A professed Catholic who holds the Notre Dame Endowed Chair in Philosophy has drawn a sharp rebuke for his public rejection of the Church's teaching authority on contraception and other subjects.
“According to Professor Gary Gutting, the 'people of the Church have spoken' and they don't accept the teaching of the Church on this particular point,” noted Professor William E. May of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
“However, that does not settle the issue, because our Lord himself has given the authority to speak in his name only to a designated body. This was, and is, Saint Peter the Apostle and their successors – the Pope, and the bishops throughout the world who are in union with the Holy Father.”
May, a moral theologian known for over a dozen books and hundreds of essays, offered EWTN News his thoughts on Professor Gutting's recent New York Times article on “Birth Control, Bishops and Religious Authority.”
The New York Times' “Opinionator” blog, which published Gutting's article, described it as posing the question: “Is it the Pope and bishops, or the church members themselves, who define the teachings of the church?”
The question arose in the New York Times in the wake of President Obama's contraception coverage mandate, which the U.S. bishops say will force Catholic institutions to violate Church teaching in their insurance policies.
The Notre Dame professor's column responded to this charge by arguing that it is the Catholic laity, not bishops, who determine the scope of Church doctrine.
Gutting, a specialist in modern French philosophy, identifies himself as a Catholic. But he argues that the teaching authority claimed by Catholic bishops must be called into question “in our democratic society,” where “the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer.”
The Notre Dame professor, who advanced to the position of an endowed chair in 2004, argues that humans live in a world “in which God does not directly speak to us” and does not directly designate authorities to teach in his name.
Because no religious authority has the direct sanction of God, Gutting argues, it is the “members of the Church” themselves who must “decide the nature and extent of episcopal authority,” making their own judgment as to whether the bishops speak authoritatively on any particular point.
Regarding contraception, he asserts that its immorality is “no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church” – since the matter “has been settled by the voice of the Catholic people” rather than the Pope and bishops.
In his response to Gutting's essay, Professor May explained that this skepticism toward the idea of religious authority was incompatible with the Catholic concept of the Church – as the institution founded by Jesus Christ, with its bishops as successors of the apostles.
Only the Pope and the bishops in union with him, May said, “have the authority to speak, in the name of Jesus Christ, the truths that are necessary for our salvation.”
May called attention to the Second Vatican Council's teachings on both contraception and authority. Its document “Gaudium et Spes” taught that Catholics “may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.”
Elsewhere, in its document on the Church “Lumen Gentium,” Vatican II taught that Catholics owe “religious submission of mind and will … to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff,” even when these teachings fall outside the specific bounds of papal infallibility.
“In matters of faith and morals,” the same Vatican II text affirms, “the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.”
May also pointed to “Dei Verbum,” the council's document on divine revelation, which reaffirms the status of bishops as successors to the apostles, teaching with the same authority those apostles received from Christ himself.
“Unfortunately,” May remarked, “Gutting doesn't know the history of the Church or the nature of its ecclesiology – as taught by the Second Vatican Council.”
The Notre Dame professor, he said, “is simply erroneous in his assumptions” about what it means to accept the Church's teaching in faith.
On March 15, Gutting defended his claims in an e-mail to EWTN News. He acknowledged that all Catholics regard their bishops as having “some sort of authority,” but maintained that its nature and scope were subject to dispute on the part of the lay faithful.
Regarding the Second Vatican Council's statements about episcopal authority, Gutting remarked that “some Catholics share the bishops' own view” of their teaching authority – but since others disagree, he asked, “how can we decide who's right?”
“We can't appeal to the bishops to decide the matter, since what's in question is their authority. So obviously, Catholics have to answer this question on their own, by their own best lights. That's what I mean by saying it's up to individual Catholics.”
“In saying this, I take no position on what is the correct position on episcopal authority,” the Notre Dame philosophy professor wrote, “but I do reject the relativist view that there is no objectively correct view.”
While he denied taking a relativistic view of the Church, Gutting asserted that individual Catholics are free to decide for themselves whether the bishops teach with the authority of Christ as successors of his apostles.
“As to birth control,” the Notre Dame professor wrote, “Catholics who understand the bishops' authority along the lines of the passage from 'Lumen Gentium' should reject the practice of birth control; those who don't understand it that way need not.”
May, meanwhile, said Gutting's concept of the Church would allow virtually all of its teachings to be subject to revision – leaving “nothing at all” that might not be subject to reversal.