Mark Shea attempts to be the voice of sweetness and light in the TOB debate, and he gets a few things right, although these tend to be overshadowed by some major errors. However, in the spirit of fraternity, I'm happy to embrace what he did get right.
In order to do that, let's pull out the weeds of error first. He begins by saying of TOB that it is "about a fascinating and potentially useful constellation of ideas that do not form part of the essential teaching of the Faith."
What is Magisterial?
Well, the Magisterial weight of the TOB is an interesting question.
Take for example, the lives of the saints or the homilies of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. These things are considered Magisterium in the sense that what is contained in them has been confirmed by the Church as a correct representation of what She believes. Thus, we can use the fact that many saints threw themselves into thorn bushes to avoid physical temptation, or whipped themselves in expiation for their own and others' sins, as an example of what a proper understanding of the body can properly lead to.
But, while the ordinary Magisterium is infallible, it's theoretically possible for homilies, Wednesday audiences and the like to be erroneous as well. Even saints committed sins. As one wag noted, it is perfectly possible to go to hell by imitating the imperfections of the saints.
So, how can we tell what is part of the infallible Magisterium and what isn't? We have to wait for the judgement of the Church. Wait and see what She endorses. If She passes over a teaching or practice in silence, with no further references made, no holding up of this teaching or practice as spot on correct, then it is not part of the infallible Magisterium. It's just something that an otherwise good and holy person did or said that we, in charity, pass over in silence.
So, in THAT sense, the sense that we don't have a good handle on what is wheat and chaff in the TOB presentations, you could make the argument that the TOB audiences aren't Magisterial. After all, there is a lot of convoluted verbiage in there, and the Church has been utterly silent on the whole sequence for the last thirty years. That silence doesn't bode well.
And, as has been pointed out, there are aspects of the TOB which are quite problematic. For instance, the TOB audiences separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sex in their discussion of sex. This is an enormous difficulty precisely because, while these two aspects can be distinguished, they can never be separated. Yet, by their silence, the TOB audiences seem to do just that. Making this separation was a prudential judgement on John Paul II's part, but it could easily be considered an erroneous prudential judgement.
So, in that sense, while the audiences may not contain error themselves, the failure to portray sexuality properly might be considered erroneous and therefore make the whole of the TOB audiences non-Magisterial.
And this problem of a foolish silence is not unheard of in the history of the Church. Pope Honorius had this problem - he silenced both sides in the Monophysite controversy. This was a prudential judgement that was ultimately deemed not only foolish, but heretical by the Church, and the liturgy of the Church (which most definitely always IS Magisterial) actually named him a heretic for several centuries because he imposed silence on everyone when he should have spoken.
So, I'm fine with saying TOB is not clearly Magisterial, because we don't have a clear line between the wheat and the chaff.
However, I'm not fine with saying the "constellation of ideas" within it are NOT Magisterial, because that's obviously false.
The TOB attempts to teach on human sexuality.
The Church's teaching on human sexuality IS Magisterial.
So insofar as the TOB audiences properly represent Catholic teaching, those TOB audiences are Magisterial. And if the constellation of ideas within TOB - all of them clearly related to human sexuality - are not Magisterial, then what are these musings on human sexuality? Non-Catholic? Pagan? What? Was John Paul II doing his best imitation of Dr. Ruth? Which ideas within that "constellation" would Mark like to label as not Magisterial?
Now, I don't necessarily disagree that some of the ideas within the TOB audiences are not Magisterial (as I've said before - and Mark seems to agree - I think there's a lot less in TOB than meets the eye), but I'd like to know what ideas Mark has in mind so I can judge whether I'm going to agree or disagree with him.
Is TOB Unimportant, As Shea Says?
The whole judgement is made even more peculiar by the fact that Mark, by his own profession, says he really doesn't know very much about what is in the TOB audiences, so how can he know which ideas are Magisterial? Given his own professed ignorance, how can he write half this essay?
