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Can One Be a Good Catholic & Believe Only Three-Quarters of What the Church Teaches?


By Kenneth D. Whitehead | July-August 1991
Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education in the Federal government's Department of Education. He is currently working as a writer and translator in Falls Church, Virginia. His latest book is Catholic Colleges and Federal Funding; the latest book he has translated is Viollet-le-Duc's Foundations of Architecture.

That Catholics don’t have to believe what the Church’s Magisterium (official teaching authority) posits is an idea that has practically achieved the status of conventional wisdom today. Large numbers of Catholics do not agree with the Church’s teaching authority on a number of important and perhaps even essential doctrines — which, however, are not going to be changed.

At the same time, similarly large numbers of Catholics appear to think there is nothing particularly untoward in this. Dissenting Catholics generally go right on considering themselves, and being considered, Catholics in good standing. The days when a John Cogley thought he had to suspend his column in the Catholic press and later actually leave the Church because he had ceased to hold certain Church teachings appear to have passed.

Yet Pope John Paul II, during both his 1979 and 1987 visits to the U.S., pointedly reiterated to huge audiences that selective assent to Church teaching is simply not an option for Catholics. As far as the Pope is concerned, the Church continues to speak for Christ in her official teachings on faith and morals.

Neither the Pope’s plain words, though, nor the two best known postconciliar cases where prominent dissenters have been disciplined — namely, the cases of Fathers Hans Kung and Charles Curran — seem to have had much effect on anybody. After all, hundreds of theologians agreed, and still agree, if not with the actual positions of Kung or Curran, at least with the proposition that their dissent ought to be considered legitimate, and that “the problem” is really the disciplining of them by the Holy See. In reality, though, the idea that merely withdrawing their ability to teach in the name of the Church, but leaving them otherwise unaffected, sacerdotally and personally, represents a horrendous and sustained crackdown by Rome is a thesis that is pretty hard to maintain.

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