The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 46, No 4, Jul.-Aug. 1993

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

Most of us, at one time or another, have enjoyed a meal in a cafeteria. Customers pass down the line of a great variety of foods, picking this or that according to their taste, and passing up other things they do not want. You might say it is a “pick and choose" kind of eating house.

It seems that some Catholics look upon their Church in the same way, that is, as regards the doctrines of the Catholic Church. They are sometimes referred to as “Cafeteria Catholics.” They feel they can “pick and choose” among the various doctrines and laws of the Church, some of which they accept, others they feel they are not obliged to obey. More and more today there are those who call themselves Catholic, who feel they can, and must, decide for themselves which of the teachings of the Church they will accept, and which they will not. How many, for example, do not accept the clear teaching of the Church in regard to such basic things as birth control, or premarital sex, or divorce and remarriage, etc. They look upon these teachings not as laws, but, at best, as ideals that they may not be able to live up to. Many things have changed in the Church, they say, since the second Vatican Council.

Yet, Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated clearly and emphatically in the book “The Cardinal Ratzinger Report,” that it is absolutely incorrect to refer to Pre-Vatican Council II and Post-Vatican Council II, as if there were changes in the Church’s position in matters of faith and morals. The only changes in that respect have sprung from erroneous interpretations of the Council.

As regards the “picking and choosing” of what teachings of the Church some will follow or not follow, Pope John Paul II stated in his talk to the Bishops in Los Angeles in 1987:

“It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. Some are reported as not accepting the clear position on abortion. It has to be noted that there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church’s moral teaching. It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a “good Catholic,” and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching of the Bishops in the United States and elsewhere.”

If we can believe the polls, we are experiencing in the Church at the present time a considerable amount of dissent from the teaching of the Church. However, if we would call this dissent what it really is, it is a crisis of one’s Catholic faith. We have several times in past issues examined the virtue of faith, and we feel we must do so again because of the topic we are examining. We will see what that gift demands of us, and how we can lose it, if we reject the light and guidance given us by the Church.


The first Vatican Council which ended in 1870 defined the gift of faith as follows:

“Faith is a supernatural virtue whereby, under the inspiration and assistance of grace, we believe those things revealed by God to be true, not because the intrinsic evidence of those things has been perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself revealing who can neither deceive nor be deceived."

The above definition explains why we believe when we are motivated by the virtue of faith. The Council continues explaining what we must believe when motivated by supernatural faith.

“All those things are to be believed, on divine and catholic faith, which are contained in the written and unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, whether this is accomplished through her solemn pronouncements (ex cathedra definitions), or through her ordinary and universal teaching power." (Encyclicals, decrees of S. Congregations, etc.)

We notice that the Vatican Council does not make any distinctions (in relation to the virtue of faith) between the “solemn pronouncements” and the “ordinary universal teaching power” of the Church, i.e. between her solemn magisterium and ordinary magisterium; nor does it refer to one as infallible and the other as non-infallible.


Today’s dissenters from God’s revealed truth, as handed down by the Church, are similar to some of the first disciples of Jesus who refused to accept His veiled words regarding the Eucharist long before the Last Supper (Jn.6:28-59). “This is a hard saying,” they said. “Who can accept it?” Jesus was aware that they were murmuring in protest at what He had said. Yet, He made no attempt to soften or modify his words. He was testing their faith in Him.

“Does it shake your faith,” He said to them? “The words I spoke to you are spirit and life. Yet there are some among you who do not believe ... No one can come to Me (i.e. believe Me, accept My word) unless he is enabled to do so by my Father.” (Jn.6:63f)

St. John tells us that from that time on those disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer. Faith is a gift of God, and only those who have received it (and retain it) can accept His word in its entirety when put to the test. Our Lord had given them plenty of evidence of His divine power by His miracles. They should have accepted His words, even though they did not comprehend what He was saying. When they rejected it, it was because they were relying on the light of reason alone, and not on reason enlightened by faith. It was too much for them.

But note the language referring to those who believe: “No one can come to me..” One “comes" to Him, not by approaching Him physically, but by believing in His word, believing even when it is hard to believe ... for He is TRUTH.


There are many in the Church today who are similar to those who walked away, and would follow Christ no longer. Included in that category are some who still come to Mass ... still receive Holy Communion. You might wonder: How can that be ... if one comes to Mass.. and receives Holy Communion? Isn’t that following Christ...isn’t that being His disciple?

To come to Jesus, to accept Him in the deepest sense, it is not enough to receive Him sacramentally, for one can receive Him in Holy Communion and not accept His word in its entirety. We must accept not just most of what the Church teaches as divinely revealed, but all of it.

Let us suppose I tell someone about five incidents that happened to me on a trip (all of which are true), and this person says to me: “I believe the first four, but I can’t believe the fifth.” The fact that he will not believe one of the incidents related - in spite of my word as to its truth - means he no longer believes I always tell the truth. My credibility (for him) is shattered.

We have a parallel to this in regard to the Church. Christ still speaks through His Church when it makes official pronouncements in faith and morals for all the faithful, declaring something to be divinely revealed. If an adult Catholic rejects just one of those official teachings, that in effect is saying: “The Church cannot always be relied on to teach the true interpretation of God’s revelation.” What happens, in that case, to the gift of divine faith? It is no longer one’s guiding light. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of this centuries ago:

“If, of those things taught by the Church (as divinely revealed), one holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as an infallible guide, but to his own will.” Such a one may accept other teachings of the Church, but he does so not out of divine faith, but “only by a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.” (II II,5,3)

Pope Leo XIII, who relied much on St. Thomas, expressed the same idea in his Encyclical on the Unity of the Church:

“If it be certain that something be revealed by God, and this is not believed, then nothing whatever is believed by divine faith....He who dissents even in one point from divinely revealed truths absolutely rejects all faith, since he thereby refuses to honor God as the supreme truth.”

