Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Infallibility, Ultramontanism, Sede Vacantism

The Cross stands while the world turns.
Over on Rorate Caeli there's an interesting article by John Zmirak. I agree with the general thrust of the article, although some of it lacks theological precision, and I want to focus on something which is clearly, and sadly, true. Asking what will happen if there is an official accommodation with adulterous relationships, he writes:

Some conservatives who value authority over truth will dutifully defend this papal decision, and pretend that they never argued against it in the first place. Some traditionalists will split off altogether, and claim that Pope Francis became a heretic and lost his office as pope. They may even gather and elect an anti-pope.

We have here the twin temptations of faithful Catholics who see, or think they see, a divergence between perennial moral (or other) teaching and papal authority. Deny the one, or deny the other.

I've said it before, but it is worth repeating. The Catholic who says that whatever the Pope says goes, and the Catholic who says that the Pope is a heretic and therefore isn't the Pope any more, are not opposite extremes with everyone else in between. There is only a hair's breadth between them. They share a belief which everyone else rejects, and draw from it different conclusions based on the finest of judgements. The Ultramontanist and the Sede Vacantist are brothers.

The rest of us reject, and must keep on rejecting, the idea that there is an irreconcilable conflict between Traditional teachings properly understood and Papal authority properly understood. To do this we need to keep both sides in check: we need to avoid an exaggerated understanding of Traditional teachings, and an exaggerated understanding of Papal authority. Even these exaggerations are not opposing tendencies: you will get more exaggerated teaching if you have an exaggerated notion of teaching authority. The two exaggerations go together.

What I mean by the first is, for example, the temptation to say that some favoured theological ideas from the past or present are teachings of the Church. The best example of this is the idea that the definitive ritual, the 'matter', of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, is the giving of the Chalice to the ordinand, instead of the laying on of hands. This even found its way into the decrees of a general council of the Church, the Council of Florence-Ferrara. That Council did not teach it infallibly: it did not issue an anathema against those who denied it. It taught it fallibly, and it was wrong. There are more immediately relevant example from the 19th century and from the post-Conciliar era, but those will be more controversial. The general point is: just because there is a theological consensus in a particular era, a consensus reflected in official documents and even the Papal magisterium, does not make it 'the teaching of the Church'. Fashions change in theology, one set of concerns replace another. The teaching of the Church remains the same.

This is important because when one theological fashion replaces another, we are NOT necessarily witnessing the Great Apostasy of the Book of Revelation. We are just witnessing a change of fashion. But note, that if we want to say this about many changes of theological opinion since 1960, we must be equally wary of the new consensus. If the neo-Scholasticism of the early 20th century wasn't in the Deposit of Faith, neither is the fashionable guff taught in its place since then.

The Magisterium is not in the business of manufacturing doctrine. It is not for any Pope or Council to establish new things that Catholics must believe. The Magisterium's business is guarding the Deposit of Faith. At the end of the Synod Pope Francis warned against

The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it];

In doing so the Magisterium may from time to time define a doctrine infallibly. This establishes a specific theological formula which is guaranteed to be free from error, and therefore commands the assent of Catholics; it does not establish a new doctrine. If there is anything really new in a Council decree or a Papal teaching document, it is not doctrine.

So the teaching of the Church, properly speaking, is a bit less extensive than it may be thought. This is precisely because not every word falling from the lips of the Pope establishes doctrine. The Pope can't change doctrine; he can only confirm what was taught before. Since we know what was taught before, from the Tradition, we have a way of telling whether what he is saying is the teaching of the Church, or something else: a theological explanation, a prudential judgement, a speculation. This way of telling is essential, because the type of document the claims are in won't tell us on its own.

The temptation of Ultramontanism, an exaggerated conception of the authority of the Pope, is intellectually lazy. It means we don't have to bother studying the Tradition; we just look at the latest Papal off-the-cuff remark and it will tell us what to believe. It will be something else in the next Pontificate, it was something else in the last one. But who cares? Let's not be 'rigid'!

Ultramontanist neo-conservatives like George Weigel want to say that the importance of the Papal States, reiterated again and again by Popes, was never a doctrine. To be consistent, he must (but doesn't) say all the more that St John Paul II's criticism of the death penalty isn't a doctrine. You really can't have it both ways.

