Showing posts with label Infallibility. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Infallibility. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Taking Back the Church: It’s NOT What Some Think It Is

Twenty years ago, I had finished my Masters in theology at a university renown for its fidelity to the Church and the Pope. It was clear to everyone that if we would be faithful Catholics, we needed to remain faithful and not fall into dissent. Today, I see many (including some who came from the same university) who now speak contemptuously about the successor to Peter and behave like it falls to them to defend the Church from those tasked with shepherding it, who call the religious submission of intellect and will we all accepted twenty years ago “ultramontanism” or even “papolatry.” 

It is a reminder that no individual can guarantee their remaining faithful to the Church unless they put their trust in God to protect the Church. This protection cannot be sporadic, today protecting the Pope in Rome, tomorrow protecting an archbishop who accuses the Pope. Either God consistently protects the visible magisterium under the headship of the Pope or He does not protect it at all. If He does not protect it at all, then we can never know for certain when the Church taught truth...not even when the Church defined the canon of Scripture.

Some of these Catholics raise slogans that we need to “take back the Church.” I think the slogan is true, but not in the sense these Catholics mean it. To take back the Church is not to take it back in time to where one thinks the Faith was practiced “properly,” eliminating what we dislike. Nor is it “taking the Church back from those successors to the apostles who we dislike.” No, taking back the Church means taking it back to the proper understanding of obedience—something that can exist regardless of who the Pope is and how he applies past teachings to the present age.

To be faithful to God means keeping His commandments (John 14:15). Since He made obedience to His Church mandatory (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16), if we want to be faithful to Him, we must be faithful to His Church. This was true when the worst of men sat on the Chair of Peter, and it is true now. If Our Lord did not create an exception for obedience with John XII, we can be certain He did not create an exception for obedience with Pope Francis.

There is a deadly movement in the Church. One filled with people who that believes that the magisterium can err but they cannot. They claim to be faithful to the true teachings of the Church but no saints behaved in this way. The saints offered obedience to the Popes and bishops who remained in communion with the Popes... even if these saints turned out to be holier than some Popes. What these members of this movement are acting like are not saints, but like the heresiarchs who insisted that the Church was in error but they were not.

To appeal to the credentials of the current dissenters, I once had a critic of the Pope tell me that one of the people making accusations against the Pope had a doctorate. To which I can only reply, “So did Hans Küng, so what’s your point?” Education is not a guarantee of infallibility. The authority of the Pope is not in his education or his reputation for holiness (though this Pope has both). His authority comes from the charism that comes from his office.

Unfortunately critics appeal to a hypothetical crisis to deny the authority of the Pope or a Church teaching that they despise. They ask, “what if a Pope were to teach X?” X being something that clearly contradicts Scripture or Church teaching. The argument is meant to imply that such an error would prove the Pope heretical and therefore we cannot provide the obedience required to the Pope on other areas we think wrong.

The problem is, the Pope has never taught this hypothetical X, no matter how many times people expected it. They constantly claim that the Pope will “legitimize” homosexuality, contraception, remarriages and the like. In fact, he has consistently reaffirmed Church teaching on these subjects. He has simply called for mercy and compassion for those sinners that they might be helped back to right relationship with God and His Church.

The fact is, while we have had morally bad Popes (like Benedict IX and John XII) and suspected theologically bad Popes (like Liberius and Honorius I), they have never taught error. Unfortunately, the anti-Francis critics seem to think infallibility is something like prophecy where the Pope declares a new doctrine. Infallibility is a negative charism that prevents him from teaching falsely. 

An illustration of this could be: if the Pope’s infallibility was in mathematics instead of teaching faith and morals, how many questions on a math test would he have to answer correctly to be infallible? If you answered “all of them,” then you have misunderstood infallibility. The answer is “zero.” The Pope could submit a blank answer sheet.

This is why the Church has always taught that when the Pope teaches—even if that teaching is not ex cathedra—we are bound to obey (canon 752). He is not teaching a mixture of truth and heresy. A future Pope might change discipline in a way that the current Pope does not. A future Pope might address conditions in the world that the Church today doesn’t have to deal with. These things don’t mean that the current Pope is wrong.

But when he teaches as Pope, whether by ordinary or extraordinary magisterium, we are bound to obey. If it seems strange to us, we must realize that we can err and trust God to keep His promises to protect the Church—under the authority of the Pope—from teaching error.

The ones we need to take back the Church from are not predatory priests and bishops who covered up (though we must oppose them while remaining faithful to the Church). We need to take back the Church from those who claim to be faithful while rejecting the successors of the apostles. Until we do, the Church will simply become more factionalized until someone finally commits a formal schism.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Reflections on Dark Church History

I’ve been reading The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen (I figured it would be good to root out any triumphalism in me to read it during Lent, but I started early). It’s a book that came highly recommended as being as unbiased, and not taking part in the Church bashing. But it still shows a grim picture of an ugly time. Ugly times, where ugly things were done—and some of them in the name of religion. These are things that can’t be justified. But we can try to understand how they happened then—changing what needs to be changed on one hand while avoiding any post hoc arguments that claim that Catholic belief in itself caused the actions that were wrong.


President Obama managed to offend most of Christianity when he equated the actions of ISIS today with the actions of Christianity over 500 years ago—treating the abuses as if they were main purposes of the actions. Christians were right to be offended by this overly broad statement. However, one thing I have noticed about the response to Obama’s words is that some of my fellow Catholics seem to go in the opposite extreme. Instead of saying that the abuses were the norm, some of my fellow Catholics try to deny or downplay the fact that these abuses did exist. Such behavior is, of course, scandalous when it comes to our witness to non-Catholics. It looks like we’re belittling the suffering that was caused or behaving like the modern Holocaust deniers. 

I don’t write this in a sense of “You Catholic bloggers need to be more like me.” God knows I have been in the same boat at times, looking for excuses that exonerates Catholics. It’s one of the things where belief in the Mark of the Church as Holy is mistakenly understood as meaning that the members of the Church were impeccable (without sin). But that’s a battle we don’t have to fight. The Church is holy because of Christ, not because a certain percentage of her followers are saints, and if she falls below that quota, she will cease to be holy. This is shown in The Prayers of Forgiveness that St. John Paul II offered on May 12, 2000. It’s humbling to read, and sometimes it’s easy to say, “But what about—?"

