Friday, November 26, 2010

Reflections on Primacy and Infallibility (Article IIIb): What Catholics DO Believe

Preliminary Notes

I have not forgotten this series.  Rather it was a matter of prayer and study in seeking to present the Church teachings as best as I am able to express myself.  Hopefully this article will succeed in expressing what Catholics in fact do believe about Infallibility and not lead the reader to a false understanding on the subject which the Church does not intend.

The Series Thus Far:


So now we come down to the defining moment.  What the Church does in fact believe about infallibility.  From what the Church does believe and why, criticisms which are relevant can be made.  Those who criticize based on false assumptions, they do not validly challenge our belief.

This becomes especially relevant in light of certain individuals who have recently claimed that the Pope was changing the Church view of condoms on the basis of an interview published by a third party and not released by the Vatican itself.  I think enough has been said on that topic, but it remains an interesting example of how Papal Teaching can be misunderstood.

Primacy and Infallibility are Linked

The first thing we need to do is recognize how infallibility is linked to primacy.  Contrary to other denominations, Catholicism believes that Jesus intended a visible Church with a visible head which has the authority to make the final determination on what is and is not compatible with following Christ and that determination is binding.  Thus, while we may have individuals or groups who disagree with Catholic teaching as passed on by the Magisterium, we believe such individuals/groups have no authority to impose their own interpretations over the whole Church.

Thus, while I am free to read the Bible and to seek to apply the teachings of Scripture to my life, I am not free to declare my own interpretation of the Bible binding and free of error.  (later on in the series I will discuss the idea of Church authority vs. Sola Scriptura).

Because Catholics believe that Christ entrusted His mission to the Apostles, with Peter as the head of the Apostles, and because we believe that the Pope and the Bishops are the successors to Peter and the Apostles, we believe they continue to have the authority to bind and loose (Matt 16:19; 18:18).

Now, if what is bound on Earth will be bound in Heaven, we have three possible scenarios:

  1. If the Church binds in error, error will be found in Heaven
  2. If the Church binds in error, and error is not bound in Heaven, then Christ spoke falsely or imprecisely.
  3. Because God will not bind error in Heaven, He will protect His Church from binding error on Earth.

While non-Catholics may reject the idea that this is the meaning at all, it does follow that, in the Catholic faith, it is not unreasonable for Catholics to believe that God can protect His Church from teaching error.

The Analogy of the Math Test

I think the best analogy I have read for infallibility was given by Karl Keating (Catholicism and Fundamentalism page 215), which I will paraphrase.  He offers this scenario.  Assume that the Pope was considered infallible in Math rather than in Faith and Morals.  Assume he was given a set of 100 problems to solve.  How many would he have to get right in order to be infallible.

The answer is not 100.  It is actually zero.  If the Pope turned in a blank sheet of paper, he would not have gotten any wrong.

Of course turning in a blank sheet of paper would not actually benefit anyone looking to the Pope for instruction, and the same would be true here.  There will be constant incidents as long as the Church is on Earth where the faithful will have ideas and questions.  Is this war just?  Is this behavior with my spouse moral?  Do I have a right to steal from a company which unjustly fires me?  Does the Bible support Arianism?

Merely Remaining Silent Is a Failure to Follow Christ's Mandate

The Church cannot simply hide away and say nothing when faced with the question of what must I do to be faithful to Christ?.  The great commission of Christ commands us…

19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)

… and requires the Church to face the challenges of the world pointing out what is right and what is wrong in relationship to our following Christ.  So if a man named Arius comes out with an idea, "There once was a time when the Son was not," and cites Scripture to justify his rule, does the Church stay silent?  Or does she admonish the sinner, making use of the authority given her by Christ to determine what is authentic and what is not?

Since I have pointed out that Infallibility is not some sort of prophecy, but rather a protection from error and since I have pointed out above that the Church cannot simply remain silent to avoid error because Christ commands us to make disciples of all nations, it follows that the Church must pray, study and reflect on the teachings of Christ through Scripture and Tradition, and look to how the saints have expressed the relationship of Christ and Man in the past to determine whether or not a proposed view is compatible with this teaching of Christ passed on to us by the Apostles.