But it is exactly the same refusal to distinguish genuine exercises of the Papal teaching office from little unscripted quips to journalists which is the root of Sede Vacantism. The intellectual effort really is worth it, my friends!

I have said repeatedly that Pope Francis is not going to change doctrine. It is easy to say because, in fact, he can't, and he knows this. A reader might say: 'but for practical purposes this is scant comfort, because with a new 'pastoral policy' or, for that matter, a new liturgy, something other than the doctrine may de facto be taught.' I don't deny that, but it remains important that the Pope doesn't (try to) change the doctrine de jure, because it means we don't have to choose between Ultramontanism and Sede Vacantism. We can do our best to correct for the unfortunate apparent implications of the pastoral policy by pointing at authoritative statements of the doctrine.

That may be something we'll have to do a lot in the coming months.

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  1. Dr. Shaw, I find this post leaves me a bit confused :(

    I am not ultramontanist and neither do I consider sede vecantism tenable.

    But it feels like the less one knows the better. The more one knows, the more likely one is to find out that what they thought was infallible was actually fallible. Apart from dogmatic truths, everything seems subject to being called "fallible" at a later date so what is the point of learning Tradition?

    I also don't get the Council of Florence issue with respect to ordination. It seems more like Church law rather than doctrine reflecting an objective truth. So was Council of Florence actually wrong?

    I agree that Church laws can change and even include stuff like communion for those in adultery etc. But those I oppose because if the Church decides to do that, common sense and traditional wisdom says it's stupid and will only lead to a spread of those sins (not to mention the likely incurring of more guilt by the sinner due to sacrilege). So I never think about infallibility or fallibility in that sense. My only thought in that case is why follow something that leads to promoting and normalizing things contrary to doctrine.

    What I don't know how to do is distinguish what is authoritative in a council from what is not. I am not sure people thought or knew that line from Council of Florence was fallible before Pius XII commented on it and gave his teaching.

    1. General Councils, like Popes, only exercise their infallible extraordinary magisterial authority when they make it clear that this is what they are doing. Traditionally, it is done by Councils issue 'canons' with condemned propositions. You'll find these at the end of each session of the Council of Trent for example. They are infallible. The text of the decrees are not.

      The other things which are infallible are the teachings of the 'ordinary magisterium' which are taught 'always, everywhere, and by everyone'. Again, it is usually considered infallible if all the Fathers of the Church agree on a thing. In these cases no later authority can overturn a teaching.

      Again, Scripture is inerrant: it contains no error. So if Scripture teaches a doctrine clearly then it must be held; it cannot be overturned.

    2. Thanks Dr. Shaw.

      So would this allow to conclude that there is nothing infallible in Vatican II? (because there are no 'canons' and condemnations?)

      How about documents like Ut Unum Sint by St. JP II?

    3. I would suggest that Vatican II is infallible, at least in the areas where it was merely re-iterating the teaching of the Church. One area which I would also propose for infallibility is that there is one source of divine revelation (God) in two founts (Scripture and Tradition) which culminate in one deposit of faith, which is understood and cultivated through the Magisterium. Vatican I (which did have canons and anathemas) did not teach that, and the Council rejected Cardinal Ottaviani's scheme which said something different on the matter.

      An example of a document containing infallible teaching from St. John Paul would be Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, wherein he explicitly bound the faithful to ordination being for men alone based on the constant witness of the Church. In Veritatis Splendor, he used the ordinary Magisterium and the deposit of faith as well as teaching about moral theology in a way that is technically changeable but to do so would be risky (that was the whole point of the letter).

  2. The Council Fathers of Vatican II openly and willingly decided not to make any infallible proclamations. Pope John Paul II did not invoke the supreme Petrine authority for any of his encyclicals, so they are not infallible either.

    After that it gets tricky. Like Dr. Shaw said, the only part of an Ecumenical Council that is infallible are the canonical anathamas. Why the canons in general are not infallible, I'm not sure--but if they were, we would all be anathama for kneeling on Sundays (see I Nicaea can. 20).

    Vatican I's Constitution "Pastor Aeternus" defines when the Supreme Pontiff (Pope) may make an infallible, dogmatic statement: "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. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema."

