Friday, November 26, 2010

Reflections on Primacy and Infallibility (Interlude II): On the Need to Define

The Series Thus Far:

I thought one further thought was necessary before moving on to the idea of Sola Scriptura in contrast with Church authority, and that was the issue of when the Church felt a need to define something.  I also decided that at 2500 words, article IIIb might become unwieldy if I chose to add this discussion there.  Hence, this "Interlude II."

The Issue in Question

There is one issue which I thought I should mention before going on to Sola Scriptura and Church authority, and that is pointing out that the Church only defines something infallibly when she perceives a need to do so.  If the Church does not see a need to formally make an infallible decision, she can rely on the exercise of the ordinary magisterium instead of acting ex cathedra.  Unfortunately this has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that because the Church defined [X] in year [Y], this means the Church did not believe [X] until year [Y].  However, when the Church chooses to define a thing ex cathedra it is either in response to an error or is done for the benefit of the faithful, and does not necessarily happen immediately following the time of the error in question (hence the frustration among some Catholics about the lack of seen discipline administered by the Church). 

The Example of Transubstantiation

The Church defined Transubstantiation in AD 1215 in Lateran Council IV.  Some have made the error of assuming that it was not until 1215 that anyone believed in Transubstantiation.  Lorraine Boettner has employed this assumption in his execrable anti-Catholic book Roman Catholicism, but such arguments demonstrate a post hoc fallacy (assuming that because it was infallibly defined in 1215, the definition caused the belief beginning in 1215).  However, history can demonstrate this is false.

For example, Berengarius of Tours (AD 999-1088) was a monk who began to deny, beginning in 1047, the Catholic belief that the bread and wine in the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ as He proclaimed.  Needless to say, 1047 is 168 years prior to 1215, so a claim that it was not believed before 1215 can be demonstrated to be false.

He was condemned for his heretical belief, but the Church did not see it as necessary to infallibly define the definition at this time when it denounced him. 

The Catholic Church in fact defined Transubstantiation in AD 1215, not because the belief began in AD 1215, but because of certain heresies (Lateran IV denounced the Albigensians, Waldensians and Joachim of Flora for their errors), were again denying the Catholic belief and the Church chose to formally lay down what it believed about the Eucharist and what beliefs were in opposition to the faith.


At any rate, the important thing to remember is that when a thing was defined is not an indication that it was not believed before then.  The Church rejected Arius in Nicaea I in AD 325, but this does not mean (as Dan Brown alleged in his wretched Da Vinci Code) that nobody believed in Jesus being God before AD 325.

A thing is defined infallibly only when the Church sees a need to defining it in such an extraordinary way, and this does not mean that the Church did not teach on the subject authoritatively beforehand.

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