There are some today, not only among the laity, but even some of the clergy, who cry out like the first disciples: “This is a hard doctrine. Who can accept it?" When some of His first disciples said that, Our Savior did not soften His words in order to keep them from walking away. He let them go away, because they had failed the test, failed to-accept a difficult teaching on His word.

Today also, the Church does not change its teaching to fit the mentality of the times. It cannot do so, because it is based on the revealed word of God. (Vat,Coun.II, Gaudium et Spes, n.50) As Pope Paul VI revealed in an address in Jan. 1972:

“The teaching Church does not invent her doctrines; she is a witness, a custodian, an interpreter, a transmitter. As regards the truths of Christian marriage, she can be called conservative, uncompromising. To those who would urge her to make her faith easier, more in keeping with the tastes of the changing mentality of the times, she answers with the apostles, we cannot.” (Acts. 4:20)

Since adult Catholics have an obligation to form their conscience under the guidance of the teaching authority of the Church, they are responsible for the weakening of their faith when they look to other sources for guidance. The Irish Bishops spoke of those “other sources” in a statement on Conscience and Morality.

“In practice, those who dissent from authoritative Church teaching very often give as their reason for doing so, not so much their own personal insights, as the authority of dissenting theologians. This, however, is to misunderstand the role of theologians in the Church, for their authority does not, and cannot outweigh the authority of the Pope in declaring the faith of the Church.”


Without doubt the Church does rely on theologians in the expression of doctrine. Nevertheless, it is up to the teaching authority which Christ gave to His Church, authority centered in the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops in union with him, to accept or reject their explanations or conclusions.

St. Thomas Aquinas, by his writings has contributed to the expression of Catholic doctrine more than any other theologian in the history of the Church. Pope John XXII said of him at his canonization: “He has illuminated the Church more than all the other Doctors.” Centuries later Pope Pius X wrote of St. Thomas: “Since the death of the holy Doctor there has never been a council of the Church at which he was not present by his doctrine and influence.” And yet this great saint, whose humility was as great as his learning, once wrote that should there be a dispute between the teaching authority of the Church and a private theologian, “we must abide rather by the Pope’s judgment than by the opinion of any of the theologians, however well versed he may be in the divine Scriptures.” (Quodlibetum IX,Q.8, Quaest. Quodlibetales)


The great wave of dissent in the Church at the present time, seems to have been given its greatest impetus with the rejection on the part of some priests and theologians of the Encyclical of Pope Paul VI Humanae Vitae on the regulation of birth in 1968. The main argument those dissenters offer to justify their action is this: The encyclical of Pope Paul VI was not an “ex cathedra” decree, therefore (they say) it is not infallible. Hence it could be reversed, and therefore one is not bound by this teaching.

This reasoning completely ignores the following declaration of the second Vatican Council (L.G. n.25):

“In matters of faith and morals...religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking “ex cathedra.” That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

Too, the above reasoning of the dissenters was flatly rejected by the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on Doctrine, when they issued a critical statement on the two-volume work entitled “Catholicism” by Fr. Richard McBrien, who at the time was head of the department of theology at Notre Dame University. Their statement goes at the heart of the issue of dissent in the Church when it stresses the following:

“In addition to those doctrines which have been taught by the Magisterium of the Church in the extraordinary way of infallible definitions, the ordinary teaching of the Pope and the Bishops in union with him preserves many revealed truths which have never been solemnly defined, but which, nevertheless, are infallibly true and definable. These are truths which cannot be rejected or neglected without injury to the integrity of the Catholic faith, because they are either explicitly contained in Holy Scripture, or, although only implicit in Sacred Scripture, they have been taught universally and continually, are professed in the liturgy, and are believed and witnessed by the faithful as divinely revealed.”

There are apparently many in the Catholic Church today who outwardly live and worship as Catholics, but who do not accept in its entirety the Catholic faith. That faith is no longer the guiding light of their life. They seek the sacraments of the Church, but are unwilling to accept some of the teachings of the Church. They want the gifts God gives through the Church, but not the sacrifices He asks through the Church.

They foolishly think they do not need the guidance and protection of the chief Shepherd that Christ has provided for His flock. Yet just as the sheep that wanders off and gets separated from the fold become an easy prey to wild animals that would kill and devour it, so Catholics who wander aside from the protective guidance of the Roman Pontiff, the Chief Shepherd whom Christ has provided, become easy prey to the deceptions and wiles of the devil. Such a one may be clever about worldly things, but his vision has become clouded (without the light of faith) as to his own innate weakness, and as to the wisdom of seeking God’s will rather than their own.

Whether or not the rejection of this or that teaching of the Church (divinely revealed) causes total loss of faith, only God knows. Only a grave sin of disbelief can cause this, and only God knows when all the conditions are present. But those who deliberately reject something taught by the Church as divinely revealed, even if taught only by the ordinary magisterium, are walking dangerously close to the edge of the precipice.

The Christian life has always demanded many sacrifices of the true follower of Christ. That is a major part of the cross that His followers are asked to carry. And now the time has come when greater and greater sacrifices are going to be required in order to be a true and practicing Catholic, when more and more what we stand for, what we believe, is going to be challenged and ridiculed. It will take a strong faith, a firm hope and a courageous love to encounter all this and not accept the wisdom of the world. Without these divine helps, that cross will become a "stumbling block," and will be rejected as "foolishness." (1Cor. 1:23-25). Strengthen our faith, Lord, to accept and live all that You have revealed and made known through Your Church. "Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed." (Jn. 20:29)

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