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Freedom Ordered to the Good: On the positivity of negation

“One cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front of them,” the pope said on his return flight from his recent “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada. “Theological development must be open, because that’s what it’s for, and the magisterium serves to understand the limitations.”

This statement was in response to a question from a reporter about whether the Church’s teachings on the immorality of contraception were subject to change. The Holy Father’s brief comment has been taken by some to signal his understanding that the Church might one day “allow” contraception, at least under certain circumstances.1

Here I will not focus on the precise question of contraception, which is certainly worthy of consideration. My interest, rather, is with this comment from the Holy Father that seems to suggest that thought is only possible if all things are equally thinkable, that freedom of thought is impinged upon if certain possibilities are closed off to theologians.

In many ways I am reminded of a talk given by Joseph Ratzinger in 2003 entitled, “On the Relationship Between the Magisterium and Exegetes,” on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Here the soon-to-be pope related the stories of two Biblical scholars whose work in the early 20th century was painfully hindered by ecclesiastical censors who considered these scholars’ work, reliant as it was on the historical-critical method, to be dangerous to the faith or outright false. These same scholars’ theories and conclusions would then later be seen by the Church as acceptable ideas for Catholic Biblical scholars to hold.

A typical account of this history–certainly the kind that I heard in my own graduate studies, when there was fierce debate over the mandatum called for by Ex corde ecclesiae–was that magisterial interventions into the work of scholars are intrusions that violate academic freedom, and hinder theological progress. Magisterial proclamations made in advance of theological research, in other words, go against the dignity of the scholar, who must work in freedom, as well as the dignity of the truth, which must be pursued with complete openness. Ratzinger, in his address, has some sympathy for this view that ecclesiastical interventions into scholarly work can unjustly hamper legitimate work. He certainly has a great deal of sympathy for the scholars themselves who personally suffered so much under ecclesiastical censure.

Nevertheless, the entire picture is more complicated in Ratzinger’s estimation. First, it is not the case that Church teaching constitutes an imposition upon a neutral and self-sufficient domain, “The mere objectivity of the historical method,” says Ratzinger, “does not exist.” This is because such methods will inevitably be influenced by one philosophy or another. This philosophy is both reflected in the application of the method (what is allowed to be considered and what is prohibited by the scholar himself or herself) and reinforced by the conclusions the scholar is led to in applying the method.

Furthermore, if there is a danger to censoring certain ideas, there is also a danger to deciding from the outset that all ideas have equal weight. As Ratzinger recounts, this was poignantly seen by Heinrich Schlier. After living through the conflict between the Deutsche Christen, who accommodated the Gospel to the worldview of the Nazis, and the Bekennende Kirche, which bore testimony against it, Schlier asked his students, “Consider for a moment which is better: whether the Church, in a legitimate way and after careful reflection, remove a theologian from his position for false teachings, or whether an individual, in a way that carries no weight, calls this person or that person a false teacher, and so protects himself from him?” Schlier continues, “Don’t think that judging is eliminated when each is allowed to judge at his own discretion. That idea is just the influence of the liberal way of seeing things, which says that no one can make any kind of decision about the truth of a teaching, and that every teaching has a little bit of the truth in it, and therefore all teachings must be tolerated in the Church. But we do not share this view. For it denies that God has in fact come among us and made a decision.”2

In other words: the philosophy of Liberalism demands that all views are allowed to carry equal weight, and that no authoritative pronouncements are made in advance against any of them. Rather, all ideas are allowed to be scrutinized–in a certain, non-decisive way–in the free marketplace of thought; and each person in turn is free to reject those ideas with which he or she disagrees. But is this really always preferable to the Church definitively closing off some ideas to legitimate consideration? Are there not certain things that need to be rejected outright? And if so, why would the Church not have an authoritative role in this rejection? One need only consider the frequent outcry that Pope Pius XII ought to have done more and said more against National Socialism–or, equally, the frequent defense of him by those who say he acted in a strategic way that minimized harm to the Jewish people–to see that most people do believe the Church does have and should have such a role. Is it not better, Schlier is saying, that the Church take up that responsibility and exercise it, rather than there being equal and perpetual tolerance for all ideas, no matter how reprehensible? Would we really want the Church saying that anti-Semitism has its merits and we shouldn’t condemn from the outset theologians who want to defend it?

