The Teaching Authority of the Church

Article excerpt

Then there are moral principles that are derived from these first principles of natural law. An example of these is the right of a person to take the life of another in self-defense. There are the conditions for a just war. There are certain circumstances - for example in cases of extreme hunger - when one can legitimately take the goods of another without his permission. That the State has the right to promulgate laws for the common good, such as traffic laws or laws on criminal justice.

There are some moral laws which are not as obvious as the first two categories mentioned above. These are the tertiary principles of the natural law. A case in point is the evil of artificial contraceptives. I can sympathize with my nonCatholic friends who find it difficult to accept the judgment issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968 that artificial contraceptives of any kind - pills, condoms, IUDs, etc. - are inherently evil. But I cannot condone those who still consider themselves as Catholics, including a few priests, for not accepting the moral authority of Humanae Vitae. The very essence of a being a Catholic is to adhere to the teaching authority of the Church on moral issues, whether or not stated in an infallible document.

In this regard, I want to share with the so-called "cafeteria Catholics" the very profound observations of one of the most outstanding historians of modern times, the British author Paul Johnson. Author of such best-selling books as Modern Times, A History of the English People and A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson wrote in The Quest for God about the teaching authority of the Catholic Church among all the Catholic faithful: "One reason I find great comfort in the Catholic Church is its sense of authority. I am in some ways a chaotic person, a wild person, and I need discipline. A lot of that discipline I can impose upon myself. For a quarter of a century I have been a self-employed freelance writer, and during that time I have produced a number of very long and complicated books: that requires self-discipline and I am capable of providing it in full measure in my professional life. But there are other areas in which I require discipline from outside. I recognise the fact and I look to the church to provide it. Many people feel like me. They want some external discipline of the spirit, they need the help of some informed and insistent and confident guide to push them in the right direction and keep them moving. They think the Catholic Church does this better than any other institution of its kind, and they are right.

"They want certitude as well as discipline. Here again, the Catholic Church provides it. It does not say: it is likely that God wants this or that, or that he may require us to believe this doctrine and to perform that duty. The Catholic Church speaks the language of 'must' and 'will' and 'is' and 'therefore', not of 'might' and 'maybe' and 'on the other hand'. A very large number of people require this certitude. They find life complicated and difficult to understand. They are not skillful at working out what it means to them and what they ought to do in all circumstances. They have views and opinions, of course, and likes and dislikes' but there are large areas where they need firm truths to cling to and firm instructions as to their path ahead. They like a church which lays down the spiritual law and insists on it and, insofar as it lies in its power, enforces it.

"The Catholic Church is such a body. Especially under the present pope, John Paul II, it has made its teaching absolutely clear on a large number of points of conduct, not least those which are particularly contentious and difficult and where public opinion is not on the side of strictness-- such as birth control and abortion and divorce. John Paul's many and detailed encyclicals have clarified Catholic teaching on virtually the whole range of faith and morals, and they have been accompanied by the publication of the largest and most comprehensive catechism ever issued by the church, which outlines, explains and justifies the faith, citing scriptural and patristic authority, with admirable lucidity and force. …