I think another reason for defensiveness is that we fear that if something wrong was done by leaders of the Church, it will be a refutation of the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error. But I think this fear is misplaced. Not all magisterial decrees are taught as infallible doctrine, and some decrees (such as laws governing the Papal States prior to 1878) do not fall under such teaching at all. Christ’s promises about the Gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church weren’t aimed at the temporal governing of a territory or a political action, even if done from a religious motive. The Popes of the time had the authority to do these things, but we don’t have to treat them as doctrine. So we don’t have to try to defend the Jewish ghettoes in Europe or the like. Admitting these were wrong is not a denial of the Church’s holiness or infallibility.

With that said, I think we need to remember that to have a good act, we need three things:

  1. The act itself must be good.
  2. The motive for doing the act must be good.
  3. The circumstances surrounding the act must be good.

If one or more of these things is missing, the act is not good—even if the intention was to do good.

In addition, even if the Church decree for something was good in itself—meeting these three conditions—it doesn’t mean it will be executed well (no pun intended). Yes, the Crusades were intended as a defensive action. Yes, the inquisitions were intended to find out subversive actions done to undermine the faith, but that doesn’t mean that the people who took part in them were all saints and that all the actions done were right or done for the right reasons. People, being sinners, can corrupt anything. It is tragic that members of the Church were quick to cooperate with (and sometimes encourage) the state in things where they should have been the ones saying “slow down."

So let’s not try to deny the anti-semitism in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition or the evil actions done in the Crusades. Let’s not deny that the Summa Theologica has some cringeworthy ideas (like the treatment of heretics in Summa Theologica II-II q.10 a.8 resp.)

Of course at the same time, let’s not look at the evils done and say that the Church needs to abandon her teachings. Yes, evils were done in the name of the Church—and some of them by people highly placed in the Church. But people who act out of hatred or greed or other vices and exploit the Church in doing so are not a sign that the Church teaching “X is wrong,” is the cause for Christians mistreating people solely because they are part of group X. There are some misguided Catholics out there who point to the Crusades as if they are a good idea for today in response to ISIS. But the Catholic teaching that the existence of Christ’s Church "subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (Lumen Gentium 8), is not the cause of certain Catholics behaving in a bigoted manner towards non-Catholics, just like believing marriage can only be between one man and one woman is not the cause of mistreating people with same sex attraction.

And let’s also get rid of the idea that the people in Europe from the 12th-17th centuries could and should have thought like 21st century Americans. What we have in society today is based on the development of Christian thought and the stabilization of society. The idea of a pluralistic society (as opposed to an empire with subjected peoples) did not exist yet. It was developed during this time. Political society evolved from the decrees of the ruler to being a more constitutional view of how to treat people—a view formed by Christian ethics.

I think Pope emeritus Benedict XVI had a good point which can be derived from when he was writing about “dark passages” in the Bible and how to understand them:

God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. (Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini 42)

Even now, with the fullness of revelation in Christ being given us [that is—no further divine revelation], humanity can come up with new ways to be barbaric and cruel, and, in response, the Church needs to determine what is the best way to apply what we believe to these situations (for example, nuclear weapons required us to consider new aspects in the concept of “just war”). For example, the Church did not have much to say on slavery before it reemerged in the 15th century, because it was largely dying away in Christian Europe. But when the Azores were conquered, and slaves were taken, the Pope at the time (Eugene IV) certainly had something to say on the matter in the Papal Bulls Creator Omnium and Sicut Dudem. Sometimes it takes an abuse to exist before a response can be given, and sometimes it can take awhile before people recognize that a thing is an abuse. Remember, we believe the Popes are infallible when it comes to avoiding teaching error as binding—it doesn’t mean they are omnipotent (all knowing) understanding that wrongdoing is happening or grasping the significance of it. Sometimes, scandal has happened when the Church has been silent over something when it should have spoken out. But we have to distinguish these things before assigning blame to the Church.

Understanding where blame goes is that first step that needs to be discerned. The individual who decides on his own to commit an evil act and tries to justify it by pointing to Church teaching cannot be justified if his interpretation of Church teaching goes against the Church understanding. The state that enforces laws that the Church calls unjust is going against Church teaching. In these cases, it cannot be said that the Church is to blame for the actions of the individual or the State. It’s only when individual or the state is properly obeying (as opposed to misinterpreting) the Church in doing wrong, or when the Church is knowingly silent instead of speaking out that the Church herself can be said to be to blame. These things did happen of course—St. John Paul II did see the need to apologize for actions done in the name of the Church. But ultimately, we need to discern first, neither defending the indefensible nor condemning that which was not wrong.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The "Ex Cathedra Only" Argument and Why It is Wrong


Not all Catholics take the flagrant line of rejecting authority. Some try to portray themselves as perfectly willing to follow the teachings of the Church—if only the Church will explain themselves in a way which is extremely rare. That’s the claim that they’ll obey all of the teachings of the Church which are infallibly declared. Of course the problem is the Church very seldom makes use of the formal declaration of infallibility (also known as ex cathedra—literally from the chair—referring to the seat of authority the Pope possesses by his office and is a teaching that all Catholics are bound to accept as revealed truth).

In other words, it’s disobedience and rejection again, denying that the Church can teach in a binding way in any other form.

I saw a lot in the past from Catholics who were trying to defend abortion and so called “same sex marriage.” The argument was that the Church never made an ex cathedra definition on the subject, so the teaching was not binding. Unfortunately, now some Catholics are trying to defend torture in the same way: “Well, the Church teaching isn’t made ex cathedra, so it isn’t binding on us. It’s merely optional."

The reasoning seems to be similar to the Fundamentalist who rejects the teachings from the Church Fathers of the first centuries of Christian history. They argument they presented to me was: If the Bible is inerrant, but the Church Fathers are not, then the Church Fathers might be teaching error, and it is not safe to follow their lead. They follow that up with pointing to the differences between their personal interpretation of the Bible and the understanding of the Church Fathers and concluding these differences show it is the Church Fathers in error (never themselves).

Likewise, the ex cathedra only Catholic argues that the infallible statements of the Church are protected from error so we know they are safe. But we don’t know if the non-infallible teachings of the Church are safe to follow. Like the Fundamentalist, these Catholics match the Church teaching against their own personal interpretation of what the Church is supposed to be, and whatever they dislike is considered to be proof of error.

But their reasoning that only the ex cathedra statements are to be followed is based on faulty reasoning.

