Common Opinion in the Church with regard to scriptural or theological questions are not part of the Church’s infallible teaching.
The official teaching authority of the Catholic Church in Rome maintains that the exclusion of women from the ordained ministries is part of the Church’s Tradition.
In the past theologians, bishops and popes held popular convictions which they believed were part of faith. However, many of these convictions have been proved to be untrue. The fact that so many people in the past held a particular belief does not, of itself, prove it is part of the Church’s unchangeable Tradition.
“The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women . . . The Church’s tradition in the matter has thus been so firm in the course of the centuries that the Magisterium has not felt the need to intervene in order to formulate a principle which was not attacked, or to defend a law which was not challenged. But each time that this tradition had the occasion to manifest itself, it witnessed to the Church’s desire to conform to the model left to her by the Lord.”
Inter Insigniores (1976) no 6 – 8.
However, on inspection this so-called ‘firm tradition’ turns out to be no more than a ‘common opinion’. Let us look at some examples.
The typical theologian of the past
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD), whom Rome has called the ‘model for all theologians’, was firmly convinced that “women are in a state of subjection to men”. This is not only due to the punishment imposed on Eve after the Fall, he says but because of woman’s natural inferiority.
|Portrait of Thomas Aquinas by Joos Gent dd. 1475|
“Subjection is twofold. One is servile, by virtue of which a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit; and this kind of subjection began after sin. There is another kind of subjection which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.”
Summa Theologica I, qu. 92, art. 1, ad 2.
But Thomas Aquinas’ views may not be taken as a norm of real ‘Tradition’. He held many wrong views. If Thomas could have a glance at a modern introduction to the Bible, for instance, surely his eyes would open wide in surprise and bewilderment.
- What? Was the world not created in six days?
- Were the psalms not composed by David?
- Was the Book of Wisdom written only after the exile?
- Did Judith not exist?
- Must the story of Jonah and the whale be relegated to the realm of inspired midrash?
We can imagine how the great theologian would lay down the book with blazing indignation. “These opinions”, he might say, “offend pious ears! They go counter to the common teaching of the Church!”
It is true that in those ages all alike, whether Popes, bishops, theologians or doctors of the Church, were unanimously of the opinion that God created the world in six days, that David himself composed all the psalms, that the story of Judith did actually happen, that Jonah was truly swallowed by a sea monster. Such ideas were commonly believed true and to be part of Christian faith. They were preached as such from the pulpit. They were taught as such in the monastic schools. Yes, they these truths were considered an inalienable part of revealed doctrine!
Thomas Aquinas’s mistaken idea of woman’s being in a state of subjection is due to his wrong interpretation of Scripture texts such as Genesis 2,4b – 3,24.
The sacrament of confession
Theological experience of the last century has taught us to make a careful distinction between what was commonly believed to be true and what was formally preached as part of revealed doctrine after an informed examination of sacred scripture.
In the first two centuries of the Church confession was normally considered a public sacrament. Sacramental absolution was, moreover, only granted once or twice in one’s life. For certain grave sins, such as adultery, apostasy and murder, absolution was delayed until the moment of death. Common opinion at the time would have recoiled from “frequent confessions” such as was propagated from the 17th to the 20th century.
During those centuries the Church taught how valuable confession can be as a means of sanctification. Confession not only offers public reconciliation: it can also help the penitent Christian to grow gradually to a greater likeness of the sinless Christ. This aspect of confession had not been fully discovered by the faithful of the Early Church, but it was contained implicitly in their faith concerning the sacrament. In our own time the ordinary faithful seem to be reacting against the excesses of frequent confession.
The point in considering this historical survey is to discern that the common opinion of a particular era does not express unchangeable Tradition.
Taking interest for loans
Or consider the matter of taking interest for loans. We may judge this the most natural thing in the world, but not so the Church of the Middle Ages. The Old Law of Moses strictly forbade taking interest from Jewish nationals (Exodus 22,25; Deuteronomy 23,20-21; Ezechiel 18,8.13) and this law was interpreted very severely by scholastic theologians. Many a Pope condemned all taking of interest as usury. The Second Council of the Lateran (1139 AD) prescribed that persons who take interest “be not admitted to the sacraments”. And: “in case they do not retract their error, they should be refused an ecclesiastical burial.”
“One cannot condone the sin of [taking interest on loans] by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully, either to increase one’s fortune, to purchase new estates, or to engage in business transactions. The law governing loans consists necessarily in the equality of what is given and returned; once the equality has been established, whoever demands more than that violates the terms of the loan.”
Pope Benedict XIV in his decree Vix Pervenit (1745)
Growing insight regarding the true nature of Church’s law of justice made the authorities modify their stand. Since capital is, after all, a productive agent in our economic setup, a just percentage of interest may be demanded. Do we not lease cattle or farm lands for a share in the produce? Taking rent for money amounts to claiming a share in milk produced by your cow. Exploiting others by usury remains condemned as before.
