Monday, May 17, 2010

Why has the Magisterium not infallibly defined all the moral norms?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

Most moral doctrines are simply part of Sacred Tradition and have been passed down from the early days of the Church. As such, they have been assumed to be true because they have always been held and taught universally and constitute the teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium.[i] Some doctrine is not defined formally because it has never been seriously disputed. Typically, those doctrines requiring formal definition are those that have been questioned or are at the center of some dispute. As with the heresies that sparked the early controversies of the Church, challenges to long-held doctrines force the Church to refine teaching, to justify and clarify Her stance, and to affirm the details that need to be held by the faithful. St. Augustine even commented that heretics do us a kind of favor as they force the Church to think more deeply about the doctrines it passes on.[ii] However, there are also other teachings on faith and morals which are not taught as infallible teachings because they cannot be shown to be revealed or perpetually held by the Church. For example, teachings on capital punishment and slavery have developed over time. The former, while permitted in some rare cases, has become much more restricted, while the latter, which was once permitted by the Church, has become expressly forbidden. In both instances, the developments were guided by a clearer sense of the gospel message.

A teaching that has been held from the earliest days, has never been questioned, and has legitimate support in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition need not be defined since it is already part of revelation. This fact is lost on some theologians who seem to believe that anything not formally defined is fallible and can be contested. However, this is not the case, as any teachings handed on as part of Sacred Tradition and taught under the ordinary universal Magisterium are already considered irreformable, being revealed truth or closely tied to it.[iii] Aside from these factors, the obligation of the Catholic individual is to be guided by the teaching of the Church, not to simply decide the teachings by which one wishes to abide. We owe religious submission of will and intellect to all teachings of the Magisterium.[iv]

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 4B—Lesson 8,” International Catholic Univsersity, 27 February 2010,
ii. Rev. Douglas Mosey, “Patristics: Lecture 2,” International Catholic University, (Catholic Educational Television, Inc., 2006).
iii. Ashley,
iv. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 4B—Lesson 8,” International Catholic Univsersity, 27 February 2010,
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