The Logical Flaw With the Argument

That defense is not a valid defense. The Church has never taught that this was the only way she could teach to the world. It’s an invention based on a false interpretation of Church authority. The basic form is:

  • All [ex cathedra statements] are [that which Must be obeyed] (All A is B)
  • [Statement X] is not an [ex cathedra Statement] (C is not a Part of A)
  • Therefore [Statement X] is not [that which Must be obeyed] (Therefore C is not a part of B)

In logic we call this Denying the Antecedent, which is not a valid argument. That is because the fact that C is not a part of A does not mean that C is not a part of B. We can demonstrate that with a diagram:

We Do Not Know Where C IsC might or might not be part of B, but we don’t know.
The Red Line indicates this uncertainty. 

If C (Statement X) is a part of B (that which must be obeyed) the argument is false. If it is not part of B, then it is true (but the argument does not prove that). So at best, this defense is unproven. At worst, it’s false. So we need to investigate this. Does the Church decree one way or another on what to do when the statement of teaching is not ex cathedra?

Data: What the Church Says on Her Teachings

In fact she does, and what she teaches knocks this “ex cathedra only" argument flat. Let’s look at some of these decrees.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

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.

Moving backwards, we read the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium #25:

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.

Moving further back to Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis #20:

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me";[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

Finally, we can go back to the Vatican I document Pastor Aeternus (which defined infallibility) Chapter III:

And since, by the divine right of apostolic primacy, one Roman Pontiff is placed over the universal Church, We further teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful,* and that in all causes the decision of which belongs to the Church recourse may be had to his tribunal,† but that none may reopen the judgement of the Apostolic See, than whose authority there is no greater, nor can any lawfully review its judgement.‡ Wherefore they err from the right path of truth who assert that it is lawful to appeal from the judgements of the Roman Pontiffs to an Œcumenical Council, as to an authority higher than that of the Roman Pontiff.

If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema.

The Church has made clear in her teachings that when the Pope teaches in a way that is not ex cathedra but still teaches formally on an issue, or when the bishops speak in the name of the Church (and in communion with the Pope), not just in matters of faith and morals but in matters of discipline and governing the Church, we are called to give assent to these teachings and adhere to them. Looking at these statements, the "ex cathedra only” crowd has staked out a position that the Church has rejected.

Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium

The problem with their thinking is that it seems to treat the ex cathedra definitions as if it were a sort of inspired teaching and the rest of the teachings as if the Church was just “making things up as they go.” That’s to miss the point. The Church teaches in different levels of emphasis, based on the needs of the people. The ex cathedra statement is used to define something in such a way as to eliminate any doubt. So, if there are two positions, X and Not-X, and the Church infallibly defines X, then it is made clear that the position Not-X is not compatible with Catholic belief.

But just because the Church has not made an ex cathedra declaration on a subject does not mean one can ignore the declarations made. The Church has not made an ex cathedra declaration on adultery, abortion, homosexual acts, etc. But the Church has continued to pass on the teachings that these things are sinful and may never be done. Do we dare assert that these are the opinions of the Church?

We cannot do so and claim we are being faithful to the Church. The Church continues to make clear that the Church teaching is to be followed from age to age, and emphasizes elements of the teaching that are being neglected in a specific age.

See, when the Church uses ordinary and extraordinary, she is describing that which is the normal way to do things and that which needs to be done in a way outside of the normal way. Ordinary comes from the Latin ordinarius, indicating the regular or usual way things are done, while extraordinary comes from the Latin extra ordinem meaning‘outside the normal course of events.’ The Church ordinarily teaches through the Pope and the bishops in communion with him stating what the Church believes, and calling the faithful to give their assent (agreement) and docility (readiness to accept instruction). But when there is a strong need, the Church can make an extraordinary teaching, saying “We define X in such a way that there can be no more attempts to ignore our usual teaching."

We believe that when it comes to a matter of faith and morals, the Church will be protected from teaching error—otherwise, how could we know if any Pope was teaching truth or whether following him would lead to our damnation? The extraordinary ex cathedra declaration is a special tool which is used in special circumstances. The ordinary teaching of the Church is the usual way the Church makes known what is compatible and incompatible with being a Christian.

Thus, the ex cathedra only Catholic is denying the authority of the Church when she teaches.

The Choice Must Be Made

So, now that it has been made clear: the Church has never taught that only ex cathedra teaching is to be obeyed while the rest can be treated as an opinion. So, now people who have staked out that claim have to make a choice. They can either decide to give their assent to the Church teaching, recognizing that they have erred in the past, or they can cling to their error out of obstinance, now claiming that the Church itself is teaching error while they are not. It is a decision of humility vs. pride—do I admit my own limits and trust in Christ to protect the Church? Or do I hold to pride and assume that I cannot err and the Church teaching must be in error when they conflict?

We need to pray for people faced with this decision. We want them to accept God’s grace. We must also avoid the approach of the pharisee towards the tax collector. Just because we haven’t fallen into obstinacy over this issue, doesn’t mean we won’t do so in other areas where we have comfortably accepted something in our society that goes against the teaching of the Church. We are called to constantly look at our lives and discover where we are not following Christ—seeking to amend our life in this area.

Monday, November 10, 2014

God Protects His Church In Communion With the Pope...Even Pope Francis


The case of the media getting the news wrong about the workings of the Church is nothing unusual. When you assign reporters to the religion beat who know nothing about  the topic, the results are going to be bad (I’ve seen them cite the Landover Baptist Church before, not realizing it is a parody). So, of course when the secular media covers the Church, you’re going to see reporting that is very badly informed.

On the other hand, it is curious to see how self-professed faithful Catholics who claim to be well informed about the faith can make the same mistakes about the news of the Church. If one understands what the Church is, and what she teaches, it becomes clear that the Church is not going to be changing her teaching under Pope Francis. Even if he wanted to (and he doesn’t), God would protect him from teaching error in matters pertaining to salvation. The issue of saying that one may receive the Eucharist when it would be sacrilegious to do so is something that falls under the category of matters pertaining to salvation.

Ultimately, these Catholics have forgotten that the Church is protected by Jesus Christ, and He sustains her in different ways.

The Ground Floor Failsafe: Jesus Christ Protects His Church Always

So, trust in Jesus Christ to protect the Church from teaching error in matters pertaining to salvation means we don’t fear that Pope Francis will change the Church teaching in such a way that puts peoples souls in jeopardy.

But some people who profess to be faithful and informed Catholics do not know this. They believe the Pope can err, and need to be disobeyed—and they believe this is happening at this time under Pope Francis.

