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This page has been created as a forum for informed, open and responsible theological discussion. It will be moderated with a view to maintaining high levels of theological debate conducted with rigour and with courtesy. Please feel free to contribute and also to use this forum for your own study and debate. We like to think it will provide a resource for parishes, RCIA groups, theology students and others who are interested in how different theologians approach questions of contemporary relevance to religious traditions, with a particular but not exclusive emphasis on debates within the Catholic theological tradition.

We welcome discussion from all perspectives, and we also welcome suggestions for topics that you might like to see explored here, or recommendations for possible contributors. If you have an essay, article, video, poem or other artwork that you think would be an appropriate focal point for discussion, please email Thomas Lynch at thomas.lynch@roehampton.ac.uk.

Teaching or Commanding?

We decided that an appropriate topic to launch this forum would be the vital question of the role of theologians in relationship to the official magisterium, and one of the first things that came to mind was Professor Nicholas Lash’s 2010 essay, ‘Teaching or Commanding?‘, published in America Magazine, Lash argues

that the most fundamental truth about the structure of Christian teaching cannot lie in distinctions between teachers and pupils—although such distinctions are not unimportant—but in the recognition that all Christians are called to lifelong learning in the Spirit, and all of us are called to embody, communicate and protect what we have learned.

We were delighted when Professor Gavin D’Costa agreed to write a short response to Lash to begin the discussion, thus opening up a spacious area for debate between two of Britain’s most highly regarded theologians, who come at this question from quite different angles. D’Costa argues that

very often when teaching is delivered through the teaching office, let us say the early Council of Nicaea (which is presumably an indisputable exercise of the teaching magisterium accepted ecumenically), teaching and governance are intrinsically joined together. This is precisely because disputes have arisen and sometimes need to be settled. When the body of the church is suffering from grievous disunity, unity may be regarded as paramount.

So please join the discussion, and help us to make this a showcase of how disagreement can be expressed and differences can be aired in a spirit of creative and critical fidelity to the Catholic theological tradition. (Both contributions are published with permission of the authors). 

‘Teaching or Commanding?’ by Nicholas Lash:

When the Second Vatican Council ended, several of the bishops who took part told me that the most important lesson they had learned through the conciliar process had been a renewed recognition that the church exists to be, for all its members, a lifelong school of holiness and wisdom, a lifelong school of friendship (a better rendering of caritas than “charity” would be). It follows that the most fundamental truth about the structure of Christian teaching cannot lie in distinctions between teachers and pupils—although such distinctions are not unimportant—but in the recognition that all Christians are called to lifelong learning in the Spirit, and all of us are called to embody, communicate and protect what we have learned. Much of what is said about the office of “teachership” or magisterium seems dangerously forgetful of this fact.

Aspects of Instruction

The concept of instruction is ambiguous. If I am “instructing” someone, I may be teaching or I may be issuing a command. Someone who is “under instruction” is being educated, but “I instructed him to stop” reports a command. “Instructions for use,” however, provide information and hence would seem to be educational. There may be cases in which it is not easy to decide the sense. It is, however, important not to confuse the two senses and even more important not to subordinate instruction as education to instruction as command.

I have long maintained that the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism lies in just such subordination of education to governance, the effect of which has too often been to substitute for teaching proclamation construed as command. As Yves Congar said, it is impossible to make the function of teaching an integral element of jurisdiction because it is one thing to accept a teaching, quite another to obey an order: “Autre chose est agréer une doctrine, autre chose obéir à un ordre.”

Dissent and Disagreement

I have said that Catholic Christianity is a lifelong school of friendship, holiness and wisdom. Yet the tasks of those exercising the pastoral teaching office seem not, in fact, primarily to be teaching, at least as this activity is understood in most schools.

In 1975 a plenary session of the International Theological Commission issued a series of theses on the relationship between the magisterium and theology. In 1966 Paul VI had addressed an international congress on “The Theology of Vatican II” on the same topic, and the commission introduced its theses with two brief quotations from that address. The commission defined ecclesiastical magisterium as “the office of teaching which, by Christ’s institution, is proper to the college of bishops or to individual bishops joined in hierarchical communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”

What terminology might be appropriate to describe what someone is doing when, for whatever reason, he or she seeks to take issue with some particular instance of magisterial teaching? “Disagreeing” is the term that comes to mind. But because teaching is, in current ecclesiastical usage, usually construed as governance, as command, such taking issue is described in the recent literature not as disagreement but as “dissent.”

Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., reminded readers of his 1983 book Magisterium that Pius XII, in “Humani Generis,” announced that “when a pope, in an encyclical, expresses his judgment on an issue that was previously controverted, this can no longer be seen as a question for free discussion by theologians”; Father Sullivan goes on to point out, however, that “there is no such statement in any of the documents that were approved by the Council.” The silence of the Second Vatican Council notwithstanding, John Paul II, addressing the American bishops in Los Angeles in 1987, said without qualification: “It is sometimes said that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops in the United States and elsewhere.”

