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

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Infallibility 2.0

In my previous post on the topic of infallibility in the Church, I argued that there really is such a thing as "the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium." It may be inferred from my argument that such infallibility is the normal kind enjoyed by the Magisterium. Although most rank-and-file Catholics have little or no awareness of IOUM, the idea is well-known among theologians and appears pretty clearly as a doctrine in §25 of Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, which I've quoted more than once before. My aim in this post is to establish the next premise in my argument that the ancient teaching reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), and reiterated verbatim at CCC 2370, is one of those doctrines that has actually been taught with IOUM. That premise is that "the normative criteria for identifying a given teaching as IOUM are clear enough in magisterial documents themselves to be authoritatively extended to particular teachings."

That may surprise many people. For as an explicit idea and doctrine, IOUM is a relatively recent development in the Church's history, and recent developments have a way of being hard to nail down. But IOUM is no mere invention: the doctrine itself is an authentic development, and hence the reality has obtained ab ovo. For one thing, theologians had for centuries been debating whether this-or-that doctrine taught by the OUM is "irreformable." Such debates would not even make sense without the assumption, be it tacit or explicit, there there is such a thing as the IOUM. For another, and for reasons I gave in my previous post, the very authority of the extraordinary magisterium depends on the IOUM. Third, Vatican I had already taught definitively that "[a]ll those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith and which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed" (Dogmatic Constitution De Fide Catholica, Ch.3; emphasis added). It would make no sense to require that a doctrine thus taught by the OUM be believed "with divine and Catholic faith" if the doctrine were not taught with that infallibility which the Church as a whole enjoys in such matters—which, in this case, could only be instantiated by the IOUM. So we're not feeling our way in the dark here.

Granted that IOUM is a reality, however, there remains considerable controversy about how to identify this-or-that doctrine precisely as having been taught with IOUM. But of course the controversy does not swirl around doctrines which are themselves uncontroversial. Catholic theologians do not waste time debating whether, for example, the doctrine that God loves all people is and has been taught with IOUM. That doctrine is taken for granted as obviously fulfilling the criteria for IOUM that were enunciated by Vatican I and Vatican II. And for good reason: it belongs to the deposit of faith and has been taught by the Magisterium with diachronic consensus, even though it has never been formally defined and has sometimes been denied by heretics. There are many similar cases, some of which are enumerated by ecclesiologist Francis Sullivan, SJ, in his widely cited book Creative Fidelity. But for purposes of dealing with the truly controversial cases, there is a critical lesson to be drawn from the magisterial and ecclesial consensus on uncontroversial cases.

The lesson is that, in order to satisfy the relevant criteria for teaching a given doctrine with IOUM, the episcopal college need not teach the doctrine by a particular, collective, and definitive act. So much ought to be obvious given the uncontroversial cases; but when it comes to the controversial cases, it seems anything but obvious to a lot of theologians. For the very first controversial case in which the Magisterium explicitly applied the criteria of LG §25 to a doctrine taught by the OUM was the case of women's ordination; and while that ought to have quelled the controversy, everybody knows it has not. I shall accordingly examine the state of that particular question in order to show why continued controversy is unjustified.

In his peremptory 1994 “letter” to the bishops on women’s ordination, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis [OS], Pope John Paul II 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].

On October 28, 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s responsum ad dubium [RAD] on OS 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].

Note well: then-Cardinal Ratzinger cited LG §25 for his claim that JP's teaching that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women" has been taught with IOUM. Specifically, he cited paragraph 2 of that section, which I quote yet again: "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." Now there is no clear evidence that the thousands of Catholic bishops alive in 1994, or even today, have enjoyed a synchronic consensus on the question of women's ordination. The issue is, after all, controversial; obviously there is not unanimity. But consensus does not require unanimity; it only requires a very substantial majority. My hunch is that such a majority obtains. But nobody really knows that. There is no clear and formal evidence, such as a carefully-worded-enough public poll, establishing that such a majority obtains, or did obtain when OS was issued. Accordingly, given what the RAD says, we must conclude that Ratzinger was citing a diachronic consensus among the bishops as sufficient for fulfilling the criteria for IOUM laid down in LG §25.2. Obviously, such a diachronic consensus is not the same as, and cannot supply us with, a particular and definitive act. But for the reason I've already stated, no such act is necessary for the purpose.