The Vatican I document Pastor Aeternus describes it as such:

For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter, that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith delivered through the Apostles. And indeed all the venerable Fathers have embraced and the holy orthodox Doctors have venerated and followed their apostolic doctrine; knowing most fully that this See of Saint Peter remains ever free from all blemish of error, according to the divine promise of the Lord our Saviour made to the Prince of His disciples: “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not; and when thou art converted, confirm thy brethren.”

This belief is sound. If Jesus Christ promised St. Peter that what was bound on Earth would be bound in Heaven (Matthew 16: 18-19), there are two choices:

  1. God will accept the binding of error and loosing of truth.
  2. God will protect the Church, under St. Peter, from binding error and loosing truth.

Remember, Jesus Christ willed that there be a Church, under the headship of Peter, that carried out His mission, and He gave it His authority (Matt 28:18-20 and John 20:21-23). If this Church, under the headship of Peter and his successors, can teach error, she cannot fulfill Our Lord’s mission. If we trust Our Lord, we trust His Church. Even when a Judas may appear, that does not destroy the whole Church. St. Peter is the cornerstone because God has decreed it and we can have faith in the Church because we have faith in Him.

The Second Level: Grace and People of Good Will

That first level means even if we should get a rotten person in there as a Pope, he would be unable to teach error as if it were truth when teaching as Pope. But that is not the only level of protection. God also sends us people of good will, filled with grace to us. People who seek to do God’s will in the role they are in. God has blessed us in recent history in sending us a string of Popes recognized for their wise shepherding and love of Christ.

Being human, they can sin, but loving God and aided by His grace, these people seek to do His will in spite of their sins, repenting when they do sin. They won’t choose to live in a way which contradicts their love of God, even if they choose a means which is different than how you or I would prefer to do it.

Remember, even when God says “You shall do this,” there can be different methods of carrying it out faithfully. If method A or B both carry out God’s command, it is unjust to say a person does wrong if he chooses to do method B.

That’s ultimately what we have today. The Pope is saying, “Let’s try B,” and people used to A are upset.

Basically, the reaction today is this: There are some Catholics, claiming to be good Catholics who deny that the Pope is a person of good will and operating under the Grace of God because He uses a different approach in being obedient to God.


The thing to remember in all the hype, whether secular media or Catholic media, is that God protects His Church and looks after the Pope . . . even Pope Francis. The Holy Spirit did not take a coffee break in 2013. Sure, he can make administrative errors. Sure he can sin personally. But God protects him through both the charism of the office of the papacy and the personal grace He bestows on Pope Francis.

I have faith in the Church, because I have faith in God.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

More Talk on Schism

The drumbeat of media commentators talking about the danger of schism within the Catholic Church seems to be a popular theme. The latest comes from The Guardian writer, Andrew Brown. His article, "A Catholic church schism under Pope Francis isn’t out of the question,” takes the theme of Ross Douthat and expands on the idea of a conservative schism. He writes:

Until this weekend, I had largely believed in the liberal narrative which holds that Pope Francis’s reforms of the Catholic church are unstoppable. But the conservative backlash has been so fierce and so far-reaching that for the first time a split looks a real, if distant, possibility.

One leading conservative, the Australian Cardinal George Pell, published over the weekend a homily he had prepared for the traditional Latin mass at which he started ruminating on papal authority. Pope Francis, he said, was the 266th pope, “and history has seen 37 false or antipopes”.

Why mention them, except to raise the possibility that Francis might turn out to be the 38th false pope, rather than the 266th real one?

This is a fascinating nudge in the direction of an established strain of conservative fringe belief: that liberalising popes are not in fact real popes, but imposters, sent by the devil. The explanation has an attractively deranged logic: if the pope is always right, as traditionalists would like to believe, and if this particular pope is clearly wrong, as traditionalists also believe, then obviously this pope is not the real pope. Splinter groups have held this view ever since the liberalising papacy of Pope John XXIII at the start of the 1960s. I don’t think that’s what Pell meant, but it was odd and threatening to bring the subject up at all.

The other warning of schism, though veiled in regret, came from the conservative American journalist Ross Douthat, who wrote on Sunday that “[Conservative Catholics] might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”

I believe Brown has a faulty understanding on the workings of the Church—his misunderstanding of what an antipope is leads to a misinterpretation of Cardinal Pell’s words. If one reads the full text of Cardinal Pell’s words, it is clear that the cardinal is not speaking of questioning the legitimacy of Pope Francis. It is a homily on the papacy and how it survived many controversies. Cardinal Pell doesn’t question the legitimacy of the Pope. Rather, he is assuring the faithful who are deeply troubled by the media coverage of the synod that the Church has never fallen into error and never will..

(An antipope, by the way, is a person established as pope in opposition to one canonically chosen. So, Pope Francis couldn’t be an antipope because he was canonically chosen. The idea of labeling a Pope an antipope nowadays is a way to seek giving legitimacy to conservative dissent among the fringes).

But, let’s talk about the dangers of schism. That’s not the same as having a political dispute. That’s a denial that the truth is found in the Church, and a belief that the faction of the Church knows better than those that Our Lord gave His authority to.

Think about it. We Catholics profess our belief that Jesus is God, and that He gave the Church authority to teach in His name. He gave her the power to bind and loose. He promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. He promised that He would be with the Church always until the end of the age. With these promises, we can take one of three positions:

  1. We can have faith that the Church will not teach error in matters of salvation because we have faith in Jesus (The Catholic position).
  2. We can deny that the Church properly interpreted those promises (This would be the position of the Protestants and Orthodox).
  3. We can deny that Jesus had the power/will to keep those promises (The position of non-Christians).

The problem is, positions #2 and #3 are not Catholic positions, and to hold either of them is to deny an element of the Catholic Faith. So, why should we look at a Catholic who publicly denies the first position as an example of being a faithful Catholic? After all, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that among the sins against faith are:

2089 Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

So when people are claiming that the Church is going to fall into error and that the Pope is teaching dangerous things, it is a serious matter indeed. But people are playing with fire here. Taking the premise that the Church is going to change Church teaching as true, people are deceived into thinking that their own private judgments are closer to the truth than that of the Pope when he teaches.

Usually, when I encounter this online, I ask the person which council declared him or her infallible—because that is effectively what they are claiming for themselves. I think any reader who thinks this way should also ask themselves this question. The point is, you are not and I am not infallible. We can fall into error of misinterpreting the teaching of the Church. In fact, the point is we are supposed to look to the magisterium of the Church for guidance. It’s hard to do that when we’re making ourselves the judge of the Church teaching and teachers.

