"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium

In the archived thread over at Pontifications entitled Newman on Papal Infallibility, one of the most important ideas discussed was that of the infallibility of the ordinary "teaching authority" (magisterium) of the Catholic Church. From my perspective, that is certainly a key theological issue facing the Church today; I would even say that, in one respect, it is the most basic. Ever since Vatican II's aggiornamento, which opened the Church to the world just when the world was going crazy, there has arisen a virtual habit of faith among many Catholics that I can describe no more economically than as the obverse of that legalistic minimalism which afflicted equally many Catholics prior to the Council. Instead of seeking, like the old legalism, to base one's spiritual life only on what the Church says one must believe, do, and avoid, the new legalism seeks complete freedom in all areas where theologians do not agree on what the Church says one must believe, do, and avoid. The key to removing the intellectual underpinnings of that newly prevalent, and in some ways worse, bad habit is further development of the doctrine, authoritatively but only briefly propounded in Lumen Gentium § 25, of the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium ('IOM' for short).

The far better-known dogma of papal infallibility, formally defined by Vatican I, concerns the exercise not of the ordinary but of the "extraordinary" magisterium, of which it is also an instance. The ordinary magisterium is simply the teaching authority of the Church as exercised in ordinary, day-to-day circumstances. The extraordinary magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church as exercised in special circumstances calling either for resolution of a disputed question or clarification of traditional doctrine in more precise and authoritative terms; almost always, that occurs by means of the decrees of a general council or a unilateral papal definition. The ordinary magisterium proposes for our belief the entire deposit of faith entrusted to the Church by Jesus Christ himself for preservation and ever-deeper but never-exhaustive understanding; the extraordinary does not add to that deposit, but expresses this or that aspect of it in terms that may never be repudiated even if and when they can be improved. Traditionally, and not terribly controversially, Catholic theologians acknowledge the exercise of the extraordinary magisterium as manifesting the infallibility of the Church as a whole. And in theory at least, most will now grant that the ordinary magisterium can also be exercised infallibly by the bishops as a whole, with or without formal papal confirmation. Thus Lumen Gentium:

Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held [definitive tendendam].(40*) This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.(41*)

Prima facie, one might think that that passage obscures our issue somewhat. The last sentence refers to the extraordinary magisterium even as the former refers to the ordinary; after all, the intent of the bishops in council was to teach about their own infallibility, whether teaching ordinarily or extraordinarily; and whether the quoted teaching is itself "ordinary" or "extraordinary" is itself a matter of debate among theologians. But whoever has the better of that debate, the teaching in question binds Catholics and actually illuminates an important similarity, beyond just its exercise by bishops, between the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium of the bishops.

Whether the infallible exercise of the magisterium described in the quotation be of the ordinary or the extraordinary kind, it entails the bishops' collectively proposing something for belief "definitively." That was a real and vital clarification. It means that infallible exercises of teaching authority need not consist in either the pope's unilaterally or the bishops' collectively propounding formal dogmatic definitions. Something short of that sometimes suffices, in theory at least, for definitiveness and thus infallibility. That puts the lie to the claim, common even among educated Catholics, that only formal dogmatic definitions by popes or by councils ratified by popes require from Catholics "the assent of faith." (The scope of that "religious assent" for which Vatican II called is a separate matter that should be discussed, but which space prevents me from discussing here and now.) What remains controversial, however, is the question by what criteria instances of IOM may be identified. More briefly: just how do we know what is definitive tendendam, short of dogmatic definition?

To a certain extent, the answer seems clear enough. Thus, e.g., in his book Creative Fidelity, whose title is the same as that of a book by Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel, ecclesiologist Fr. Francis A. Sullivan argues that the Apostle's Creed, the virginal conception of Jesus, and certain other doctrinal statements fulfill the relevant criteria. Indeed they do; and pointing that out is helpful for appreciating the importance of Vatican II's teaching on IOM. But one may well ask whether sticking to such relatively uncontroversial examples suffices. Given the properly catechetical role of infallibility in general, I don't think it does.

The point of invoking infallibility is to assure the faithful that what is said to be taught infallibly is true. Given as much, of what use is claiming that some person or group is teaching infallibly unless there's some edge to and question about what is being taught? After all, if the bishops each said they were going to die, they would be teaching infallibly but idly. Less trivial but still instructive, Catholics of late have not exactly been in an uproar over the infallible proclamations of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary. Few Catholics are offended by those dogmas; fewer still dispute them or the claim that they are infallible. Indeed, that is why not a few commentators have said that the dogma of papal infallibility is too radical to risk applying to any but uncontroversial cases and is, for that very reason, all but useless. With IOM too, the cases in which invoking it would be most useful are precisely the most controversial. So is IOM also to be kept under wraps and brought out only when hardly anybody would care?

