Project Canterbury

The Second Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 12, 13, 14, 1926

New York: The Catholic Congress Committee, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

[129] The Limits of Toleration in Pious Opinion
Nashotah House, Wisconsin

IN my early seminary days there was a certain tension in regard to the "brethren of the Lord" and the perpetual virginity of His Mother. One professor taught us that the New Testament is against the supposition that she is "ever-virgin." But some of us found another professor who told us that the perpetual virginity of Blessed Mary, while not a Catholic dogma, is a "pious opinion," which we might rightly hold. The tension was eased, and we were vastly comforted.

"Pious opinions" are theological doctrines which are tolerated, allowed, even favored and commended, by at least some authority in the Church, but are not known to be revealed and, therefore, are not Catholic dogmas, not authoritatively promulgated for all to believe. There is room within orthodoxy for differing schools of thought on matters not defined as of faith; and there is room for speculation as far beyond the limits of dogma as anyone could care to go. In fact, a dogma, a great central cardinal truth, naturally spreads: it suggests corollaries, consequences, and more remote kindred ideas. Are there any [129/130] limits to the kind of thing that may fairly be called a pious opinion? Are there any limits to the toleration of opinions not covered, pro or con, by dogmatic definition?

Now, whatever may be said of intolerance in matters of dogma, in matters of pious opinion there can be no out-and-out official condemnation, with penalty attached. Official condemnation, with penalty, certainly brings the whole matter within the sphere of dogma, and we are talking about things outside the sphere of dogma. Any intolerance toward a matter of mere opinion can only be a sort of intellectual intolerance, something like our attitude toward any opinions generally accounted as absurd, but not calling for official censorship and suppression. Nevertheless, such unofficial, undogmatic condemnation of an opinion may be heavily weighted with authority of a sort. A man who says the earth is flat gets into no trouble with the Church or the Government, but he knows what it is to be outside the limits of toleration in his pious opinion.

The Roman Church, everybody knows, has its way of promulgating dogmas and anathematizing heresies. But it has also what Harnack calls its "half-dogmas, doctrinal directions, pious opinions, probable theological propositions, etc." (History of Dogma, I, 7.) Wilhelm and Scannell's Manual speaks of veritates fidei proximae. On the other hand, it speaks of doctrines not heretical, but errori theologico proxima, and others which are merely "temerarious." Some minimizers hold that all matters not strictly defined as dogma are absolutely free; but the Vatican Council decrees that "it sufficeth not to avoid heresy unless those errors which more or less approach thereto are sedulously shunned." The plain common sense of all this is that non-dogmatic approval or disapproval, toleration or intolerance, may have more or less weight, but not the same weight as dogmatic promulgation.

[131] What, then, is required of an opinion in order that it be free from even non-dogmatic disapproval? All I can see is that a pious opinion, in order to be tolerated, should be "Pious," and should be an "opinion." That is, it ought to be "pious" toward the great revealed truths of our religion, consistent with them, of the same material and color as they; and it ought to be a really prudent opinion, having due regard for the facts and reasonable probabilities, and a reasonable respect for the wholeness of the truth.

1. A pious opinion must be "pious." Let us illustrate. There is a dogma, undoubtedly, about virginity in one particular case. From this center there naturally radiates a certain extension of the principle of virginity to other cases. It is fitting, we say, that Mary, who was a virgin when our Lord was born, should always be the Virgin Mary. It is fitting, it is said, that as He was conceived without original sin, so His Mother should have been conceived without original sin. The central dogma of the Incarnation spreads out and produces the pious opinion that the Eucharist is an extension of the Incarnation, in which two natures are united in one sacramental entity. In fact, the Incarnation is the center of an immense range of pious opinion which interprets the whole universe incarnationally. In a recent writer we see that the Incarnation suggests a pious opinion that the Holy Spirit took the human spirit of Christ into hypostatic union with Himself. In cases like this, the opinion is "pious" in the sense that it is reverent toward the great dogma, coherent with it, suggested by it, perhaps useful in safeguarding it, of one substance with it.

Some theological opinions are not "pious" in this way. There is, for instance, a well-established dogma of the Atonement, and there are many theories about it: a theory of the Atonement which would explain away the objective [131/132] sacrificial act in it, leaving only a pathetic appeal, would be no true pious opinion, and thus would be outside our limits of theological toleration. There is a dogma of the Eucharist: a theory which nullifies the dogma, or which "overthroweth the nature of a sacrament," is not a pious opinion. Such beliefs may be opinions, but are not "pious"—not in reverent agreement and congruity with the faith. Incongruous opinions are not pious opinions.

2. On the other hand, some beliefs (perhaps including some mentioned above) may be "pious" enough, but are not reasonably well-grounded opinions. Ardent piety often produces an over-belief along the lines of a really revealed truth, but one-sided, exaggerated, disproportionate, growing farther and farther away from the general system of truth, unwarrantably exalting one well-beloved belief "to its logical conclusion," it is often said, but really at the expense of right reason in the proportion of faith.

