Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Magisterial Weight of Theology of the Body

The question of the magisterial weight of various documents and statements of Popes has been an issue in the discussions of NFP on this blog. In particular, some readers seem to argue for an almost-infallible character to be ascribed to Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB). In addition, the concept of “responsible parenthood” which appears in a few very recent papal documents seems to have engendered the idea among NFP proponents that it is an infallible and unchangeable teaching – or at least one requiring some assent of faith.

First, let’s review a very general discussion of the relative weight of magisterial teachings given by Helen Hull Hitchcock in her article The Authority of Church Documents. Here’s an abbreviated list and description of the different types of documents issued by the Holy See, based on Hitchcock’s article (I’ve omitted a couple of her categories; see the article for all the details):

Apostolic constitutions (apostolicae constitutiones): solemn, formal documents on matters of highest consequence concerning doctrinal or disciplinary matters, issued by the pope in his own name. They are published as either universal or particular law of the Church. (Examples: the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium; Constitution on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

Apostolic exhortation (apostolica exhortatio): a papal reflection on a particular topic that does not contain dogmatic definitions or policy directives, addressed to bishops, clergy and all the faithful of the entire Catholic Church. Apostolic exhortations are not legislative documents. (Example: Familiaris Consortio, on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.)

Apostolic letter (apostolica epistola): a formal papal teaching document, not used for dogmatic definitions of doctrine, but to give counsel to the Church on points of doctrine that require deeper explanation in the light of particular circumstances or situations in various parts of the world.

Encyclical (encyclica epistola - literally, "circular letter"): a formal apostolic letter issued by the pope usually addressed to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the entire Church. Example, Humanae vitae, concerning the Church's teaching on birth control issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI.

Instruction (instructio): explains or amplifies a document that has legislative force, such as apostolic constitutions, and states how its precepts are to be applied. (e.g., Liturgiam authenticam, on liturgical translation, an Instruction on the correct implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.)

Institutio: instituted arrangement or regular method, rules (as in Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani).

Motu proprio (literally, by one's own initiative): a legislative document or decree issued by the pope on his own initiative, not in response to a request. (Examples: Apostolos Suos; Misericordia Dei.)

A reader of this blog, in his own research on the topic of papal infallibility, consulted a number of sources, including (but not limited to): Dr. Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma; Father Michael Müller's work, God the Teacher of Mankind: Or, Popular Catholic Theology, Apologetical, Dogmatical, Moral, Liturgical, Pastoral, and Ascetical, Vol I: The Church and Her Enemies; and Monsignor G. Van Noort's Dogmatic Theology, Vol II: Christ's Church. He has provided me with this valuable summary:

Theologians have derived four criteria for determining the infallibility of any statement made by a Pope.

1. What the Pope says cannot be new, because "the Holy Spirit was promised to the successor of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine".

2. The Pope must be speaking "in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority".

-- This means that the pope is not infallible in his opinion, nor in his conversation, nor when writing a book of theology as a private doctor, etc. In general there are certain forms of communication which are considered, and for the most part, have always been considered by their very nature forms of communication in which the Holy Father exercises "his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority". Some of these forms are encyclical letters, consistorial allocutions, apostolic letters, and apostolic constitutions.

3. The Pope must be clearly defining "a doctrine concerning faith or morals".
-- "A doctrine", i.e. a singular issue on faith or morals is defined; therefore an entire catechism can never be considered protected by the charism of papal infallibility no matter how strongly worded the Pope recommended a catechism to be used for learning and teaching the Faith.

4. The Pope must clearly indicate that this definition is "to be held by the whole Church".

-- This has usually been held by theologians to be clearly indicated by an imposition of a penalty for not holding to the definition, e.g. "should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema."

-- Also, the concept of the whole Church is to be understood as not just geographical throughout the whole world, but also temporally throughout the span of time; hence the fact that such papal declarations are "irreformable". This also means that exceptions granted for a particular group, or for a particular time are not infallible. Therefore, an indult for communion in the hand is not to be considered as a practice protected by the infallibility of the Holy Ghost because the Pope granted an official indult.

Now, TOB is the result of John Paul II’s thought which developed well before he became Pope; and this philosophy was expressed primarily through a series of Wednesday audiences. This means that it is primarily his own thought, and is not an explicit expression of Church teaching that has any binding authority on the entire Church. Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI’s pre-papal writings are his own thought, and even the books that have been published since he became Pope, such as Deus Caritas Est [sorry, it's been pointed out that that IS an encyclical; I was thinking of the books Pope Benedict XVI has written about "Jesus of Nazareth", "The Apostles" and "The Church Fathers"), do not carry magisterial weight. Certainly, a pope’s thought and teaching are to be respected and given due consideration, but since the Holy Father is not infallible in all of his teaching and thought, we are entitled to consider whether his words reflect the constant teaching of the Church.

In the case of TOB, the criteria noted above are not met in other ways.  For example, TOB denies a hierarchy of ends to marriage, placing the “unitive” end on the same level as the procreative end. This flies in the face of centuries-old Church teaching that has been reiterated by many fathers and doctors of the Church; it is a “new” teaching.  In addition, author Andrew McCauley has raised a number of points regarding problems with John Paul II’s views of sexual morality and concupiscence in his pre-papal writings, as well as the lack of internal consistency in TOB (see Crossing the Threshold of Confusion, Chapters XI and XII). I won’t go into the details here, but McCauley presents ample evidence which you can read in his book if you so desire.

The bottom line is that we are allowed to – and should – question any aspects of TOB that cannot be shown to have some continuity with the constant teaching of the Church. The same would be true of any document that discusses multiple subjects.

