Friday, February 7, 2020

The Misrepresentation of Binding Authority

891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.… The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.” This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

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” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us two important paragraphs on the binding authority of the Pope, but only one of those two get cited. The result of this selective citation is a misrepresentation: that unless the Pope teaches ex cathedra he might err and we can “withhold obedience” if he does. Of course, for those who do disagree with a Church teaching, it’s easy for them to find what they think is a “contradiction” and claim that their infidelity is “being faithful.”

We witnessed this during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI when those who wanted a change to Church teaching claimed that the Papal teachings on contraception, abortion, divorce and remarriage, etc., were never made ex cathedra. Therefore, one could reject them “for a good reason.” That “good reason” was never submitted to the Church, of course. In fact, if the Church rejected their interpretation, it was seen as “proof” that the Pope was in error.

We witness it now with the opponents of Pope Francis. Because the individual interpretation of what he teaches does not line up with their interpretation of past teachings, the critics argue that his teaching is not binding because it is not ex cathedra and, can therefore “err.”

Both examples are variants of the No True Scotsman fallacy. It attempts to deny the authenticity of any authoritative act that refutes their claim by saying it is not “truly” authoritative. Since the individual who sets himself/herself at odds with the magisterium is the one who judges, the Church will never be in the right in their mind. But the No True Scotsman is a fallacy. It assumes that one’s own conception of a thing is what a thing actually is, refusing to accept anything that disproves their own view as valid. 

We do not interpret for ourselves what a definition is. Rather, the validity of our interpretation depends on whether it squares with what a thing is (the truth). If it does not, we speak falsely if we insist on our definition against the truth.

In this case, the critics of both above examples speak falsely when they limit the authority of what a Pope says to his ex cathedra statements because the Church does not limit her authority to the ex cathedra statements. Divine assistance is still given in the ordinary teaching of the Church and obedience is still required. The difference is not whether an ordinary teaching can err. It’s whether the teaching can be modified for different conditions.

The ex cathedra statements are statements that can never be modified based on new conditions of a time. For example, when we say that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, that teaching will never be retracted based on new discoveries of science or how society changes. The Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady will never be retracted.

The ordinary magisterium, on the other hand, involves true teachings that cannot be changed, but the understanding on how to best apply them can change based on the changes in society without denying the unchanging teachings. For example, the condemnation of contraception will never change. But science will invariably discover new methods of regulating births. The Church must therefore evaluate the new methods and either accept them (like Natural Family Planning replacing the older calendar or rhythm method) or reject them (the Pill worked differently than the previous methods of contraception, but in the end turned out to be a contraceptive). 

To confuse the discipline rooted in time with the timeless teaching is to wind up accusing the Church of error when there is none. A change of discipline in the ordinary magisterium is not the same as denying the unchanging truth. Sometimes society changes so drastically that older disciplines cannot be applied: for example, the past teachings on just government in an absolute monarchy do not fit the conditions of a world where such governments do not exist. Teachings on social justice in a feudal society do not fit a society where modern capitalism has replaced it. The teachings on religious freedom in a time when other religions when people and governments recognized that Christianity was true do not fit into a time where people and governments are apathetic—if not hostile—to religion in general. 

Unfortunately, Catholics on both side of the factional divide make this error. The Catholic who believes that a teaching is wrong often points to a change in discipline as if it were a change in doctrine and uses it as “proof” to argue that unchanging truths can and should be changed. The Catholic who prefers an older discipline argues that the change is a change in doctrine and uses this as “proof” that the Church today is in error. But both are wrong.

Adding to the confusion are things like acts of governance. How the Pope administers the See of Rome as bishop, or how he governs the Vatican City (or, before that, the Papal States) are not acts of teaching at all, and not considered as having Divine Assistance. We don’t have to defend the Concordat with Nazi Germany (or Communist China, for that matter) or the case of  Edgardo Mortara*. Meeting with heads of state is not a teaching. But even in cases where we feel dubious about such an act, we have the obligation to fully understand the actions and respond in charity rather than assume the worst. Calumny and Rash Judgment remain sins.

But, when the Pope does teach—ex cathedra or ordinary magisterium—he is given Divine Assistance, and we are bound to obey, and we are trust that God will not permit him to teach error.

(*) In all of these cases, I believe that the Popes involved tried to make the best decision they could in a bad situation, but since these decisions did not involve teaching, they were not protected from being wrong. Any wrong that might have occurred is not “proof” of heresy or evil will on the part of the Popes involved.

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