Historically, schism has come when a group of Catholics have decided that the Church under the leadership of the Pope no longer (or never did) possesses binding authority. The history of the Church is full of schismatics who thought the Pope was too “lenient” on Church teaching. The Church had antipopes because some people decided they didn’t like the results about the Pope who was chosen, and thought they had the authority to name a different one.

Those two are the extremes of course. But the devil doesn’t need to use extremes to lead people to hell. All he needs to do is to get people to put their will first, and follow the Church only if it agrees with what they wish to believe. They can remain within the Church of course. But once they think of themselves as the judges of the Church, they become too proud to be taught. Anything they hear that is contrary to what they decide is right immediately becomes suspect. 

If the devil can get people to do that, it doesn’t matter whether they formally break in schism—they’ve already denied Christ’s promises.

Faith in Christ doesn’t mean that we accept everything the hippy-dip promoter of the Spirit of Vatican II people proclaim. But it means that when the Pope teaches on a matter involving salvation, it means he is not going to teach error.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reflection on St. Robert Bellarmine: Something to Consider If Alarmed by the Synod

Saint Robert Bellarmine

As I read some of the Catholic blogs out there written by people deeply troubled by the summary report of the first half of the synod, I keep thinking of the letter St. Robert Bellarmine wrote to Foscarini in 1615. In discussing the new theory of the heliocentric view of the Solar System and what it meant for Scripture, the saint (who personally did not believe heliocentrism was true) said this in response:

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than what is demonstrated is false.

It is a good principle to remember: the truth of a source is not disproved by a misunderstanding of it, and if what we think is the proper understanding turns out to be false, we need to look to sources we know to be true and see if we have personally invested into it something never intended to be taught. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine was invested in the idea that the Scriptures were literally describing the movement of the planets and stars as geocentric. But he recognized that if it could be proved that heliocentrism was true, we’d have to recognize that Scripture was misunderstood, not that either science or Scripture was false.

The truth, as we now know, is that the Scriptures used phenomenological language—that is, language that describes how it looks from our perspective. For example, we still refer to “sunrise” and “sunset” (even in meteorological reports) because that is a description of how the sun appears, and did not intend to make scientific declarations on how the universe functioned.

But even now, there are a few vocal fringe groups of Catholics who try to argue that geocentrism is true because they have a false understanding of how Church teaching works, fearing that admitting that if members of the Church once thought wrongly about how the Solar System was constructed, it means denying the authority of the Church to teach.

I believe this is similar to the case with some individuals looking at the relatio that came out yesterday. They have a set idea on what the Church can even discuss in terms of binding teaching. They see the synod relatio mentioning reaching out to people in invalid marriages, people cohabiting and people in same sex relationships and are scandalized by things being mentioned that might be interpreted as downplaying the moral teaching of the Church. They fear that the Church might end up teaching error.

I think St. Robert Bellarmine has the attitude that should be followed. Like his faith in the inerrancy of Scripture, we need to keep faith in God protecting His Church from error. If an individual thinks that the Church cannot do a thing, and the Church does do that thing as a formal teaching, then it is more reasonable to recognize that he or she has erred than to think that the Church has erred.

We know that the Church cannot err in teaching matters essential for salvation. We know that wrongly telling people in sin that they are not sinning is an error in matters essential for salvation. Therefore we know that the Church cannot teach people in sin that they are not sinning.

We should remember this and not panic when we hear reports of the relatio and how some think it means the Church is going to change her teaching.

Friday, October 10, 2014

More Thoughts on (Mis)Interpreting the Synod


Parvus error in initio magnus erit in fine (“Small error in the beginning; large [error] will be in the end”)

—St. Thomas Aquinas



A few days have passed since the preliminary synod has begun. I’ve been reading different things on Facebook, Catholic Blogs and news sites (secular and religious). And of course, there is the usual antics of individual Catholics making their comments on all of these places. There has been some good reporting from the Vatican Information Service and Zenit. I have unfortunately seen the other side: Too much commentary based on too little knowledge. This combination has shaken many of the faithful.

The Problem

Some are people who have misinterpreted the intention of the synod (to see how to better pass on the Church teaching and minister to those who have managed to place themselves outside of them) and falsely hope to see the Church changing her teaching on issues of sexual morality. Others are Catholics who fear the Church will change her teaching and teach error.

These false hopes and fears seem to stem from the fact that too many people are relying on what they think they know. When people hold their assumptions as true, and then encounter information which seems to reinforce these assumptions, they tend to think their fears or hopes are proven true. A person need not have a malicious intention for this to happen. It’s just what happens when a person wrongly assume they know something.

I think a lot of this happens to come from a vicious circle. The media sees Pope Francis as a liberal, and everything he says or does that may sound liberal in the ears of the listener (whether they approve of liberalism or loathe it) confirms the hopes or fears. They write about it from their perspective. People read these articles and have their hopes or fears reinforced by them. Pretty soon, it’s taken as a fact and the Pope is going to save or destroy the Church—but nobody ever asks whether their view is actually true. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, 

Once this view is held as fact (and it isn’t fact), it becomes easy to use the assumption as the basis of predicting all sorts of ridiculous things. The synod is one of these things. If a person sees Pope Francis as a liberal, they assume the synod will change the rules from Not-X to X, and think it is a good thing or bad thing depending on their political slant. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, Parvus error in initio magnus erit in fine (“Small error in the beginning; large [error] will be in the end”).

Now, yes, there are people in the Church who do choose to act and think from a political perspective. I don’t believe the Pope is one but, even if some do, we should not fear that the Church will embrace error . . . if we truly believe the Church is what she claims to be. Let’s look at this.

Why I don’t Fear the Synod

Christ made some promises to His Church, and these promises have rational implications whether one accepts them or not. They also have rational implications for people who don’t consider the ramifications of their views.

The first promise is:

18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20  Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. (Matt 16:18-19)

The second promise is:

8  Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt:18:18)

The third promise is:

18  Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 28:18-20)

The fourth promise is:

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23)

They’re pretty powerful promises. They establish that Jesus Christ has established a Church, and given it His authority to teach, binding and loosing. He is shown to be with His Church always—there is no trying to place Jesus in opposition to His Church. Trying to do so is to effectively deny that His promises have any weight: If the Church can teach error, then either Jesus Christ failed to keep His promises (blasphemous) or the Church simply misinterpreted what Christ intended to say (which means it does not matter what the Church teaches at the synod, because she has no authority to teach at all).

