There is nothing more contrary to the pursuit of the truth and true religious thought and discipline than the spirit of contestation. In religion contestation is born when ancient standards in favour of orthodoxy are abandoned in favour of vague directions and notions.


Today, this spirit is widespread among section of the academic theological community. Tom Harpur, lecturer at the Toronto School of Theology, represents this spirit in its boldest, almost agnostic, form. (see Interim, December 1986).


Christianity only practical


Dissent of this variety rests on two points. First, such persons declare that the object of the Gospel Revelation is merely practical. As Harpur puts it, acceptance of God is dependent “not on the right doctrine or correct ritual service but on having done the will of the Father regarding the poor.” While recognizing the kernel of truth, placed in the context of the author’s thought this statement allows that theological doctrines are foolish, unnecessary, mere speculation, and hindrances to the extension of true religious feelings. It is a seductive theory because sooner or later, at one time or other, the individual may feel him or herself bridle at this or that restraining doctrine, human nature being what it is.


Second, as John Henry Newman pointed out 150 years age, these people proceed to assume that there is only one revealed object or purpose to God’s dealings with man in the Gospel, which will explain all others. Finding many doctrines unpalatable, they weigh and measure them, analyze and simplify them, and arrange them in primary and secondary fashion. Having done this, all Scripture doctrines are measured by their own respective tendencies towards this one end. This or that aspect of the sacred teaching is discarded or degraded as superfluous or of inferior importance; finally, the emphasis of this teaching is thrown upon this one end, which is pronounced to contain the essence of the Gospel on which all other aspects which are still retained.


God is love


Ton Harpur, and no doubt others like him, consider that all the attributes of God are virtually expressed in the one proposition “God is love.” The other aspects of God’s glory found in Scripture, they consider modifications. In consequence they are led to deny one doctrine after another: first, the doctrine of eternal punishment (as being inconsistent with this notion of infinite love); next the reality of personal sin; then, the necessity for a real atonement by Christ for our sins (either because they cannot accept that an offended God requires reconciliation to His creatures, or because they no longer believe in the need for redemption on man’s part); then, the divinity of Christ, Himself; and so on and so forth.


This becomes a form of agnosticism whereby God is converted into an abstract force and Jesus reduced to a mere human. Meanwhile any other firm standards, such as those concerning sexual and family morality, are also discarded as superfluous or contrary to the ethic of love.


Tom Dailey


There is also an altogether different kind of dissent which has none of the crude features of the example just discussed. It is brought forward by people who believe themselves faithful to the Church and who maintain that if there are differences between Church authorities and theologians, these differences are minor and have a perfectly natural explanation. It is, they say, only a matter of certain obsolete features or habits temporarily inhibiting adaptations required by changes in culture.


As an example of such a theologian we turn to Father Ton Dailey, an American moral theologian who teaches in Canada. His views are expressed in his courses and public addresses and summarized by himself in two brief papers. The first explains the case for a changing understanding of moral theology in the Catholic Church; the second presents his philosophy of past history.


Pre-Vatican II theology


Dr. Dailey is convinced that the traditional understanding of Catholic moral theology is changing. These changes, he says, are the result of the Second Vatican Council and the fruit of its “spirit.” They occur not only because the former theology was in error, “but because it is not in keeping with the whole spirit of renewal in the Church today” (Dailey’s emphasis). Our “needs and circumstances,” he states, are different today from those of yesteryear, i.e., prior to Vatican II (1962-1965), represent a renewal of their own, he says. Unfortunately, they suffer from “certain inadequacies.” Three of these “inadequacies” are minimalism, legalism and irrelevance.


Minimalism resulted because, before Vatican II, moral theology was merely quantitative, no more than a confessional enumeration of sins. It “concentrated only of the dividing line between mortal and venial sin,” with an emphasis on avoiding sin and doing the minimal. Legalism, such as the requirements about fast and abstinence got people all tied up in rules and regulations, Dr. Dailey tells his students. Thus, before Vatican II “laws and precepts” became “ends in themselves, instead of means.” They came to represent “the highest expression of the Christian Life, instead of the lowest.”


