.v. "Censures doctrinales"). These censures evolved long before the neo-Scholastic system of theological notes and the theology of revelation that underlies them, so the content of a particular censure cannot be seen as equivalent to the negation of a particular neo-Scholastic note.

43. This basic point is made in Cartechini, De valore notarum theologicarum, 22.

44. Ibid., 134-35; see also van Noort, The Sources of Revelation, 290.

45. "Damnatio, ut res odiosa, restringenda est. . . . Infallibilitas ergo, cum exigat sacrificium mentis, Ecclesia imponit hoc sacrificium in minimo gradu possibili" (Cartechini, De valore notarum theologicarum, 25, 26). Cartechini makes this point to buttress his claim that it is the contradictory, not the contrary, of an anathematized proposition that must be believed as a matter of faith--quite unnecessarily, since this claim follows as a matter of logic.

46. John Henry Newman, "A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk on the Occasion of Mr. Gladstone's Recent Expostulation," in Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol. 2 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1910), 320.

47. Newman (ibid.), quotes Ryder's Idealism in Theology, a Review of Dr. Ward's Scheme of Dogmatic Authority (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1867). No doubt Newman was glad to have this position to hand to combat Ward's excesses, which would explain why he did not consider its shortcomings.

48. Henry Ignatius Dudley Ryder, unpublished review of Salvatore di Bartolo's Criteri teologici, in Essays (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911), 316. Ward's ultramontane view of papal authority, in contrast, could be compared to tutiorism in moral theology, but argument for an approach to interpretation of Church teachings analogous to tutiorism does not seem often to have been advanced by academic theologians, and the minimizing view had become the generally accepted one by the twentieth century.

49. Cartechini, De valore notarum theologicarum, 22.

50. John Henry Newman, "Letter to Bishop Ullathorne, Jan, 28th 1870," in Letters and Diaries, vol. 25, ed. C. S. Dessain and T. Gornall, S.J. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 18-19. Newman sacrifices logic to rhetoric in this criticism, since the two alternatives he proposes obviously do not exhaust the possibilities.

51. Lamont, Divine Faith, chaps. 2, 8, expands on this basic dogma, which is set forth in Vatican I's dogmatic constitution Dei Filius.

52. On belief in testimony, see Lamont, Divine Faith, chap. 6; C. A. J. Coady, Testimony: A Philosophical Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); Bimal Krishna Matilal and Arindam Chakrabarti eds., Knowing from Words (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1994); J. Lackey and E. Sosa, eds., The Epistemology of Testimony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

53. The principle is enunciated by Gratian: "Leges instituuntur, cum promulgantur" (Decreti prima pars, dist. 4, c. 3 [Corpus iuris canonici, vol. 1, A. L. Richter ed. (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1879), 6]). Saint Thomas argues for this principle in STh I-II, q. 90, a. 4, citing Gratian as an authority. The principle is not a universal one; the Japanese legal code of 1790, for example, stipulates that it is only to be shown to the officials concerned with implementing it. This in turn seems partly rooted in a saying attributed to Confucius, to the effect that the people should obey the laws but not be instructed in them; see Gilbert Bailey, "The Promulgation of Law," The American Political Science Review 35, no. 6 (Dec. 1941): 1059-84. I have not been able to determine whether Gratian was the first explicitly to formulate this principle (it is not in the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, book 5, which is where Gratian gets much of the material he uses in this distinction). If Gratian was the first legal thinker to explicitly formulate this principle, this is a very important advance.

54. Cartechini makes this point with respect to papal teachings ex cathedra (De valore notarum theologicarum, 28). Lucien Choupin, in his standard work Valeur des décisions doctrinales et disciplinaires du Saint-Siège, 3rd ed. (Paris: Beauchesne, 1928), makes the same point: "the Pope is not obliged to use a specific form" ("le Pape n'est pas astreint à une forme spéciale" [27]). This principle applies to Church teachings generally, not only to papal ones. The rule that publication in the Acta apostolicae sedis is not a necessary condition for promulgation was established by a decree in the Acta apostolicae sedis 5 (1913): 558.

55. Malebranche (d. 1715) was the last cleric to make an important philosophical contribution. Significantly, after his time, those priests who were important to philosophy--Bolzano and Brentano--left the priesthood. A key step in the demise of Catholic philosophy was the replacement in the late seventeenth century of St. Thomas's commentaries on Aristotle by philosophical manuals as texts for instruction, "mainly in order to meet the pedagogical requirements of students preparing for the ministerial priesthood" (Romanus Cessario O.P., A Short History of Thomism [Washington, D. C.:The Catholic University of America Press, 2005], 83-84.) The elements of a revival of philosophical aptitude among the clergy that were fostered by the Thomist revival were cut short by the postconciliar reforms, which destroyed almost all serious philosophical formation for clerics.

56. For exposition of these principles, with a particular application of them to Church teaching, see Richard Swinburne, Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).


  1. The Achilles heel of this article is thinking that John of St. Thomas is nominalist and not Thomist:

    The nominalist account of concepts described them as particular contents of individual minds, which relate to the things in the external world that they are concepts of through signifying these things.(24) This view is repeated in the "Thomist" account of John of St. Thomas.(25) On this understanding, concepts are signs of things, of a kind that serve as intermediaries between the person understanding and the things that are understood. The assumption of this understanding of concepts is what permitted Chenu to hold that concepts are capable of failing adequately to represent the things they signify, and are susceptible of being replaced by other concepts that do the job better--and, in consequence, that the same can be said of propositions, which are made up of concepts.

    John of St. Thomas argues, in his Tractatus de Signis, that a concept is a formal sign. This follows directly from St. Thomas; see this.

    It seems Chenu and other Modernist, New Theologians think that a formal sign is an instrumental sign. John of St. Thomas says: "A formal sign is the formal awareness which represents of itself, not by means of another. An instrumental sign is one that represents something other than itself from a pre-existing cognition of itself as an object, as the footprint of an ox represents an ox." Thus, in changing the concept (the formal sign), you change what is signified and what you're knowing.


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