    Sounds simple enough. You likely will hear that this infallibility has only been invoked twice, by Pius IX in affirmation of the Immaculate Conception and by Pius XII in affirmation of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Unfortunately I have never heard an adequate explanation for why some other past statements are not infallible, such as:

    "Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff." (Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, AD 1302)

    That appears to fulfill all of the requirements laid out by Vatican I, yet the Church does not teach it anymore, and in fact explicitly denies it. O well. The Rad Trad recently asked: "Is the fine for mis-printing the Roman Missal stated in Quo primum tempore a dogma of the faith?" I don't have a sufficient answer for that.

  3. Vatican II taught infallibly with the Ordinary Magisterium, but did not involve the Extraordinary Magisterium.

    When JPII taught the impossibility of female ordination, the CDF explanation said it was of the Ordinary Magisterium. The same would be true of his teaching on abortion. These are teachings which have been consistently taught by everyone; the Immaculate Conception, by contrast, had some serious opponents over the centuries.

    Boniface VIII was teaching infallibly: there can be no serious doubt. The doctrine 'extra Ecclesia' has been taught by numerous Popes and the consensus of the Fathers and Doctors, and it is in Scripture. To deny is to separate oneself from the Church. You don't find it denied in official documents, the Catechism for example. You may find their elaboration of it reasonable, or weasally, but they are at any rate trying to avoid denying it.

    1. There is a distinct difference between "there is no salvation beyond the Church" and "it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff". The former has been supplemented with the understanding that there are men outside of communion with the hierarchy that can be saved through the Church, but mystically. This is why Lumen Gentium said the Catholic Church 'subsists in' the Church of Christ, the Ecclesiam in "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" being the latter.

      However if it is "absolutely necessary for salvation" to be subject to the Pope, then that seems to suggest even the 'invincibly ignorant' are guaranteed damnation. There does not seem to be any escape from "de necessitate salutis".

      I will recant the above, and my previous comment, if that is wrong.

    2. No, there isn't: not if the Church of Christ, the Ark of Salvation, is identical with the Roman Catholic Church.

    3. Then what do you make of Lumen Gentium 8? "Haec Ecclesia, in hoc mundo ut societas constituta et ordinata, subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, a successore Petri et Episcopis in eius communione gubernata"

    4. I give it a pious reading in line with the traditional teaching. That is always the rule in reading magisterial documents. When push comes to shove, obviously infallible statements are preferred to fallible ones.

    5. So you think LG is erroneous? That's why I said, in reference to Unam Sanctam, "That appears to fulfill all of the requirements laid out by Vatican I, yet the Church does not teach it anymore, and in fact explicitly denies it."

      "When push comes to shove, obviously infallible statements are preferred to fallible ones." I don't presume to speak for you, but it seems like a straight road to sedevacantism if one were to argue that what the hierarchy actually teaches (via published Catechism, Curial documents/legislation, what most Ordinaries would censure you for, etc.) is heterodox, and for one to know what is actually the dogmatic truth, they have to scour some ancient documents, normally of interest solely to scholars. I'm willing to believe *many* Ordinaries are heretics (in reference to abortion, etc.) that go unpunished because of laxity, misguided leadership, etc., but can you name even one Bishop that would affirm Unam Sanctam over Lumen Gentium?

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. No, I think LG is patient of a pious reading.

      If YOU think LG is incompatible with the infallible teaching of the Church, it is YOU, not me, not the bishops around the world, or anyone, just YOU, who have a problem.

      I am sorry to hear you think Scipture is normally of interest only to scholars.

    8. I'm trying to discover how you think LG 8 can be reconciled with the dogmatic proclamation in Unam Sanctam.

      I did not say Scripture is only of interest to scholars, but 14th century Papal decrees. I doubt even one in a thousand Catholics are aware it exists or that it has an infallible proclamation therein.

  4. So this is exactly what is confusing.

    I think we can agree that what is explicitly outlined in a document as infallible and binding on the Universal Church constitutes infallible teaching. But then we run in to the problem where most of the stuff that comes out of the Vatican does not have such explicit wording.

    Now you might say that usually they contain previous infallible teachings. Problem is, most of the time they contain reinterpretations of the previous infallible teachings rather than the teaching itself. Many argue that what we must do then is follow the Church because she is the authority in charge of interpreting Tradition.

    But I disagree on the grounds that the previously understood sense was also from the Church. It is likely that those who lived at the time the dogma or infallible teaching was proclaimed knew what it was intended to communicate rather than we who live today. So the Church should, if anything, see what those who lived at that time held with respect to that teaching rather than try to develop a new sense.