There is also third “insufficiency”: irrelevance. Catholic moral theology before the Second Vatican Council had ceased to have meaning to the average Catholic in the street, according to Dr. Dailey. Why? Because “the Catholic conscience created a false dichotomy between the Church and the world, matter and spirit, body and soul.” This development was nothing less than an expression of “Gnosticism, implying a contempt for the body.”


The “spirit” of Vatican II


What is to be done in Father Dailey’s view? A “life centred approach” much replace “the sin and confession-orientated approach.” This, he says, is what the Vatican Council desired. “The spirit of Vatican II has cast the human conscience in an entirely new light,” he tells his students. For the first time, the Church “boldly proclaims the moral imperative in opposition to minimalism, namely the universal call of all Christians to holiness.” This call “has sounded the death knell to a conscience that is minimalistic, sin orientated, legalistic, and irrelevant.” (He keeps on underlining as if afraid that the point may be missed.)


“In many ways,” Dailey says, “the Council teaches that we must find the reason of our moral activity in the depths of our own person.”


Dailey concludes his interpretation of Catholic moral theology with the assertion that “in order to update the Christian conscience” two ideas must be investigated, that of God and that of sin. After explaining that sin, not God is the source of punishment, he states: “If one has totally turned away from the source of goodness and has refused to let God in any way be saviour throughout one’s lifetime…then, after death that person will be unable to acknowledge the presence of a saving God…” “Mortal sin in Catholic theology…is a thorough turning to creatures in place of God. The sinner shakes a fist in the face of God, shouting with Lucifer, “I will not serve.”


Two world-views


The second paper, Dr. Dailey’s theology of history, stands in the service of the “new morality.” (He himself uses this term.) The new morality’s “public relations,” he says are poor. (I believe he means people are suspicious of it.) So he feels it necessary to explain that it is real morality despite its poor reception.


History knows two world-views, Dr. Dailey asserts. There is the classicist view, emphasizing the static, the immutable, the unchanging. It is opposed by the historically conscious world-view which is dynamic and stresses change, development and evolution.


The classicist view starts with abstract general principles from where it argues from where it ought to be. Unfortunately, the results remain equally abstract. Because it emphasizes the unchangeable, Dr. Dailey implies, its adherents resist change, fight innovations with all their might, and block attempts at progressive enlightenment. He implies that such men may be found in Rome.


The second world-view, however, he believes to be a much better one. It is concerned not with abstract concepts but with the concrete experience of persons. Because it argues from experience, it eventually succeeds in revealing the true reality, not like the classicist view which is concerned only with what ought to be, but the reality of what is actually going on. Thus it helps people to be what they are within the Church. Supporters of this view, he thinks, are found above all among people in North America with its tradition of the common law rather than Europe’s Roman law.


Dissent explained


In the world at large the superiority of the historically conscious view became evident, Dr. Dailey asserts, from the end of the Middle Ages onward. But, the Catholic Church did not acknowledge it until the coming of the Second Vatican Council. However, even after the Council, the classicists remained in power in Rome. This explains the constant tensions between Rome and North America. These tensions should not be regarded as a question of truth versus error, but as a battle between two world-views, one of which is now obsolete but reluctant to give way. As Dr. Dailey implies once again, this explains why theologians like Kung and Schillebeeckx and Curran courageously oppose the restrictive actions from Rome which has not understood this great shift towards a changing moral ideology. This post-Vatican view is the true biblical one, because as everyone knows, Jesus preferred persons to concepts, compassion to law.


Teaching authority


There is one other feature intimately connected to the above, namely professor Dailey’s view of the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church. After explaining that there are three kinds (he incorrectly calls them “levels”) of teaching, solemn, authentic and disciplinary, he tells his students that the Church’s authentic teaching can change and has changed: witness the prohibition of usury; the use of torture by the Inquisition; the condemnation of Galileo; the acceptance of slavery; and the opposition to religious liberty, all now abandoned.


The Magisterium, he says, is meant not so much to teach, as to be prophetic, creative and permissive of a variety of opinions. Today, its function is shared by everybody including dissenters, because since Vatican II the Church recognizes that the Holy Spirit teaches through the experiences and lives of the people. The Holy Spirit looks after everything and will provide for every need and every circumstance, making many structures and strictures superfluous.




