instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, June 28, 2012

All things are true by one primary truth

There are Catholics who hold the opinion that, if the Magisterium has not explicitly taught some proposition, then Catholics are free to accept or reject the proposition.

This opinion, in my opinion, is deeply silly.

What makes it deeply silly is that it places the focus, not on the truth of the proposition, but on whether someone can be called a heretic based on his opinion of the proposition. It leads to stupefying arguments about whether this proposition requires religious assent, whether the Church really teaches that proposition, how to know whether something is infallibly taught, why people won't address the fact that the Magisterium has never taught that UAV bombings of wedding parties is immoral, and (one of my favorites) whether a pope has to write an encyclical devoted solely to a single proposition for it to count as binding on the faithful. All sorts of questions are raised; yet so often overlooked is the question, "But is it true?"

The freedom to accept or reject a proposition depends on more than explicit teachings of the Magisterium. I am not free, in any meaningful sense, to accept a proposition I know is, or even merely judge to be, false.

Moreover, the "explicit teaching of the Magisterium" criterion grossly mischaracterizes the role and function of the Magisterium. The teaching authority of the Church exists to pass on God's self-revelation, most especially the revelation of His Incarnate Word. It does not exist to exhaustively document the moral status of every conceivable human act, to include object, circumstances, and intention. It doesn't, and it's not supposed to, produce a list of every sin forbidden until the next revision of the list.

That's a good thing, not least because generating a list of every sin (to include object, circumstances, and intention) is impossible.

It's also not necessary. We don't need the Magisterium to teach us things that are knowable by human reason. We can know whether a conclusion follows from a set of premises without appeal to Divine revelation -- though we may need Divine revelation to know whether one or more of the premises are true.

That said, while we can know whether a conclusion follows from a set of premises, we can also be doubtful, or mistaken, or contrary, or uninterested in the question. The Magisterium certainly may, and occasionally does, teach propositions that human reason can derive from other propositions taught by the Magisterium, for the benefit of the faithful.

But that doesn't mean the faithful aren't bound by derivable propositions not taught by the Magisterium, to the extent they can see that the truth of what is taught implies the truth of what is derived. So teaches the Magisterium:
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons -- that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility -- that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. (DH 2)
I'll add that the privilege to bear personal responsibility is yet another reason it would be ill-done for the Magisterium to produce excessive lists of corollaries and conclusions that logically follow from the fundamental teachings of the Faith. We are called to be children of the Father, co-heirs with the Son, sharing in the freedom of the Holy Spirit. We are all supposed to meditate on God's word, study His commandments, understand His law, and in doing so we approach their fullness -- not as written rules to be read and followed, but as Living Wisdom to be known and loved.