Now of course, to be a faithful Catholic, we cannot accept that Christ’s promises were false, and we cannot accept that the Church misinterpreted them. So we have to accept them.

The implications of accepting these promises are important. If Jesus gave His authority to teach to His Apostles and promised the gates of the netherworld (literally ᾅδου—the place of departed spirits) would not prevail against it. But they would die (see 1 Corinthians 15:22). So for Christ’s promise to be kept, it would have to be applied to the legitimate successors of the Apostles—the Pope and the bishops in communion with him until “the end of the age."

The next implication is that for things bound/loosed on Earth to be bound in Heaven means one of two things:

  1. Either God will bind/loose error in Heaven, or . . . 
  2. God will protect His Church from teaching error in binding and loosing.

But because nothing impure can enter Heaven (Rev 21:27), we cannot accept the first option. So we can trust in the second.

Now, recognizing this, we can know that the Church cannot teach error when binding or loosing on matters pertaining to our salvation. The Church is sent to teach and baptize, bringing all nations to Christ. She can’t do His mission if she can lead them astray. Binding teaching is not just in matters which are ex cathedra (formally declared to be taught infallibly). Pope Pius XII made this clear in Humani Generis:

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me";[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

This also applies to matters where the Church, under the authority of the Pope intends to teach what we must do. Now, think of it. If the Church can decree in a synod, “It is permissible for divorced and (invalidly) remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist,” and that decree went against God’s will, that would be a teaching contradicting a matter pertaining to salvation (see 1 Cor. 11:27). A matter which we cannot accept as Catholics.

So, that’s why I am not afraid of the results of the synod. There are people inside and outside of the Church who may have false ideas about what the Church can do. Some of them may be at this synod. We don’t know. But even if there are, they will not prevail against the Church. Not because of the holiness or intelligence of those attending . . . but because Jesus promised us this.

If we would be the faithful Catholics we would claim to be, let’s keep faith in Christ, even if we are fearful of the reports across the world.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thoughts on the So-called Plain Sense of Scripture and the No True Scotsman Fallacy


20 Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, 21 for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

15 And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, 16 speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)


In my last article on the subject, I shared some objections as to why Catholics do not accept the concept of Sola Scriptura — that it is a manmade doctrine not to be found in Scripture. This time I want to discuss an assumption which is held by some proponents of Sola Scriptura, which holds there is a “plain sense” of Scripture apparent to all who read it, and therefore a Church which can determine what is a correct interpretation is unnecessary.

This is not a reasonable claim. When one considers that the Bible was written by individuals who wrote thousands of years ago, as a member of a different culture, it is quite likely that to read it as if it was written by a 21st century author is to read it in a sense which was never intended.

Preliminary Comments

The reader should be aware that just because I reject the concept of a “Plain Sense” of Scripture, it does not mean I reject the authority of Scripture. As a collection of writings written by individuals passing on the Revelation which God gave them and inspired and protected the authors from error in doing so. Scripture “is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim 3:16).

However, it does not follow from this that the Bible was ever intended to stand alone or to be interpreted by itself.

Thus, anyone who interprets my article as denying that the Bible is inspired or authoritative interprets it wrongly.

I don't doubt that some non-Catholics will disagree and perhaps dislike what I write.  Please keep in mind that any comments which I deem offensive (whether personal attacks or anti-Catholic attacks) will not be approved.  Please be civil in any expressed disagreement.

What “Plain Sense” Is.

Whatever is against the plain sense of the written word, or which gives countenance or encouragement to sin, we may be sure is not that which the Lord has spoken.1

—Matthew Henry

So what is this Plain Sense?  It is essentially rooted in Literalism, which is defined by Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary as, “Interpretation of biblical texts in straightforward and nonsymbolic language, using the literal meaning of the original words.” So if the Bible says God created the world in seven days, the Bible means exactly that. Any attempt to claim that the Bible never intended to give an “eyewitness” account tends to be accused of trying to “explain away” what the Bible says.

The claim of a “Plain Sense” of Scripture is that the meaning of Scripture is obvious to all who read it, and thus a Church is unnecessary and has no authority to insist on a binding interpretation. Moreover, exegesis and interpretation is not needed since any person who reads the Scriptures in good faith will understand the proper meaning, and only those who do not approach the Scriptures in good faith would insist on a different meaning.

If that kind of thinking sounds problematic, that’s because it stems from a logical error which will claim that “if YOU disagree from ME, it’s because YOU are in error.”

No True Scotsman Fallacy

This is known as the No True Scotsman fallacy, which is used in this case to negate all views of the Bible contrary to one’s own by labeling it as not being authentically Christian. It works like this:

  1. All True Christians will accept that a certain Bible Verse means X.
  2. Jones doesn’t think this Bible verse means X.
  3. Therefore Jones is not a True Christian

Under such a fallacy, any attempts to question the major premise or any counterexamples will be labeled as not being "a true Christian."

To employ a silly example, what if I claim that Jesus stating, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36) means He is an alien and if you do not agree you are not a real Christian and read the Bible out of context. How do you refute that? Such a claim refuses to consider any rebuttals by claiming they must be false because they disagree.

Caveat: This does not mean Scripture is Subjective

Because the above point can be misunderstood, I want to make this clear: The meaning of the Bible is not subjective. What makes it seem subjective is the multiple personal interpretations all claiming to be correct.

There are right and wrong interpretations of the Bible, and the issue is: Who has authority to make a binding interpretation?

My objection to “Plain Sense” and “Personal Interpretation” is it essentially makes any individual who claims it into his own Magisterium, disguising his or her personal interpretation as the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

An Example of the Pitfalls with Personal Interpretation

In St. Augustine’s work Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, we see in book 22, how Faustus (a member of the Manichaean heresy) reads the Old Testament and interprets it:

4. These books, moreover, contain shocking calumnies against God himself. We are told that he existed from eternity in darkness, and admired the light when he saw it; that he was so ignorant of the future, that he gave Adam a command, not foreseeing that it would be broken; that his perception was so limited that he could not see Adam when, from the knowledge of his nakedness, he hid himself in a corner of Paradise; that envy made him afraid lest his creature man should taste of the tree of life, and live for ever; that afterwards he was greedy for blood, and fat from all kinds of sacrifices, and jealous if they were offered to any one but himself; that he was enraged sometimes against his enemies, sometimes against his friends; that he destroyed thousands of men for a slight offense, or for nothing; that he threatened to come with a sword and spare nobody, righteous or wicked. The authors of such bold libels against God might very well slander the men of God. You must join with us in laying the blame on the writers if you wish to vindicate the prophets.3

Faustus personally interprets the Creation account and the Torah on the sacrifices in a literal sense, taking what he thinks is the plain sense of Scripture.  Those familiar with Scripture will be able to recognize the Scriptural events he speaks about.   Because of this interpretation, Faustus and the Manichaeans think that the God of the Old Testament cannot be the same as the God of the Prophets and the New Testament.

