Friday, May 29, 2020

Church Authority and its Malcontents

A Teaching pertaining to the Faith, i.e., theologically certain (sententia ad fidem pertinens, i.e., theologice certa) is a doctrine, on which the Teaching Authority of the Church has not yet finally pronounced, but whose truth is guaranteed by its intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation (theological conclusions). [Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma pp. 9–10]

It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face. [Pope Francis, Laudato Si #15]

One of the books I have been going through for my daily studies is Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Written in the 1950s, it classifies different teachings of the Church and theological opinions according to their levels of theological certainty and authority. It’s the kind of work that only a theology geek could wade through and enjoy it. Since I am of that type, I find it fascinating.

One of the developing trends I see in reading it is how certain things that the Church teaches as binding—things that one would be heretical or schismatic to deny—are not de fide definitions. What would make them de fide is the Pope teaching ex cathedra or a definition by an ecumenical council and approved by the Pope. But the fact that a teaching is not de fide does not mean it is not binding.

The difference between an ex cathedra teaching and a teaching of the ordinary magisterium is that the former is irrevocable and irreformable. The latter can be revoked (as in disciplines) and reformed (when the teaching is developed to face new conditions that previous Popes and Councils were not aware of. So, it would be an error to say that because a teaching is not ex cathedra, we can ignore it. Instead, we must say that while a teaching of the ordinary magisterium can be ended or changed, we are bound to it as it stands until the Church does change it. And, once it is changed, we cannot appeal to the earlier version against the current.

I think some critics miss the nuance here. They think that the Church could contradict a past dogma and call a former evil a good. This is where we get the “Pope is going to approve gay marriage” or “Pope is going to approve women priests” nonsense. Those are things that cannot be changed. But things like whether we say the Mass in Latin or the vernacular; whether we have abstinence from meat on Fridays or can substitute it for another penance; whether we ordain unmarried men or include married men; whether we receive the Eucharist on the tongue or in the hand; whether the laity receive the chalice… these are all things that can be changed, and the changes can be revoked if the Church sees it necessary for the good of the Church. 

We cannot argue that a change is “proof” of error on the part of the Church in the past or in the present. I’ve seen some Catholics argue that the change on the discipline in one area shows that the Church can be wrong in another areas. For example, Catholics who try to deny the authority of Humanae Vitae on the grounds that the Church “changed” her teaching on meatless Fridays or on charging interest. They claim that the Church was “wrong” before on meat and interest. Therefore, they think the Church is “wrong” now on contraception and can be disobeyed until the teaching is “changed.”

Anti-Francis Catholics make the same error, assuming that the changes he made in application or discipline are rejections of doctrine, and they can safely ignore these teachings until a future Pope “changes them back.”

The fact that a teaching from the Ordinary Magisterium can be modified is not a justification to refuse obedience or claim that a teaching is in error and therefore not binding. Yes, individual bishops acting apart from the Pope can err. Yes, councils not sanctioned by the Pope can err in trying to teach.  Yes, Popes can be mistaken as private individuals expressing an opinion*.  But when Popes teach, we are bound to give religious submission of intellect and will (cf. canon 752Humani Generis 20 et al.) and we put our trust in God to protect the Church from teaching error.

Nor can we say that the changing or revocation of a past teaching from the ordinary magisterium is “proof” of heresy by the Pope. Heresy is the “obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (see canon 751). Changing what can legitimately be changed is not a denial of the Catholic faith. 

We should keep this in mind when people try to encourage rejection of a Pope’s teachings. When the Pope teaches X in the ordinary magisterium, and a Bishop—or even a Cardinal—says the Pope is wrong, we would do well to remember Canon 1404: “The First See is judged by no one.” Nobody below the Pope has authority over him to judge his teaching. If someone were to try to appeal to an Ecumenical Council against him, they would be wise to remember canon 1372: “A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.” If one wants to cause a groundswell of opposition, they should remember canon 1373: “A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.”

These penalties should serve as an illustration of just how seriously the Church takes the refusal to obey the Pope when he teaches as head of the Church—whether ex cathedra or through the ordinary magisterium—about the Catholic faith. Whatever excuses we might invent that justify our disobedience, they rise from the refusal to accept that authority when it goes against what we think the Church should be. 

But an authentically Catholic understanding of Scripture, or teachings on faith and morals, is subject to the judgment of the Successor of Peter. This authority to judge must not be understood as being contrary to what Jesus taught. If we really believe that Jesus established the Catholic Church and protects it from error, we need to accept the teachings of those who succeed the Apostles: The Pope and the bishops in communion with him because we trust that they are also protected. 

But, if we won’t accept their teachings, and accuse the Pope and bishops of error, the first question we need to ask is whether the real error lies with us, not them.



(†) And, thus, nothing that the critics of Vatican II can ignore.

(‡) What changed was dealing with a new situation: Borrowing for investment instead of for need. Charging interest for things a person needs to survive remains evil. I’m of the view that the “payday loans” do fall under the condemnation of usury. 

(§) The logical error in their argument is False analogy, where they assume that because the Church changed X, she can or must change Y. But if the differences between X and Y are greater than the differences, you can’t say that the same reasoning applies.

(*) All of the “proofs” cited that a Pope can err involve a Pope either behaving badly (not a teaching) or expressing a private opinion (not a teaching). If the Pope isn’t teaching, he can’t teach error.

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