What is one to think of all this? Let us not right away that this kind of argumentation cannot be fully understood except by placing it in the context of contemporary theological debates. Consequently, the following brief points.


  1. The proposition that there is a “changing understanding” of traditional morality because our “needs and circumstances” differ from those of earlier days, is a reflection of a theory which the Vatican has rejected several times since 1965 alone. Among its supporters are Hans Kung, the Swiss-German theologian, who had his title “Catholic theologian” taken away in 1979 and Edward Schillebeeckx, the controversial Belgian-Dutch theologian. According to these men, and others, all Church pronouncements of the past are time-bound and subject to revision. These require adaptation to new cultural needs and must be re-thought and re-formulated, if necessary, changed. Doctrineor moral teaching defined as certain in the fourth century, for example, may not be certain today.


Answer by German Bishops


Because of the importance of this question it may be well to reprint the 1971 statement of the German Bishops in response to this challenge. It was not their intent, the Bishops said, “to take a stand concerning opinions freely disputed by theologians,” But now they were forced to lay down certain “ unrenounceable data.”


These they listed as follows:


1.         Faith in the word of God witnessed to in the Bible and professed in the Credo belief of the Church presupposes that, even here, despite the multiplicity of meanings and the historical changeableness of human language, it is possible in principle to have statements: a) which are true and are recognizable as such; b) whose meaning remains the same and unalterable in their value in the midst of the changing historical ways of thought and expression.


2.         The binding power proper to divine revelation finds its concrete expression in the Credo of the church. This is her response to the reception of the revelation attested in the Bible.


Although the faith of the church should always be subjected to further reflection, and in that sense it remains incomplete until the end of time, nevertheless this faith contains certain unchangeable and unmistakable statements of “Yes” and “No.”


Otherwise it is not possible for the church to remain in the truth of Jesus Christ.


3.         It is the right and the duty of the church, when facing new questions arising in various historical situations, to allow scope, on the other hand, should the need arise to state anew in a binding manner her unchangeable “Yes” or “No.”


Formulas which serve to clarify the Credo and in doing so serve the objective interpretation of the testimony intended by Scripture, and which are proposed as such by the church in a definitely binding manner, are called dogmas.


4.         A dogma does not derive its obligatory character from the outcome of theological discussion or from the consent of the majority in the church, but from the charism granted to the church whereby, once for all, it holds fast the revealed word in the force of its truth and expounds it without possibility of error.


5.         The responsibility for preserving the church in the truth of the Gospel by means of binding statements of faith has been entrusted in a special and a proper manner to those who possess the magisterial ministry in the church.


Kung, as we know, carried on as usual and paid no attention.




B.        Dailey’s charges of minimalism, legalism and irrelevancy as a summary of pre-Vatican moral theology should be seen for what it is. It is in harmony with Kung’s charge that the Church “can deceive herself and others on every plane and in all spheres.” This distortion is of special importance to Dailey, enabling him to establish his contrast. Between the so-called “sin-orientated” approach which he rejects, and the “moral activity in the depths of our own person” judgement which he enjoins.


C.        The argument that it was only at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that the

Catholic Church discovered that “all Christians are called to holiness” is too outlandish to be worth discussing at length. It denies 2000 years of spirituality from the days of the apostles and the desert fathers in the first centuries, to Catholic action, Christian Family and the Retreat movement of the twentieth century, not to mention the multitude of men’s and women’s societies which have flourished at every age. The author’s emphasis on the adjective “all” (Christians), is part of the distortion. It is meant to suggest that while the Church developed a theology of holiness for clergy, monks and nuns, she did nothing for the laity.


D.        The claim that mortal sin – which cuts off the special gifts of the Holy Spirit given to live a life in Christ – only follows a total and absolute defiance of God such as “Lucifer’s ‘I will not serve’” was rejected by the Magisterium in 1976 and again during the 1983 General Synod in Rome as contrary to a true understanding of sin. (While at St. Augustine’s seminary Dailey thought this rejection as “not representative of the best thinking with regard to these issues.” His own general theme at the time was that “nothing is a sin provided it is done out of love”). This so-called “fundamental option,” despite containing a kernel of truth, relegates mortal sin for all practical purposes to the never land. It should be seen as part of that contemporary disowning of sin which has led some people to ask: Whatever happened to sin.