    Whichever of the above one may choose, the problem is that there are two options that one can choose. This is because the Church today no longer seem to state the previously defined infallible teachings in the same sense they were understood and held for ages. So it seems to me that either we say that those restatements are not infallible (Vatican II and a whole lot of other documents since then) or we have no choice but to become ultramontanist and follow whatever the Church says is true at any given time.

    I am starting to suspect that the infeasibility in verifying Papal claims or that of the Church today against ancient documents and the sense in which they were understood then is the very reason why most choose to be ultramontanist. Honestly, who can blame them? If they are supposed to cross check everything themselves, then what is the point of having prelates and a Pope to guide the Church who you cannot trust to do just that and give sound instructions?

    Maybe the entire crisis today is because the prelates in the Church prelates no longer respects the past. So the faithful must either be ultramontanist or live in distrust of their prelates.

    1. "I am starting to suspect that the infeasibility in verifying Papal claims or that of the Church today against ancient documents and the sense in which they were understood then is the very reason why most choose to be ultramontanist. Honestly, who can blame them? If they are supposed to cross check everything themselves, then what is the point of having prelates and a Pope to guide the Church who you cannot trust to do just that and give sound instructions?"

      That nits the nail on the head. It is difficult to reconcile these two notions--one: that the Magisterium has infallibly guarded certain items of dogma for two millennia, and two: it is possible for practically the entire Magisterium (Supreme Pontiff, College of Bishops, current Catechism, et al.) to fall silent and implicitly deny them. No matter how you try and explain this phenomenon away, it sounds like for one to be a faithful Catholic, one has to be a very esoteric researcher to overcome the occultation of seriously important doctrines!

      It is only a slight reassurance to know that two infallible proclamations have never contradicted each other.

  5. It is possible to defend Florence on the form and matter of Holy Orders. Not all sacraments were instituted with absolutely unchangeable form and matter. Journet takes this line, I think. On the other hand, St Alphonsus inclines to the view that even in his day, the laying on of hands was the matter.

  6. There seem to be some infallible things in Vat II, e.g. Dei Verbum on the historicity of the gospels. A few times the phrase 'Holy Mother Church teaches' or comparable phrases appear in the documents. Again. Dignitatis Humanae says that religious liberty (whatever it is!) is based on revelation, and is being declared to be such by this sacred Synod.

    1. Thanks Father.

      So things like DH and religious liberty I would see as an example of my confusion. What is said in DH has a sense completely different to that as understood on this topic before Vatican II. Yet it is claimed to be based on revelation (as everything implicitly claims to be anyway).

      So what does one do then? Simply accept DH and construct ones life as it instructs or hold the view of tradition? Personally, I find the DH statements on religious liberty problematic.

  7. Ambiguous documents have to be interpreted in the light of clearer ones. That seems like common sense. Arguably there are two infallible teachings here, at least: one, to do with a right to restrain at least some kinds of religious errors, rests on the universal ordinary magisterium and also the infallible magisterium of Trent; the other, to do with a right to religious freedom, rests on what may be an infallible magisterium in V II. There are various plausible, though not always compatible reconciliations, e.g. in the work of John Lamont, Thomas Pink, Fr Brian Harrison. In the end, we don't have to decide who is right, unless we are bishops!

    I would suggest that the 'objective moral order' which Vat II makes the limiting criterion for religious liberty actually rules out all religions except the Catholic faith, in this particular order of providence in which we live. Abstractly speaking, there could have been orders of providence where this criterion allowed for more than one religion.

    1. Father,

      The problem I see with this line of argument is that it presumes DH is unclear. Some may argue that DH is the clearer teaching and that we should re-read the old (or find solutions to reconcile the old) using DH as the primary source.

      On the question of whether we need to know who is right, I think it is not only the Bishops that need to know that. Bishops do not take part in politics or running a state. What DH states affects how the State is suppossed to interact with Bishops and the Church rather than the other way around, no?

  8. It seems to me that this whole string of comments illustrates the problem. Popes are tempted to leave a mark on history--after all they are only human. To leave a mark they often think they must do something "new" rather than faithfully preserve the deposit of faith. Malichi Martin (in a phone call during the summer of 1998) told me that Pope John XXIII gave in to temptation when he called for a council.