In any case, you can't, as Mark did, just dismiss the whole TOB thing is a sideshow, which seems to be Mark's first intent: "This is not an important argument!" Although it is becoming more and more convenient to West supporters to make this argument, it is simply disingenuous to say this or imply this.
Either TOB is important, in which case its worth the trouble it has caused, or it's not, in which case Ascension Press and Pauline Books and Media need to quit hyping it to the detriment of important things, and Chris West needs to quit pounding sand down this hole and go off to do something useful with his life elsewhere. At this point, the major reason I think it is important is due to the number of theological errors which can now be attributed to its proponents. Give it another twenty years on this trajectory and the Westian version will become a major heresy of the Church.
Is West A Pioneer?
Mark's second error is calling West a pioneer.
If the sexual teachings of the Church are Magisterial - and they are - then insofar as West is teaching what the Church teaches about human sexuality, West is not a pioneer.
Neither is John Paul II, for that matter, and Weigel would then simply be wrong.
John Paul II cannot have said anything in the TOB audiences that alter the Magisterium, he can only have said things that (a) elucidate it (b) don't elucidate it but don't happen to be erroneous or (c) are simply wrong.
Given the enormous arguments over what constitutes correct TOB teaching, it's fairly clear that (a) didn't happen. Now the question is, was it (b) or (c)?
It's fairly trivial to demonstrate that West's interpretation of JP II is (c).
But, as Mark correctly points out, there is some disagreement as to whether West accurately portrays JP II, so whether JP II himself is in the (c) category remains to be seen.
Is TOB New?
Mark makes yet a third egregious error, though this one is somewhat understandable. He says the theological discussion of sex is "a new region of thought opened up for us by the late Holy Father."
Let us just say that it is not the case.
John Paul II was not the man who invented the idea that there should be a theological discussion of human sexuality, nor did he invent the discussion, nor is it even obvious that he invented any of the ideas in the current discussion.
While Mark's position plays right into the Dan Brown "hermeneutic of discontinuity" that West and company have been pushing from the beginning, and while the attempt to make this assertion is a GREAT Ascension Press talking point, that whole meme is simply false. If the Church has never had this discussion before, then we shouldn't be having it either, because it isn't Catholic.
If it's new, it ain't true.
And if it's true, it ain't new.
Like any good parent, the Church has a habit of repeating herself.
How often do you tell a child to clean up his room?
Once in his lifetime?
Or once every five minutes?
One of the reasons it is easy to master two thousand years of Church teaching is precisely because the Church has a tendency to keep repeating the same teaching to every generation. And every generation, when it finally stops ignoring the Church and actually hears the teaching, responds, "Dude! Why didn't you ever teach this before!?"
So, we can oftentimes completely skip reading the pronouncements of a particular pope on a particular subject because all of his predecessors and most of his successors said exactly the same thing. Apart from a few cultural nuances peculiar to a specific situation, it is often the case that if you've read one pope, you've read them all.
Is This A Quarrel About Fact Or Approach?
Given that historical perspective, it is a little unsettling to hear Mark express another sentiment. It's an idea which sounds nice on the first encounter, but the more you think about it, the more ridiculous it becomes: "All they are quarreling about is how to be faithful, not whether to be faithful."
Well, yes, but that rather begs the question, doesn't it?
Arius thought he was being faithful. He was the one who got the Emperor to call the Council of Nicaea - he thought he would be vindicated.
All Nestorius wanted was to be faithful. He was fighting Arian heresies, wasn't he?
The Monophysite heretics invented Monophysitism because they just wanted the arguments about Christ's nature to stop, they just wanted to be quietly faithful.
To the end of his life, Martin Luther was trying very hard to be faithful. He was certain the institutional Church would eventually see that he WAS, in fact, being faithful.
Unfortunately for all concerned, what is intended is only part of the moral calculus.
In addition to my graduate degrees in theology and history, I trained as an undergraduate in computer science. Math, and it's stepchild, computer programming, is peculiar in one respect: it cares not a whit for what you are trying to do. It only cares about what you actually did.
