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Theological Censures

Theological Censures

Doctrinal judgments by which the Church stigmatizes certain teachings detrimental to faith or morals. They should not be confounded with canonical censures, such as excommunication, suspension, and interdict, which are spiritual punishments inflicted on delinquents.

The right of censuring adverse doctrines has ever been asserted by the church, from St. Paul, who declares anathema on them who should pervert the Gospel of Christ unto another Gospel (Gal., i, 8), and warns his disciples to avoid the profane novelties of words and the oppositions of knowledge falsely so called (I Tim., vi, 20), down to Pius X, who condemned the errors of "Modernism". It is an essential part of her magisterium which, says Newman, "acts in two channels, in direct statement of truth and in condemnation of error." See the letter "Gravissimas inter" of Pius X and the constitution "de fide" (ch. iv) of the Vatican Council (Denzinger, nos. 1524 and 1645). That right belongs to the Church herself, but she may exercise it through popes, councils, Roman congregations, universities, or special commissions. Bishops, by virtue of their office, hold the power of censuring doctrines, but their judgment is not final, and their prohibition binds only within the limits of their respective dioceses. Private theologians, either individually or collectively have no authority officially to censure propositions, however they may, unless expressly enjoined from so doing in special cases, judge and qualify them according to existing doctrinal standards, and their initiative often goes far towards preparing the official action of the Church. History shows considerable variation in the exercise of the censuring power. In early days, when the cardinal truths of Christianity were at stake, an author, book, or tract was purely and simply announced heretical and anathematized. In the Middle ages, which were the ages of theological speculation and also of subtilty, a more minute notation had to be resorted to, and even special organs were created for that purpose (see Index of Prohibited Books). In recent times specific notes are often discarded in favor of a more comprehensive mode of censuring; damnandas et proscribendas esse. The various documents embodied in nearly all modern textbooks of moral theology and in Denzinger's "Enchiridion" (to which we must now add the Holy Office Decree, 3 July, "Lamentabili sane exitu" and the papal Encyclical, 8 Sept., 1907, "Pascendi dominici gregis") shows a large number of theological censures or notes. Those most in use will be found in the Bulls "Unigenitus" and "Auctorem fidei" (Denzinger, CI and CXIV). We may divide them into three groups according as they bear principally upon (1) the import, or (2) the expression, or (3) the consequences, of condemned propositions.

(1) Hæretica (heretical), erronea (erroneous), hæresi proxima (next to heresy), errori proxima (next to error), temeratia (rash), etc.

A proposition is branded heretical when it goes directly and immediately against a revealed or defined dogma, or dogma de fide; erroneous when it contradicts only a certain (certa) theological conclusion or truth clearly deduced from two premises, one an article of faith, the other naturally certain. Even though a statement be not obviously a heresy or an error it may yet come near to either. It is styled next, proximate to heresy when its opposition to a revealed and defined dogma is not certain, or chiefly when the truth it contradicts, though commonly accepted as revealed, has yet never been the object of a definition (proxima fidei). The censure next, or proximate to error, whose meaning may be determined by analogy to the foregoing, is of less frequent use than that of rashness or temerity, which means opposition to sound common opinion (communis), and this either for paltry reasons or no reasons at all. A still finer shade of meaning attaches to such censures as sapiens hæresim, errorem (smacking of heresy or error), suspecta de hæresi, errore (suspected of heresy or error). Propositions thus noted may be correct in themselves, but owing to various circumstances of time, place, and persons, are prudently taken to present a signification which is either heretical or erroneous. To this group also belong some special stigmata with reference to determined topics, e.g. the preambles of faith (infidelis, aversiva a fide), ethical principles (improbabilis, non tuta), history (antiquata, nova) and Holy Scripture (verbo Dei contraria), etc.

(2) Ambigua (ambiguous), captiosa (captious), male sonans (evil-sounding), piarum aurium offensiva (offensive to pious ears), etc.

A proposition is ambiguous when it is worded so as to present two or more senses, one of which is objectionable; captious when acceptable words are made to express objectionable thoughts; evil-sounding when improper words are used to express otherwise acceptable truths; offensive when verbal expression is such as rightly to shock the Catholic sense and delicacy of faith.

(3) Subsannativa religionis (derisive of religion), decolorativa canodris ecclesiæ (defacing the beauty of the Church), subversiva hierarchiæ (subversive of the hierarchy), eversiva regnorum (destructive of governments), scandelosa, perniciosa, periculosa in moribus (scandalous, pernicious, dangerous to morals), blasphema, idolatra, superstisiosa, magica (blasphemous, leading to idolatry, superstition, sorcery), arrogans, acerba (arrogant, harsh), etc.

