When Theologians Disagree?

Over the past year or so, in my reading, I have come across various passages from writings of theologians, both deceased and living, who have different opinions, sometimes very different, on a variety of moral issues. I even have found interesting articles comparing their different opinions, and also sources which present the arguments the theologians use to refute each other’s perspectives. Very interesting reading. :slight_smile:

However, now I have a question. When theologians disagree, and the Church has not issued any teachings to clarify the choice that we lay people should make in certain doubtful matters, how are we to proceed? Some of the debates are on current bioethical or medical choices, some of them are on perennial moral concerns. So, if a situation arises in the life of a lay person who has read many of the various theological positions on that matter, how can he/she make a moral choice?

May we, considering the various choices presented by theologians*, just follow our conscience in doubtful matters, and set aside our doubts and nagging worries about making a wrong choice? Or is there a chance that making decisions on doubtful matters, based upon the opinions of theologians, could still lead us to damn ourselves, even though we thought we were making a morally acceptable choice?

*By theologians, I am referring to theologians in full communion with the Catholic Church, whose works have an imprimatur and nihil obstat, and even the writings of some saints. I am NOT referring to any heterodox theologians or heretics.

I also know that consultation with one’s pastor is often helpful, but for various reasons, that may not always be possible or even the best course of action. It is in these situations that I am wondering how a lay person is to proceed.

You pose an interesting question if for no other reason than that advances in science move so swiftly that it is difficult to know, particularly in the area of medical issues, what may or may not be morally licit.

Add to that the fact that much, if not most of what may be available in terms of theologians’ writings may well not have an imprimatur or a nihil obstat.

The Church holds that one must follow one’s conscience; but the additional part to that is that one must have a correctly formed conscience.

Where there is no clear consensus of opinion, then one boots back to one’s conscience. “Correctly formed” can only be done if the Church has taken a position, or the matter is closely enough related to another matter where there there is a position.

I have not read anything recently in the area. My recollection is that there is an official (Church) group, or at least, Church related, who specifically focuses on medical ethical and moral issues. I can’t remember the name of the priest who has been the spokesperson for the group, but it I had to deal with an issue in that field, I would look to what they are saying first, and give significant weight to their positions.

As to being damned - God doesn’t work that way. Self honesty is required, and doing our best is required. Someone who confronts a medical issue and has to make a decision may not have the luxury of spending weeks or months researching it, and frankly, as sophisticated as some of the issues are, one has to wonder if the local pastor is anywhere near up to speed. That is not to fault them, but one can spend an entire career as a philosopher or ethicist working with these issues; pastors are far more generalists. And that is not meant to denigrate their advice; just that if one is faced with something which the priest is not trained in, one may be asking for help in the wrong area.

Keep in mind the definition from years ago; the matter must be serious, you must know that it is serious, and you must intend to do wrong. If there has not been a clear definition of wrong, the following the advice of a theologian is the best that one can do. One always needs to be clear with oneself for the underlying motivation to pick one theologian over another, but again, if the matter has not been decided, then one is only charged to do the best one can. And there are areas where there has not been a decision.

Having said that, there are areas where there has been a decision, but one can be into an issue which is not widely known. Best efforts are required; not perfection.

If God expected perfection, then we all might as well give up. We strive for it; that is a bit different than being it.

If the church has not spoken on it (dogmata, doctrine, etc.), they there is no conflict.

I can’t remember the quote, but St. Augustine said something along the lines that if you interpret scripture with charity, you may be wrong, but there is no sin committed.

I follow that, because it allows the scriptures to talk personally to me in what’s going on in my life, without all the hang ups or fear.

However, all of us, trained or not; laity, clergy, or religious, are a bit of theologians. So, when you make a conclusion about what the scripture is saying, it may indeed be saying it to you, but the others you try to relay it to might very well tell you, you are all wet!

But do not despair. Such is the beauty of God’s word…it often speaks to me and you on a very personal and different level, as long as we have an open heart, open ears, and an open mind (its the open mouth that gets us into trouble:D).

This is very good to know. Thank you for your responses.

In some circumstances recently, I have actually read some things that really made me stop and think. Theologian A might say that something is not grave matter, or indeed even a sin at all. Their work has an imprimatur and nihil obstat (forgive me but I am still learning what those terms really mean, as I am a convert of a few years now). But theologian B asserts otherwise. In other cases, saint X asserts something is neither grave matter, nor a sin, but his work has no imprimatur or nihil obstat. But the work in which he asserts such is his well-founded work supported by 20-some other theologians, both contemporary and past. In yet another example, we read of certain choices being declared acceptable by conferences of bishops, provided certain conditions are present, while other theologians vehemently disagree.

So simply reducing it to whether or not it is grave matter can be difficult. In each of my admittedly-vague examples, we have one side saying no grave matter and no sin at all, whereas the other side asserts not only a sin but obviously grave matter. Grrr. I love reading articles about moral theology, especially as it relates to modern life, but it can be infuriating sometimes. :o

(None of these examples have to do with abortion or other obvious issues by the way. All of the issues to which I allude are in doubtful matters)

I guess the answer for me personally is that if I already know something has been said to be not grave matter by an orthodox theologian, and I act accordingly, thinking I am making an acceptable choice, then I cannot possibly incur condemnation. However, what if more information later comes to light about the realities of an action or a choice, and I was horribly mistaken? If I didn’t have full knowledge at the time, then it cannot be made to be a mortal sin retroactively, right? Because the full knowledge and full consent were missing at the time, as well as the fact that the choice being grave matter was actually in contention…right?