What Infallibility Is

The Vatican I document Pastor Aeternus explains what it means to be infallible, though due to the language of the 19th century, it may be harder for the 21st century audience to understand.  So let us first look at the text and then seek to explain it:

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

(See also Catechism of the Catholic Church #889-891 for further explanation)

From this description, we can see an infallible teaching has certain conditions:

  1. The Pope is speaking as the supreme pastor and teacher of the Church, and not as a private individual
  2. the Pope proclaims by a definitive act
  3. a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals
  4. which directed to the entire Church.

This actually excludes a lot which some have pointed to in order to reject infallibility.

What this definition excludes

When the Pope speaks as a private individual (as he did in Light of the World or Jesus of Nazareth), he is not using his Papal authority and such a work is not viewed as a document of the Church.  It may repeat doctrines which are held definitively by the Church, but the authority of those doctrines come through the Church teaching and not that private view.  These books may indeed offer brilliant insights to further our understanding of the faith, but the point of such a book is not to be an "official teaching."

This is why the media reports of "changing teaching" in Light of the World was false.  This sort of medium is not used to make a definition to be binding on the faithful.

Because it limits ex cathedra to a definitive act, we are made aware of what is binding.  For example of a definitive act, John Paul II wrote in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the following:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.

By his formal declaration, Pope John Paul II has made clear that the Church cannot ordain women and that this must be held by the faithful.  Any view which denies this teaching cannot be considered a Catholic belief.

By limiting it to faith and morals, other elements like disciplines and customs are not considered infallible.  Limiting the priesthood to unmarried men in the West, whether to permit the vernacular in the Mass, whether to permit or withhold the chalice to the laity or other practices… these are disciplines, not doctrines, and can be changed for the good of the Church at the time without disproving the infallibility of the Pope.  This is because such disciplines were never held to be infallible to begin with.

Finally, by directing it to the entire Church, it eliminates obligations which are merely directed to certain areas or groups.  If the Pope denounces a behavior in one region (say for example, performing a devotion which is being abused), it does not mean that such a behavior is denounced everywhere.

For example, in Medieval France, there was a heretical group known as the Cathari or Albigensians who had a rather warped view of God and Jesus Christ.  To prevent the errors of the Albigensians from spreading, the laity in that region were forbidden from reading Scripture on their own.  It does not follow from this that the Catholic Church "forbade the laity everywhere" from reading the Bible.  The limited time frame and limited region demonstrate that such an obligation was not infallible, and was never considered to be a universal ban (in all times and places) on reading the Bible .

Ordinary Authority of the Magisterium

Now there is an unfortunate view among certain Catholics that anything which is not explicitly bound by an infallible decree is merely an opinion.  This is false however.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the Ordinary magisterium:

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent"422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

So it isn't a case of "either infallible or opinion."  The ordinary teachings of the Magisterium in terms of faith and morals lead to a deeper understanding of Revelation.  The difference is that the Church does not intend a formal definition (which is usually used to define the difference between what view is inside the Church and what view is outside the Church), but rather a deepened understanding where a formal ex cathedra definition is seen as unnecessary.  Far from being "an opinion" such a teaching requires "religious assent" (must be firmly believed)

Lumen Gentium #25 tells us:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

Donum veritatis #23 tells us:

When the Magisterium proposes "in a definitive way" truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.(22)

When the Magisterium, not intending to act "definitively", teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect.(23) This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.

In other words, even when the intent is not to define something in an infallible manner, when the Church teaches in a way to show how an aspect of faith and morals is conformity with the truth or to show how an attitude is not compatible with the faith, this is not an opinion, but rather still within the prerogative of Peter to bind and loose in a way obligatory for the faithful.

Such a teaching may be further refined, but will never contradict what the Church teaches already has taught.

Conclusion: It All Leads Back to Primacy

It is crucial to keep in mind that this is not some sort of charism which makes the Pope a sinless prophet, but is our faith that God will not let the gates of Hell prevail over His Church by authoritatively teaching error when Christ has made obedience to the Church necessary (See Luke 10:16).  Catholics believe that God would not make a declaration that those who will not listen to the Church are to be treated as tax collectors (Matt 18:17) without protecting the Church from teaching what is wrong.

Now I recognize that certain non-Catholics who deny Papal primacy will point to certain teachings and say "What about [X]?  That contradicts the Bible!"  This is an issue of interpretation and the authority to interpret the Bible in a binding way.

I hope to address this issue of Church Authority and Sola Scriptura beginning in article IVa. 

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