Ratzinger certainly does not find the equal tolerance of all ideas desirable. As he lamented in Behold the Pierced One, “Since the end of the Council the panorama of theology has changed fundamentally, not only as regards the matters debated by theologians, but also and in particular as regards the structure of theology itself. For whereas, prior to the Council, theological debate took place within a closely knit and uncontested framework, now the fundamentals themselves are widely matters of dispute. This is very evident in the case of Christology.”3 Of course, Schlier’s comments, cited by Ratzinger of the threshold of his assumption of the papacy, as well as the entirety of his address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, make clear that these sorts of magisterial interventions must be done with great care; but they cannot be simply ruled out. Yes: magisterial discipline can go wrong by overreaching. This is obvious. Yet it is also true that a lack of constraints on theological work is equally problematic not only for the Church but precisely for theologians themselves.

Why is this? In the broadest sense, because we cannot begin, Descartes-like, with a completely blank slate, building a system from the ground up where only those things are admitted that have been thoroughly examined. Any statement that is made can only be made on the basis of a thousand statements that are not made: in other words, on the basis of an unimaginably great number of things that we take for granted are true, and equally on an unimaginably great number of things that we take for granted are false. As Chesterton says in The Superstition of Divorce, “the fundamental things in a man are not the things he explains, but rather the things he forgets to explain.” We must take certain things for granted whenever we think; we must take certain things for granted in order to think. And those things will often–or perhaps invariably–be the most important things. Every person who thinks actually does begin, contrary to the assertion of the Holy Father, with a thousand “nos” in front of him.

Not only must a theologian (as well as everyone else) work with a “‘no’ in front,” in advance; it is also the case that the work a theologian does will simultaneously as well as consequentially imply saying “no” to a great number of things. The “no” might not be the primary thing being said (though importantly, sometimes it might); but a “no” cannot be separated from any “yes.” Loving something requires rejecting other things. The primary action is affirmation; the subsequent action, or corollary, is a negation. Because I love my wife, I must say “no” to adultery: again, not only consequentially, but simultaneously. It is not, “I love her; I suppose adultery is off the table.” It’s “I love her. Adultery? Are you crazy? Didn’t you hear what I just said?” Love does not proceed with a constant and self-aware rejection of adultery “in front of” it; but it can only proceed once the lovers have definitively turned their backs on it. It is precisely by affirming something that we can progress in a way that preserves the “no” without having to recall it constantly to mind. Those who live in the truth have internalized the dismissal of falsehood; those who live in the bond of love have internalized the dismissal of betrayal. They need not dismiss lies and betrayal with self-conscious constancy; their lives are that rejection, because their lives are the affirmation of a good.

Augustine teaches plainly that the moral life is inconceivable apart from the Commandments, from the “Thou shalt nots”: not because the Commandments are the most important aspect of the moral life, or because they are its fulfillment, but because they are its prerequisite.4 They are the “bare minimum” below which one cannot fall without falling outside of love entirely. In this vein, Ratzinger says, while love has a lower limit, it has no upper limit; its only measure is that of extravagance, of superabundance.5

The idea that a “no” is simply the closing off of possibilities, that freedom (intellectual or otherwise) means perpetually retaining as many unchosen options as possible, is one of the key tenets of Liberalism. The tragedy of this mistaken notion of freedom is that the elimination of possibilities that are in fact evil is actually regarded in sadness as a loss. Every child whose parents pull him back from a busy road knows this sadness; every adult who used to be that child is grateful that his parents did it, anyway. Even Pope Francis’ brief head nod to freedom’s limits (“Theological development must be open, because that’s what it’s for, and the magisterium serves to understand the limitations.”) still implies a Liberal notion of freedom, insofar as the limitations understood by the magisterium are what the theologian’s freedom bumps up against, and so indicate where the theologian must stop. In this way, the limits are “outside” of the freedom of the theologian, rather than guiding principles internal to the theologian’s work, which is to say, part of the very ordering of the theologian’s intellect from the outset. Thought carried out on the Liberal model must necessarily be “disordered,” because it has forsaken orderedness as an imposition restrictive of its freedom of movement, failing to see it as the very form of its goodness and so as the condition of its freedom genuinely understood.

