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What should we do if we disagree with a Church document?

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Aleteia - published on 04/09/24

How can we accept the teaching of the Church attentively, with good will and docility, without renouncing our authentic intellectual freedom?

It’s not always easy to understand or even accept the decisions and declarations of the Magisterium.

We can be tempted to interpret Church documents in the light of our own ideas and convictions. We might also, or above all, see them in the light of media interpretations that affect our judgment even unconsciously.

Instead, we should listen to the Church’s teachings with an open mind in order to accept the Magisterium with good will and docility, without renouncing authentic intellectual freedom and humility.

Here are ideas gathered from the instruction Donum Veritatis (1990) of the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The document is addressed to theologians, but its advice applies to all Christians who want to progress in the search for truth. (Emphasis added in the quotes to improve readability.)

1
Make sure we’re working with humility on our own spiritual life before questioning the magisterium

Since the object of theology is the Truth which is the living God and His plan for salvation revealed in Jesus Christ, the theologian is called to deepen his own life of faith and continuously unite his research with prayer. (DV, n. 8).

2
Every teaching of the magisterium requires assent, even if it isn’t intended to be infallible

When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively,” teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith. (DV, n. 23).

3
Magisterial documents regarding prudential decisions aren’t always perfect, but time will help refine them. 

When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. […] This is not to be understood in the sense of a relativization of the tenets of the faith. […] While the pronouncements contained true assertions and others which were not sure, both types were inextricably connected. Only time has permitted discernment and, after deeper study, the attainment of true doctrinal progress. (DV, n. 24).

4
Accepting Magisterial authority doesn’t mean we can’t ask questions

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions. (DV, n. 24).

5
Our judgment as individuals does not have more value than the Magisterium

Here arises the tendency to regard a judgment as having all the more validity to the extent that it proceeds from the individual relying upon his own powers. In such a way freedom of thought comes to oppose the authority of tradition […] Ultimately, freedom of judgment understood in this way is more important than the truth itself. (DV, n. 32).

6
Organized dissent is harmful to the Church

The Magisterium has drawn attention several times to the serious harm done to the community of the Church by attitudes of general opposition to Church teaching which even come to expression in organized groups.  (DV, n. 32).

7
We should express our difficulties with discretion and respect

Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion. For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them.  (DV, n. 27).

8
We must be willing to suspend our judgment and honestly seek to understand the document

In any case there should never be a diminishment of that fundamental openness loyally to accept the teaching of the Magisterium as is fitting for every believer by reason of the obedience of faith. The theologian will strive then to understand this teaching in its contents, arguments, and purposes. This will mean an intense and patient reflection on his part and a readiness, if need be, to revise his own opinions and examine the objections which his colleagues might offer him. (DV, n. 29).

9
If our difficulties persist, we should take it up directly with the proper authorities, not on public platforms

If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. […]

In cases like these, the theologian should avoid turning to the “mass media,” but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth.(DV, n. 30).

10
If all else fails, we have to maintain our love for the Church and our trust in the Holy Spirit that guides it

It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question.

For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail. (DV, n. 31)

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