Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Interlude): Clarifying Certain Terms

The Articles so far:


While I was hoping to go on to the Book of Acts and the Epistles, due to certain accusations against the Church which demonstrated a lack of understanding of what Catholics actually believe, I thought I should take the time to write this to clarify what certain concepts mean.

Infallibility and Impeccability

Having had to deal with and delete certain comments from an individual who has accused me of denying historical and Scriptural claims (I haven’t. Merely objected to the propagandistic distortion of them), I thought I should begin this article with a rejection of a certain attack against the Church. While I’d prefer to deal with it in Article IV (looking at what the Church claims about herself) it seems I need to deal with it now, and that is in relation to the claim of people who were in authority in the Catholic Church and did wrong.

The difference is between Infallibility and Impeccability. Infallibility means to be unable to err. Impeccability means to be unable to sin. Catholics do not believe the Pope is impeccable. The Pope, being a human being, is a sinner just like the rest of us. Therefore to point to certain sinful acts which the Popes may have carried out have no bearing on what they teach.

Infallibility needs to be broken down further to recognize that we do not believe everything the Pope says and does is unable to err. Infallibility deals specifically with the formal declarations on matters pertaining to salvation. We don’t believe that the Pope is some sort of prophet or that his writings are on par with Scripture. We simply believe that when it comes to formally teaching on matters of salvation in a binding fashion, God protects the Pope from teaching error.

In other words, we do not believe that the Pope has this ability because he is a “better” person than us. We believe that God protects Him from error when He teaches for the good of the Church.

Doctrine and Discipline

Also we need to distinguish between doctrine and discipline. Doctrine is the teaching of the Church, which one must believe if one is to be considered a believer at all. Disciplines are calls to obedience on issues which we are bound to obey but can be changed for the good of the faithful. Belief in the Trinity and the belief Jesus is God are doctrines. They have not been contradicted (though some who misunderstand what was being said think there is contradiction).

Celibacy in the Western Church is a discipline. Jesus said that those who could keep this life should do so. The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church recognize that a married man can validly become a priest. The reverse is not true. Neither the Catholics nor the Orthodox believe that a Priest may marry without being dispensed from their vows and are usually required to stop using their priestly functions. However, at this time, the Latin rite chooses only to call to the priesthood those who can keep to the life of celibacy. The Church can make an exception, and has done so. Fr. Ray Ryland and Fr. Dwight Longenecker are examples of men who converted to the Catholic Church as married men and were permitted to be ordained.

Other examples of Disciplines are things like receiving the Eucharist on the tongue or in the hand, or receiving the Body alone or the Body and the Blood.

Depending on the needs of the faithful, the Church can bind or loosen the discipline. They cannot however loosen a doctrine. You’ll never see a Pope permit fornication.

The “Bodycount” Argument

Some people like to point to the bloody centuries of Christendom and argue that the Church ordered the execution of people they didn’t like. Therefore the Church can’t be infallible.

This is a non sequitur argument and is also a Straw man argument. The Straw man is to say that the Church ordered executions and did so arbitrarily. This overlooks the fact that during the time that the Papal States were an independent government, there were people living there who were under the civil laws. A person who was a murderer could be executed for example under the civil laws of the Papal States, just as they could in other places.

Heresy was a civil crime, on par with treason. The Inquisition was intended to investigate charges of heresy. The most common verdict was “Not Guilty” actually. When a person was guilty of heresy and refused to either leave or cease teaching heresy, they were guilty of a civil crime which the state punished.

This gets muddled in nations where the head of the state interfered with the Church. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, was a matter of excessive government control, and Torquemada was censured by Rome for his actions and warned to be merciful. We see this in Elizabethan England and in the divided Holy Roman Empire as well. When the ruler made himself the head of the Church, the acts against that ruler as head of the Church was at times seen as acts of treason. This is why the Catholic Church has always resisted the attempts at state control (called Caesaro-Papism).

So here is the reason the “Bodycount” argument doesn’t work. When the Pope was head of a state, his infallibility was not extended to his temporal rule of a nation. We wouldn’t consider Pope St. Pius V to be any more infallible in governing the Papal States than we would consider President Obama to be infallible in governing America today.

However, when a Pope decreed something that was binding on those who were in communion with the Catholic Church, it was believed that this decision was binding and was to be obeyed.

Context is Key

What one must remember when looking at Church history is that the times were different then. Capital Punishment has varied in some areas. Until the latter half of the 20th century, Rape was a capital crime in the American South for example. Different forms of punishment were used in the past which seem barbaric today. The Guillotine is barbaric today, but was used in France until it was abolished in 1981 (the last execution using it was in 1977). Burning at the Stake and the like are indeed horrible things, and it is right to feel horror at its use.

However we must remember it was not invented by the Church. It was a pagan invention, which was kept around as the barbarians (mostly the Germanic nations) were Christianized, and only gradually rejected (it lasted until the 18th century in Europe, and was not outlawed in England until 1790). It was used as Capital Punishment in both Catholic and Protestant nations.

Conclusion: So what’s the Point of It All?

So why do I bring this up? Mainly to stress that while Europe has indeed had a bloody past, this bloody past was not something which the Church made an infallible teaching about, and thus to make use of such claims is to misapply the belief of infallibility. Likewise when the Church makes a change in discipline, the change does not mean “from wrong to right,” but rather takes a discipline and looks at it in each age to see if the keeping of it benefits the faithful or whether it becomes viewed as a mere rule which brings no spiritual benefit.

For the Next Time

Assuming no more clarifications need to be made, the next article will be IId: On Peter in Acts and the Epistles.

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