Randy Engel, in her work John Paul II and Theology of the Body: A Study in Modernism gives a number of reasons for her opinion that TOB is not Catholic, including these:

its ‘theology’ is man-centered, not God-centered;

it has abandoned the perennial teachings of Scholasticism in favor of novel contemporary philosophies including Existentialism, Phenomenology (the philosophy of consciousness), and Personalism;

it contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church concerning the ends and hierarchy of ends of marriage;

it promotes the sensuous over the spiritual;

it leads us away from Christ, down the road of Modernism.

These are serious problems.

I think it is clear that TOB certainly does not meet the standards outlined at the beginning of this post for “infallibility”; in fact, the problems reviewed here indicate that it does not really carry any magisterial weight at all – it is John Paul II’s personal thought and philosophy, and does not necessarily reflect the mind of the Church. 


  1. I perhaps will not live to see it, but there is no question whatever that this "theology" of the body will be condemned by the Church down the road, when She regains her balance, Her composure and Her strength.

    If - God forbid - John Paul II is raised to the Altars (using the watered-down and neutered Saint-making process created by JPII himself) then, of course, it will make it extremely difficult to fight his tragic ideas and conceptions. We must pray that the Holy Ghost intervenes to put a stop to such an act of madness.

    Keep punching away at TOB. The more we expose its absurdities the better off the Church will be.

  2. Deus Caritas Est is not a book, it is an Encyclical.

    This is only one of many, many serious and blatant errors in this post and nearly all that discuss NFP on this blog.

  3. Oop! You're right, Francis! I had in mind the book "Caritas in Veritate" along with the other books in that "series". I'd be happy to hear specifically about the other "serious and blatant errors".

  4. Caritas in Veritate is also an Encyclical!

    Well, for starters - stating that TOB was "new" is false: its doctrinal development of the consistent teaching of the Church. Doctrinal development is nothing new for the Church - the Church's understanding of the Trinity also developed in a similar way. I'm sure when the Church was wrestling with how to develop teaching on the Trinity, people were yelling, "No! This is NEW! This isn't the teaching of the Church!" But then, as now, those people were wrong - and the Church, in Her wisdom, knows better than the clattering throngs. (Thanks be to God!)

    The most glaring errors, however, must be contained in Randy Engel's "work" on TOB. Evaluating TOB's theology as "man-centred and not God-centred," displays, simply put, a lack of understanding of the complexity of the teaching. In fact, I find it hard to believe any honest and serious reader could conclude that TOB is not God-centred, unless one is going into it merely attempting to undermine it. Further, TOB, as well as JPII's entire body of philosophical writings, are firmly rooted in Thomistic philosophy, and rely on Thomism far more than existentialism or any other school of philosophical thought. (I may remind all the JPII-haters here that people tried to discredit St. Thomas himself in the very same way that you are attempting to discredit JPII - because he relied on those awful pagans like Aristotle. Good thing we didn't listen to them then! Let's hope we don't listen to them now.)

    It seems in any event that you're intent on your dissent, and unwilling to be obedient to things that have been pronounced in Encyclicals (which you conceded carry significant Magesterial weight,) such as when HV insists that both the unitive and procreative are inherent to the marital act. So, I suppose my question is what criteria do you have for picking which Encyclicals you follow, and which you decide are irrelevant?

  5. Yep, you're right again, about Caritas in Veritate. My bad, doubled over. Nevertheless, TOB is NOT an encyclical, and carries no real magisterial weight. Neither is it Thomistic, and it is "personalistic" by JPII's own admission. As for HV's denial of a primacy of ends in marriage, that goes against all the Church teaching up to that point, and there is really nothing to justify it. That's called "discontinuity". Something "new" like that, which directly contradicts Church teaching can scarcely be said to be a "development". There is no reference to the Church fathers in that "development", just a reliance on Vatican II. There's no scriptural refrences. That's not enough to show a development of thought. You can bet those teaching the doctrine of the Trinity had more to go on than one document from a pastoral council that didn't even set out to define doctrine!

    To the extent that HV taught in keeping with the Church, that teaching is valid. But the "responsible" parenthood part and the idea of unitive and procreative ends being on a par with each other don't follow from what went previously.

    I disagree with your characterization of Engel's work; I think she supports what she says with ample evidence. I suppose you're not much of a fan of Anne Muggeridge, either! At any rate, we will just have to agree to disagree.

  6. Jay, I hate to say it - but you're wrong! ALL of HV is valid - the parts you like, the parts you dislike and everything in between. You don't have the authority to call it invalid -- you only have the option to assent or dissent. You may feel that there is some sort of disunity (most everyone else would completely disagree,) but notwithstanding your or anyone's opinions about it, it remains valid, and it remains a teaching, with Magesterial authority, that demands obedience. Lacking obedience, you would not be considered in communion with the Catholic Church. I would say in light of this that it might be wise to state this on the homepage of your blog, so that you're not fooling people and further leading them astray (which, as you know, is sinful in and of itself.)

  7. Francis, you're way off base. You presume to speak for "most people", and I don't know how you justify that. Further, I do not believe it is wrong to point out inconsistencies where they exist, and this is not an issue of "liking" or "disliking" what the document says. I also think there are solid grounds for not accepting every aspect of a document that covers a multitude of doctrinal and non-doctrinal issues.
    I see hundreds of years of Church teaching that cannot be swept under the rug by one document that has ambiguities and weaknesses that are easily demonstrable. There's a problem here. The fruits of HV are evident, and they are kind of rotten. As Fr. Gardner asked you, "Where are the children?"


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