Some would say so. For a generation after Vatican II, theologians in general and the Vatican in particular said virtually nothing about IOM. (A notable exception is the lengthy article by Germain Grisez and John Ford, "Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium," Theological Studies 39, No. 2, June 1978, pp. 258-312.) Such silence was itself notable as debate raged in the Church about the usual issues of sexuality and gender, which remain controversial at least in the mutually reflective eyes of the media and the aging "progressive" wing of Church professionals. But what has gone relatively unnoticed even amid all the controversy is that the previous pope, in concert with the aide of his who is now pope, have actually invoked IOM in at least two cases that can hardly be said to be uncontroversial: women's ordination and abortion.

In his peremptory 1994 "letter" to the bishops on women's ordination, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul the Great made the following celebrated (or notorious, depending on one's viewpoint) statement:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

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 [emphasis added].

And on October 28, 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's responsum ad dubium on OS's teaching asserted:

This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith [emphasis added].

Now of course, the dissenters always point out that Ratzinger's responsum was not an "infallible" statement and therefore cannot be cited to establish that JP2's declaration in OS was itself infallibly made. But that reflex reaction misses the point altogether. It is true that neither document is the sort of document, or utilizes the form of statement, to which Catholics are accustomed as media for infallible teaching; but that is because Catholics traditionally expect, for that purpose, definitions that are acts of the extraordinary magisterium, whereas the two documents were meant to be taken jointly as establishing that the ineligibility of women for priestly ordination has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium. Trying to establish that by means of an act of the papal extraordinary magisterium would accordingly have been self-defeating. Doctrines taught with IOM are, by definition as it were, not defined as dogmas. So if there is such a thing as IOM at all—and there is—then the Magisterium of the Church has to be able to say where it applies without thereby evacuating it. That's just what John Paul and Ratzinger did on the question of women's ordination. An equally impressive, if somewhat less controversial, example of the same sort of move may be found at Evangelium Vitae § 57ff, which I commend to the reader's study.

That such was the previous pope's intent in OS is made abundantly clear by his clause therein: "in order that all doubt may be removed." Doubt was being removed not in the sense of silencing all dissenters but in the sense of establishing, by a definitive act, that IOM here applied. Subjective doubt cannot always be dispelled, but in some cases a teaching can be presented in such a way as to remove all objective grounds for calling it doubtful. The dissenters continue to dissent because some don't believe there is such a thing as IOM at all and others believe that, if there is, it applies only in relatively uncontroversial cases. But as Wojtyla and Ratzinger have also made plain in all the pertinent documents, there are criteria for identifying where IOM applies even in controversial cases: those where the teaching in question "has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium." Such a criterion may dispense with poll-taking or with quibbles about how big the poll's percentage-in-favor must be; a synchronic consensus is not sufficient in itself—as the case of limbo showed—and isn't even necessary if a diachronic consensus ab initio can be identified. Where application of the quoted criterion is controversial even among bishops as well as theologians, the controversy can be settled by an act of the ordinary papal magisterium viewed as itself an indispensable part of that of the bishops as a whole. As Cardinal Dulles has rightly said, the pope can and may "solidify" the relevant consensus "by giving voice to it" in a definitive act that does not define dogma but does indicate what is definitive tendendam.

By such means, OS and EV have helped bring some Catholics into line. That they have not succeeded in doing so for all is only to be expected, for the approach employed is new and based partly on the not-much-older formulation of Vatican II. But that approach has a signal advantage that should be exploited in other controversial cases, such as that of the similarly traditional and unbroken teaching against contraception understood as direct, voluntary interruption of the generative process. By utilizing their magisterium in the way John Paul the Great did, the present and future popes can exercise the Petrine ministry of unity collegially and thus without resurrecting old disputes about the wisdom of unilateral papal definitions of dogma. Surely that is not only of great ecumenical value but also an invitation to Catholics to re-immerse themselves in the riches of their tradition and assimilate more thoroughly to the true mind of the Church. Such is a needed, long-overdue antidote to the left-wing legalism of the progressives that competes with, and has largely supplanted, the right-wing legalism of the traditionalists.
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