This again is an instance of how the Church learned to see the distinction between a common opinion of former ages (“no interest at all”) and the true nature of her teaching (“no usury”).
Until the liturgical reforms by the Second Vatican Council, St. Leo the Second, St. Philomena and St. George were commonly considered saints. Their feasts ranked in the official liturgical calendar for centuries. Masses were celebrated in their honour. Boys and girls were named after them at baptism. They were made patrons of churches, of associations and even of countries.
In spite of all this devotion the Congregation of the Sacred Rites decided to cancel these saints from the liturgical lists. Why? Because it was found that even the very existence of these saints can reasonably be doubted.
- “Leo the Second” owed his existence to a mistaken reading of ancient calendars in which the “second feast of Leo the Great” (on the 3rd of July) was indicated as “feast of Leo II”, Later generations began to think that there was question of a Leo other than the one celebrated on the 11th of April. This is how the existence of Leo the Second came to be assumed.
- St. George has a different origin. He occurs only in legendary traditions which, moreover, can be proved to be of pre-Christian, pagan origin (the famous old theme of the hero defending a virgin against a dragon).
- St. Philomena’s career began with the finding of a sepulchre bearing the inscription “philomena” on a broken title-stone. The tomb was interpreted to have contained a martyr and the bones inside (which archaeology has proved cannot have belonged to the “Philomena” mentioned on the title-stone) occasioned visions among sudden venerators. In fact, nothing definite is known about this Philomena (if we admit the existence of such a person). She might have been a Christian, a saint and a martyr, but then again, she might not. We don’t know that she did. We even don’t know at what age she died! In short: we know far too little to allow public veneration.
The Church was right, therefore, when she dropped the public veneration of these saints in spite of the ‘common opinion’ of former Catholics. In doing so she did not change her teaching, but merely corrected that ‘common opinion’. For these two do not coincide!
When Galileo Galilei, around 1610, began to publish his finding that it is the earth that goes round the sun, and not vice versa, Church authorities opposed him. They claimed that Sacred Scripture teaches that the sun goes round the earth. These were their main texts:
- “Lord God, you are very great. You have stretched out the heavens like a tent …… You have set the earth on its foundations so that it could never be shaken …… You have made the moon to mark the seasons, The sun knows its time for setting .”
- “The sun rises, and the sun goes down and hastens to the place where it rises.”
- “The sun stood still in the midst of heaven and did not hasten to go down for a full day.”
The religious authorities of his day, the Pope and the chief theologians, stuck to a literal understanding of the Bible and refused to accept the evidence that Galileo had collected through his scientific observations. They also pointed out that the belief about the sun moving round the earth had been firmly held by all previous generations of believers. As a result, his views were condemned and he was treated as an unbeliever.
On February 24, 1616 Galileo’s scientific views were condemned by a special commission of theologians at Rome, the centre of the Roman Catholic Church. He was forbidden to “hold, teach or defend his opinion in any way, either verbally or in writing.”
On February 24, 1633 Galileo was again summoned to an ecclesiastical court in Rome. He was found guilty of ‘heresy’. He was made to kneel down and abjure his opinion. Until his death, in 1642, he was kept under house arrest.
“The statement that the earth is not the centre of the world; that the earth is not immovable, but that it moves, and also with the movement of a full day, is absurd, false philosophically, and, theologically considered, erroneous in faith.”
Condemnation by the Holy Office (precursor of the present Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith), 13 Febr. 1663
Galileo’s conflict became the best known example of the clash between scientific research and religious authority.
Try to work out these questions:
- What is wrong with the scriptural arguments of the Roman theologians against Galileo’s view?
- Why does the argument about the ‘faith of previous generations’ not hold water?
Former centuries may have been convinced that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, or that God created the world in precisely six days. Such convictions may even have represented the universal and common opinion in the Church. Yet, as new information became available and new understanding grew, the Church could quietly lay off such opinions without impairing her unchangeable doctrine.
‘Common opinion’ does not automatically brand a belief to be Church doctrine! This is the big lesson of contemporary theology and it should be kept in mind when judging sacred scripture.
Church doctrine is contained in the direct or indirect teaching of Scripture and genuine Tradition which only finds expression in the considered and informed statements of Church authority. ‘Common opinion’ of past centuries was often mistaken, one-sided or based on ignorance, and so has been clearly proved not to be commensurate with the Church’s official teaching.
It will not do, therefore, to appeal to such ‘common opinion’ of ages gone by when discussing modern scripture questions. At one time ‘common opinion’, also in the Church, held the earth to be flat and the sun to move round it! And yet, which of us will give up our making use of satellite technology for TV and mobile phones, or cancel a “round-the-world” trip on account of it!
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