The condemnation of an idea by the magisterium is the magisterium acting in service to theologians by helping them to order their thoughts to Truth. How can something so apparently negative serve this positive function? As we said above, every “yes” that affirms any good is going to imply that we say “no” to other things. This therefore is the the linchpin for theological progress in the face of a “no” from the Church: every “no” is always the consequence of a “yes.” In fact, the traditional order of magisterial pronouncements is affirmation first, condemnation second, and the latter as an emphatic way of defending the former. The anathemas are always pronounced last.

Thus, the obvious way for theologians to proceed–the way in which theologians must proceed–when they are confronted with a “no” is to ask: What is the Church saying “yes” to, if it has said “no” to this? They can further ask why this “no” of the magisterium might feel so harsh and unfeeling, why it is so hard for the fallen human heart to embrace the truth that the Church has affirmed and of which this “no” is the implication. Such a move is essential if they are to fulfill their task of helping the other members of the Church come to accept and live the “yes” embodied in the “no” that is difficult to understand.

One example that comes immediately to mind is the teaching, authoritatively on the part of the ordinary magisterium, that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood.6 It goes without saying that this teaching is rejected by a significant portion of the faithful, so much so that one of the key reasons it is rejected is that it is said not to have been definitively taught, in spite of the concluding and culminating paragraph of Ordinatio sacerdotalis: “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful“.7 The point here is not to consider the question of the all-male priesthood itself, but to provide a concrete example of the kind of work that a theologian can and must do in the face of a “no” that a theologian finds hard to accept. In my own conversations with sincere and devout Catholics who have asked about this teaching, my efforts have focused on affirming this teaching while further acknowledging that it may be difficult to understand because of the enormous number of profound and foundational questions that are bound up with the all-male priesthood. To name a few: the distinctiveness of and relationship between the sexes, and the significance that human sexuality bestows upon, or rather reveals about, our embodied humanity and the physical cosmos as a whole; the distinctiveness and relationship between the ordained priesthood and the common priesthood of the baptized, particularly in the liturgical sacrifice of the Mass; the liturgical act as an embodied sacramental act that, as sacramental, is an already-and-yet-not-yet realization of the highest purpose of Creation; and many other questions besides. I am firmly convinced that the all-male priesthood will remain incomprehensible to many precisely because and to the extent that these other questions remain unacknowledged and underdeveloped. The work of theologians on these fronts has barely begun. A dead-end for theological reflection? On the contrary: a magisterial “no” is a rallying cry for theologians.

Theologians further can, to a limited extent, offer the magisterium better language with which to express its “yes” such that is “no” is better understood; but finding “better” language is always tricky. New terms and phrases must preserve everything affirmed in the old, while the new must not cause any further misunderstanding. More often than not, however, important components of the Church’s traditional affirmations are lost, and are simply replaced by the current prejudices. Once for example someone suggested to me that the term “sin” should be replaced by “selfishness,” for no more reason than that the old term was out of date and hard for people to relate to. He had not considered, apparently, whether his term instinctively carried with it the sense of an action done specifically against God; in fact, he seemed to have rejected, without justification, the idea that we were capable of doing anything against God, that our actions had a transcendent reach. He seems to have taken it for granted that it would be “bad” to do something for my own good, as if I were something evil and good acts were only the ones that did not benefit me. To him I might ask: Would it be “sinful,” to use the offensive term, to seek the health of my soul? To exercise when I might also be spending time with my children? Were the Church to adopt his substitute, very little of Christianity would remain. A poor substitute indeed.