For example, belief in the Deity of our Lord is a vital thing in our religion. But piety in that direction may grow out luxuriantly into a belief that He is all-divine, that there was nothing about Him that was not Deity, nothing really human, that He asked no questions for information, learned nothing that He did not know already, needed to make no struggle of will to resist temptation, and so on. Of course denial of the human nature of Christ is denial of a Catholic dogma; but without such out-and-out denial, with every intention of being orthodox, even more than orthodox, some pious minds will virtually make the divinity the only nature of Christ.

And there is a kindred one-sided distortion of Eucharistic doctrine, which piously exalts the divinity of the Sacrament until everything else, the humanity, the very species of bread and wine in their own nature, is excluded. These are over-beliefs, truly pious toward some [132/133] one single supernatural revelation, growing along the lines of one great central dogma, until they are overgrown in that direction, and are out of accord with the rest of the facts, natural and supernatural.

An abnormal feature of this matter arises from the present abnormal state of the Church. When the Church is divided as now, one branch of it (on the "branch theory"), may teach as a dogma what another branch condemns as a heresy. Or, one branch may teach as a dogma what another branch says nothing about. In the latter case, it seems reasonable that what the one branch teaches dogmatically should be tolerated as a pious opinion within the branch which defines nothing about it. The fact that a considerable portion of the Church regards a doctrine as true and important enough to be set forth officially gives a certain presumption in its favor, even within the other branch, provided that that other branch has not explicitly condemned it.

There are two principles, often used as slogans in behalf of some pious opinions, against which I feel sure we ought to be on our guard, for I think they are treacherous to the unwary. One is that such and such a doctrine, though not a Catholic dogma, is a safeguard to a Catholic dogma, an outpost which serves to make the citadel more secure, like the "hedge about the Law" of Jewish legalism, and, therefore, ought to be held. Now, I admit that it is true that a rich outgrowth of pious opinion is a safeguard and useful outpost for the more central position; but if that is the only reason for believing it, it is not a sufficient reason. It is too much like claiming ten thousand dollars damages in hopes of getting the one thousand that is justly due. The Christian religion is no gainer, in the long run, by stating twenty doctrines just to make sure that the five most important ones will be believed. And whether it is a gainer or not, its only right and tolerable course is [133/134] to set forth opinions because they are believed to be true, not because they are useful safeguards to what is true. Of course, if they are reasonably justified and are also useful safeguards, that is so much the better. But the appeal to believe A because if you do you will be sure to hold B is, I think, precarious.

The other somewhat perilous principle in regard to which I would ask you to be cautious is the appeal to what is "fitting." I have already insisted that a pious opinion should be "fitting," harmonious with revelation; but if its only support is that we think it fitting, it is in a very insecure position. Over and over again one reads arguments for doctrines based almost wholly on "It was fitting," or "It was not fitting," or "What more fitting?" A recent article in America urges acceptance of the Assumption of Blessed Mary as a pious opinion; it is not a defined dogma of faith, not a doctrine stated in Scripture, and not an event evidenced by history, but "there is a certain congruity or fitness in postulating Mary's Assumption." And so on at length, on the basis that quod potuit et decuit fecit. But the author says later on that "this congruity or fitness . . . has weight only because these rest upon an apostolic tradition." With this I quite agree, though I don't see much of an apostolic tradition in this case. The "fitness" of a doctrine has weight only as confirming weightier considerations. Because when we say, "God could do it; it was fitting that He should do it; therefore, He did do it," we are taking a great deal on ourselves, deciding that this thing and this only is suitable for Almighty God to do. It is far too subjective, far too much like saying, "I like to believe," "I want God to do this, therefore, He does it," "God could do it, God ought to do it, therefore, God did it." Of course, if a thing is the most fitting of all things possible, God does it—that none of us could doubt—but we [134/135] don't know quite enough to prescribe just what is the most fitting thing for God to do. That is why I think the "What more fitting?" argument a precarious one when it is the main support for any pious opinion.

The trouble is, that so many ideas commended as fitting only fit on one side. They may be quite harmonious with one unique fact, but out of harmony with all the rest of the great realm of nature and the supernatural. For about the worst thing you can do to the Christian religion is to take it piecemeal: and this is the favorite vice of our own home-brewed theology. Let us see it rather as a great body of belief, with a most essential core on the inside of it, and a gradual thinning-out as you get away from the central core—a thinning-out into the unknown and unimportant. There is no sharply-drawn division between the core and the outer portions, but anybody can tell well enough what is most central and what is away out toward the circumference (though there is no hard and fast circumference, either). All pious opinion must fit in: it must have its due relation to the central core of revealed truth, and to all that natural reason tells us is true, in one organic body of truth.

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