Some theologians, of course, argue that no such consensus can be shown to have obtained in the case of women's ordination. I shall return to that issue of empirical fact shortly. For now our intermediate result is important; for it is often said by those who object to the RAD that some particular "definitive act" on the part of the bishops is necessary for identifying a given doctrine as having been taught with IOUM according to LG §25's criteria. Sullivan and many others, for example, cite Canon 749 §3 of the Latin Church's Code of Canon Law in this (and other) cases: "No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident." By itself, of course, such a citation is actually irrelevant; for in cases where what's at issue is only a doctrine taught by the ordinary magisterium—such as the one on women's ordination—there can be no question of any formal act of definition to be, or fail to be, manifestly evident. The quoted canon only applies to formal acts of definition, which aren't and can't be at issue here. But Sullivan actually had an earlier argument that CIC 749 §3 also applies to non-defined doctrines taught only by the OUM ("The 'Secondary Object' of Infallibility," Theological Studies 54 (1993) 536-50, at 549-50). Claiming that "the consequences for the faithful are the same" when the degree of assent called for by formal definitions is called for by doctrines which are only IOUM, Sullivan argues that, given a well-known principle of canonical jurisprudence, it follows that 749 §3 applies as much to doctrines taught with IOUM as to those infallibly taught, by way of formal definition, by the extraordinary magisterium.

But that argument simply cannot be correct. If it were, then the question whether it is "manifestly evident" that the doctrine at issue has been taught with IOUM could only be settled in one of two ways: by an empirical fact which no reasonable person could deny, or by a viciously self-reflexive act of the Magisterium. But neither is applicable. And the fact that neither is applicable enables us to see why Sullivan is wrong.

As to empirical fact, I myself believe that Cardinal Dulles has shown that the doctrine that the Church "has no authority" to confer priestly ordination on women has been taught by the OUM with diachronic consensus (cf. "Gender and Priesthood: Examining the Teaching," Origins 25, no. 45 (1996), 778-784). But that hardly settles the main question at hand in this post. When the degree of authority enjoyed by a given teaching is a controversial question, no mere historical appeal to fact is going to settle the question in principle, even if it might do so in fact for a while. For such an appeal is a matter of revisable scholarly opinion; and if the degree of authority enjoyed by a given teaching must always remain that kind of matter, then the teaching at issue must, itself, remain such a matter. That would ipso facto rule out its being recognizable as taught with IOUM. Hence, the question whether OS's teaching on women's ordination is taught with IOUM cannot be settled just by examining the history of the question. If it can be settled at all, it could be settled only by the authority of the Magisterium itself, using historical research as an important guidepost to be sure, but not as one definitive in itself. Yet given that formal definition is not what's at issue here, how could such authority itself be "manifestly" exercised?

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 have been self-defeating. Doctrines taught with IOM are, by definition as it were, not defined as dogmas. So when there is controversy about whether a given doctrine is taught with IOUM, then the papal ordinary magisterium has to be able to settle the controversy by means short of an act of the extraordinary magisterium. That’s just what Wojtyla and Ratzinger did on the question of women’s ordination. And they could do no more, save by moving on to formal definition itself. When the doctrine at issue, in this case that on women's ordination, is taught with IOUM and is to be so understood, there can be no more "manifest" act of the Magisterium to verify that fact than the kind that was jointly given by OS and RAD.

But that still doesn't satisfy the dissenters. They require, in effect, that any papal or conciliar statement appealing to the IOUM to settle a controversial matter of doctrine make that appeal by referring to itself as infallible, rather than by using a mere CDF document to make such a statement. But that requirement is altogether idle. That a given particular teaching meets a juridical criterion for being "understood" as taught with IOUM is not, itself, the sort of truth contained either materially or formally within the deposit of faith; hence no magisterial meta-statement to the effect that such-and-such a teaching meets that criterion could itself be de fide. Yet if the Magisterium cannot all the same say, authoritatively and definitively, that a given doctrine is taught with IOUM, then it cannot settle any controversy about the doctrine short of formal definition. Therefore, all doctrine not so defined would remain matters of opinion. That would be incompatible with the very idea of the IOUM and even, I would argue, with that of divine revelation entrusted to and preserved indefectibly by the Church.

In the final analysis, Sullivan's position entails that, if and when a given doctrine is taught with IOUM, that can be manifest enough to require the assent of faith only in uncontroversial cases, precisely because they are uncontroversial cases. But so what? Those are precisely the cases in which an appeal to authority is unnecessary; and when a previously uncontroversial doctrine becomes controversial, Sullivan's approach has nothing useful to say about how the actual exercise of magisterial authority in such cases can be manifest enough to call for the assent of faith to the doctrine in question. Sullivan's position, which is popular among ecclesiologists, thus renders appeal to the IOUM useless, leaving appeal to the extraordinary magisterium as the only way of resolving controversies even in principle. But since the time of John XXIII and Vatican II, Rome has avoided the nuclear option of recourse to the extraordinary magisterium. There are several reasons for that, each one of which, in my opinion, would be good enough. But that is another discussion. In the meantime, it has proved important for Church unity to close a very important loophole exploited by dissenters. That's what the Magisterium's application of LG §25 to the case of women's ordination does, at least in principle. Thus the normative criteria for identifying a given teaching as IOUM are clear enough in magisterial documents themselves to be authoritatively extended to particular teachings.

It remains now to apply those criteria to the question of contraception. I will do that in the third and last post in this series.
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