The Magisterium and the Dilemma of Dissent

Editor’s note: This article was first published on Catholic Stand.

There used to be a time when many of the world’s Catholic Christians submitted to the Church’s vision of faith and morals. The teaching authority of the Church was respected and trusted by Catholics the world over. However, the 21st century is a different time. There are more baptized Catholics now than ever before. Sadly, many of our brothers and sisters have either not been properly catechized, have become lukewarm to the faith, or have completely lapsed from the faith yet may still make a claim to a sort of Catholic identity.

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What Is the Magisterium?

In all three cases, there is a common thread: the opinions of the secular world creep in and replace the Catholic worldview to which these people, at one time, purported to adhere. We call this authority the Magisterium of the Church. Before we continue, it’s necessary that we understand exactly what this Magisterium is. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it in this way:

… [T]his Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully.
Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms. …
“By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium), … receives … the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. … The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.” (CCC 86-87, 93) 

Large numbers of Catholics worldwide ignore the Magisterium on a variety of subjects. Since they ignore and dissent from this “sacred teaching authority” they are faced with a dilemma. If the Church is wrong about any of its teachings, even just one, this is tantamount to admitting that Jesus is a false god, because he allowed the Church he founded to teach error. This brings up a pressing question: are dissenting Catholics ready to admit this?

Case in Point: Contraception

Recently in the news, we have an example of a dissenting Catholic in Melinda Gates, who was baptized Catholic as a child and is the wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Gates is very well known for promoting artificial contraception both in the United States and abroad, especially in poorer countries. In a radio interview for the BBC, Gates made it clear that she and the Pope “agree to disagree” on the morality of contraception.

Gates went on to say, “It’s been a while since [the Catholic Church] revisited this topic [of contraception] — but I’m still optimistic that they might [change the teaching] over time.” This is a reference to Blessed Pope Paul VI’s remarkable encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reconfirmed the constant teaching of the Catholic Church:

Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means. Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one [i.e., poverty] … (HV 4.2-3).

At this point, I’d like to make clear that we could talk about a number of issues that modern Catholics dissent on; from state sanctioned homosexual marriage to abortion, to in vitro fertilization and cloning, to the benefits of Freemasonry. But as this contraception issue is in the news now, let’s focus on this avenue as we try to show why a rejection of Church teaching on one issue of faith or morals necessarily entails a rejection of Jesus’ Church (not to mention, a rejection of Jesus himself) as a whole.

Who is Right?

At another point in the interview, Gates opines, “… I think what this pope sees is that if we are going to lift people out of poverty, you have to do the right thing for women.”  By “right thing”, she, of course, means giving and promoting artificial contraception to women in poverty.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. How does Gates gauge whether a certain thing or activity is “right” or not? Does she believe that the Church can make an accurate pronouncement on the morality or sinfulness of a certain action?

Apparently not, as she outright rejects what the Church teaches on contraception. If she believes she is doing “the right thing for women” by promoting contraceptives, then the Church, by doing the opposite in condemning the use of contraceptives, must be doing the wrong thing. Two contradictory things can’t both be right and true. In this case, either Gates is wrong, or Christ in his Church is wrong. And if it’s the latter, all those who profess to be Catholic have quite the dilemma.

The Timeless Teaching of the Church

What reasons does the Catholic Church have to believe that contraception is not the right thing? First off, this has been the timeless teaching of the Church, going back to the apostolic age. Secondly, it’s been reiterated numerous times in the past 2,000 years by the teaching authority of the Church. Most recently was last year by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia:

… [S]exuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman” … [and this] union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”. … From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life. (AL 80)

Thirdly, we can also look to the Catechism, which, through the Magisterium, teaches that contraception is “intrinsically evil”. That’s a pretty serious condemnation. What does the word “intrinsic” exactly mean though? It’s defined as “belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing”. In other words, a contraceptive “action which proposes … to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.” (CCC 2370). Since evil is essentially and intrinsically connected to such an action, it is always sinful to engage in such an action, no matter the context and no matter what era in time one is living in. Compare this language regarding contraception to the Catechism’s condemnation of rape:

Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. … It is always an intrinsically evil act. (CCC 2356)

The Cardinal Difficulty of Dissent

So here’s where the dissenting Catholic has to face this quandary head on. Virtually everyone accepts the Church’s teaching that rape is morally wrong. There is no situation that could ever justify it. If the Church is right here in making such a pronouncement, why is it wrong in declaring the same thing for contraceptive acts? If the Church is indeed wrong in saying that contraception is sinful, as some dissenting Catholics believe, then that means the Church has led mankind into error on matters of faith and morals for centuries and directly contradicts the promise Christ made before his Ascension. It means that Jesus is not Lord, but a liar. It means that he is not the Truth, but a falsifier.