And the standard for judgement is quite severe - you're either right or you're dead.
Not too long ago, in the first Iraq war, twenty-eight soldiers were killed because the millions of lines of code that control the Patriot anti-missile system contained exactly one line that had an error: it failed to round a number correctly.
Everything else was right. The programmers, the quality assurance team, the manufacturer, the people who deployed it and operated it, all of them did their work with the best of intentions, and they mostly did it exceedingly well.
Hitting a bullet with a bullet is easier than doing what the Patriot missile system does routinely every time it goes operational. The creators of that system did marvelous work creating a nearly foolproof system of mind-boggling complexity.
Unfortunately, there was that one niggling little error.
And, as a consequence of that one niggling little error, a rounding error, just about the simplest piece of math one can logically perform in mathematics, an incoming missile was ignored by the software.
That SCUD missile made it through the defenses.
It wiped out an Army barracks.
Twenty-eight soldiers died and more than 100 were injured because somebody's fine intentions were not sufficient. The programmer made a mistake, quality assurance didn't catch it. People died. The fact that everybody meant well was comfort as cold as the corpses in the graves.
Now, undoubtedly, at the Final Judgement, God takes our intentions into account. He knows the programmer didn't intend that error - quite the opposite. Certainly the people killed by that programmer, the people whose deaths were abetted by the software quality assurance people, all those people undoubtedly forgive the programmer and the SQA team. Unfortunately, despite all the sorrow and all the forgiveness, those soldiers are all still dead, which was not part of God's plan.
So, while the programmer will almost certainly not have this error held against him because it was not a sin - an intentional evil - we cannot avoid the fact that he DID commit an evil. An unintentional evil, but an evil nonetheless. And as a result, twenty-eight people are dead, twenty-eight families wept at their graves, twenty-eight groups of people have holes in their lives where their loved ones should be.
All of us are in this world to mitigate evil. If we see someone making a mistake, we are meant to correct that mistake and mitigate the evil.
What Is Charity?
Now, we are meant to do that with charity. Unfortunately for us all, what constitutes charity is often a prudential judgement. We cannot forget that the God Who Is Love, the God Who forgave the penitent adulteress, is the same God Who also raged at the impenitent teachers of the Law, the men who refused to alter their teachings when they were clearly in the wrong.
Was God being uncharitable to call these people "fools!", "blind guides" and "dens of vipers" who "make your disciples twice the sons of hell that you are!"?
I think it would be rash to say such a thing.
Are we not meant to imitate Christ's lived example?
Why, yes, yes we are.
Showing anger at an impenitent teacher is not obviously a violation of charity. Indeed, quite a strong argument can be made that failure to show such anger is much more obviously a violation of charity and a failure to follow the example of Christ.
How Now Shall We Live?
I agree with Mark, however, that a Catholic is much better off reading the Fathers and Doctors of the Church than spending much time studying TOB. John Paul II is famously wordy and convoluted. Precisely because the Church HAS taught clearly on human sexuality for two millennia, it is not particularly likely that John Paul II's teachings on the subject - which, as Mark points out, were never referred to again by anyone - are particularly necessary to the discussion.
Ultimately, the whole point of Mark's essay seems to be "I don't know anything about TOB except that it doesn't matter, which is why we should be happy a lot of other people are teaching it now, so that we don't have to rely completely on Chris West to learn more about this unimportant teaching. Chris is opposed by people obsessed with trivialities, people who are not being like Christ, because Jesus never argued with anyone or called anyone names or ever got angry. He was a big teddy bear, and people just wanted to hug Him and they also want to hug West because West is a pioneer in this unimportant non-Magisterial area of human sexuality. He is a pioneer who teaches doctrines as old as the very dirt in the hills, which is why we can't find many of his teachings anywhere in the Magisterium, but don't worry because his heart is in the right place, and darn it, people like him."
Which, when you think about it, is a darned compelling position.