Those who follow the liturgical seasons of the Church and read the Scriptures will know that sin and the preaching of repentance are central to the teaching of Jesus. As the late Bishop Fulton Sheen put it: “It was the subject of John the Baptist’s teaching (Matthew 3:8). Our Lord’s first address was on repentance (Mt. 4: 17). Our Lord gave it as the reason for His coming (Luke 5:32). It was the subject of Peter’s first sermon to his fellow Jews (Acts 2:38) and of his first sermon to the Gentiles (Acts 11:28). It was the subject Paul said he never failed to preach before Jew and Gentile (Acts 20:21). It was the theme of Peter’s last message (2 Peter 3:9) in which he asserted that the only reason God gave us more time to live, was to repent. It was the subject both of our Lord’s first sermon and His last: “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached to all nations (Luke 24:27).”


Deeper significance


There is another significance which centres in the attempt to justify dissent. It is illustrated by Dailey’s use of terminology. On the one hand, the author , speaking of pre-Vatican Council moral theology, employs mild terms such as “inadequacies” and “insufficiencies.” He claims that he does not “reject” the approach in past textbooks of moral theology. Their treatment, he says, “represents a genuine renewal, a true accommodation to the needs and spirit of a given time.” “If it is no longer adequate, he continues, it is not because it is erroneous (my emphasis), but because it is not in keeping with the spirit of the times” (his emphasis).


Having said this, Daily proceeds to define this same terminology in the most condemnatory terms possible. After all, what could be more damning to a system of thought than to charge it with minimalism, legalism and irrelevancy? And what could be worse than to accuse Catholic moral theology of being nothing but a Gnostic heresy?


Obsolescence and error


The initial classification of what is later proven to be a moral monstrosity as “inadequacies” or “insufficiencies” is not without purpose. The author aims to have the best of two worlds: reject the old (demanding) morality, substitute the new morality and yet be hailed for doing so. Under the guise of faint praise, Dr. Dailey slips in one of the key principles of dissenters, both contemporary as well as those in the turn of this century. This is the argument that one or other point of moral or doctrinal teaching may be dispensed with, not because it is in error, but because it is obsolete. Therefore, it is normal and acceptable.


Remove the idea of error and one removes the concept of heresy. Remove heresy and dissent becomes normal and acceptable, nay necessary, perhaps even mandatory. Thus dissenters, instead of being disloyal, step forth as the most loyal Catholics of all. After all, they search for the truth; they keep the Church abreast of needed changes. This, as we saw earlier, is also the opinion of the American moral theologians Curran and McCormick. As Richard McCormick put it, it is not they, the dissenting theologians, who cause the faithful to adopt certain permissive attitudes, but it is the Church which does so by her intransigence, by her unwillingness to “dialogue in any meaningful way on sexual matters.” (See Part V, September 1986).


Past errors


One more comment, this one about the supposed errors of the past such as questions of usury, torture, etc. Father Dailey prefers to see them as obsolete teachings, for reasons explained above. Charles Curran is more forward and cites them as examples of errors taught by the Church in the authentic non-infallible teaching category. Others, such as Gregory Baum, have used them in the same manner.


There is no space to discuss these issues here. Yet, it appears clear to me that none of these examples serve the purpose for which they are cited, i.e., proof that authentic Church teaching can change. In my opinion, several do not belong to the category of “authentic teaching,” such as the use of torture, the existence of slavery or the Galileo case. The other two, usury and religious liberty, are far more complicated then made out to be in current polemics.


It will not come as a surprise that Tom Dailey shares many of the views of Charles Curran. Thus, he downplays the differences between Curran and Church authorities. He describes them as two “tensions” and explains that the two teachings are basically the same except that the one would allow a few more exceptions to the general rule than the other. Obviously, Roman authorities disagree. In August 1986, they removed Curran’s right to speak as a “Catholic theologian.”


