The Catholic faithful are required under pain of mortal sin and excommunication, to avoid heresy and schism, to believe what the Magisterium teaches as doctrine, and to accept the authority of the Church over discipline. But we also have the right and duty to dissent or disobey, to a limited extent, in accord not only with conscience, but with the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.
“There exist in the Church a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and also general norms of licit dissent.” [U.S. Catholic Bishops Human Life in Our Day 49]
What are the limits of this faithful dissent? Have those limits been exceeded by many papal critics today?
The Magisterium teaches infallibly in any of three ways:
1. Papal Infallibility
2. Conciliar Infallibility
3. the ordinary and universal Magisterium
Infallible teachings, those which meet the conditions for infallibility, are necessarily true and entirely inerrant, regardless of the content of the teaching. The faithful may not consider the content of the teaching, compare it to their own understanding of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, and decide whether or not the teaching is correct. Instead, teachings which meet the conditions for infallibility are true. That is the benefit of infallible teachings.
Otherwise, the Church would be scattered into many small groups, depending on who agrees with which teachings. Otherwise, the Church would be shattered, like the Protestant denominations, due to incessant arguments over doctrine. Instead, we believe by faith, even when the teaching is beyond our complete comprehension, even when our own fallen sinful minds and hearts do not see the truth and wisdom of that teaching.
When the teachings of the Magisterium — teachings of the Pope, an Ecumenical Council, a local Council, a Bishops Conference, or individual Cardinals or Bishops — fall short of the requirements of infallibility, then a teaching on faith or morals is non-infallible.
Infallible teachings have no possibility of error and therefore require the full assent of faith (theological assent), under penalty of heresy. And this applies to all infallible teachings of the Magisterium without exception.
Non-infallible teachings have a limited possibility of error and therefore require a lesser degree and different type of assent, the religious submission of mind and will (religious assent). Non-infallible teachings cannot err to the extent of heresy, nor to the extent of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation.
God is truth. The faithful are never required to believe that which is false. And since non-infallible teachings can err, we can dissent faithfully from those teachings. But if the extent of error is limited, then so is the possibility to dissent. We can never claim that a non-infallible teaching is heresy or is gravely contrary to faith or morals.
We must always consider that we could be the ones in error. And this is one of the main problems with papal critics today. They speak as if they could not possibly be in error. They explain their thinking, and state where they think the Pope has erred. But there is no acknowledgement that they themselves are fallible, nor that the Pope has the help of the Holy Spirit when teaching, whether infallibly or non-infallibly.
Disagreement with a non-infallible teaching, especially from the Roman Pontiff, requires respect for his person and office and intentions, interpretation of that teaching in charity, and a careful regard for the work of the Holy Spirit in the development of doctrine. Disagreement also requires a theological argument based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium — one which does not assume that the critic is right or that the Pope is wrong. Various possible interpretations and tenable theological positions must be explained. The critic should not present his own view as if it were the only correct interpretation, or as if it were not an interpretation.
The mistake of the fundamentalist Protestants in teaching from the Bible is that they fail to realize that their own understanding of Biblical teaching is an interpretation subject to error. The Bible is inerrant, but our understanding can err. And the same applies to Catholics interpreting Scripture, Tradition, or past magisterial teachings.
The theological opinions of the Roman Pontiff are neither infallible, nor non-infallible. However, his teachings, opinions, and inner thoughts of heart and mind can never teach material heresy, or commit formal heresy, nor can he in any way fall into apostasy, heresy, or schism. For each Pope has the gift of truth and of a never-failing faith, for the sake of our salvation.
The faithful are free to disagree with the personal opinions of the Pope, but never with contempt, never with an accusation of heresy or any grave error, and never with the assumption that the Pope is incompetent or that the critic is inerrant.
The Roman Pontiff is guided by the grace and providence of God. Even the most sinful Popes in the history of the Church had this guidance. The prevenient grace of God requires no cooperation on the part of the person who receives the grace, whether that person is the Blessed Virgin Mary or the worse sinner on earth. God’s grace cannot be thwarted by a Pope’s personal faults, failings, or sins. But neither do we have the role to accuse the Pope of anything, especially in his mind and heart.
Decisions of Discipline
The decisions of Church authority on matters of discipline and on judgments of the prudential order are not teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. And so these decisions are not called infallible or non-infallible. They are subject to a wider extent of possible error. Doctrine is more important than discipline, and so God gives the Church more assistance in teaching, than in deciding temporal matters.
However, the Holy Spirit certainly prevents any decisions of discipline from harming the Church substantially and from leading the faithful away from the path of salvation. This protection is analogous to non-infallible teachings, though it is of a lesser type and degree.
In some cases, the Church decides a question of the prudential order definitively, issuing a dogmatic fact which cannot err. This protection from error is analogous to infallible teachings. But since these matters are not divinely-revealed truths, they have a lesser importance to the faith.
Rejecting a dogmatic fact, such as which Councils are ecumenical and general, or which Popes are valid, is a grave offense against the authority of the Church over discipline, and so is a schismatic error. Rejecting an infallible teaching is a grave offense against the authority of the Church over doctrine, and so it an heretical error.
When the Roman Pontiff issues a decision on discipline, it is necessary, for faithful disagreement, to first consider whether his decision is a dogmatic fact, which requires submission of mind and heart under pain of the sin of schism. If not, then the faithful have a limited ability to disagree without sin.
They may do so never with malice or contempt for the Pope, never with the arrogance of assuming that they are right, and never with the assumption that the Pope is incompetent, untrustworthy, or has ill intent. They may disagree, mildly and humbly, with a clear explanation of the possibility that they themselves might be the ones who are wrong.
The faithful often use the internet and the various forms of mass media to discuss the faith, to spread the faith, and to interact with other members of the Church. But the mass media can also be used in such a way as to harm the Church. This occurs especially when groups of papal critics join together, to oppose the authority and person of the Roman Pontiff at every turn, and to exalt their own understanding as if it were inerrant. They seem to think that, if many others agree with them, they must be right and the Pope must be wrong. But Jesus did not establish His Church on the Rock that is popular opinion or the conservative Catholic subculture or anything other than the person and office of the Roman Pontiff.
It is sinful and should be against Church law for the faithful to write and sign a petition or open letter or similar communication, which rebukes or corrects the Roman Pontiff. The teaching of Unam Sanctam applies here. No one has the role to correct or judge the Pope. And the teaching of the First Vatican Council also applies. No Pope can teach material heresy, nor commit apostasy, heresy, or schism. So, if a Pope errs to a limited extent, he is not to be corrected by expressions of popular opinion in petitions and the like.
I am proposing a new law in Canon law which would give penalties to any members of the Catholic faithful, especially ordained persons and consecrated religious and theologians, who presume to teach, correct, or rebuke the Roman Pontiff, no matter how charitably or mildly this correction is stated. The faithful should be permitted to write a theological argument, offering limited disagreement with theological opinions or non-infallible teachings of the Pope. But they should not be permitted to publicly correct him, as if they had the role to decide what is and is not correct doctrine.
You will all be put to the test. You will all be asked to show your faith in the true Magisterium of the Church, which is exercise by each successive Roman Pontiff without exception. And many of you will fail and fall away. The Church will suffer much at the hands of unfaithful persons who trust only in their own minds and hearts, not in the Church of Jesus Christ and not in His Vicar.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.