If Father Sullivan’s study seemed content to work with the terminology of “dissent,” Ladislas Orsy, S.J., is more troubled by the notion. “Dissent has become,” says Father Orsy, “one of the dominant themes in Catholic theology in the United States,” but “is mentioned less in European writings.” Dissent, he says, “is an imperfect term under several aspects”: It is purely negative; it implies “deep-lying internal antagonism”; it is historically loaded; and so on. “It follows that if we abandoned the word ‘dissent’ altogether, we would lose little and gain much.” I agree. Yet, “All these arguments notwithstanding,” Father Orsy concludes, “it appears that for the time being at least” we must “live with an unsuitable word.” For goodness’ sake, why?

Here is a very simple model: The teacher looks for understanding, the commander for obedience. Where teaching in most ordinary senses of the term is concerned, if a pupil’s response to a piece of teaching is yes, the student is saying something like “I see” or “I understand.” If the response is no, the pupil is saying “I don’t see” or “I don’t understand.” When subordinates say yes to a command, they obey; when they say no, they disobey. Dissent is disobedience. The entire discussion about the circumstances in which it may be permissible or appropriate to dissent from magisterial utterances makes clear that what is at issue is when and in what circumstances it may be virtuous, and not sinful, to disobey. There could, in my opinion, be no clearer evidence that what we call “official teaching” in the church is, for the most part, not teaching but governance.

I am not in the least denying that governance, the issuing of instructions and commands, has its place in the life of the church, as of any other society. That is not what is at issue. The point at issue is that commands direct; they do not educate. It is one thing to accept a doctrine, quite another to obey an order.

 Manuals and Rule Books

Commenting on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “The Splendor of Truth” (1993), Herbert McCabe, O.P., contrasted manuals and rule books. A manual helps one to acquire some skill: as a football player or a piano-tuner or, if we extend the range of skills to those habits we call the virtues, as a just or generous person. A manual is an instrument of education. In addition to manuals there are rule books, which tell you what, in some particular context, you are and are not allowed to do. Father McCabe writes: “The rule book does not tell you anything about acquiring skills in football; it simply tells you the rules and the kinds of action that would break them.” The rule book is an instrument of governance. What worried Father McCabe about “The Splendor of Truth” was that it is, he said, “in great part, an attack on those who want to read the rule book as a manual by those who want to read the manual as though it were a rule book.”

Nowhere in “The Splendor of Truth” does John Paul II discuss disagreement in the church or the duty of episcopal authority to monitor and guide it. Indeed, near the end of the encyclical, in a passage denouncing “dissent” and “opposition to the teaching of the Church’s pastors,” the pope comes close to claiming that there is simply no place for disagreement on moral questions in the church: “While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for such a process.” It “cannot depend simply” upon “exchanges and conflicts of opinion”—fair enough. But might Catholics not have expected him to say something about the part such “exchanges” should play?


“It is for ecclesiology,” said Robert Murray, S.J., an English Jesuit, “that [the term] magisterium till about the mid-nineteenth century referred to the activity of authorized teaching in the Church. The use with a capital ‘M’ to denote episcopal and especially papal authority was developed mainly in the anti-Modernist documents.”

The 19th-century shift from the name of a function, that of teaching, to the name of a group of officers or “functionaries” was for two reasons most unfortunate. First, it was unfortunate because it created the impression that in the church only bishops bear responsibility for witnessing to the Gospel. (We should never forget that most bishops were first catechized by their mothers.) Second, it was unfortunate because bishops seldom do much teaching in the ordinary sense, being preoccupied with the cares of middle management. As a result, the contraction of the range of reference of magisterium to the episcopate alone served only to deepen the subordination of education to governance that I have deplored.

There are, of course, exceptions to the claim that most bishops seldom do much teaching in the ordinary sense. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, when he was archbishop of Milan, could fill his cathedral with people who came to hear him interpret the Scriptures. And an encyclical like Pope Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate” (2009) is surely a quite straightforward exercise in teaching.

I have referred to the contraction of the range of “official teachers” to the episcopate. In fact, during the 20th century the magisterium contracted even further. John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” is addressed “to all the bishops of the Catholic Church.” Near the end of it, the pope says: “This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this teaching,” thereby contracting the range of reference still further—to himself.

According to the church historian Eamon Duffy, John Paul II, like Pius XII before him, “saw the pope as first and foremost a teacher, an oracle.” However accurate the image of particular popes as “oracles” may be as a description, it remains the case that any pope who behaves within the church as an oracle misunderstands his office. The image of the oracle is of one who brings fresh messages from God. This no pope can do, for the church he serves as its chief bishop has already heard the Word and lives by that faith, which is its God-given response. It is the duty of those who hold teaching office in the church to articulate, to express, to clarify the faith by which we live.


Hence the importance of the doctrine of “reception.” In one of St. Augustine’s sermons (No. 272) he says: “When I hold up the host before communion, I say ‘Corpus Christi,’ and you reply ‘Amen,’ which means: ‘Yes, we are.’” The response of the faithful to sound teaching in the church is to say, “Yes, that’s it.” Where this response is lacking, the teaching is called into question.