If theologians can suggest better terminology only with great difficulty, still, they can much more easily translate magisterial teachings for their particular audiences. The pope is the “great bridge-builder” for the whole Church; he cannot possibly hope to speak to all cultures in a way that requires no distillation. Theological reflection, in contrast, is always particular. It can serve as a meeting point between the culture and the magisterium, precisely because a theologian is always embedded in his or her culture, while the magisterium must embrace the universal.8

The pope’s comments on which we have been reflecting here were admittedly brief and off-the-cuff, and one could argue that it is dangerous or perhaps impossible to make too much out of them. It may be the case that, had he taken time to articulate his thoughts on the matter, he would have said things differently. I find it unlikely, however, that he would have articulated a view opposite to what he did when returning from Canada. The brevity with which he intimated that theological work is stifled by negative pronouncements from Rome suggests to me, rather, that he considers this so obviously true as to need little embellishment. If that is the case, then theologians who take this view of intellectual freedom to heart are cut off from their moorings. If Christianity, in the course of two thousand years, has not definitively said “no” to anything, one wonders what it can have affirmed. The magisterium should, as Schlier, says, issue a “no” only after careful reflection. But once it has, it is the duty of theologians carefully to defend it.

  1. E.g., Christopher White, “Pope Francis says Catholic Church committed cultural ‘genocide’ of Canada’s Indigenous peoples“:

    Francis also demurred when asked about the possibility of reexamining church teaching against contraception.
    While the pope defended the work of theologians who have called for such a change, saying “one cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front of you,” he said the church’s Magisterium “helps to understand the limits.”
    While not addressing the question of contraception directly, Francis went on to note that there are plenty of areas of church teaching that have changed over time, saying that “a church that does not develop its thinking in an ecclesial way is a church that goes backward.”
    “That is the problem of many today who claim to be traditionalists. They are not traditionalists, they are backwardists,” said the pope. “Tradition is the root of inspiration in order to go forward in the church.”

  2. Translation mine, from Die Beziehung zwischen Lehramt der Kirche und Exegese on the Vatican website. Emphasis added. It should be said that it is unclear if these are the precise words of Schlier in the original, or if they are a translation into German by the Vatican of the original address, which was presumably in Italian. In any case, the German reads much more naturally than the published English translation.
  3. Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 13.
  4. I confess I am having difficulty tracking down this passage. If anyone happens to read this essay and know the passage to which I am referring, I would be grateful for the reference. Close in this vein, Veritatis splendor 22 reads: “Saint Augustine asks: ‘Does love bring about the keeping of the commandments, or does the keeping of the commandments bring about love?”‘And he answers: ‘But who can doubt that love comes first? For the one who does not love has no reason for keeping the commandments’.
  5. “Christ is the infinite self-expenditure of God. And both [the stories of the multiplication of the loaves and of the wedding at Cana] point back . . . to the law governing the structure of creation, in which life squanders a million seeds in order to save one living one; in which a whole universe is squandered in order to prepare at one point a place for spirit, for man. Excess is God’s trade mark in his creation; as the Fathers put it, ‘God does not reckon his gifts by the measure’. At the same time excess is also the real foundation and form of the history of salvation, which in the last analysis is nothing other than the truly breathtaking fact that God, in an incredible outpouring of himself, expends not only a universe but his own self in order to lead man, a speck of dust, to salvation. . . . The purely calculating mind will always find it absurd that for man God himself should be expended. Only the lover can understand the folly of a love to which prodigality is a law and excess alone is sufficient.
    Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 197-198.
  6. Ordinatio sacerdotalis; Responsum ad propositum dubitum: Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio sacerdotalis
  7. Ordinatio sacerdotalis 4, emphasis added.
  8. This pairing sets aside for convenience, and does so perhaps dangerously, the increasingly important question of the magisterial role of particular bishops, who teach in communion with, but not simply as functionaries of, the papal magisterium. The exercise, conditions, authority, and autonomy (rightly understood) of magisterium at the episcopal level is sadly and urgently an undeveloped area in theology.

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