It continues to be the ground upon which Catholics divide themselves and this article from Crisis Magazine explores that, with a hint at resolution.
“Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Church in the United States is in the throes of a struggle. Loyal Catholics are showing renewed vigor and vitality, and are helping the Church to move forward in unity. At the same time, the Church is also being exhausted and drained from within by a vocal movement of other Catholics who continue to dissent from Church teachings, particularly the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
“Dissent is entrenched in the Church in the U.S.
“For most American Catholics over 50, it is an accepted fact that dissent from the magisterium of the Church is widespread, tolerated, and, in some quarters, even welcomed. The breaking point, of course, was Paul VI’s 1968 prophetic encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which condemned contraception as “intrinsically disordered.” The encyclical became one of the most controversial documents of the century, if not many centuries. The widespread dissent by Catholics was led with enthusiasm by huge numbers of Catholic theologians, professors and intellectuals. The onslaught of bright, articulate academics turning on the Pope encouraged many Catholics in the pews to do the same.
“Why would so many educated Catholics—who should have been ready and able to defend the teaching authority of the Church—turn against the Pope with such force? How could they justify it?
“The most popular argument was that permission to dissent had been given by none other than the Second Vatican Council. The dissenters claimed that “the spirit of Vatican II,” along with theological perspectives of the Council, supported their argument that individual Catholics have a right to dissent from “non-infallible” Church teachings—even authoritative encyclicals like Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae—if they felt they had a good enough reason.
“Unfortunately, this false notion was unwittingly given a boost by none other than the bishops of the United States. On November 15, 1968, a few months after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, the bishops issued their pastoral letter, “Human Life in Our Day,” to help Catholics interpret the Pope’s encyclical. The bishops said in no. 51 of that document that in some cases, a Catholic could dissent from “non-infallible authentic doctrine” of the magisterium. They explained: “The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church, and is such as not to give scandal.”
“So, the bishops did approve of limited dissent from papal teaching in faith and morals.
“This position was given even more credence later by the powerful and widely quoted Cardinal Bernardin when he was Archbishop of Chicago. Shortly before his death in 1996, Cardinal Bernardin initiated his Catholic Common Ground Project, to bring factions of the church together in “dialogue.” According to a Nov. 14, 1996, article in Origins (pp. 353-356), the axis of Cardinal Bernardin’s legacy was the belief that “limited and occasional dissent” from the magisterium of the Church was “legitimate.”
“But what did Vatican II really teach?
“So, the intellectual community and even the high-ranking Church leaders were reinforcing the idea that dissent from Church teachings was to be expected, even welcomed—and that permission to do so came straight from Vatican II.
“However, had they really read the documents of Vatican II?
“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), no. 25, presents a far different answer from the dissenters. This carefully reasoned Vatican II document states that, even though the bishops of the Catholic Church are not individually infallible, they do teach infallibly the Church’s doctrines of faith and morals “when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.”
“What could be clearer? Lumen Gentium, no. 25, explicitly states that one such case of the bishops teaching infallibly is when they teach a matter of faith and morals in “an ecumenical council.” Vatican II was “an ecumenical council.” The Council also taught in no. 25 of Lumen Gentium that these definitions of the bishops on matters of faith and morals must be held with a “religious assent.” Furthermore: “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra …”