Column: What if the Church is in error?

One thing I love: Whenever I write on religious or theological matters, I almost always receive lengthy, well-considered responses written in a spirit of fraternal correction. Most of them arrive by email, although several come through the door marked “comment thread.” This column, which prompted several such responses, was published on September 18, 2012.

After 45 De La Salle University professors issued a statement in support of the Reproductive Health bill early this month, a distinguished alumnus of La Salle (and Harvard) wrote a powerful rejoinder. I cannot agree with all the points raised by Bernardo M. Villegas (or BMV, as we all referred to him at the Center for Research and Communication where I worked two decades ago), but I thought his response was both muscular and gracious, emphatic and respectful, at the same time.

“I would like to engage in a friendly dialogue with my fellow La Sallites,” he wrote. He first sought, and found, common ground with the professors: “Let me start, however, with the truths contained in their declaration on which we agree”—listing a handful of such truths (as it happens, mostly premises the professors used to reach their pro-RH conclusions).

And then: “What I find faulty in their reasoning is the unscientific statement that Philippine poverty can be attributed to the large size of the population in general …” In fact, the professors were not as categorical, pointing to the “current population level” as “only one—albeit important—factor [in]  the worsening quality of life of Filipinos.”

He ended with the now-familiar argument against so-called cafeteria Catholics: “The teaching on the intrinsic evil of artificial contraception binds the consciences of all Catholics who want to remain faithful to all teachings of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church on all matters touching on morals and dogma. A Catholic in good standing cannot be nitpicking and claim that he will adhere only to those teachings on morals that have been declared ex cathedra.”

* * *

I must confess that the argument from nitpicking strikes me as a two-edged sword: It is equally applicable to those Catholics who, say, do not adhere to the Church’s social doctrine—a growing body of teachings that bears witness to the Church’s belief in the dignity of human life not only at the moment of conception but ever afterwards. (In other words, and as I have read elsewhere, the true Catholic position is pro-life, not merely pro-birth.) The insult “cafeteria Catholic,” therefore, can be aimed also at those Catholics who fight for the rights of the unborn but shrug their shoulders when they see street children scavenging for food among the garbage bins. The poor you shall always have with you—didn’t Christ himself say that?

* * *

I thought BMV’s response which, if I understand the sequence right, started on Facebook and then ran in his Bulletin column, was bracingly different in tone and attitude from the exchanges that usually follow any new development in the RH bill issue. It was neither intemperate nor condescending; and unlike the advertisement ran by Bishop Gabriel Reyes or the essay by Fr. Charles Belmonte addressed to the “Dissenter,” it does its addressees the courtesy of calling them out by name.

Above all, the response seems to promise a readiness to dialogue. But is dialogue between and among divided Catholics on the issue of reproductive health and responsible parenthood still possible?

Count me among the hopeful, but I also realize that some might insist that the necessary framework for dialogue presupposes the existence, and the acknowledgment, of error. If the Church or its representatives approach a national issue from the perspective of infallibility—to quote from Vatican II: “The body of the faithful as a whole … cannot err in matters of belief”—how can any real dialogue take place?

I am among those who believe that in fact the Church evolves its position on many things, including some doctrinal ones, because of two limitations (I refer to Pope Paul VI’s 1973 “Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine of the Church Against Certain Errors of the Present Day”): imperfect human understanding of the “hidden mysteries of God,” and the historical condition “that affects the expression of Revelation.”

According to the Church’s own understanding of “historical condition,” the “meaning of the pronouncements of faith depends partly upon the expressive power of the language used at a certain point in time and in particular circumstances.” It also depends partly on whether “some dogmatic truth is first expressed incompletely (but not falsely), and at a later date, when considered in a broader context of faith or human knowledge, it receives a fuller and more perfect expression.”

Even more to the point, the declaration then states: “In addition, when the Church makes new pronouncements she intends to confirm or clarify what is in some way contained in Sacred Scripture or in previous expressions of Tradition; but at the same time she usually has the intention of solving certain questions or removing certain errors.”

That is worth repeating: In the unceasing act of perfecting expression, the Church’s intent is to remove certain errors.

Will the Church’s current view of artificial contraception as intrinsically evil be revealed, under the aspect of eternity, to be an unfortunate error?

* * *

The Church does make mistakes. Its teaching on its relationship with the Jews, and on the Jewish people’s role in the economy of salvation, for instance, has evolved drastically over time. The tragic background of a thousand-plus years of erroneous tradition gives the Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate” its haunting, peculiar power. “Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”

 

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