Now before anyone fires off an angry response here, let me make clear I do not claim that those who believe in “Plain Sense” and “Personal Interpretation” believe in the Manichaeism that Faustus did. Rather I use this example to demonstrate that a person who interprets Scripture for himself with what he or she thinks is the "plain sense" can very easily go wrong, and if such a person makes use of the No True Scotsman fallacy, it can assume everyone else is wrong rather than consider the possibility of personal error.

Guided by the “Spirit”

In response to this, some argue that the proper understanding is done through Guidance by the Holy Spirit.  In this, it would be argued that interpretations not done under the influence of the Spirit were wildly inaccurate.  This defense would claim that the Spirit reaches out to people of good faith and helps them to understand what Scripture means. Therefore it can be said that Faustus was not guided by the Holy Spirit, but those who follow the “Plain Sense” are.

The appeal to the Holy Spirit is another defense mechanism of the “Bible Alone” which is commonly invoked against the example of the false interpretation.  But there is a problem with the assertion.  How do we know who is deceived and who is not?  Or, more chillingly, how does the individual who is certain they are right know they are not deceived?

Faustus, like Arius, Nestorius and others were probably sincere in their belief that Jesus was less than God, and sincere in believing they were inspired while those who disagreed were deceived.  They certainly appealed to the Scriptures sincerely – yet they were in error.  So who determines what is right?

The problem is, this is another example of the No True Scotsman fallacy, and argues that whoever deviates from a chosen interpretation is not guided by the Spirit.  Regardless of beliefs, anyone can use this fallacy and say "This interpretation is not the same as mine.  Therefore it must be false."

Get enough different groups all using the fallacy and contradicting each other and you have a problem. If you have several denominations that hold contradictory views and all of which claim to have the true interpretation of Scripture and all of them appealing to the Bible, to whom are we to approach to determine which view is in contradiction to what Jesus taught His disciples?

If two or more groups say contrary things, they cannot all be right. However, just because one contrary is wrong does not mean the other is right. If one person says “All [A] is [B]” and another says “No [A] is [B]” both can be wrong if it turns out “Some [A] is [B].” Thus we can’t choose who is right simply on the basis of identifying group [B] as wrong.

Self Contradiction in Practice

Thus, the problem with an appeal to a Plain sense of Scripture which therefore requires no Church is that it is a self-contradiction. This claim is in itself a claim to have the personal or denominational authority to make a binding interpretation of Scripture (which they deny to the Catholic Church). In other words, the person appealing to the Plain Sense of Scripture in judging others who disagree with him is creating his own Magisterium — and one based on the argument that if you don’t agree with [X] you are reading the Scriptures wrongly.

The Data of Divisions

The existence of numerous denominations, all calling themselves Protestant, demonstrates this problem. If there is a plain sense of Scripture obvious to all who seek it in good faith, we should expect to see evidence of such a claim in the unity of all groups who claim to rely on the Bible Alone: all pointing to the Bible should hold to the same teaching if the teaching is “plain.”

Yet this does not happen.  If people disagree with a pastor or reverend and their take on Scripture, they are free to just go elsewhere to where someone teaches what they agree with.

Now I won’t go into the “20,000+ denomination” debate which annoys certain Protestants. This seems to be mainly a dispute over what a denomination is. Certain groups consider three different offshoots of Presbyterians as three different denominations. Others consider them one denomination. Without a mutual agreement on what denomination means, such arguments are worthless.

Setting that aside, however, we can say that when one has Lutherans, Reformed, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Non-Denominational and others, each claiming there is a plain sense of Scripture while appealing to their own belief as being what that plain sense is supposed to be, we can see that this is evidence against a Plain Sense.

A thing cannot both be [A] and [Not-A] at the same time and in the same context.  If two statements about a thing contradict, they can’t both be right, but (if they both share a fundamental misinterpretation they share) both can be wrong.

A Brief Preliminary on "Agreeing on the Important Things"

While this is a topic worthy of a post itself (which I hope to get to later), I will touch briefly on the defense sometimes offered that these different denominations agree on "important things."  The argument is, the differences are less than the agreements, and the agreements are what is discovered from the plain sense. The differences are over “minor” issues.

The reason this is a problem is, denominations do not say these differences are minor issues. Baptists who say Baptism is important and Calvinists who say it is a mere symbol are saying contradictory things about the necessity of Baptism. Denominations disagree on whether abortion or divorce is permissible or not… and a growing number of them are deciding not to contest the issue at all, merely saying nothing to avoid controversy.

So when it comes to the "Agreeing on the Important Things" argument, what we have is a reduction of Christianity to the Lowest Common Denominator, where people who insist on other issues as being important are accused of focusing on trivialities.  Certain denominations (the Anglicans and Presbyterians for example) are divided over the concept of homosexual marriage.  This does not mean that homosexuality is unimportant compared to what they agree on.  Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)"  He also said "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matt 7:21)"

So we can say that the issue of obedience to His commandments is not optional, and therefore when two denominations dispute whether or not an issue is "important" either one is denigrating something important or elevating something trivial.

Actually, the "Important things" defense is another example of the No True Scotsman fallacy:

  1. There is no contradiction on major beliefs between denominations.
  2. Belief [X] is disputed between denominations.
  3. Therefore Belief [X] is not a major belief.

Any uncomfortable dispute between denominations is explained away by this argument. The problem is, it waters down the faith to the level of the group which believes the least.

The Question to Be Asked

Thus we have the problem with the claim of Personal interpretation in a nutshell. How can we know who has the correct interpretation when two groups disagree and both claim to have the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Hence, Catholics ask: When two or more denominations disagree over the plain sense of Scripture, to what do they appeal to settle who is right?