Securus judicat orbis terrarum (“The judgment of the whole world is secure”). In the months leading up to the first Vatican Council, Cardinal John Henry Newman insisted that he “put the validity of the Council upon its reception by the orbis terrarum” (whole world). And when, after the council, he hesitated before accepting the definition of papal infallibility, Lord Acton remarked, “He was waiting for the echo.”

“Human community,” says Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., “is sustained by conversation.” That he regards this axiom as an ecclesiological and not merely an anthropological principle is clear from his later remark that “sharing our faith is always more than stating our convictions: it is finding our place in that conversation which has continued ever since Jesus began to talk with anyone whom he met in Galilee, and which is the life of the Church.” Disagreement is an unavoidable feature of serious conversation about the things that matter most. David Woodard, a brilliantly effective but somewhat eccentric parish priest with whom I had the privilege of working in the early 1960s, came back one day after visiting a neighboring parish and exclaimed: “Those people are completely lacking in Christian charity; they can’t even disagree with one another!”

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (“Unity in essentials, liberty in open questions, in all things charity”). Pope John XXIII quoted this 16th-century motto in his first encyclical. It seems to me that where the relationships between governance and education and between the episcopate and teachers of theology are concerned, there are few more important tasks for the bishops to undertake than to act as moderators of disagreement, educators in Christian conversation.

Nicholas Lash

Teaching and command: a response to Professor Nicholas Lash

Gavin D’Costa

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?  (Matthew 5:43-47)

While Jesus enjoyed friendships and conversation, a lot of his teaching is command and a lot of his commands are teaching. The bishops of the church, as authorized teachers, have an analogous function: making the truths of the faith present to us in their three fold office: teaching, priestly, and governance.

In my view Professor Lash makes three questionable claims in his piece. First, he contrasts teaching or command. That is the title of his piece. He puts the first, teaching, as partner with conversation and friendship and the second, command, as partner to governance and authority. This is problematic because very often when teaching is delivered through the teaching office, let us say the early Council of Nicaea (which is presumably an indisputable exercise of the teaching magisterium accepted ecumenically), teaching and governance are intrinsically joined together. This is precisely because disputes have arisen and sometimes need to be settled. When the body of the church is suffering from grievous disunity, unity may be regarded as paramount. Charity should normally be the rule (unitas caritas), but sometimes unity in truth (unitas veritatis) is required to preserve charity. [CDF, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, 26] These are complicated matters, but decisions are sometimes required. We clearly have both offices functioning together without contradiction. Lash admits as much, but never specifies precisely when this is permissible. If it is permissible then much of his contrast collapses.

History shows the church as a pretty robust body that can tolerate many different views and good prolonged arguments. Looking at the history of doctrine, this is precisely how it developed. Every now and then those who have both a teaching and governance office might decide that the time has come to clarify and elucidate on a disputed matter in the deposit of faith – or on matters related to that deposit. The level of the matter at stake is vital. Were Nicaea or Vatican II to comment on the best football team or who might be the next president of the World Bank, matters not connected with faith and morals, then we would know this is not a matter of governance or of authentic teaching.

The second questionable area is his discussion of ‘teachership’. Lash fails to give any answer about who are the proper functionaries of delivering authorized teaching. Or rather, the only clear answer eventually seems to be ‘the response of the faithful’. I suspect that were MORI polls operating, Nicaea may lack authority. Lumen Gentium 12 would not support Lash’s view of it as sole criteria. Reception is important, but cannot be determinative. Lash seems to blame the mid-nineteenth century onwards for focussing on the episcopal and papal teaching authority, with the result that teaching and governance become conflated and the former is subordinated to the latter. Vatican I and II would seem to be at fault. But they are ecumenical Councils and the authority of such Councils have been accepted from well before the nineteenth century. So Lash inadvertently develops a type of reverse-Lefebvrianism. Things were better in the past and the church’s fear of modernity has made it authoritarian. Lefebvre also wants a pre-modern church, but an authoritarian one.

The bishops’ authority is behind the splendid Catechism of the Catholic Church.  It is a huge document of teachings, spiritual guidance, commands, exhortations, invitations, and even a few implied anathemas. There, the binary division between teaching or command is placed in a much wider context.

Thirdly, dissent. Lash suggests we do away with it because it reinforces command and rule. This is an odd view because if the teacher teaches X and the pupil says, I see, I understand, but you are wrong, it is Y, we have a straight forward disagreement. What’s the difference between disagreement and dissent? The interesting discussion on dissent in the CDF’s, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, 32-41 actually notes that there is legitimate disagreement when a fully formed conscience cannot accept authorized teachings (24-31). That is not dissent. An example of dissent could be a group or a single Catholic theologian using public media, like a popular secular newspaper, to argue that the teaching of the Church on matter X is wrong. It can be a more subtle argument: it may quote a Cardinal who (seems to) suggest that the teaching was wrong and that therefore in good conscience on may disagree and hold Y (assuming Y is incompatible with X).

I’m not sure if I’m dissenting or disagreeing with Professor Lash. But I hope it is part of that friendly conversation that we called to have in the church.

Gavin D’Costa

[Please click on ‘comments’ – below right – to read a response by Professor Paul Lakeland and and another by Professor Joe Selling, and to contribute to the discussion]