I hate to post a specific example to a general question, but maybe it might help if I do. Here is just one example of the several that I have had in mind in creating this thread.

Say a woman who has an ectopic pregnancy consented to the use of the drug that makes the embryo detach from her fallopian tube (which some theologians say is acceptable while others say it is a direct act of abortion) and later the Magisterium of the Church pronounce that such a treatment is gravely sinful. She could not therefore be punished in Hell for committing a mortal sin, right?


This is a link to a very interesting speech given by then Cardinal Ratzinger on conscience.


First, remember that theologians as experts have the authority of scholars, not the authority of teachers and shepherds such as (say) bishops have by virtue of their sacramental ordination. Theologians try to help us understand and explain our faith, but as scholars their work remains tentative.

Thus, they may disagree, and their authority depends on the depth and accuracy of their scholarship and the reasonableness of their arguments. Not all issues are clear, and there are legitimate disagreements. We, as faithful, must do the best we can in honesty to be faithful–not to the theologians, but to the teaching of the Church.

The argument about mortal sin does include that proviso that mortal sins require full knowledge. If you don’t know a sin is grave matter, and have done what you can to determine if it is or not, as well as consulted your own conscience for what is right in this case–then why would a loving God condemn you for having made an error when you did not have the tools to make a better choice? Would you condemn your own child for such a faulty judgment? No–you would say, most likely, something like, “Yes, that was wrong. I hope you learned from it. I forgive you–now avoid this sin.”

Indeed, it may be that the experience of those who try what seems permissible, but turns out to be burdensome or sinful, will help clarify what is sinful, what is gravely sinful, and so on. Sometimes, sadly, we seem to need the pain of sin to find a better path.

This is very helpful clarification with regard to the opinions of theologians. Thank you. Their authority has been rather difficult for me to understand.

With regard to the rest, I am wondering about a situation where someone believes they are acting appropriately initially, but they entrust themselves to the Holy Spirit to show them where and if they are wrong. If they are in the end, convicted within themselves that their initial choice or action was wrong, then would it only subjectively be a sin for them after this point? Because they are acting against their conscience after that time? Again I am speaking about doubtful matters, not ones clarified already by teachings of the Church.

I’d think they would come to realize it was a sin and a mistake all along. We may come to realize we did wrong in retrospect, but that does not make it a sin only then–it was always sinful and harmful, whether we realized it or not. What makes a sin is not entirely the rebellion of the sinner, but the harm it does to others.

I’m thinking of, for example, a youth who has not been taught that sex was wrong, and so desires a child “to have someone of my own to love.” Later in life, she realizes that it was a selfish choice, and burdened her own life and that of her child. She comes to see she sinned, and can now repent (and be forgiven)–but the sin was always there, even though she had no training or ability to recognize it when she committed it. Would she be held guilty of the sin? I suspect not–certainly not as a mortal sin, until she could recognize the full gravity of it. But she still has to bear the burden of that sin, whether or not she recognizes it as sin. Is that something like what you were thinking of?

No, not quite the kind of thing I was thinking of. Because here, I am asking about doubtful matters, areas that either are so new that the Church is delayed in providing definitive teaching or areas that are perennial concerns but that the Church has seen fit to not declare something sinful, but instead leaves it to the discretion of the person. Fornication has always been taught to be a sin, so that has a more obvious answer.

I could mention many examples of doubtful matters, but I fear that would merely invite a whole bunch of speculation as to the morality of those particular matters, rather than keeping to the topic of an individual forming his conscience and making a decision based on what he knows, entrusting himself to the Holy Spirit to show him the truth if he was wrong. In situations of doubtful matters, where the question of sin is not answered clearly, and a person perceives a freedom to act or choose in a certain way, but later the Holy Spirit prompts him to regret the choice, or more information comes to light and the Church finally pronounces Her judgement of an action as gravely sinful, what becomes of the individual then? Are they suddenly in a state of moral sin because of the Church’s authority to bind and loose, even though the action was in the past, or at the very least, stopped as soon as definitive judgement is provided? Or is that person still in a state of grace, moving forward from that point with a fuller understanding and better knowledge, regretful for past mistakes, but not having lost sanctifying grace through those mistakes in doubtful matters?

The point I was trying to make was that if we’ve done our “homework” in seeking to find what the Church teaches, and not gotten definitive answers, than we make the best choice we can make. It may be that, later, we look back on our experience and see that we made a poor choice (or the Church may reflect on experience and realize that a chosen course of action is sinful–but at the time we did not have such knowledge or teaching available. In those cases, how would a merciful God judge us? We tried, we did everything available, but did not chose what was for the best.

Another example comes to mind: slavery–for centuries, the Church accepted slavery as permissible–so long as the master and slave treated one another with respect and as fellow members of the Body of Christ. Now, with further reflection, we have come to realize that slavery itself, both the act of enslaving a human being, and of buying or selling persons, is immoral (CCC 2414). Does that mean that a person who bought a slave in 1805, say, is guilty of sin? Not so–they did what was accepted in that time. Their treatment of the persons in their care might be worthy of judgment, but we cannot retroactively condemn them for doing what was considered at least partially acceptable at the time. It’s only looking back that we see the full array of problems with slavery.

How much more when it is a case where we have not yet been able to say yes or no, good or bad. As I’ve said, and feel I’m repeating it too often, we simply must judge as best we can, and continue to reflect on our experience to see whether it is really acceptable.

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