This enumeration, though incomplete, sufficiently draws the aim of the third group of censures; they are directed against such propositions as would imperil religion in general, the Church's sanctity, unity of government and hierarchy, civil society, morals in general, or the virtue of religion, Christian meekness, and humility in particular.

The authority of theological censures depends upon the source from which they come and the intention with which they are issued. Condemnations coming from the seat of infallibility, pope or council, and vested with the usual conditions of an ex cathedra pronouncement are themselves infallible, and consequently require both our external obedience and internal assent. There is no reason for restricting the infallibility of the censures to the sole note heretica as some theologians would do. The difference between the note of heresy and other inferior notes is not one of infallibility, but of different matters covered by infallibility. The note of heresy attached to a proposition makes it contradictory to an article of faith, which is not the case with other notes, even if they are infallible. Condemnations coming from another source which, however, is not infallible are to be received with the external respect and implicit obedience due to disciplinary measures, and moreover, with that degree of internal assent which is justified by circumstances. In every case the extent of outward compliance, or of interior submission, or both is determined by a proper interpretation of the censures:

  • Sometimes, as in the condemned propositions of Pistoia, there is little room for doubt, the precise meaning of the condemnation being explained in the very tenor of it.
  • When categorical propositions are condemned in their import, and not in their wording or consequences only, their contradictories present themselves for our acceptance as de fide, proximæ fidei, certæ, or communes as the case may be.
  • Condemnations issued on account of bad wording or evil consequences should at least put us on our guard against the hidden falsehood or the noxious tendency of the proposition.
  • Modal propositions require special attention. The principal modalities in use are in individuo, in globo, prout iacent, in sensu ab auctore intenta. Propositions are not always, as was the case for the errors of Pistoia, condemned one by one, the proper qualifications being attached to each individually (in individuo). In the case of Wyclif, Hus, Luther, Baius, Molinos, Quesnel, etc., to a whole series of propositions a whole series of censures was attached generally (in globo). This mode of general censure is not ineffectual. To each of the propositions thus condemned apply one, or several, or all of the censures employed--the task of fitting each censure to each propositions being left to theologians. Again, some propositions are censured according to their obvious tenor and without reference to their context or author (prout iacent); while others e.g. those of Baius, Jansen, etc. are stigmatized in the sense intended by their author (in sensu ab auctore intento). Obviously the Church does not claim to read into the mind of a writer. What she claims is an operative doctrinal power including the double faculty of pointing out to her children both the error of a doctrine and the fact that such an erroneous doctrine is contained in such a book written by such an author. In such cases, a Catholic is bound to accept the whole judgment of the Church, although some theologians would make a difference between the assent due to the condemnation of the error and the assent due to the designation of the book or author.
  • Vague censures of this kind, Damnandas et proscribendas esse, are more in the nature of simple prohibitions than censures. They mean that a Catholic ought to keep clear of such teachings absolutely, but they do not point out the degree of falsehood or danger attached to them.
  • In a general matter, censures are restrictive laws, and, as such, to be interpreted strictly. A Catholic is not debarred from the right of ascertaining, for his own guidance or the guidance of others, their legitimate minimum; but the danger, not always unreal, of falling below that minimum should itself be minimized by what Newman calls "a generous loyalty toward ecclesiastical authority" and the pietas fidei.

Sessa, Scrutinium doctrinarum (Rome, 1709); D'Argentré, Collectio iudiciorum (Paris 1728); Viva, Damnatarum thesium theologica trustina (Padua, 1737); Montagne, De censuria seu notis theologicis, ed. Migne (Paris, 1837); Di Bartolio, Les critères théol., Fr. tr. (Paris, 1889), on the Index; Didiot, Logigue surnaturelle subjective (Paris 1891), No. 377; Manning, The Vatican Council in Privilegium Petri (London, 1871); Newman, A letter to the Duke of Norfolk in Certain Difficulties of Anglicans (London, 1892), II; Choupin, Valeur des décisions doctrinales du Saint-Siège (Paris, 1907); Ferraris, Propositiones damnatæ in Prompta Bibliotheca; Quillet, Censures doctrinnales in Dict. de théol. cath; Lagrange, Le décret "Lamentabili" in Rev. Bibl. (Oct., 1907). See also treatises in moral theology, De fide, and in dogmatic theology, De ecclesia, chiefly Scheeben, Wilhelm, and Scannell, Hunter.


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