It cannot be the Bible — because this is what is being disputed.  Two parties with no other authority but the Bible can each accuse the other of interpreting it wrongly and will not accept the other's citation as a refutation of their belief.  Clearly in such a case, having an inerrant Bible alone is not of much use if people cannot agree on the meaning.

That is the problem: if one accepts The Bible Alone, there is nothing to judge between two disputing views to determine which is correct. Thus we have an impasse — if one accepts The Bible Alone and Personal Interpretation.

This is why the Catholics emphasize the fact that the teachings of the Apostles are passed on in both the writings of Sacred Scripture and in Sacred Tradition. We believe Jesus established a Church under the headship of the Apostles and that when one reads the Bible, when one considers Sacred Tradition, one has to view it in context of the faith which is passed consistently from generation to generation. A person who views Scripture apart from how it was interpreted since the times of the Apostles does not read Scripture correctly.

The denial of the claim that Jesus established His Church and protected her from error is to effectively kick out the support for a reasoned belief that the Bible is inerrant, and that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.4

This is because: If we do not know who has the authority to interpret, how can we know whose teaching, refutation, correction and training for righteousness is correct and whose is in error?

1 Henry, M., & Scott, T. (1997). Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary (Dt 18:15).

2 Kurian, G. T. (2001). Nelson's new Christian dictionary : The authoritative resource on the Christian world. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Pubs.

3 Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV. St. Augustine: The writings against the Manicheans and against the Donatists. (273).

4 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Board of Trustees, Catholic Church. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, & United States Catholic Conference. Administrative Board. (1996, c1986). The New American Bible : Translated from the original languages with critical use of all the ancient sources and the revised New Testament (2 Ti 3:16). Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

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.

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. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Article IIIa): On That Which the Church Does Not Teach

The Series Thus Far:


Now that I have dealt with Peter, his primacy and that he made decisions for the Church which were either protected from error or else throws the entire belief of Christianity into doubt, it is time to move on to what some people might have wanted me to cover from the beginning — the belief of Papal Infallibility itself.

However (you knew there had to be a catch, didn't you?) before we can do this, we effectively need to define what it is not.

Two Forms of Rejection

There tends to be two forms to the rejection of the authority of the Church as binding.

  1. Those who reject the Catholic claim of infallibility and that the Church can be free from error when she teaches.
  2. Those who deny that a part of Catholic teaching, which they dislike, is binding.

Non Catholics tend to fall into the first group.  Because they believe the Catholic Church teaches wrongly, it makes sense they would not believe that the Catholic Church could be protected from error.  Some Catholics fall into the first group, but unlike the non-Catholic, they are being hypocritical for remaining within the Church when they reject what it teaches on teaching without error.

The second position tends to be held by Cafeteria Catholics (Catholics who arbitrarily choose which teachings they will follow and which they will not).  Such individuals deny they are at odds with the Church, their argument going as follows:

  1. I am a faithful Catholic
  2. I am at odds with the Church on Teaching X.
  3. Therefore Teaching X is not binding.

Such an argument is in fact based on the belief that "whatever I do is good" and those who indicate otherwise are in the wrong.  Ironically such a view denies that the Church itself can be infallible, but insists on the infallibility of the self in a way far beyond what the Church teaches on the subject.

What Catholics DO NOT Believe on Infallibility

The first step for this section of the series is to eliminate what is outside of the Catholic teaching on Infallibility.  I start with this because pretty much all the attacks which seek to deny this teaching are based on assumptions which Catholics do not believe.  Attacks which say "What about X?" which cover material which Catholics do not believe is covered by the doctrine on infallibility would be examples of the Straw man fallacy.

So let us look at some things which Infallibility is NOT:

1) Infallibility is not impeccability.  Belief that the Pope is infallible does not mean a belief that the Pope cannot sin.  The Pope is a man, just as much in need of Christ's salvation as the rest of us.  Therefore, people who attack infallibility on the personal conduct of some Pope do not refute infallibility.

2) Infallibility does not cover the Pope's views on a subject as a private individual. Nor is what the Pope says prior to being Pope covered by infallibility.  Infallibility comes attached to the office of the Pope, and is not a personal gift.  Nor does it involve subjects other than faith and morals.  If the Pope says he thinks investing in Microsoft is a good idea, and Microsoft stock tanks, this does not mean the Pope is not infallible.

3) Infallibility is not prophecy.  Nor is it new revelation.  The Pope cannot define new beliefs (even though some Anti-Catholics accuse us of exactly this).  The Pope is not like what Mormons believe of their leader.  His words are not revelation from God.  Now I recognize that some non-Catholic readers will say "What about X?  That contradicts the Bible!"  This will be a topic further on in this series.  For now, the short answer is, we do not contradict the Bible, and the issue is over who has the authority to interpret what the Bible means.

4) The Pope's infallibility does not deal with the administration or governance of the Church.  People who point to actions by the Papal States prior to 1870, to the handling of the Sexual Abuse scandals of today or the recent news of the Vatican Banking controversy must realize that we do not believe that such actions are covered by infallibility.

5) Infallibility is not disproved by the changing of Church disciplines.  Whether the Mass is in English or Latin, whether we receive the Eucharist on the hand or the tongue, whether the laity receives both the host and the chalice or just the host… these changes do not mean the Church contradicts herself.  Rather these are things the Church binds and looses depending on the needs of the faithful at the time.  If for example, there is a false view that one must receive both the host and the chalice or one does not properly receive the Eucharist (as Jan Hus wrongly believed), the Church can withhold the Chalice from the laity.  If the Church decides that it would be more beneficial for the Mass to be said in the vernacular or uniformly in Latin, it can make a binding decree.  However, in such disciplines, the Church was not wrong then and is now right.  Nor was it right in the past and wrong now.  Both were decisions which fit the needs of the time.

6) Finally, Infallible teachings are not what people misunderstand them to be.  If a person misunderstands a teaching of the Church (such "Catholics worship Mary!") and point to an Infallible statement as if it promotes this false understanding, the fault is with the individual who misunderstands, not with the Church which is misunderstood.

It is important to make these distinctions because essentially every attack against infallibility falls into these categories.  Since Catholics do not believe infallibility is involved in these situations, any attack against the Catholic belief in infallibility which invokes these areas are false and do not refute infallibility.

There are of course more things which infallibility is not.  However these will be brought up at the proper time (such as the "If it isn't declared infallible, it's merely an opinion and I can ignore it" canard so beloved by modernists and traditionalists).

To Be Continued

In the next article, I intend to move on to what the Church DOES teach about infallibility.