Here’s the promise Jesus made us:

I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; … and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-14)

If the Church has incorrectly been telling people for centuries that contraception is sinful, then the Holy Spirit, who speaks for Christ in His Church, has not guided us into all truth; He’s guided us into error. And an almighty God can never lead us into error, meaning Jesus can’t possibly be that same God.

That is the logical conclusion dissenting Catholics must face when their opinions come under scrutiny. Thankfully, we know the opinions and desires of such people are indeed false. Doctrine can legitimately develop (i.e., the natures of Christ), but a complete rejection or “change” of prior revelation and teaching can never be possible, as is the case with contraception.

Spiritual Formation

Now, ignorance of doctrine could be at play in Mrs. Gates’ case. But that’s no excuse, especially in the Internet age with a wealth of knowledge about the faith at our fingertips. All Catholics have a duty to learn about the faith they profess. Pope St. John Paul II laid things out nicely in his 1988 apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici:

There is no doubt that spiritual formation ought to occupy a privileged place in a person’s life. Everyone is called to grow continually in intimate union with Jesus Christ, in conformity to the Father’s will, in devotion to others in charity and justice. … The situation today points to an ever-increasing urgency for a doctrinal formation of the lay faithful …. Formation is not the privilege of a few, but a right and duty of all. (CL 60.2-3, 63)

Are we really taking this duty seriously? Or are we purposely being ignorant by not delving into the reasons why the Church teaches what it does? If we continue to be ignorant without learning more about what the Church actually teaches, we enter down a very destructive path, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out in his Summa Theologiae:

…[Some] ignorance is voluntary, either directly, as when a man wishes of set purpose to be purposely ignorant of certain things that he may sin the more freely; or indirectly, as when a man, through stress of work or other occupations, neglects to acquire the knowledge which would restrain him from sin. Such negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is bound and able to know. (STh I-II, Q. 76 A.3 co.)

Summary: All or Nothing

If we are duty bound, as St. John Paul explained, to be well-formed in the doctrine of Christ’s Church, we have to make this formation a priority so we can avoid falling into the sin that St. Thomas describes. We can’t keep saying, “Well, I think the Church is wrong here,” while simultaneously neglecting our formation, which leads us to become ignorant of the faith we claim to profess.

Sometimes, people may not fully understand a teaching of the Church and struggle with it, but if they have trust that Jesus is working in the Church, they should not outright reject it. Instead, they keep their trust in Christ’s Church, progressing to a better understanding through prayer. If the Church is wrong on one matter of faith or morals, the whole house of cards falls. It’s time for active dissenters to face their dilemma head on and make a difficult choice: either they are right or Christ is right. As far as Christ and His Church goes, it’s all or nothing. Accepting only some of his teachings as true is nothing but a rejection.


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Nicholas is a 20-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet's monthly magazine, "Christ Is Our Hope".

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  • jude

    Excellent article. Some have not been taught the true church teachings in earlier years and have a poor understanding of them. Personally taking a class on the teachings and further bible study has helped me to see what the correct teachings are. Being a Catholic is not believing only what you want, but believing in the whole truth of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

  • Patricia Koenig

    Good article! The logic and analysis make sense. Another way of looking at the contraception issue is remember that the world is opposed to God and to the Catholic Church. Both Scripture and experience tell us that. “Friendship with the world is enmity against God.” (James 4:4) To live according to the world, it is practically necessary to use contraception. But to live according to the world is enmity against God. We can’t have it all. We can’t have the world and have God, too. We must choose. Many Catholics do not believe the Catholic teaching against contraception because it opposes the world. They don’t understand that the world and God are in opposition. One is right and the other is wrong. Of course, God and His Catholic Church are right. It is the world that is wrong…along with the world’s erroneous approval of contraception.

  • Guest

    You are SO right to point out that spiritual formation is a duty not a choice. How can we say we love God if we don’t bother to learn what pleases Him and what offends Him? I wish more pastors would speak the truth from the pulpit about current societal issues, not in condemnation but with the desire to bring the congregation forward to the next level of holiness. Sadly, too many pastors are silent.