The Wolf In Professor’s Clothing

A philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame has declared in the New York Times that the bishops no longer decide morality in the Church and that “the immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Gary Gutting, Endowed Chair in Philosophy, argued that the will of many Catholics who choose to use contraceptives is paramount to the teaching of the bishops.

…haven’t the members of the Catholic Church recognized their bishops as having full and sole authority to determine the teachings of the Church?  By no means.  There was, perhaps, a time when the vast majority of Catholics accepted the bishops as having an absolute right to define theological and ethical doctrines.  Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone.  Most Catholics — meaning, to be more precise, people who were raised Catholic or converted as adults and continue to take church teachings and practices seriously — now reserve the right to reject doctrines insisted on by their bishops and to interpret in their own way the doctrines that they do accept.  This is above all true in matters of sexual morality, especially birth control, where the majority of Catholics have concluded that the teachings of the bishops do not apply to them.  Such “reservations” are an essential constraint on the authority of the bishops.

The bishops and the minority of Catholics who support their full authority have tried to marginalize Catholics who do not accept the bishops as absolute arbiters of doctrine.  They speak of “cafeteria Catholics” or merely “cultural Catholics,” and imply that the only “real Catholics” are those who accept their teachings entirely.  But this marginalization begs the question I’m raising about the proper source of the judgment that the bishops have divine authority.  Since, as I’ve argued, members of the church are themselves this source, it is not for the bishops but for the faithful to decide the nature and extent of episcopal authority.  The bishops truly are, as they so often say, “servants of the servants of the Lord.”

It may be objected that, regardless of what individual Catholics think, the bishops in fact exercise effective control over the church.  This is true in many respects, but only to the extent that members of the church accept their authority.  Stalin’s alleged query about papal authority (“How many divisions does the Pope have?”) expresses more than just cynical realpolitik.  The authority of the Catholic bishops is enforceable morally but not militarily or politically.  It resides entirely in the fact that people freely accept it.

The mistake of the Obama administration — and of almost everyone debating its decision — was to accept the bishops’ claim that their position on birth control expresses an authoritative “teaching of the church.”  (Of course, the administration may be right in thinking that the bishops need placating because they can cause them considerable political trouble.)  The bishops’ claim to authority in this matter has been undermined because Catholics have decisively rejected it. The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.  Pope Paul VI meant his 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” to settle the issue in the manner of the famous tag, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.”  In fact the issue has been settled by the voice of the Catholic people.

Gutting’s argument would seem to have Jesus telling Peter, “upon this poll I will build my Church.”

Gutting teaches courses to first year Philosophy students at Notre Dame and includes the writings of radical philosopher Peter Singer.

Matthew Archbold


Matthew Archbold is a contributing writer to Campus Notes and to National Catholic Register, as well as the co-founder of the popular website, Creative Minority Report.

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  • Mark Millward

    So we are to believe that the doctrine of the Catholic Church is Relativism, pure and simple?  That the Catholic Church is not the Earthly manifestation of Truth and Love communicated in Love by God our Father?  Is God our Father, therefore not absolute and entire unto himself?  Does he not know his own mind?

    Sounds to me like Gutting could use a class in elementary theology.  Certainly there is nothing to learn for faithful Catholics other than the depths to which those who (believing themselves wise) are prepared to go to prepare the way for the State to attempt to subvert the God given authority of his Shepherds on Earth – the Bishops of the Catholic Church led by the See of Peter.

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    Unsurprisingly, when I was going through RCIA (as a ‘revert’), I was taught that this way of thinking was called the ‘sensus fidelium’ in the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’. At that stage, I didn’t know any better, and so believed them…

  • Joe DeVet

    This of course should surprise no one.  If you have seen the work of Fr Richard McBrien, you know that the theology department of Notre Dame has long since departed from the true faith.  It is clear that for several decades, Notre Dame has not been an authentically Catholic university. 

    Don’t take my word for it.  An authentic Catholic university is one which adheres to “Ex Corde Ecclesia.”  Check out Notre Dame’s position relative to this document of about 10 years ago on requirements for a Catholic college.

  • Matt B

    The sad philosophy of this professor is to teach the faithful to choose and prefer an inferior good over the infinitely superior good proposed by the Church.  In this he resembles a cheese-monger more than a teacher. 

    This is a clear example of the blind leading the blind into a disastrous pitfall.  (But it’s OK as long as you’re protected by insuperable stupidity.)  Many who heed Prof. Gutting will find that they’ve had their pockets picked, as they enter heaven thriftless. 

  • servantofcharity

    Besides suing the Obama Administration over the HHS mandate, parents with children in these classes should sue Notre Dame for false advertising – labelling itself Catholic and teaching this garbage.  It’s a shame – there are still many good professors there.


  • Yblegen

    I am appalled!!!

  • Theoaf

    by mr guttings logic, God would have no authority because God, in the person of Jesus, was rejected by His people and crucified.  mr gutting is gravely mistaken in confusing human authority which does arise from the consent of the governed with divine authority which arises from God Himself and is communicated in His revelations.  given his prestigious position it is difficult to imagine that mr guttings is ignorant of what he is doing.  rather it seems he is deliberately misleading people.

  • Ahawkins77

    Gary Guttings arguement that “the immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church”….. (because supposedly) “the will of many Catholics who choose to use contraceptives is paramount to the teaching of the bishops.”  is absurd! I am sad that this man teaches our youth and even more profoundly sad that he teaches our youth at a Catholic University. If we applied his logic to any other moral teaching I suppose we should throw them out too. I am willing to guess that the majority of Catholics have lied to some extent or another, so we ought toss out that eighth commandment, I mean come on, the will of the many Catholics reject this teaching! Oh and that first commandment….the one where God says we shall have no other gods before him, I guess we should toss that one out too. Its obvious that the will of the majority of Catholics reject that first commandment, choosing to freely worship ipads, iphones or ianythng than the one true God. Oh and while were at it, that “keep Holy the Lords Day”, toss that one out too. Aren’t the majority of Catholics sleeping in on Sunday, attending football games or hanging out at the mall, rather than participating in mass and having some quiet time with family? And that immoral teaching about killing has got to go, I mean really, if most Catholics are using contraceptives ( according to Gutting), many of them abortifacients which essentially kill a human person in utero, using the logic of Guttings arguement….the will of the many Catholics has spoken….killing is no longer immoral!

  • This is nothing new. Notre Dame and its theology dept. are Catholic in name only. They have long departed from faithfully accepting the teaching authority of the bishops in union with the Pope.

  • KT11

    As both an alumnus of Notre Dame and a devout, practicing Catholic, let me assure you that Notre Dame is one of the most Catholic places I have ever experienced. Fortunately, I never hard Mr. Gutting as a professor, as I’m sure I would vehemently have disagreed with much of his teaching; I won’t bother you with details, but there is far more that goes on at Notre Dame that are shining examples of the Catholic faith. The only events that make the news are the ones that are controversial.

  • chaco

    I’m reminded of the Fatima revelations where Mary said; “The true Dogma of the Faith will always remain in Portugal.” (July 13 message I think). So, no matter how rebelious so-called Catholics get, we will always have a source of “The Rock” to rely on. As for Prof. Guttings, I’d recommend reflecting on Heb. 6: 4-6 and Heb. 10: 26. 

  • Wertbrooks

    Professor Gutting is  hilarious!  He says the issue has been settled by the voice of the Catholic people.   The Catholic people?   Wasn”t that the same crowd that ate the apple, that argued with moses for forty years and chose Barabbas over Jesus Christ?