Notre Dame Philosophy Professor Gary Gutting stated in a New York Times op ed that “The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.”
“It may be objected,” Gutting wrote, “that, regardless of what individual Catholics think, the bishops in fact exercise effective control over the church. This is true in many respects, but only to the extent that members of the church accept their authority. Stalin’s alleged query about papal authority (“How many divisions does the Pope have?”) expresses more than just cynical realpolitik. The authority of the Catholic bishops is enforceable morally but not militarily or politically. It resides entirely in the fact that people freely accept it.”
In other words, vox populi, vox Dei.
Gutting’s argument questions not only the de iure grounds of the bishops’ authority, but also whether they even have a de facto claim to that authority.
In effect, he puts the cart before the horse by grounding the de iure claim — i.e., the right that the bishops have to uphold Church teaching — in what he considers to be the de facto state of affairs — i.e., that the bishops’ authority rests on and, in the present case, is actually overruled by the consent of the governed, namely, the majority of Catholics in this country who do not follow the Church’s teaching on the immorality of contraception.
Gutting’s fallacy hinges on his misunderstanding of authority. He gets it wrong both philosophically and theologically.
Natural Law Grounds for Authority
As Americans, we are taught in school that government’s authority is derived from the consent of the governed, since this is what our nation’s Declaration of Independence solemnly declares. But what makes us think that this is a universal dogma to be held for all people of all times? Is it true because the document says that it’s true?
If the stament is true, it is true for a much deeper reason. Authority is good for the governed because it is necessary in order to have a well ordered society as opposed to anarchy (the absence of authority). Whether you live in democratic North America, Communist Cuba, Medieval France, or a Carthusian Monastery, government and society presume the existence of authority in order to promulgate laws and enforce them.
So the basis of authority is not the will of the governed but the absolute need for some individual or body of organized individuals to promulgate laws for the good of society. In other words, rule of law necessitates authority.
In accord with Natural Law, just laws are for the sake of the common good, that is, the good of society. That is why Augustine says that an unjust law is no law at all, but rather an abomination. Yet when the laws are just, they are binding, otherwise, neither the law nor the authority has moral force to compel compliance other than “might makes right.”
In that regard, the duly appointed official properly exercises his authority when he promulgates and enforces laws that truly are for the good of the governed, provided that the authority in question enacts laws with that intention and, using all the information that he has at his disposal, act as he sees best fit at the time. That is his obligation and right, by office, whether the authority in question is elected by the populace or not.
By appointing a commission of 77 experts, weighing their opinion, and considering the past magisterial teaching on the issue before issuing Humana Vitae, that is exactly what Paul VI did when he officially pronounced the Church’s decision on the immorality of contraception.
Now, if ordinary people can just reject willy-nilly the law of any authority on the basis that authority is derived from the consent of the governed, then rule of law loses it’s force and society eventually falls apart. Catholics who declare that the Church has no authority on the grounds that the faithful do not consent are arguing for the dissolution of the institutional Church.
Theological Grounds for Authority
Gutting does mention in his article that the bishop’s authority is derived from God. He then goes on to question, “But since we live in a human world in which God does not directly speak to us, we need to ask, Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?”
This is like asking who gives a judge the power to judge. Does it come from the people he judges (potentially condemning them)? Or rather, does it come from the office of judge? According to the Natural Law explanation I just gave, it comes form the office of judge.
But since we are ultimately dealing with a theological issue, the question merits a theological answer, which Gutting the philosophy professor decided not to consider.
The authority of Catholic bishops comes from Christ himself. He gave authority to the apostles (whose successors are the bishops of the Catholic Church) when he said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23); and to Peter, whose successor is the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the Pope, when he said:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-19)
Observe the first words in this passage: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Just as the truth revealed to Peter was not from men, but from God, so is the authority he received not from men, but from God.
Because this argument is theological in nature, its acceptance presupposes faith. One might go on to argue, it takes faith to be Catholic as well. It take faith to accept some Church teachings that are hard to understand (like the Dogma of the Holy Trinity or the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage). That why we have a Magisterium. God gave this authority to his Church precisely for this reason: to guide us in matters of faith and morals.
Dogmas and opinions
The word “dogma” is a Greek word, adopted into our English language, meaning opinion.
Church Dogma (with a capital D) is not to be understood as mere opinion. Rather, Dogmas are categorical propositions derived from divine revelation (Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and official Magisterium) that are to be accepted in faith by Catholic Christians. Moral teachings to be held by all faithful fall under this category.
In a dot-com world where com-boxes invite Joe Average to disagree with leading experts on any given topic, all opinions are equal. That’s probably why a philosophy professor writing an op ed thinks his opinion has the same weight as a Papal Encyclical. Perhaps for some people, including some Catholics, unfortunately, it does.
Gutting’s opinion, however, lacks substance, because his arguments are insufficient. His claim, “The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church,” and the arguments he gave to support that claim, are groundless and futile.
On a happier note, 25 Notre Dame professors signed a statement signed a statement declaring that the HHS Mandate is “a grave violation of religious freedom and cannot stand.” There’s a link to that story below.
You might also be interested in reading:
Notre Dame Faculty To Obama On Contraception Mandate:“This Is a Grave Violation Of Religious Freedom And Cannot Stand”