Father Tom Dailey’s own relationship with authorities resembles that of Curran. In 1968 he was dismissed  from the diocesan seminary in Buffalo, N.Y., after publicly rejecting the encyclical Humanae Vitae. In 1973 he joined the staff at St. Augustine’s Seminary and the Toronto School of theology, but eleven years later, in 1984, he was again requested to resign. Today, he teaches moral theology and medical ethics at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta. In this capacity he is also in demand as speaker at various Catholic conventions, such as in Regina at a Teachers Institute for Catholic school teachers in October 1986, and the Catholic Health Care Conference of Alberta, in Edmonton, in November 1986.


The phenomenon of how a moral theologian, dismissed in one seminary, requested to resign in another, comes to teach undergraduates at a third Catholic institution, when all three institutions are under close supervision of the local bishop, ought to disturb Catholics. It reflects the frequent inability to get the proper information, as well as a reluctance, perhaps sometimes an unwillingness by those in authority, to act upon it, when it is presented.




What are the consequences of these debates for those who are actively involved in the defence of human life and family against the secular onslaught? A prime consequence should be a determination to seek the truth not with these theologians, but with those who defend what has been taught from time immemorial. Rather than be discouraged. More people should enter upon a quest for truth with great energy. “The truth shall set you free,” Scripture says.


In the true Christian tradition the spirit of contestation is opposed by the Spirit of Faith. Our Faith, we have always been taught is looked upon as something precious, something which requires great care, a care to be exercised with by all. Writing to Timothy, St. Paul concludes his letter to him, saying:


“My dear Timothy, take great care of all that has been entrusted to you.”

(1Tim. 6:20)


For this reason, too, surely, Paul uttered his many warnings. “Have nothing to do with pointless philosophical discussions,” he tells timothy. Elsewhere in the same epistle he warns Timothy against false teachers, intimating that he should not be moved by them. Do not alter your belief, he seems to say, nor your Creed, for the end is error.


The words addressed by St. Paul to Timothy are addressed in the first place to the ministers of the Gospel, as Timothy was a bishop. Yet, they contain a warning and command for all Christians, for all high and low, are, in their own way, responsible for the safe-keeping of the Faith. All have an equal interest in it, no one less than another, even though there is a priesthood especially set apart for the duty of guarding it. But as John Henry Newman pointed out long ago, as any private person would feel that his duty and his safety lay in sounding an alarm of a fire or a robbery in the city where he dwelt, though there were ever so many special officers  appointed for the purpose, so doubtless, everyone of us is bound to contend for the Faith, and to have an eye to its safe custody.


Even the humblest of the Church may and must struggle for this Faith; and in proportion to his education he will enlarge his knowledge of it. The Faith, given to him in Baptism, will then unfold, and according to his power of grasping the meaning of its various articles increases, so it will become his duty to contend for it in its fuller and more accurate form.


Not vague


The same tradition holds that the Christian Faith is not vague. On the contrary, the Gospel Faith is a definite deposit, a treasure common to all, one and the same in every age, conceived in precise words, and as such admitting of being received, understood, transmitted.


As the Gospel unfolds, for each individual, he will discover that these various unfoldings are nothing more or nothing less than the one true explanation of them delivered down to us from the first ages. Thus he does not have to search for the Truth, it is put into his hands; he has but to commit it to his heart, to preserve it inviolate, and to deliver it over to posterity.


St. Paul shows that by Faith is meant some definite doctrine; not a mere temper of mind, not mere emotions, or principle of action, much less, vaguely, the “Christian cause.” “Show,” Paul tells Timothy “that you have really digested the teaching of the faith and the good doctrine which you have always followed.” (Tim. 4) And again


“Anyone who teaches anything different, and does not keep to the sound teaching which is that of our Lord Jesus Christ, the doctrine which is in accordance with true religion, is simply ignorant.” (6:3)


These phrases, “digest the teaching of faith”; “sound teaching”; “doctrine which is in accordance with true religion” as well as “all that has been entrusted to you” (from the earlier quote), shoe that the deposit of faith certainly is a series of truths and moreover, rules of some sort, rules and doctrines which we find accurately described in the general formulary since called “the Apostles Creed.” Timothy had received them in trust, and was commanded to take great care of them, together with others appointed to the same task. They formed that authority which then, as now, knows that to make private judgement one’s criteria of truth leads to scepticism and unbelief.


To be continued.