Theological Confusion
Theological Confusion

Theological Confusion

In a recent address to the International Theological Commission, Pope Benedict responded to critics of the Church. Much of what he said is both insightful and helpful. For example, he pointed out that the concept of the “sense of the faithful” (sensus fidelium) does not justify treating popular opinion as theological truth. This is a timely and much needed reminder, given Humanistic Psychology’s continuing and influential claims that “the locus of authority” lies within each person and everyone creates his/her own reality.

Unfortunately, in elaborating on the “sense of the faithful,” Pope Benedict opened the door to confusion.

Pope Benedict called this sense “a kind of supernatural instinct” and cited this line from Paul VI’s 1964 encyclical, Lumen Gentium: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.” In the encyclical, this line was based upon John 2: 20, 27: “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth” and “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.”

Pope Benedict went on to say that the sense of the faithful can “grow authentically” in a person only if he or she “participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her magisterium.” The term magisterium refers to the Pope and the bishops of the Church. So Benedict seems to be saying that those whom John called “anointed people,” who “have a supernatural instinct,” and “do not need anyone to teach” them—those very same people can grow spiritually only by agreeing with their bishops. This clearly appears to be a contradiction in terms. Therein lies the confusion.

It should be noted that Pope Benedict’s statement about “responsible adherence to the magisterium” has ample precedent. Lumen Gentium, III, #25 called bishops “authentic teachers” and went on to say, “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.” The implication, that the bishops share infallibility with the pope, is given more direct expression in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2051.

One glaring problem with the requirement of accepting the teaching of the bishops is that the bishops themselves often disagree with one another, sometimes substantively! For example, a few weeks before Pope Benedict addressed the theologians, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops failed to get the two-thirds vote required to approve a joint statement on the economy that had been five months in the making. The vote on the document, “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Times,” was 134 for, 84 against, with nine abstentions.

It would seem that in such situations the only way for the laity to express their sensus fidelium is to ignore the directive to agree with their bishops, draw encouragement from John’s statement that they don’t need anyone to teach them, strive for discernment, and decide which bishops have truth on their side. I do not believe it would be an overstatement to say that God Himself expects nothing less from creatures blessed with the capacity for responsible, reasoned judgment.

The intellectual and spiritual quandary described above inevitably leads back to the once-controversial theological issue that has long been considered settled—the issue of infallibility. Vatican I ended with this pronouncement on the matter:

“We . . . teach and define, as a Divinely revealed dogma, that the Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church, he possesses . . . that infallibility with which the Divine Saviour wished to have His Church furnished for the definition of doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not in consequence of the Church’s consent, irreformable.”

It would be a mistake to think that the process leading to this pronouncement was calm and placid. As Richard P. McBrien notes in the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, the debate was vigorous—some argued that all papal teachings are infallible (not just ex cathedra teachings); others, though not particularly supportive of infallibility, did support strengthening the authority of the pope; still others, for a variety of reasons, opposed the idea of infallibility. The last group held that the pope “could be infallible only if he was supported by the infallible tradition of the faith of the whole Church.”

The most vigorous and eloquent opposition to the idea of papal infallibility came from Bishop Josip Strossmayer, whose speech is available online. In the course of his argument, he drew upon Jesus, St. Paul, St. James, St. Luke, Justinian, and St. Gregory, and others to demonstrate that no support for infallibility can be found in Scripture or tradition. He also mentioned the corrupt popes and the false popes, and warned his colleagues at Vatican I, “If you decree the infallibility of the present bishop of Rome, you must establish the infallibility of all the preceding ones, without excluding any.” And to do that, he concluded, would be absurd.

When the declaration of infallibility was finally made, and thus became dogma, Strossmayer obediently published it in his diocese but never assented to it. Many other bishops followed his example. Those bishops, theologians, and historians who could not, in conscience, do so suffered excommunication.

Many believed the obedient silence of dissenters like Strossmayer and the excommunication of others would end the debate, but it did not. The issue simply changed from whether the pope was infallible to when he was speaking infallibly (ex cathedra) and when he was not. As for the numerous popes since Vatican I, they have wisely, and perhaps with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, refrained from labeling any of their pronouncements ex cathedra. Accordingly, papal utterances continue to be debated, often hotly so. The expression “Rome has spoken; the matter is closed” no longer has its former force, if (as Yogi Berra might add) it ever did.

Thus informed laypeople who believe that the Church matters to them and to the world lament the confusion that continues to exist in these matters. Moreover, even as they remain loyal to the Church, they may entertain questions such as these:

  • The Church in its official capacity has committed significant errors over the centuries, notably in its judgments of the morality of usury and Galileo’s challenge to geocentrism. Did it raise or lower its credibility by waiting centuries to admit these errors and then doing so grudgingly?
  • Does the dogma of infallibility contradict the Church’s teaching about Original Sin and the imperfection of human nature that is the fruit of that sin?
  • Has the dogma of infallibility been in any way counterproductive? In other words, has it caused popes and bishops to be so concerned about maintaining historical consistency in their teaching that they neglect truth and candor?
  • Would the world be less or more inspired if, instead of proclaiming infallibility, Vatican I had proclaimed that neither popes and bishops escape their human imperfections by being anointed and may actually, through excessive pride in their elevation, resist the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment more flagrantly than do those they minister to?

Suppose Rome made the following proclamation:

Although conceived with the most honorable of intentions and sincerely regarded by its authors as inspired by the Holy Spirit, the idea that any utterances of the pope, or the pope and his fellow bishops, are infallible was and remains presumptuous. This is not to deny divine omniscience or providence, but rather to affirm human imperfection. The hierarchy of the Church, like their lay brethren, may unintentionally misinterpret God’s will and attribute their own flawed reasoning to the Holy Spirit. We pray that this understanding will guide us to even greater diligence in discerning the divine will and communicating it to those we serve. We also pray that we will remain open to the possibility that those who challenge our ideas may have insights that have eluded us.

Would such a display of heroic humility drive people from the Church or draw them to it? More importantly, would it be offensive or pleasing to God?

Whether entertaining these questions is healthy or productive may be debated. What cannot be debated is that confusion among the laity about how much they should be guided by the hierarchy is harming the Church.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero