by Alvin Kimel


Dogmas are the constitutive doctrines that infallibly define the Christian faith. Such dogmas must be believed by Christians, because they articulate essential dimensions of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

I have found Lutheran ecumenist George Lindbeck of great assistance in understanding the nature of dogma (see especially The Nature of Doctrine). Lindbeck likens a religion to a language system, constituted by beliefs, stories, symbols, rituals, and moral and ascetical practices. A religion is a culture that shapes and forms our lives and experiences. Lindbeck notes that virtually every religion, and certainly Christianity, is committed to affirming specific affirmations as infallible. That is to say, in any given religion those affirmations that ground or guarantee the religion are, for it, infallible. “These are those central propositions,” Lindbeck writes, “which are essential to its identity and without which it would not be itself. They are sure, certain, and unquestionable, because to suppose that it is possible that they might ever be shown to be false is to envision the disappearance of this particular religion, of the faith by which one lives. The believer can, of course, envision this possibility, either abstractly or by having real doubts, but insofar as he is within the circle of faith, the central credal affirmations are essential, unquestionable, infallible” (The Infallibility Debate, p. 117). These infallible affirmations may thus be understood as constituting the depth grammar of the religion.

Lindbeck proposes that within the Christian religion doctrines function as grammatical rules, as communal norms that stipulate how one may speak and live the Gospel rightly. Many of these rules are of a purely practical nature (e.g., “give to the poor,” “go to Mass on Sunday”) and some concern beliefs and their verbal expression (e.g., “when one speaks of Jesus of Nazareth, attribute to him both human and divine predicates”). Of the latter, there are some doctrinal rules that are recognized and authorized by the community as being fundamental, permanent, and irreversible. They constitute the essential rules governing Christian proclamation and the Church’s interpretation of her Holy Scriptures. They are the dogmas of the Church. These dogmas ground the identity and life of the Christian community and express the depth grammar of the language of faith. They are infallible and binding precisely in the sense explained above. If the Church were to depart from these doctrinal rules, it would in fact cease to be Christian and would become a different kind of religious community. Or as Robert Jenson puts it: “Every theological proposition states a historic choice: ‘To be speaking the gospel, let us henceforward say “F” rather than that other possibility “G.”‘ A dogmatic choice is one by which the church so decisively determines her own future that if the choice is wrongly made, the community determined by that choice is no longer in fact the community of the gospel; thus no church thereafter exists to reverse the decision” (Systematic Theology, I:17).

Does Anglicanism affirm infallible dogmas? I have always taught so, and it is certainly the case that many Anglicans have said so or at least have come very close to saying so. One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, and five centuries (Lancelot Andrewes). Is this dictum simply one man’s opinion or may it be lawfully imposed upon all Anglicans? But if we are willing to affirm the authority of the first four Ecumenical Councils, how can we not also include councils five through seven? Is the rejection of iconoclasm by the Second Council of Nicaea binding upon Anglicans today? I imagine my Evangelical friends, particularly those of Calvinist persuasion, would be hesitant to say yes. In so hesitating they stand on good Anglican grounds.

So which dogmas are truly ecumenical and binding? Everyone has a different opinion. The Articles of Religion make clear that only those doctrines are to be received as true and authoritive which can be clearly and explicitly supported by Holy Scripture.

Article VI:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Article VIII:

The Nicene Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.

Article XX:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

Article XXI:

General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

The Articles state that Holy Scripture is the supreme and foundational authority in the life of the Anglican Communion. It also allows for secondary authorities, such as the creeds, in so much as they can be justified by the appeal to Scripture. The dogmatic infallibility of the Church, on the other hand, is clearly denied. This means, therefore, that every doctrine of the Church is always open to radical question by the appeal to the Bible. No doctrine can have more than provisional status. Indeed, might it even be argued that each believer is duty bound to question the dogmatic assertions of the Church? Here is Paul Tillich’s Protestant Principle at work–“the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality.” Hence we find ourselves stuck with the problem of sola scriptura and private judgment that we have meditated upon in earlier posts.

The Articles do, of course, assert specific catholic doctrines–the Holy Trinity (Article I), the Incarnation (Article II), the personhood of the Holy Spirit (Article V), the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, with stipulation of which books are to be included within the canon (Article VI), an Augustinian understanding of Original Sin, free-will, and predestination (Articles IX, X, XVII), justification by faith (Article XI, XII, XIII, XIV), and so on. Presumably each of these doctrines are reasonably required for Anglican belief because they can be justified on the basis of Scripture; but this must also mean that every generation must be free to challenge these doctrines on the basis of Scripture.

Does Holy Scripture really teach “three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity”? I certainly believe so, but this wasn’t self-evident to all Christian bishops during the first three centuries of the Church nor is it self-evident to all biblical theologians today. Does the Holy Scripture really teach that the eternal Son is “of one substance with the Father”? Not according to those New Testament scholars who see such ontological categories as alien to the functional thinking of the first century Church. Does Holy Scripture really teach an Augustinian understanding of Original Sin or predestination? Not according to the Orthodox Church. And so on. No wonder doctrine is so hard for Protestants to hold on to. It can always be challenged in the name of the Bible; and it is difficult to defend any of these doctrines unless one is able to advance some theory of doctrinal development. But not many orthodox Anglicans have been willing to follow John Henry Newman down this road.

But there is, of course, one doctrine in the Articles of Religion that cannot be justified on the basis of Holy Scripture–namely the principle of sola scriptura itself!

1 April 2004


What do we mean when we speak of the infallibility of the Church? There are several ways to tackle this question, but I have found it helpful to begin with the fact and significance of dogma. The Christian faith is full of doctrines, second-order formulations of the divine revelation entrusted to the Apostles. Some of these doctrines have acquired the status of dogma. The Church moves a doctrine to the status of dogma when she throws her total authority behind the doctrine, fully committing herself to the doctrine and binding her members to it. In her dogma the Church says to the baptized: “To be a member of this community, you must believe _____ or you must confess _____ or you must practice _____.”

George Lindbeck has likened dogma to grammatical rules. A grammarian seeks to articulate the ways a language works. He identifies the rules that one must follow if one wishes to communicate well. Thus one of my grammar books states: “A verb should agree with its subject, not with a noun placed between the verb and its subject.” Lindbeck suggests that we liken dogma to this kind of grammatical instruction. A dogma tells us how we may properly speak and live the language of faith. For example, consider the christological dogma enunciated by the Council of Chalcedon. Formulated into a grammatical rule, this dogma might be stated in this way: When you speak about or to Jesus of Nazareth, you may personally attribute to him both human and divine predicates. Just be sure not to mix them up or confuse them.

At some point in her history–and I do not know the history here–the Church came to understand her dogmas as being infallible, i.e., to be without error. This seems to mean two things:

First, because a dogma is without error, the Church is entitled to command Christians to embrace the dogma, and Christians are entitled to believe that they may fully assent to this doctrine in the confidence that the dogma, to one degree or another, directs them to the truth of Christ. A dogma may be depended upon. It will not lead one ultimately astray. This does not mean that the dogma fully or even adequately states the mystery that the dogma seeks to express. It does not mean that the Church was wise to define the dogma at the time that it did. It does not even mean that it is not a bad dogma. It only means that, given the philosophical and theological options available at the time, given the theological understandings that the bishops then enjoyed, given the political necessities, etc., etc., the dogma was the least worst formulation that could be made. It may not be the best way of stating the mystery in human language; but it does not err; it does not positively express a falsehood.

Second, a dogma is understood as enjoying a status of irreformability or irreversibility. Robert Jenson explains further:

Some but not all doctrines are dogmas. The distinction is perhaps most clearly marked by the notion of irreversibility. Every theological proposition states a historic choice: “To be speaking the gospel, let us henceforeward say ‘F’ rather than that other possibility ‘G.'” A dogmatic choice is one by which the church so decisively determines her own future that if the choice is wrongly made, the community determined by that choice is no longer in fact the community of the gospel; thus no church thereafter exists to reverse the decision.

Therefore, to believe that the entity which now calls itself the Christian church is the church of the apostles and to believe that the church’s past dogmatic decisions were adequate to their purposes—not necessarily in every way appropriate to them—comes to the same thing. If, for example, the decision of Nicea that Christ is “of one being with the Father” was false to the gospel, the gospel was thereby so perverted that there has been no church extant to undo the error. (Systematic Theology, I:17)

Protestantism has historically denied the infallibility of dogmatic decisions. Theoretically, the Church might at some point revisit the dogmas of Nicaea and Chalcedon and determine that they were incorrect interpretations of Holy Scripture. But historically the ecumenical Church has wanted to say more about her dogmas. Not only does the Church believe that they are true expressions of the faith, but she also recognizes in them a quality of finality. Thomas Torrance, for example, likens the Nicene homoousion to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The pattern of Trinitarian faith finally became crystal clear. From that point on, the Church could never pretend that it had not seen how all the pieces fit together, nor is it thinkable that the homoousion could ever be called into question at a subsequent date. The Church now knows with dogmatic clarity that Jesus Christ is “of one being” with the Father, and this insight now functions as an interpretive key to the reading of the Scriptures. If the Church is wrong about the Nicene dogma, then no Church of the Apostles now exists to correct the blunder. Given the definitive irreversibilty of dogma, the Church trusts that by his Holy Spirit the risen Christ, who has promised to lead the Church into all truth, has protected the formulators of the dogma from defining a dogma that would lead the people of God into irretrievable error. In this sense, a dogma is infallible and therefore trustworthy. Once defined and received by the Church, dogmas are recognized as belonging to the deposit of revelation.

However, this does not mean that a dogma may not be reformulated; indeed, such reformulation may be absolutely necessary in order to assert the dogma under different cultural conditions. I believe that we are now witnessing such reformulation occurring in Catholicism, for example, with regards to the doctrine of justification by faith. The Catholic Church is dogmatically committed to the infallibility of the Tridentine formulation. She is not dogmatically committed to believing that the Tridentine formulation is the best way to state the doctrine at the present time; thus her openness to Reformation insights as expressed in the Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification. “The Church’s teaching lives forward,” Neuhaus writes, “and no definition, including that of councils, is entirely adequate to the whole of the truth.”

Who has the authority to dogmatize? The Church, clearly. But who speaks in the name of the Church and for the Church and under what circumstances and conditions?

10 September 2004


With reference to a couple of my blog articles, Questioning Christian has raised the question of the infallibility of the Church and her dogmatic decisions. “I don’t see,” he fallibly writes, “how any individual or group could be regarded as infallible–not the Apostles, not the Church Fathers, not the Pope, not anyone.” He offers a couple of arguments in support of his claim, but they mainly boil down to this: Human experience universally confirms that everyone makes mistakes. I totally agree (though I may be mistaken). But QC misses the point. His argument is analogous to saying that Jesus or the Virgin Mary could not be sinless because everyone else we know are prideful and egotistical. What is absent in his argument is the supernatural action of God.

Let me begin by addressing two questions:

Is it possible for God to protect his Church from decisively committing herself to erroneous views?

I think the answer here must be yes, though I admit that I am unprepared to argue for it in any depth. The Christian assertion of divine omnipotence and providence would certainly seem to allow for this possibility. Since QC has not yet denied this possibility, I will simply assume that the answer to this question is yes.

Might God have an interest in protecting his Church from dogmatic error?

Yes–if, for the welfare of humanity, he has entrusted to his Church a body of revealed truths. Certainly the Church has always believed and taught that she is the custodian of divine revelation. While it’s been popular for 20th century theologians, particularly of a Protestant stripe, to question or deny the divine bestowal of propositional revelation–preferring instead to emphasize God’s self-revelation in Christ–I see no compelling reason to deny one at the expense of the other. If Jesus is, as the Church confesses, the divine Son of God, then certainly his teachings must be considered as propositional revelation. And once this is granted, it’s merely a matter of determining whether anyone else’s teachings are to be included in the divine revelation–the Ten Commandments? Torah? The prophets? The apostolic witness? We might debate what precisely should be included in this body of revealed truths, but there is no question that the Church has always believed that God has entrusted to her a body of revealed truths. As the Apostle Paul told his Galatian converts: “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:11-12).

For our good and for our salvation, God has revealed to us truths about himself, his moral law, his purposes for his creation, our need for atonement, our future destiny and how we might attain it that we could not have discovered by our own efforts and ingenuity. This is information we could not have divined on our own but information that we desperately need in order to cooperate with God in his plans for us and the world. If, as the Church teaches, God truly wills our good, then it is to be expected that he would communicate this information to us in propositional form. And this is precisely what Christianity has always said God has done. “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet, and a light unto my paths,” the psalmist sings (Ps 119:105).

Assuming the bestowal of divine revelation, does God have an interest in ensuring that his revelation is faithfully passed down from one generation to the next? And surely the answer must be yes. The truths of God are intended not just for the immediate recipients but for the world and for generations to come. God’s work of revelation would be undone if these truths were subsequently distorted, garbled, perverted, or twisted. There is therefore an a priori reason to believe that God might take steps to see that his Church does not misrepresent and distort his revelation too badly. Moreover, if as the Church declares, God has actually acted in history in the person of Jesus Christ to secure atonement for the sins of the world and effect the reconciliation of deity and mankind, then this is a piece of information that must be communicated in a singular act of divine revelation and then passed on to humanity through a historical process of tradition.

One of my friends, John McBeth, is a very successful computer-system designer. He likes to speak of the “conceptual integrity” of computer and technological systems. Every system is built upon certain fundamental themes and concepts. All systemic decisions, he says, must be consistent with and tested against these fundamental principles, thus maintaining conceptual integrity. Moreover, John has discovered that it is crucial that the original system designers remain involved with the design, development, and deployment of the project. The core designer team ensures that all new team members are properly instructed in the system’s fundamental principles. If the new team members do not properly understand the original concepts underlying the system, they will often make disastrous decisions to the destruction of the system.

How is the conceptual integrity of the Christian revelation to be maintained? Assuming that the original recipients of the revelation–let’s call them Apostles–comprehended the revelation, it would appear that the corruption of the original revelation is inevitable. Here is QC’s dreaded problem of hearsay and tradition. Apostle John passes on the revelatory truths to Bill, who shares them with Judith, who tells them to her children and grandchildren, and so forth. As long as Apostle John is still alive, there is the possibility that he will be able to correct distortions and restore conceptual integrity; but once he and his fellow revelation team-members have died, the possibility of accurate correction ceases. Given all that we know about human communication, it is reasonable to speculate that the project of divine revelation would be defeated within a few generations—unless, of course, God were to supernaturally act to maintain his Church in the truth of his revelation and thus prevent her from falling into irretrievable error.

In other words, it is reasonable to expect God to providentially act to protect the conceptual integrity of his revelatory system. Once having invested himself in fifteen hundred years of preparatory redemptive history, beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and culminating in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it would be surprising if God did not take all necessary steps to protect his investment. We cannot determine through reason alone what this mechanism might be, but we can humbly assert the real and probable possibility that God would establish such a mechanism. The word mechanism is ill-chosen, I know, but I’m struggling here to find appropriate vocabulary for this mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Eventually, theologians would begin to speak of this mysterious work under the locus of the infallibility of the Church.

I have outlined some of thoughts on the question of the infallibility of church dogma in my article I’m always infallible when I speak the truth, to which QC refers. As far as I can see, QC doesn’t address my specific arguments.

6 November 2004


In his book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy (1992), Richard Swinburne suggests two ways God might have chosen to protect his divine revelation. First, he might have chosen to establish an infallible authority which would offer definitive judgments on theological controversies. This authority could take the form of a single individual (Pope) or a gathering of church leaders (ecumenical councils), or some combination of the two. Swinburne cites John Henry Newman:

In proportion to the probability of true developments of doctrine and practice in the Divine Scheme, so is the probability also of the appointment in that scheme of an external authority to decide upon them, thereby separating them from the mass of mere human speculation, extravagance, corruption and error, in and out of which they grow. This is the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church.

Second, God might have chosen instead to ensure that “truth would emerge in the long run by consensus within the Church, distinguished as such by some organizational continuity and continuity of doctrine with the original revelation.” This consensus would be achieved by a process of “moral, scientific, and philosophical reflection” on the written record of the original revelation and the various ways this record has been interpreted in the Church. This would mean that there would be no definitive conclusion to any theological debate but rather a divinely inspired direction of interpretation over the decades and centuries.

God could have provided either of these means to ensure continuity of church teaching with the original revelation. The strength of the first way is its decisiveness. It brings a resolution to doctrinal controversy and clarifies the teaching of the Church. Its weakness is that it gives “less scope than the consensus method for the individual to sort things out for himself.” The strength of the second way is that it provides greater freedom for the individual to explore the documents of revelation and to work out the systemic connections of the doctrines of faith in light of natural reason. Its weakness is that tolerates ambiguity, confusion, and error. Swinburne suggests that a priori considerations do not give greater probability to one method over against the other. “But some method there must be,” he concludes, “if the revelation is not to die out.”

As our Lord promised the Apostle Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).

We might describe Swinburne’s first method as catholic and his second method as Anglican. I am a bit uncertain which method Orthodoxy affirms. One can find Orthodox authorities that emphatically affirm the infallibility of the Church (e.g., the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem), but one can also find theologians who are more equivocal. But until corrected, let me offer Frank Gavin’s summary of the Greek theologian Androutsos as representative:

The difference, then, between Ecumenical Councils and local synods is this: the bishops assembled in council, representing the whole Church, and engaged on matters within the province of infallibility, in their own right and by virtue of their office and position, constitute the organ for the infallible formulation of the Church�s Faith. Their decisions are irreformable and of themselves infallible, and not from the acceptance of these enactments by the Church. This consent and acceptance is only the external criterion of ecumenicity and infallibility. The decrees of a local synod are not thus immediately infallible, but only so by the consent of the Church, or by acceptance on the part of the Church as a whole, in its several parts. To the definitions and pronouncements of local synods subsequently ratified and accepted, is attached the infallible character with which our Lord endowed His Church. (Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Thought [1923])

How do we arbitrate between the two methods? We might here invoke Pontificator’s First Law and on that basis choose Swinburne’s first method. After all, both Catholicism and Orthodoxy agree that the dogmas of the great ecumenical councils are binding and irreformable. But for some strange reason Pontificator’s First Law has yet to achieve ecumenical consent (though I have it on good authority that both the Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch will soon issue a joint statement affirming its profound truth and authority). I believe, however, that reason and evidence leads us to prefer option one—the catholic affirmation of the infallibility of the Church.

First, it is reasonable to interpret the documents of revelation as supporting ecclesial infallibility. Not that I am suggesting that the testimony is clear and coercive. It is not. But one can reasonably infer infallibility from our Lord’s promise that the powers of death will not prevail against his Church (Matt 16:18), his promise that he will always be with his Church (Matt 28:20), and his promise that the Spirit will lead the Church into all truth (John 14:16-17; 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15).

Second, the nature of divine revelation as demanding the unconditional assent of faith would seem to require an infallible authority that can speak in the name of Christ. Newman addresses this so very well in his sermon Faith and Private Judgment. Just as the Apostles themselves, when addressed by the words of Christ, were confronted with the choice either to believe or disbelieve, without regard to external authorities, so the first hearers of the Apostles were also confronted by this choice. Their hearers had to decide: Are these men emissaries of God or not? Will I believe them unconditionally or not?

Immediate, implicit submission of the mind was, in the lifetime of the Apostles, the only, the necessary token of faith; then there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgement. No one could say: �I will choose my religion for myself, I will believe this, I will not believe that; I will pledge myself to nothing; I will believe just as long as I please, and no longer; what I believe to-day I will reject tomorrow, if I choose. I will believe what the Apostles have as yet said, but I will not believe what they shall say in time to come.� No; either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe. To believe a little, to believe more or less, was impossible; it contradicted the very notion of believing: if one part was to be believed; it was an absurdity to believe one thing and not another; for the word of the Apostles, which made the one true, made the other true too; they were nothing in themselves, they were all things, they were an infallible authority, as coming from God. The world had either to become Christian, or to let it alone; there was no room for private tastes and fancies, no room for private judgement.

Each day I become more and more convinced that the sin of Protestant Christianity is the sin of private judgment. Each individual is his own private arbiter of revelation. I submit to no other judgment but my own. In the first years of the apostolic Church, the hearer had no choice but to either believe or disbelieve the apostolic testimony. But today we demand that the gospel must fulfill our own self-chosen standards of confirmation. Each of us weighs the evidence as we see fit. We want something more than apostolic witness. Give us proof! “In the Apostles’ days,” Newman writes, “the peculiarity of faith was submission to a living authority; this is what made it so distinctive; this is what made it an act of submission at all; this is what destroyed private judgment in matters of religion.”

Third, the historic Church has dared to dogmatize and to regard iher dogmas as irreversible. Neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy believes that one may question the truth and authority of the dogmas of the ecumenical councils. They are givens. They are established by the authority of the Spirit. They have been received, if you will, into the datum of revelation and are thus determinate of all Christian reflection. As St Athanasius declared of the Council of Nicaea: “The word of the Lord which came through the ecumenical Synod at Nicaea abides for ever.” An individual who rejects the Nicene homoousion or the Chalcedonian “two natures of Christ” simply is not a Christian. These dogmas are not up for vote nor are they a la carte selections in the Christian doctrinal cafeteria.

Given the definitive authority and irreformability of these dogmas within the life of the Church catholic, we must therefore believe that they are guaranteed by the Spirit. If these dogmas are wrong, then the Church of the Apostles has in fact disappeared from history and God’s work of revelation has failed. From such a failure there is now no possibility of recovery. We cannot think ourselves back into the apostolic or dominical mind independently of the interpretive guidance of the Church; we cannot recreate the original revelation of God. If the dogmas of the Church are wrong, then the original revelation is lost in the past. We have no choice but to wait for a new revelation and a new church.

But we have the Scriptures, we cry! Yes, but the Scriptures are themselves a product of the Church. It was the Church that decided which books were Scripture and which were not. The canon is dogma, and if all dogmas are fallible, then there is no reason why the canon cannot be questioned. Perhaps Marcion was right all along. Perhaps the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip need to be included. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Apart from the living authority of the Church in the Holy Spirit, the Bible is simply a collection of texts, artifacts to be dissected by historians and the curious. But texts cannot function as divine authority. Texts cannot tell us what they mean. Texts cannot negotiate between conflicting interpretations. Texts cannot be personally interrogated. Texts cannot defend themselves against misconstrual. Texts cannot tell us which texts are to be included in the collection of texts, nor can they instruct us how to properly read and apply these texts for the good of the Church and the individual believer.

Who else but the Church can authoritatively inform us what the original revelation of Christ was and is? As Newman astutely perceived: “A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.”

7 November 2004


Over on his blog Charlie Wingate takes the Pontificator to task for his comments on infallibility. The appeal to infallible authority is an unwarranted attempt to prematurely close debate. Not only does it tempt us to ignore “the refutation of poor arguments,” but it also tempts us to dress up our assertions “in supernal authority.” As Charlie notes in an earlier post:

When there’s agreement, nobody cares about infallibility; it only matters if there is expression of doubt or outright disagreement. But in those cases it is ineffective as a defense of a line of argument. For the dissenter, the defects in the argument made are ipso facto evidence that the claim to infallibility is spurious.

And in another post:

Infallibility is a dogma that nobody should need. If the arguments are good enough, they stand on their own. If they aren’t then infalliblity won’t help.

Only the poor debater invokes infallibility; only the bad argument needs it. “Protestantism is nothing more,” Charlie writes, “than the acknowledgement of the real state of human judgment.” Protestantism is thus a superior form of Christianity because it allows full debate and discussion of any given issue. Truth will ultimately convince. Sound arguments will prevail. Or not.

If Protestantism is simply the “real state of human judgment,” then we must frankly conclude that when it comes to the Christian faith, nobody really knows what they are talking about. Everyone has an opinion, and every opinion has a denomination to advance, support, and embody it. And if Charlie is right, then not only is this just the way it is, but it’s the way it probably should be. Why do I say this? Because Charlie does not believe that any communion can claim to be the Church in an exclusive sense and because he finds himself at odds with Catholic and Orthodox claims about Mary and the liturgical and devotional practices in which these claims are embodied. “It bothers my sense of the economy of salvation,” he writes, “that Mary must be made into something beyond an ordinary woman.” I presume that Charlie also objects to the kinds of devotional and liturgical practices that are common to Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Since Charlie is staking out a minority position over against the two apostolic communions of the Church, he must logically assert the Protestant right to private judgment, with its logical consequence of sectarianism and schism. Just how many Protestant denominations are there now?

Now I do not want to put words into Charlie’s pen. While he has been, so I understand, quite active in internet discussion over the past years, he has only devoted a few pieces on his blog to the question of authority. But Charlie and I do go back a long time. Unless he has changed dramatically since I ceased being his pastor, he is an intelligent, middle-of-the-road, somewhat traditional Anglican with a preference for good liturgy and music. (He and his wife are both gifted musicians.) But the Episcopal Church he fell in love with years ago has changed dramatically, and he now finds himself in the agonizing position of being a minority orthodox voice in an increasingly heretical denomination in an increasingly evangelical Protestant Anglican communion. But Charlie is not yet ready to give up the fort. He is not yet ready to concede what seems to me to be so perfectly clear–namely, Protestantism, even in its most attractive Anglican forms, is incapable of maintaining the catholic faith in the confrontation with modernity. And it is incapable of doing so because of its skewed understanding of authority, tradition, and Scripture.

Charlie presupposes a way of resolving truth, to the extent that it can ever be resolved, that works well in, say, the natural sciences but cannot work in a religion grounded in supernatural revelation. I refer to my various articles under Authority. But Newman summarizes what I believe indeed to be the case: “A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.”

The assertion of an infallible authority, of some kind, cannot be avoided. Consider, for example, the questions of Mariology that are being debated under O higher than the cherubim. One thing is clear. One cannot argue oneself into believing that Mary is a deified creature in fullness who enjoys a unique role in God’s plan of salvation. One cannot argue oneself into a recognition of the legitimacy of venerating Mary and pleading for her intercessions. Ultimately, one must surrender oneself to the Church that believes and does these things and has believed and done these things for centuries and centuries. Ultimately, one must trust the Church and the infallible authority of her communal life. The truth of Mary can only be known from the inside of the community of faith. At least, that is how it appears to one who is outside of the two apostolic communities of faith that praise and venerate Mary as Theotokos and Queen of Heaven.

Is the ecclesial claim to infallibility really as useless as Charlie would have us believe? Only if one enjoys interminable, endless theological controversy with no hope of resolution. Only if one is willing to finally abandon the claim to divine revelation.

7 December 2004


“The Church’s teaching lives forward,” writes Richard John Neuhaus, “and no definition, including that of councils, is entirely adequate to the whole of the truth.” I very much like the way that Neuhaus here states both the reliability and provisionality of Church dogmas. Neuhaus recognizes that all dogmatic assertions are uttered within a specific historical, theological, and political context. When the Church defines a given proposition, it does so because she seeks to exclude a teaching that she has deemed contrary to the revealed deposit of faith. This means that every dogma is inevitably one-sided, and in that specific sense distorting, for it lifts one truth from the wholeness of the deposit and momentarily focuses all attention on that one truth, almost as if it stood alone. But each dogma must be comprehended within the wholeness of the faith; each must be seen in light of the totality, harmony, and inter-connections of the Christian revelation. The Catholic Church speaks of this as the analogy of faith—“the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that a defined dogma may require subsequent definitions in order to be understood rightly. The Council of Ephesus needed to be followed by the Council of Chalcedon, which then needed to be followed by the Second and Third Councils of Constantinope—only thus could the christological dogma of the Church be satisfactorily stated. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, John Henry Newman approvingly cited the following statement from 16th century Catholic theologian Luis de Molina:

Though the Holy Ghost has always been present to the Church, to hinder error in her definitions, and in consequence they are all most true and consistent, yet it is not therefore to be denied, that God, when any matters have to be defined, requires of the Church a cooperation and investigation of those matters, and that, in proportion to the quality of the men who meet together in Councils, to the investigation and diligence which is applied, and the greater or less experience and knowledge which is possessed more at one time than at other times, definitions more or less perspicuous are drawn up and matters are defined more exactly and completely at one time than at other times … And, whereas by disputations, persevering reading, meditation, and investigation of matters, there is wont to be increased in course of time the knowledge and understanding of the same, and the Fathers of the later Councils are assisted by the investigation and definitions of the former, hence it arises that the definitions of later Councils are wont to be more luminous, fuller, more accurate and exact than those of the earlier. Moreover, it belongs to the later Councils to interpret and to define more exactly and fully what in earlier Councils have been defined less clearly, fully and exactly.” (De Concord. Lib. Arbit., &c., xiii. 15, p. 59.)

The dogmas of the Church do not stand on their own but must be interpreted within the context of the catholic faith as a whole, the articulation of which is always developing in the life of the Church.

Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler was one of the bishops who attended Vatican I but who left before the final vote on Pastor Aeternus. He did not believe that a conciliar definition on papal infallibility was opportune. He subsequently accepted the conciliar definition and offered the following explanation:

This was the main reason why I departed before the final public session. I felt that it was inconceivable that there should be a decree which deals with only a part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Therefore, as I feared, in countries like those which I first had in mind, this easily led to misinterpretations…. Therefore, so as not to do damage to my conscience, I had to avoid giving the appearance of opposition to the supreme head of the Church. It was thus that I felt I could not vote Placet, because, first of all, I regarded such a definition as inopportune; secondly, because I wished to avert certain misunderstandings, I wanted to make certain additions; and third, because … I was of the opinion that the teaching of the Church should have been presented to the world in its entirety, and not in part by the Council.

Newman shared similar reservations about the wisdom of dogmatizing the infallibility of the papal office. After the Council passed the decree, he expressed his hopes that the Council would reconvene and the definition would be placed in a wider theological and ecclesiological context. Early in 1871 he wrote the following to Monique Maskell:

But under a great trial, the question is what we are to do—and I seem to see clearly that our duty is patience. Remedies spring up naturally in the Church, as in nature, if we wait for them. The definition was taken out of its order—it would have come to us very differently, if those preliminaries about the Church’s power had first been passed, which, I believe, were intended. And now, if the Council proceeds, I trust that it will occupy itself in other points which will have the effect of qualifying and guarding the dogma.

But the First Vatican Council never resumed. Political events in Europe made a continuation of the Council impossible; hence the Council Fathers were never able to complete their work on the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. The wider theological and ecclesiological context necessary to properly interpret the ministry and authority of the Supreme Pontiff would have to await the Second Vatican Council. Newman was confident, though, that the “whole Church diffusive,” with the assistance of the Schola Theologorum, would eventually “assimilate and harmonize into the credenda of Christendom, and the living tradition of the faithful,” the dogma of papal infallibility (letter to William Maskell, 2 February 1871).

Written texts, even the texts prepared by ecumenical councils and Popes, must be interpreted and thus will be inevitably misinterpreted. In a letter of 30 March 1870, Newman explained to a worried Robert Froude that even if the Vatican Council were to define the Pope as infallible, all of the Pope’s ex cathedra declarations would have to be interpreted by and to the Church:

But any declaration of the Pope’s, if he were ruled infallible, would require explanation in the concrete in another way also—not only as to its application, but its interpretation. As lawyers explain acts of Parliament, so theologians have ever explained the dicta of Popes and Councils—and that explanation, when received generally, is the true Catholic doctrine. Hence I have never been able to see myself that the ultimate decision rests with any but the general Catholic intelligence. And so I understand it to be implied in the “Securus iudicat orbis terrarum.”

But if the meaning of an infallible definition is dependent upon subsequent fallible, and therefore potentially controverted, interpretations, does the dogma of papal and conciliar infallibility really have any practical value? Are we trapped in a hermeneutical prison where anybody’s interpretation of an authoritative text must be granted validity?

Jonathan Prejean, who sometimes visits us here on Pontifications, has recently argued that the interpretation of dogmatic definitions is akin to the interpretation of law in American jurisprudence:

When the legislature passes a law, the law’s meaning is not definitely fixed based on the opinion of any of the legislators that went into it or even the prevailing arguments, because people may have had vastly different reasons for voting for the law, so there has to be some principle for determining the meaning of the law authoritatively (a “rule of law”). Ordinarily, the meaning of the law is determined in subsequent applications, actual decisions made using the law, which may or may not reflect the intent of any of the particular legislators who passed it. That is the difference between an objective discipline determined based on formality (which the authority of the Catholic Church is), and a subjective discipline based on persuasion….

It is important to clarify what this analogy is, and what it is not. It is an argument that the de facto process of interpreting Magisterial documents is much like the de facto process for determining the meaning of a law at the level of the practioner, and that this is the ordinary way that things are done, both in the law and in the Catholic Church. It is not an argument that the Church is a democracy or that the Magisterium derives its authority from a “consent of the governed” theory. Instead, it is simply a recognition of the rather obvious fact that the surrounding legal system in a society places constraints on the objective meaning of a document, and that it isn’t simply a matter of what the legislator intends to accomplish that determines what effect his laws will have.

This is an interesting argument, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I am uneasy about the easy dismissal of “authorial intention.” I have the same problem with the hermeneutical strategy of the Anglican Scotist and his dismissal of grammatical-historical exegesis in the determination of the canonical meaning of a biblical text. This doesn’t seem right. It seems to me that we must begin with the grammatical-historical meaning, even if we then decide we must move beyond it. But I admit that I lack the competence to address this question adequately.

Consider, for example, the teaching of Lumen Gentium that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. Is the intent of the Council Fathers, as disclosed, for example, by the Acta of the Council, irrelevant to the meaning of this claim? Surely not.

16 August 2005


In his book Creative Fidelity (1996), Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., discusses the hermeneutics of dogmatic infallibility. In chapter seven he looks at the vexed question of undefined dogmas, dogmas that have been definitively taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Church and are thus to be considered infallible, i.e., irreformable. Many of the foundational beliefs of Christians fall into this category. The Church has never solemnly defined the resurrection of Jesus Christ, yet who would question that it is an infallible dogma that belongs to the heart of our faith. Just because a doctrine has not been explicitly defined by an ecumenical council or pope does not mean that the doctrine does not enjoy an irreformable status within the Church. Solemn definitions are typically evoked by serious theological controversy. The Church dogmatizes in order to protect an article of faith and to exclude false teaching. Sullivan elaborates:

In most cases, truths have been defined because they were being threatened by erroneous teaching. The development of dogma reflects the historical circumstances that required the church to take a definitive stand on certain issues. Nothing in this history suggests a deliberate intention to give priority to the more important truths of faith by defining them. Nothing suggests an intention to make sure that all the most important articles of faith would become defined dogmas. In respect to some basic truths of our faith, we are still in the same situation as the early church was, before any dogmas had been defined. (pp. 93-94)

But how do we identify infallible undefined dogmas? Sullivan proposes the following criteria: universality, constancy, definitiveness, and clarity. In 1863 Pope Pius IX expressed his disagreement with the view that theologians are only bound by dogmas that have been extraordinarily defined:

For even if it is a matter of that subjection which must be given in the act of divine faith, it must not be limited to those things which have been defined by the express decrees of councils or of the Roman pontiffs and of this apostolic see, but must also be extended to those things which are handed on by the ordinary magisterium of the whole church dispensed throughout the world as divinely revealed, and therefore are held by the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians to pertain to the faith. (Quoted on p. 99)

A doctrine taught by the ordinary magisterium can only be considered a candidate for irreformable status if it enjoys the consensual support of bishops and theologians. The consensus must be universal, taught throughout the worldwide Church and not just in one part of the Church, even if that one part is the see of Rome. The consensus must be constant, enduringly and unchangingly maintained and communicated in history. It is not a teaching of the moment but enjoys diachronic continuity over the centuries. But not only must the doctrine enjoy universality and constancy, it must also have been taught de fide, as divinely revealed by God and thus rightly demanding from members of the Church their assent and faith. A doctrine may not be judged irreformable simply because it has always been taught; it must also have been definitively taught as belonging to the deposit of faith.

The Second Vatican Council refined the above construal of undefined dogma in two ways (see Lumen Gentium §25). First, it allowed the possible expansion of the scope of infallibility, acknowledging that a teaching may be judged irreformable even if it has not been revealed by God but is necessary to the articulation and defense of revealed truths. Second, it stated that in order for an undefined doctrine to be considered infallible it must have been historically proposed as a belief to be “held definitively.” Hence there are two kinds of infallible dogmas, each requiring its own special response from the Church. An infallible dogma may be de fide, revealed by God himself. This dogma belongs to the deposit of the faith. Because it has been given to the Church by God, it requires from Christians faith that is divine and Catholic. The ultimate motive for believing de fide truth is not the infallible Church that has proposed it but the authority of the God who has revealed it. An infallible dogma may also be definitive but non-revealed. It is a truth that the magisterium has come to understand as being absolutely necessary to the right understanding, explication, and defense of those primary truths revealed by God. Such a truth comes under the “secondary object of infallibility” and is presented to the faithful on the basis of the Church’s teaching authority. It requires from Christians a free and full assent; it must be “firmly accepted and held.”

Universality, constancy, and definitiveness—to these criteria Sullivan adds a fourth: communal clarity and the absence of serious dissent. A dogma is to be recognized as infallible only if it is manifestly established as such. Sullivan cites the 1917 Code of Canon Law for support: “Nothing is understood to be infallibly defined or declared unless this is clearly established.” In the 1983 revision, the phrase “or declared” was omitted from the canon. Canon 749.3 now reads: “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.” Scholars debate the significance of the alteration; but Sullivan believes that the principle holds for all truths taught by the ordinary magisterium. To be acknowledged as enjoying infallible status a doctrine must be clearly recognized by the bishops and theologians of the Church as enjoying such status. Perhaps another way of putting it is that a given doctrine may deemed infallible only if it has in fact been received as infallible into the consciousness of the Church. This does not mean that reception is a condition for infallibility but rather that it is a sign and confirmation that the doctrine has in reality fulfilled the conditions for infallibility. As Vatican II put it, “the assent of the Church can never be wanting” (LG §25).

So how does Sullivan’s theory work out in practice? It provides a framework in which the Church can reflect upon her teachings and determine the possibilities of development, refinement, and even alteration. It is flexible enough to allow a great deal of doctrinal maneuvering as the Church wrestles with new intellectual and cultural questions, and it provides an explanation for how it has been possible for the Catholic Church to “change” some of its teachings over the centuries.

But Sullivan’s approach to undefined dogmas has one glaring weakness—dissent trumps everything. Once a teaching becomes contested, it can no longer be considered a candidate for infallible status. Dissent breaks the necessary condition of consensus. Referring to the constancy of a given teaching, Sullivan writes: “If it becomes evident that there is no longer a consensus on some point of doctrine about which, in former times, there was a consensus, it would seem necessary to conclude that this is not the kind of constant consensus that points to infallible teaching” (p. 104). As an example of an undefined teaching that the Church has ceased to authoritatively teach, Sullivan cites the Church’s assertion of monogenism as necessary to the Church’s doctrine of Original Sin. Until fairly recently, Catholics appear to have believed and taught that monogenism, the claim that the human race has descended from a single human couple, was a necessary belief for the assertion of the Church’s doctrine of Original Sin; yet now it is widely, though quietly, conceded the polygenism may be compatible with the Church’s doctrine. Sullivan states the general principle of dissent and infallibility as follows:

No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this fact is manifestly established. In other words, the fact that a doctrine has been infallibly defined must not only be “settled, undisputed, well known,” but must be “manifestly” such. To whom would one expect such a fact to be “manifest” if not to Catholic theologians whose business it is to evaluate the dogmatic weight of magisterial pronouncements. I conclude that one could hardly claim that the fact that a doctrine had been infallibly defined was manifestly “settled, established, undisputed,” if there were serious disagreements among Catholic theologians about this alleged fact. (pp. 43-44)

Sullivan is here referring to the extraordinary magisterium, but his argument transfers over to the ordinary magisterium.

Thus despite, for example, the fact that up to 1962 a wide and deep consensus existed among the bishops of the Church that contraception was wrong, and thus apparently fulfilled the conditions of infallibility, Sullivan suggests this teaching does not in fact qualify as an infallible moral truth because consensus does not presently exist. It appears that precisely at the moment the Church needs a doctrine of ordinary infallibility, namely, in a time of controversy, it is unavailable to her. Sullivan’s approach ultimately renders the notion of ordinary infallibility irrelevant, for the very existence of dissent demonstrates that the doctrine in question cannot be judged irreformable. Practically speaking, therefore, the only way the Church can resolve theological controversy is through the extraordinary magisterium. Despite his intentions, Sullivan gives us a Church where everything is up for grabs except for solemnly defined conciliar and papal definitions. He leaves us either with an impotent community torn asunder by theological conflict or with an over-active and over-centralized papacy whose only effective weapon is ex cathedra definitions.

Different kinds of dissent exist in the Church today. Not all dissent is faithful. Not all dissent occurs within the Holy Tradition. Not all dissent is constructive to the life and mission of the Church. Not all dissent leads to deeper apprehension of the truth. Sullivan appears to be oblivious to the damage that has been done to the Church over the past forty years by irresponsible and faithless dissent. Nor does he see how the widespread refusal of bishops to discipline theologians contributes to the destruction of consensus. Consensus does not just magically happen. It requires ecclesial discipline. Why did the consensus on contraception break down in the sixties, for example? Was it really because the arguments for contraception were so compelling, or is it not more likely that, confronted by the cultural revolution in Europe and America, the bishops lost their nerve and permitted a whole generation of priests to be ordained who believed they had the freedom to rewrite Catholic doctrine? Years ago I attended a lecture given by Stanley Hauerwas in which he provocatively told his audience, “Christians do not believe in freedom of speech.” He was, of course, speaking about speech within the Church. The Church is a community that lives, thinks, and speaks by authority. The Word that she speaks to the world is not her own. She rightly expects her theologians and pastors, therefore, to submit their hearts, minds and lips to the magisterial authority of Christ Jesus in his ecclesia. She rightly expects her theologians and pastors to think with the mind of the Church. She rightly expects her theologians and pastors to speak from within the depths of her Holy Tradition. Before they can be teachers, they must first be disciples.

As a former Episcopalian I can perhaps see the problems of theological dissent a bit more clearly than those who have been raised and trained in the post-Vatican II Church. Modern dissent transcends denominational boundaries. Each tradition has its own Küngs, Currans, and Chittisters. There’s nothing particularly exciting or new about progressive Catholic theology. Catholic dissenters are simply liberal Prots in Catholic drag. Their hermeneutics inevitably lead to the kind of theology that now reigns in the mainline denominations. And I have seen what dissenters can do when liberated from all magisterial restraint. I have seen the chaos, brokenness, and spiritual and parochial destruction they leave in their wake. Too often dissenters are driven, not by faithful submission to the faith once delivered to the saints, but by the ideological quest to revise Christianity according to the dictates of modernity. There is nothing necessarily heroic about dissent against tradition and authority. It’s what our culture expects; it’s what academia expects; it’s what the world expects. We are not surprised when a teenager goes off to college and abandons the Christian faith in which he was raised. It’s all part of the modernity script that has been downloaded into our brains. The freedom of modernity is a myth and illusion. No one is less free than the man who rejects the divine authority of the Church.

I am painting with a wide brush, I know; but I think there’s just enough truth in it to justify the portrait. It is time for the light of the hermeneutics of suspicion to be redirected back upon the purveyors of revision. And it is time to restore a gracious but firm theological discipline within the life of the Church.

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Tim 4:2-5)

Perhaps Sullivan is correct in his analysis of undefined dogmas. He presents a well-argued case. But I am not yet persuaded. I hope he’s wrong. There must be a better model of Catholic magisterial authority.

26 September 2005


Can the Church authoritatively and definitively teach irreformable doctrine? Vatican II certainly thought she could:

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. (LG §25)

But saying that the ordinary magisterium can exercise dogmatic infallibility is one thing; actually identifying when it has done so is quite another. In his book Creative Fidelity, Francis Sullivan has presented an analysis of the problem that makes the task of identification virtually impossible.

According to Sullivan, the theologians of the Church exercise a critical ministry in the work of identifying the irreformable dogmas of the Church. It is, after all, their business “to evaluate the dogmatic weight of magisterial pronouncements” (p. 44). Sullivan then draws the following conclusion: If the college of theologians do not share the conviction that a given doctrine is irreformably taught by the ordinary magisterium, then eo ipso it is not irreformably taught by the ordinary magisterium. And this is so even if a such consensus had existed before the occurrence of dissent (see my article “Quite Ordinary Magisterium“). Sullivan is not, of course, suggesting that a doctrine can be infallible one moment and fallible the next; but it is possible for the pastors and theologians of the Church to be mistaken about its true status; it is possible for them to believe that the conditions for infallibility have been fulfilled when in fact and reality they have not. Presumably this is what has happened with regard to the teaching of the Church on contraception, women’s ordination, abortion, and euthanasia.

It’s clear that Sullivan’s approach in practice eliminates the entire category of nondefined infallible dogma. Sullivan does not himself make this inference. He believes, for example, that the virginal conception of Mary and her perpetual virginity are undefined doctrines of the Church. Given that dispute on these doctrines is always a future possibility, if not a present reality—and indeed increasingly likely in our culture—it’s hard to see how any theologian could ever say anything stronger than “I believe that _____ is a candidate for an infallible doctrine taught by the ordinary magisterium; but we will never really be sure until it is solemnly defined as infallible.” Surely a firm agnosticism would be the most appropriate stance to assume in Sullivan’s ecclesial world.

I think folks like me can be excused for thinking that the ordinary magisterium of the Church is now being held hostage by Sullivanite ecclesiology. The possibility of irreformable doctrine taught by the ordinary magisterium is not denied by Sullivan; but it has no practical consequence for the resolution of theological dispute. Sullivan has thus created a paradise for Catholic dissenters. One can affirm with Lumen Gentium that the Church does infallibly teach doctrine through her ordinary magisterium; but since we can never really know what doctrines are included in this undefined category, one is free to disagree with all doctrines that have not been solemnly defined by the extraordinary magisterium.

Sullivan’s analysis of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is illustrative. Sullivan opines that the language of the apostolic letter “comes very close to that of a solemn definition,” but he accepts the fallible judgment of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith that it was not the intention of Pope John Paul II to engage his solemn infallibility (also see Ratzinger’s commentary). Nevertheless, the Pope’s declaration that the Church does not have the authority to confer priestly ordination on women must “be put at the very top of any scale measuring the degree of authority that has been exercised by popes in their ordinary magisterium” (p. 23). Sullivan himself, however, remains unpersuaded by the papal teaching. He does not believe that the exclusion of women from the priesthood has been manifestly demonstrated. Serious historical questions can be raised about the definitiveness of this exclusion in the teaching of the Church, and the dissensus in the schola theologorum certainly witnesses against its irreformable status. The Pope, in other words, is wrong, despite the strength and definitiveness of his language and his manifest intent in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to close debate and remove doubt.

Sullivan invokes the judgment of the CDF as supporting witness to his belief that Pope John Paul did not solemnly define the exclusion of women from the priesthood in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis; on the other hand, he feels free to disagree with the CDF’s judgment that the exclusion is infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium. Sullivan wants to have his cake and eat it too. If the CDF is wrong about the latter, it is just as likely to be wrong about the former, in which case we may seriously consider the possibility that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in fact contains a solemn definition of the Catholic faith! Philosopher Ansgar Santogrossi has advanced some interesting arguments in this regard in his article Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: a definition ex cathedra. He, too, is unpersuaded by the CDF’s judgment that OS does not contain a solemn definition. Fr Ansgar believes that the language of the letter is strong enough to meet the conditions of Vatican I (also see the discussion by E. L. Core). What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

In his article “Recent theological observations on magisterial documents and public dissent,” Sullivan diputes the assertion of Cardinal Bertone that a papal declaration can manifestly establish the existence of theological consensus on a given issue in the college of bishops. He writes:

The question whether a doctrine has been infallibly taught is not a matter of doctrine, but a matter of fact, which has to be “manifestly established.” What must be “manifestly established,” when the claim is made that a doctrine has been taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium, is that not only the pope, but the whole body of Catholic bishops as well, are proposing the same doctrine as one which the faithful are obliged to hold in a definitive way. I do not see how it could be said that a papal declaration, of itself, without further evidence, would suffice to establish this fact.

Archbishop Bertone insists that while such a papal declaration would not have the character of a papal definition ex cathedra and hence would be an act of ordinary papal magisterium, it would “enjoy the same infallibility as the teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium.” It is important here to distinguish two quite different acts of papal teaching authority. One is had when the pope teaches a point of doctrine about which it is clear and certain that not only the pope, but all the bishops as well, are teaching the same doctrine as definitively to be held. In this case, the papal teaching shares the infallibility of the ordinary universal magisterium.

The other case is when, in teaching a point of doctrine as definitively to be held, the pope declares that this doctrine is infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium. Here the pope is saying: “Not only do I teach this doctrine as definitively to be held, but all the other Catholic bishops do so as well.” I do not see how such a declaration, which would be an act of ordinary papal magisterium concerning a question of fact, can be said to meet the conditions laid down by Vatican I for an exercise of papal infallibility.

Sullivan makes a good point against Bertone. One can only assert that a papal confirmation enjoys “the same infallibility as the teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium” if manifest episcopal consensus already obtains on the matter in question. But what if the consensus about _____ has, for whatever reasons, broken down, and the question is raised whether _____ is in fact irreformably taught by the ordinary magisterium? It is circular reasoning to say that, despite present dissensus, the papal confirmation is infallible because the doctrine it confirms is infallible and the doctrine the Pope has confirmed is infallible because the Pope has confirmed it. On the other hand, Bertone can reply that Sullivan’s criteria are too stringent. Clearly there would be no reason for a Pope to confirm a teaching of the ordinary magisterium if no one was challenging it. What good is an appeal to the ordinary magisterium if the ordinary magisterium is effectively silenced by dissent?

Thus Sullivan denies that the Pope has the authority to do what he tried to do in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, namely, to definitively and infallibly confirm a teaching of the ordinary magisterium. Here is a huge question for me: How do we resolve this dispute between Sullivan and Bertone? It does appear that in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, as well as in Veritatis splendor and Evangelium vitae, John Paul II did do something new (or perhaps something old) when he sought “to confirm and reaffirm doctrines which belong to the ordinary, universal teaching of the Magisterium, and which therefore are to be held in a definitive and irrevocable way” (Bertone). The Pope was not just offering his opinion on a controversial issue. He was seeking to definitively close further debate and establish a specific teaching as irreversible, without exercising his extraordinary magisterium. This appears to be a development in the exercise of the Pope’s magisterium.

Sullivan and others cry “foul!” “The Pope,” they say, “is trying to make an end run around Vatican I. No Ecumenical Council has ever recognized the Pope as enjoying such powers.” “Not so,” reply the Pope’s supporters. “He is simply doing what any Pope can do and should do when the dogmatic teaching of the Church is threatened by controversy and dissent. Surely the Pope, as head of the College of Bishops, is in a better position to know the mind and teaching of the bishops than anyone else. If not the Pope, who else? The guild of theologians? Oh please.”

I am at a loss to negotiate between these two conflicting positions. If we are witnessing a development in the practice of the papal ordinary magisterium, who judges the rightness of this development? I can understand Sullivan’s caution here. Yet Sullivan’s own positive arguments appear to evacuate the ordinary magisterium of all practical significance. Theologians are free to contest the consensual non-defined teaching of the Church, even teaching that is considered, at that moment, definitive and irreversible, because once the dissent is made, the teaching is proven to be fallible and nondefinitive, at least for the moment. This means that theologians, priests, and bishops can never be justly disciplined by the Church for dissenting from nondefined teaching, thus making the recreation of consensus impossible, save for a miracle of the Spirit. Consensus in the real world, including the real world of the Church, does not happen magically. It requires bishops to have the courage to say to the brethren, _____ is wrong and will not be taught in the Church.

Sullivan’s writings on the magisterium have many merits, but the consequences of his position for the life and witness of the Church are manifestly and demonstrably disastrous.

29 September 2005


If Ordinatio Sacerdotalis had been promulgated in 1855, without any additional explanation from the Holy Office of the Inquisition, does anyone doubt that the apostolic letter’s exclusion of women from the priesthood would have been received as a definitive, de fide dogma? This is an unfair scenario, of course, for two reasons: First, because a consensus existed in the Church at that time that the priesthood was restricted to males by divine institution. Second, because the various distinctions in authoritative statements, as set forth, for example, in Ad Tuendam Fidem, were unknown in 1850. Matters were a lot fuzzier. There was also disagreement among Catholic theologians on the authority of papal dogmatic decrees. In 1875 Newman looked back on the state of opinion before the First Vatican Council:

Up to 1870, what was of faith was that infallibility lies in the voice of Pope and Bishops together. The question which followed, what if Pope and Bishops differ? might be answered in three ways, [1] in fact there is no act of infallibility, 2 infallibility lies with the Bishops by themselves—3. Infallibility lies in the Pope by himself. In the Council of the Vatican, the third answer has been made de fide. In saying this I do not mean to imply that the Pope and Bishops ever will disagree, though a portion of the Episcopate may disagree with the Pope—a difference not in fact but an hypothesis. (Letter to Thomas Edwards, 15 April 1875)

Before the publication of the Vatican dogma, Newman does not appear to have spent much time or energy on the limits of papal infallibility. As he wrote to William Wilberforce in 1867: “For myself I have never taken any great interest in the question of the limits and seat of infallibility.” What was important for Newman was the infallibility of the Church. The voice of the Church is the voice of God. “I believe whatever the Church teaches as the voice of God,” Newman explained to Wilberforce—“and this or that particular inclusively, if she teaches this.” Yet Newman was no conciliarist, as well expressed in his Cathedra Sempiterna:

Deeply do I feel, ever will I protest, for I can appeal to the ample testimony of history to bear me out, that, in questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of him, to whom have been committed the keys of the kingdom and the oversight of Christ’s flock. The voice of Peter is now, as it ever has been, a real authority, infallible when it teaches, prosperous when it commands, ever taking the lead wisely and distinctly in its own province, adding certainty to what is probable, and persuasion to what is certain. Before it speaks, the most saintly may mistake; and after it has spoken, the most gifted must obey.

It is mere speculation, but I have to believe that after reading the words of Pope John Paul II—“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 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”—Newman would have immediately acknowledged the papal declaration as definitive and binding on Catholic conscience, especially if it were received and affirmed by the universal Episcopate, as it no doubt would have been.

How would the Vatican I Fathers have received Ordinatio Sacerdotalis? Consider the dogmatic definition of Pastor aeternus:

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.

When John Paul declared that the exclusion of women from the priesthood was “to be definitively held by all the Church’s faith,” was he or was he not defining “a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church”? This may be disputed today, but would it have been disputed at the time of Vatican I? Consider the explanation given by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser to the Council Fathers on 11 July 1870, speaking on behalf of the committee that composed the draft decree:

Not just any manner of proposing the doctrine is sufficient even when he is exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher. Rather, there is required the manifest intention of defining doctrine, either of putting an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine or of defining a thing, giving a definitive judgment and proposing that doctrine as one which must be held by the Universal Church>

A few days latter Bishop Gasser ascended the podium again to elaborate:

My second observation concerns the word ‘define’ as it is found in our Draft. It is obvious from the many exceptions that this word is an obstacle for some of the reverend fathers; hence, in their exceptions, they have completely eliminated this word or have substituted another word, viz., ‘decree,’ or something similar, in its place, or have said, simultaneously, ‘defines and decrees,’ etc. Now I shall explain in a very few words how this word ‘defines’ is to be understood according to the Deputation de fide. Indeed, the Deputation de fide is not of the mind that this word should be understood in a juridical sense (Lat. in sensu forensi) so that it only signifies putting an end to controversy which has arisen in respect to heresy and doctrine which is properly speaking de fide. Rather, the word ‘defines’ signifies that the Pope directly and conclusively pronounces his sentence about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith or morals and does so in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way, indeed, that he or she knows for certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff.

The Vatican Fathers thus eschewed the necessity of specific wording for an infallible papal decree. What is necessary is that the Pope, in his role as universal pastor of the Church, must make clear that “he is defining doctrine to be held by the Universal Church.” For this reason, Gasser could comment that “already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See; where is the law which prescribed the form to be observed in such judgments?”

Is it unreasonable, therefore, to suggest that by the standards of dogma of the nineteenth century Church, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis would have been recognized as an irreformable decree?

But a hundred and thirty six years have passed since Vatican I, during which the levels of dogmatic authority have been further clarified by the Magisterium (see especially Ad Tuendam Fidem) and embodied in Canon Law. Canon 750 is critical for our analysis:

§1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

§2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firmly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

So what about Ordinatio Sacerdotalis? Following the publication of the apostolic letter, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith offered the following papally approved interpretation:

Dubium: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.

Responsum: In the affirmative.

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.

In other words, the exclusion of women from the priesthood is to be understood as falling under §2 of Canon 750. In a follow-up letter, Cardinal Ratzinger described John Paul’s declaration as “an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, in itself not infallible, [that] witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.” This interpretation was subsequently confirmed by the commentary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on Ad Tuendam Fidem: “The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing to proceed to a dogmatic definition, intended to reaffirm that this doctrine is to be held definitively, since, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”

A door to continued dissent against the Church’s restriction of women to the priesthood was thus apparently left open. At least so progressive Catholics believe (see the various articles at The judgment of Richard R. Gaillardetz may be cited as representative of the present dissensus:

The papal declaration itself, as an exercise of the ordinary papal magisterium, is not and cannot be an exercise of infallibility (that is, there is at least a remote possibility that this declaration could be erroneous). This papal teaching act must be distinguished from the infallible teaching of the whole college of bishops in their ordinary universal magisterium. In other words, the authoritative weight of the claims made in the papal declaration depends on the weight of evidence that the conditions for the exercise of the ordinary universal magisterium have in fact been fulfilled. This would require, at the least, evidence of extensive and open consultation with the bishops in the determination that the whole college is in fact united in its judgment that this matter pertains to faith and morals and is to be held definitively. No papal declaration can substitute for the actual substantiation of the fulfillment of the conditions for the exercise of the ordinary universal magisterium set forth in Lumen gentium § 25.2. When a true collegial unanimity is not clearly evident, papal claims to the ordinary universal magisterium risk trivializing the church’s teaching on episcopal collegiality and returning to a time when episcopal teaching authority was viewed as a mere delegation of papal authority.

It’s all very confusing. I have to wonder whether this confusion is an inevitable result of the Church’s decision to dogmatize papal infallibility. When matters were murkier, an authoritative declaration from the Supreme Pontiff that the male priesthood must be definitively held by the faithful would probably have been received by the faithful as de fide. But today, such is no longer the case. Newman appears to have foreseen this problem. In December 1869 Newman jotted down the following note: “I doubt whether you do not lessen it by defining it.” Once the matter is dogmatized, the theologians and canon lawyers must then step in and delineate precisely when a papal definition is infallible and when it is not. As a result, those who are intent on withholding assent, for whatever reasons, can always demand more proof that the conditions for irreformability have been fulfilled. Thus Gaillardetz: “The burden lies with the ecclesiastical magisterium, not only to assert that the church’s teaching on the exclusion of women from the priesthood has been taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium but to ‘clearly establish’ that fact.”

In essence, the dissenters to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis are telling us that John Paul II overstepped his prerogatives. Given that he has not, by progressive lights, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the universal Episcopate has definitively taught, either diachronically or synchronically, the exclusion of women from the priesthood, then he cannot legitimately close debate and command us to firmly accept the doctrine. Nicholas Lash went so far as to describe Ordinatio Sacerdotalis as a “scandalous abuse of power.” Oh my. And all the Pope did was do what Popes have done for two thousand years—speak truth and protect the deposit of faith. It’s almost as if they didn’t want a Church with a Pope.

Questions for dissenters to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Is it not the case that the Catholic Episcopate has in fact received Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (see, e.g., the USCCB pastoral document), and doesn’t this reception confirm the papal claim that the divine institution of the male priesthood must be definitively held by all? And if we are going to be ecumenical, as all progressive Catholics claim to be, shouldn’t we also take into account the unanimous judgment of Eastern Orthodox bishops on this issue?

2 March 2006


What is the dogmatic status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis? As a new Catholic, this is a fascinating question for me. The more I read on the subject, the more fascinating it becomes. Does it contain an infallible definition? Is it binding on Catholic consciences? May an informed Catholic faithfully disagree with its claim that the Catholic 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”?

These questions were raised immediately following the promulgation of the document in 1994. In the Responsum ad Dubium (1995), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared: “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.”

This appears to be saying that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is irreformable, not because the Pope says so, but because the Church, through the ordinary magisterium of her bishops, says so. In this case, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not, in and of itself, add anything to the authority of the teaching. It simply confirms that this doctrine belongs to the Deposit of Faith and thus requires the definitive assent of all Catholics. In an accompanying letter, Cardinal Ratzinger amplifies:

In response to this precise act of the Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, explicitly addressed to the entire Catholic Church, all members of the faithful are required to give their assent to the teaching stated therein. To this end, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of the Holy Father, has given an official Reply on the nature of this assent; it is a matter of full definitive assent, that is to say, irrevocable, to a doctrine taught infallibly by the Church. In fact, as the Reply explains, the definitive nature of this assent derives from the truth of the doctrine itself, since, founded on the written Word of God, and constantly held and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary universal Magisterium (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25). Thus, the Reply specifies that this doctrine belongs to the deposit of the faith of the Church. It should be emphasized that the definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the Church did not arise with the publication of the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In the Letter, as the Reply of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also explains, the Roman Pontiff, having taken account of present circumstances, has confirmed the same teaching by a formal declaration, giving expression once again to quod semper, quod ubique et quod ab omnibus tenendum est, utpote ad fidei depositum pertinens. In this case, an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, in itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.

A fallible witness to an infallible teaching? If this is the final word on the matter, then it is difficult to see how Ordinatio Sacerdotalis can, in itself, be definitively binding on Catholic conscience, for its authority ultimately rests on the soundness of the debated claim that the ordinary magisterium of the Church teaches the exclusion of women from the priesthood as a definitive truth. As Francis Sullivan writes:

The question whether a doctrine has been infallibly taught is not a matter of doctrine, but a matter of fact, which has to be “manifestly established.” What must be “manifestly established,” when the claim is made that a doctrine has been taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium, is that not only the pope, but the whole body of Catholic bishops as well, are proposing the same doctrine as one which the faithful are obliged to hold in a definitive way. I do not see how it could be said that a papal declaration, of itself, without further evidence, would suffice to establish this fact.

In other words, a fallible papal decree, by itself, is insufficient to establish the infallibility of a given doctrine. We need evidence, Sullivan says—specifically, evidence that demonstrates that the episcopate of the Church has, with a moral unanimity, either taught in the past or teaches in the present the definitiveness of the male priesthood. Or as Nicholas Lash pointedly states: “Neither the Pope nor Cardinal Ratzinger can make a teaching to be ‘founded on the written Word of God’ simply by ascertaining that it is so founded. Nor can they by assertion, make it a matter that has been ‘constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church.'” Because such evidence is allegedly lacking, progressive Catholics claim the right to dissent from Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

Yet Sullivan’s critique ignores one notable fact about Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Pope John Paul II clearly intended to end debate on this subject:

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.

He is not offering an opinion or a determination of probability. As universal pastor and head of the episcopal college, the Pope declares that the Church lacks authority to alter the constitution of priesthood and asserts that all must firmly accept this truth. Roma locutus, causa finita est. Despite Ratzinger’s initial assessment of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis as a fallible witness to an infallible doctrine—an assessment that is itself fallible—a few theologians have argued that the document enjoys the authority of an ex cathedra decree. Perhaps the strongest argument along these lines has been offered by Fr Ansgar Santogrossi (also see the discussion by E. L. Core). His arguments should not be dismissed out of hand. Santogrossi reads the apostolic letter as containing a dogmatic definition:

One should note what John Paul II did not say in the decisive passage of OS. He did not say “we confirm that this judgment has already been definitively proposed by the ordinary and universal magisterium.” The decisive passage of OS does not bear on this question which is in the domain of “dogmatic facts.” Rather he declares a divine thing (or an act of Christ) and he declares that this thing is definitive tenendam. Through the context provided by Pastor aeternus of Vatican I, the Report of the Deputation on Faith for Pastor aeternus, LG 25, and the practice of the Church attested to by an event during the Council of Trent and by Pius XI, it is manifest that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis contains an ex cathedra definition.

I confess that when I read Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, it sure reads to me like the Pope intended to dogmatically bind the mind and conscience of the Church. Yet as we have seen, the subsequent interpretations of the CDF, with the approval of the Pope, have denied that the document contains an ex cathedra definition. Hence it is doubtful that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis fulfills the canonical requirement that a solemn definition must be “manifestly evident” (canon 749.3). We are thus faced with an alternative: either Pope John Paul II overstepped his authority in attempting to bind universal Catholic conscience through a fallible act of ordinary magisterium, or he exercised his dogmatic authority in a way not easily squeezed into the categories of Vatican I & II, particularly as these have been interpreted by post-conciliar theologians. The Church’s understanding of her dogmatic authority is a developing reality. There is no reason to believe that this development has ceased.

In 1997, Archbishop Tarciscio Bertone, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published a thoughtful piece, “Magisterial Documents and Public Dissent.” Bertone asks us to consider the significance of the fact that in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis the Pope, in his role as head of the episcopal college, has authoritatively confirmed a doctrine as taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Church:

In the light of these considerations, it seems a pseudo-problem to wonder whether this papal act of confirming a teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium is infallible or not. In fact, although it is not per se a dogmatic definition (like the Trinitarian dogma of Nicaea, the Christological dogma of Chalcedon or the Marian dogmas), a papal pronouncement of confirmation enjoys the same infallibility as the teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium, which includes the Pope not as a mere Bishop but as the Head of the Episcopal College. In this regard, it is important to make clear that when the Responsum ad dubium of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the doctrine taught in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis mentions the infallible character of this doctrine which is already possessed by the Church, it simply meant to recall that the doctrine is not infallibly proposed only on the basis of this pontifical document, but that it confirms what has been held everywhere, always and by everyone as belonging to the deposit of faith. So it is essential to maintain the principle that a teaching can also be infallibly proposed by the ordinary, universal Magisterium by an act that does not take the solemn form of a definition.

Sullivan believes that Bertone has confused two distinct questions:

It is important here to distinguish two quite different acts of papal teaching authority. One is had when the pope teaches a point of doctrine about which it is clear and certain that not only the pope, but all the bishops as well, are teaching the same doctrine as definitively to be held. In this case, the papal teaching shares the infallibility of the ordinary universal magisterium. The other case is when, in teaching a point of doctrine as definitively to be held, the pope declares that this doctrine is infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium. Here the pope is saying: “Not only do I teach this doctrine as definitively to be held, but all the other Catholic bishops do so as well.” I do not see how such a declaration, which would be an act of ordinary papal magisterium concerning a question of fact, can be said to meet the conditions laid down by Vatican I for an exercise of papal infallibility.

But Sullivan has overlooked the subtlety of Bertone’s argument: specifically, he has overlooked the significance that the Pope issued his letter as head of the community of bishops. How does the Pope know that the ordinary magisterium of the Church teaches the definitive nature of the doctrine of the male priesthood? Not just by engaging in historical research or by conducting a poll of living bishops. He knows because he and his predecessors have taught and presently teach the definitive nature of this doctrine, and the other bishops of the Church continue in communion with him (cf. Lumen Gentium 22, 25). On this basis, Msg. Brian E. Ferme, dean of the School of Canon Law, Catholic University, argues that a solemn pronouncement is unnecessary to secure certainty about what is taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church:

As a matter of fact there is a third type of act or declaration on the part of the Roman Pontiff which is described as a confirming or reaffirming act. This refers to the case in which a doctrine taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium can be confirmed or reaffirmed in a declaration by the Roman Pontiff (without recourse to a solemn definition), in which he declares explicitly that the doctrine belongs to the teaching of the universal and ordinary magisterium as either a truth that is divinely revealed (first paragraph [of canon 750]) or as a truth of Catholic doctrine (second paragraph [of canon 750])…. This distinction is clearly important for our understanding of the exercise of the teaching authority of the ordinary and universal magisterium as there has been the tendency to hold that until there had been a solemn intervention, for the post part by the Pontiff, it could not be said that the ordinary and universal magisterium had taught a doctrine infallibly. The fact is that a solemn intervention, or a defining act, is not required to ensure that a teaching is in fact definitive and infallible when taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium because it is itself a subject of the infallible teaching charism in the Church and thus can teach definitively and infallibly. It must not be forgotten that the Pope himself is part of this same ordinary and universal magisterium and that the bishops dispersed throughout the world must be in communion with the successor of Peter and themselves (communionis nexum inter se et cum Petri successore servantes) when they teach definitively. (“Ad Tuendam Fidem: Some Reflections” [Periodica 88 (1999)], pp. 600-602.)

In an earlier article, Ferme proposed that the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in contrast to a solemn definition, be understood as “authoritatively declarative.” Clearly, new juridical categories are needed. Ferme’s interpretation of papal confirming acts accords with Pope John Paul’s personal interpretation of what he did in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:

Therefore, the doctrine that the priesthood is reserved to men possesses, by virtue of the Church’s ordinary and universal Magisterium, that character of infallibility which Lumen gentium speaks of and to which I gave juridical form in the Motu Proprio Ad tuendam fidem: When the individual Bishops, “even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving among themselves and with Peter’s Successor the bond of communion, agree in their authoritative teaching on matters of faith and morals that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely, they infallibly proclaim the doctrine of Christ” (Lumen gentium, n. 25; cf. Ad tuendam fidem, n. 3). (Address of the Holy Father to German bishops, 1999.)

In the Encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, as well as in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, I wished once again to set forth the constant doctrine of the Church’s faith with an act confirming truths which are clearly witnessed to by Scripture, the apostolic Tradition and the unanimous teaching of the Pastors. These declarations, by virtue of the authority handed down to the Successor of Peter to ‘confirm the brethren’ (Luke 22:32), thus express the common certitude present in the life and teaching of the Church. (“Magisterium Exercises Authority in Christ’s Name,” 24 November 1995.)

We appear to be in the midst of a development of doctrine. It is not surprising, therefore, that controversy attends this matter. One thinks of the debate between Newman and Manning back in the 1860s. Hermann J. Pottmeyer has raised critical questions about this development (“Fallibly Infallible?” [1999]); but still he acknowledges that one cannot accuse John Paul of contradicting the norms of Vatican I & II. The mere fact that neither council mentions papal confirming acts does not mean that such acts are in any way improper. On the contrary, they seem to be eminently proper, especially during those times of controversy when the Church needs her supreme pastor to authoritatively attest the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

Richard Gaillardetz has suggested that papal confirming acts should be understood as akin to the seal of a notary public. “With this ‘notary’ exercise of papal teaching,” Gaillardetz writes, “the pope would be, not imposing a new teaching, but rather setting his ‘seal’ on that which has emerged in the consciousness of the Church.” But the persuasive force of the notary confirmation is still contingent upon the persuasive force of the evidence. It should not be employed when serious doubts exist: “The notary transcends their authority, however, when they affix their seal in the face of doubts regarding the authenticity of the signatory simply because they themselves are committed to the contents of the document.”

Lawrence J. Welch, however, has noted that a papal confirmation is more than a statement of consensus achieved. It is also a judgment about what constitutes authentic doctrine. Such a judgment is hardly needed when the consensual teaching is unchallenged; it is needed precisely when the teaching is challenged or denied. “When the papacy functioned as a court of appeal in the first millennium,” observes Welch, “the bishop of Rome did not limit himself as a notary who simply confirmed the end result of a process. The popes understood themselves as making a judgment about matters that were disputed at the time” (“Reply to Richard Gaillardetz on the ordinary universal magisterium and to Francis Sullivan,” Theological Studies [September 2003]). Pope John Paul’s employment of doctrinal confirmations is plausibly construed as a retrieval of ancient practice.

5 March 2006


Ben Meyers has responded to a post by Chris Trilling on the early fundamentalist movement: “Are there ‘fundamentals’ of faith?” Ben is unhappy with the choice of the word fundamentals and suggests that “it would be better to speak of the ‘identifying beliefs’ of Christian faith (i.e. beliefs which are essential to the identification of faith as Christian faith).” He then specifies what he considers to be the fundamental error of the fundamentalists:

The most serious error of the early fundamentalists was that they tried to turn faith into a law, into a set of doctrines that must be believed—but faith is only ever a matter of freedom and permission, not of law or obligation. That’s why I myself could never be comfortable using the term “fundamentals.”

So when Chris asks whether there are any true “fundamentals,” I would have to answer No. But perhaps instead of speaking of “fundamentals” (i.e. things that you have to believe in order to be a Christian), it would be better to speak of “identifying beliefs” of Christian faith (i.e. beliefs which are essential to the identification of faith as Christian faith). In this case, there’s no question of trying to impose certain beliefs on others or of turning certain doctrines into laws that must be obeyed, but only of describing those beliefs that distinctively mark out Christian communities and traditions from other communities and traditions.

I find myself in disagreement with Ben at this point, and not only because I am a Catholic. Let us, for the moment, restrict ourselves to the descriptive task of identifying beliefs and practices that distinguish Christian communities from other communities. Is it in fact not the case that the historic Christian communities have always insisted that specific doctrines must be believed if one is to belong to the visible Church? Traditionally, we call such imposed beliefs dogmas.

One doesn’t have to look very hard in the New Testament to find this dogmatic identification at work. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians and John’s 2nd Epistle immediately comes to mind:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8-9)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 7-11)

For the past two thousand years the Church has identified and defined doctrines that properly constitute faithful Christian communities. Christian communities have not hesitated to exclude from their fellowship individuals who deny tenets deemed critical to the identity and mission of the Church. This happens in two ways—either by refusing to baptize or by excommunication. Catholic communities traditionally look to the dogmatic decisions of the ecumenical councils of the first millenium as definitive for Christian identity—not exclusively, of course, for there are many critical Christian beliefs the Church has never found it necessary to define.

Ben argues that the Church is wrong to fundamentalize because it turns faith into law. Faith is always a freedom and permission, never a duty and obligation. The gospel of Jesus Christ comes to us as good news, as promise and gift: “Christ has destroyed sin and death for you. Believe! Leave behind your guilt, fear, and selfishness and enter into the new life of the Spirit.” This must be the first word of the Church, and it is a word of freedom and permission. But the gospel also comes to us as truth, as revealed truth and truths. This divine revelation invites and commands our assent. If the gospel is not true, if it is not grounded in truth, then it cannot be authentic promise and gift.

The Church is commanded by her Lord to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations. Hence she is always faced with the question “Is the gospel I am proclaiming the true gospel? Is it the same gospel as proclaimed by the Apostles?” To answer this question, she necessarily turns to the apostolic Tradition, embodied in Scripture, creed, liturgy, and dogma. And at this point Scripture, creed, liturgy, and dogma are functioning not just as sources for her proclamation but as authoritative norms for her proclamation—that is to say, they are functioning as law.

May the Church fundamentalize? She has always done so. Should the Church fundamentalize? How can she not do so if she believes she has been entrusted with the revelation of God? Dare the Church fundamentalize? Perhaps this is the critical question. How does she dare to define dogma and exclude sinners from her fellowship? She may do so only if she is convinced that the Holy Spirit is guiding her into all truth and will protect her from fundamental error.

23 March 2006


That every form Protestantism lives by private judgment in a way that neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy do seems almost self-evident to me, yet it is also clear that many intelligent Protestant believers do not see the difference. As one of our readers recently wrote: “There is no one thing called ‘private judgment.’ Everyone exercises their judgment in matters of faith in all sorts of ways. Protestants do exercise it more freely than Catholics or Orthodox, but I can’t see that there’s some huge qualitative chasm.” I have personally jumped over this chasm, or so it seemed to me; but why others cannot see it, I cannot say.

Looking back, it is unclear to me precisely what I was required to assent to as an Episcopalian, beyond a basic creedal faith. The Book of Common Prayer was supposed to be our guide; but given that both Zwinglians and Anglo-Catholics can happily live and pray within its liturgical world, its role as theological guide is minimal. When I was ordained, I was also required to affirm “the Old and Testaments to be the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation.” On the whole, though, Episcopalians are given a lot of latitude when it comes to believing. In the old days, clergy were required to subscribe to the 39 Articles. This subscription was controversial even back in Newman’s day. It was widely understood that the clerical subscription allowed a diversity of interpretation and degrees of assent. As Newman wrote to O’Neill Daunt, the Articles contain “some hundred propositions…. Hardly one of them is, to a Protestant, a matter of faith—only of opinion—yet they have to be signed by thousands. How can thousands agree in matter of opinion? impossible. Accordingly, it is not fair to charge it as an offence in the Anglican Clergy that they but loosely assent to the Articles. Nemo tenetur ad impossibile.” Since it is “difficult to draw the limits (and it is in doing this that consciences are wounded and scandal created),” Newman went on to say, “some elbow room must be allowed in the subscription.” The result: Anglican comprehensiveness.

But it is clear to every Anglican that he does not believe what Anglicanism teaches because Anglicanism teaches it. Assuming that we can actually identify what Anglicanism teaches, Anglicans believe Anglican doctrine because it accords with their reading of Holy Scripture, accords with their reading of the Church Fathers and ecumenical councils, accords with their reasonable assessment of the way of things, or some combination of the above. In other words, they assent or dissent to Anglican teaching according to their private judgment.

Anglicanism has often been ridiculed by both Catholics and Continental Protestants for its fuzziness and tolerance of excessive diversity. Perhaps it might be useful to contrast Anglicanism with a confessional form of Protestantism. The Lutheran Churches have historically required subscription to the various Lutheran confessions, the Augsburg Confession holding pride of place. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod requires its clergy to make an unconditional subscription to the formularies contained within the Book of Concord. Dr. C. F. W. Walther explains the significance of this subscription:

An unconditional subscription is the solemn declaration which the individual who wants to serve the church makes under oath (1) that he accepts the doctrinal content of our Symbolical Books, because he recognizes the fact that it is in full agreement with Scripture and does not militate against Scripture in any point, whether that point be of major or minor importance; (2) that he therefore heartily believes in this divine truth and is determined to preach this doctrine…. Whether the subject be dealt with expressly or only incidentally, an unconditional subscription refers to the whole content of the Symbols and does not allow the subscriber to make any mental reservation in any point. Nor will he exclude such doctrines as are discussed incidentally in support of other doctrines, because the fact that they are so stamps them as irrevocable articles of faith and demands their joyful acceptance by everyone who subscribes the Symbols.

This is a very strong statement. It almost sounds as if Walther is attributing an irreformable status to the formularies of the Book of Concord. This impression is strengthened if one reads Robert Preus’s article “Confessional Subscription.” After reading this article I better understand why Missouri Lutherans insist that they do not live by private judgment.

Lutherans distinguish between two kinds of subscription: quia subscription and quatenus subscription. The quia subscriber assents to the Lutheran confessions because they accord with the written Word of God. The quatenus subscriber assents to the Lutheran confessions insofar as they accord with the written Word of God. Quia subscribers think that the quatenus subscribers aren’t really subscribing to anything at all. Quatenus subscribers think that quia subscribers have elevated fallible churchly confessions above the authority of Holy Scripture. Both have a point.

As a Catholic I am sympathetic to the quia position; but its problems are serious. First, does any Protestant Church body have the moral right to demand an unconditional assent to its teachings? Only teachings that enjoy divine authority can claim such unconditional assent; but no Lutheran synod claims that its confessional interpretations of Holy Scripture are infallible, inerrant, and irreformable. Theoretically, therefore, Lutherans could change or abandon their doctrinal formularies if they were to decide that the formularies were mistaken. Newman saw this clearly when he declared that he would never again bind himself to “mere matter of opinion.” Conscience can surrender unconditionally only to “teaching which comes from God.”

Second, the demand for an unconditional assent to fallible formularies puts a terrible burden upon the subscriber. He must declare that he believes in the doctrinal content of the Book of Concord because it fully accords with the witness of Holy Scripture. I would think that such a declaration would require the subscriber not only to know his Bible backwards and forwards but also to be well acquainted with non-Lutheran exegesis, critically evaluated, before he’d be prepared to unconditionally assent to the Lutheran confessions. Surely this is beyond most mere mortals who are presenting themselves for ordination. Can the Lutheran really be certain that his interpretation of Scripture is superior to the Reformed or Catholic interpretation? And even if I am persuaded today that the formularies are correct, what about tomorrow? And there remains the hermeneutical problem: To what extent are the confessions guiding my reading of Holy Scripture as I seek to judge whether the confessions accurately state the authoritative teachings of Holy Scripture? If I’m wearing LC-MS spectacles, then it’s hardly surprising that I find the Bible to be Lutheran.

Third, does quia subscription to the Book of Concord prevent or forbid subscribers from entertaining fresh exegetical insights into Holy Scripture? Is the subscriber bound to confess that the views of N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn on justification are wrong because they contradict the Lutheran confessions? Is the subscriber forever precluded from reconsidering the Lutheran commitment to the eucharistic real presence in light of deeper exegesis? Do the confessions trump the Bible?

Fourth, who interprets the Book of Concord? Who decides whose interpretation of the confessions is correct? The pastors? the faculty of Concordia Seminary? all the baptized? As recently pointed out by Bill Tighe, the LC-MS authorizes the lay celebration of the Eucharist under specific conditions. Is this authorization in fact compatible with the confessions? Who has the authority to decide? And how do we know whose interpretation is correct?

Now consider the difference between confessional subscription and the Catholic assent to Church dogma (canon 750):

§1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

§2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firmly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

When a person is received into the Catholic Church, he declares: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

One dares, in good conscience, to tender one’s full and unconditional assent to the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church because one believes this teaching is protected by God from error.

O my God! I firmly believe all the sacred truths the Catholic Church believes and teaches, because thou hast revealed them, who canst neither deceive nor be deceived (Orestes Brownson).

Substitute “Episcopal Church” or “Lutheran Church” for “Catholic Church” in the above acclamation. Does the prayer get stuck in your craw? That’s private judgment.

28 March 2006


Two Lutheran bloggers have responded to my recent article “The Craw of Private Judgment.” Over at Balaam’s Ass (great title for a blog!), Timotheus offers a thoughtful and civil point-by-point critique. In particular, he is concerned to defend the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod quia subscription to the Book of Concord. In my article I raised the question, How can any Church require unconditional subscription to fallible, and therefore potentially revisable, doctrinal formularies? Timotheus does not really present an answer to my question. He simply notes the irony of a Catholic raising it:

Once again, the irony is palpable, at least from a Lutheran perspective. “Conscience can surrender unconditionally only to ‘teaching which comes from God'”? As far as I’ve read in the Scriptures, nowhere are Mary’s immaculate conception or her assumption into heaven mentioned. Clearly, then, Roman Catholics should not be “surrendering unconditionally” to those teachings. Now, I understand that they believe that the papal office is divinely instituted, so that, to their minds, such pronouncements are “teaching which comes from God,” but that’s one part of the canyon of difference between Rome and Wittenberg.

Yes, I agree that this is a significant difference between Rome and Wittenberg, but simply noting this difference does not resolve the moral problem created by a Church that requires unconditional assent to fallible, revisable doctrines. As a Catholic I believe in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary into Heaven because they are proposed to me as de fide dogmas, with the guarantee that these dogmas faithfully state divine revelation and are protected from error. If no such guarantee were attached, then it would be a violation of my conscience to assent to them unconditionally. The fact that neither doctrine is clearly and explicitly found in the Scriptures is irrelevant. The Catholic Church doesn’t teach sola scriptura—and of course, neither does the Bible. The deposit of faith is deeper than Holy Writ. Hence the declaration of the Second Vatican Council: “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.”

If I believed in sola scriptura, I probably wouldn’t believe in the Marian dogmas either. At the most I would only acknowlege them as pious opinions. But I am a Catholic and therefore am not bound to the Protestant assertion that all binding doctrines of the Church must have clear and overwhelming biblical support.

Timotheus then criticizes my claim that because the Lutheran formularies are fallible, and thus revisable, Lutherans are theoretically free to decide that their formularies are mistaken:

Lutherans would only “change or abandon their doctrinal formularies,” not if they decided that they were mistaken, but if it could be shown that they contradicted the Scriptures. That’s an important qualification. So far, 500 years have not shown the Confessions to be mistaken in their explication of the Scriptures. Until they are shown to be in conflict with the Scriptures, the Confessions must be subscribed in a quia fashion for anyone who claims to be a Lutheran pastor.

I think I see the point Timotheus is making, but it seems inconsequential. If Lutherans were to determine that their formularies contradicted the Scriptures, would they not also be admitting that their formularies are in error? But Timotheus doesn’t think this will happen. After all, the Book of Concord has survived five hundred years, and no one has yet demonstrated that they are contrary to Scripture. And here’s the quia catch! Ordained Lutheran pastors of the Missouri Synod have each taken a solemn oath to interpret and preach the Scriptures by the doctrinal norms of the Book of Concord. Hence the only way they could ever challenge these doctrinal norms—in the name of Scripture—is by ceasing to be Lutherans or at least Lutheran pastors. It is understandable, therefore, why non-Missouri Lutheran synods only require a quatenus subscription to the Lutheran confessions. Quatenus subscription respects conscience and leaves open the possibility that the fallible, historically-conditioned formularies of the 16th centuries might be re-evaluated in light of fresh biblical exegesis and reflection.

It might also be pointed out that both confessional Reformed and Catholic Christians challenge, at different points, the LC-MS claim that the Lutheran confessions do not contradict the biblical witness. The Lutheran, of course, thinks he’s got the better side of the argument, but no matter how persuaded he might be, he cannot rightly claim irreformability for his confessions. There’s always the possibility that he might be wrong. If he wants irreformable dogma, then he’ll just have to come over to the Catholic playground.

In response to my statement that a person reading the Bible through the lens of the Book of Concord will undoubtedly find the Bible to be a Lutheran book, Timotheus writes:

Again, if I’m wearing Roman Catholic spectacles, then it’s hardly suprising that I find the Bible to be Roman Catholic. To what extent is the Magisterium guiding my reading of Holy Scripture as I seek to judge when the Magisterium accurately states the authoritative teachings of Holy Scripture? I don’t see any way around this. We all read with our own “spectacles.” There is some appeal to conscience here, because no one can be forced to adopt one set of spectacles or another. But speaking personally, I’m going to be a Lutheran pastor because I find the Lutheran Confessions to be aligned with the Scriptures in a way that no other tradition’s documents do.

But Timotheus here overlooks the critical difference. The Catholic reads the Scriptures through a divinely authorized and infallible hermeneutical lens. The Lutheran reads the Scriptures through a humanly authorized and fallible hermeneutical lens. The Catholic receives his spectacles from God, mediated by the divinely inspired Magisterium of the Church. The Lutheran selects his spectacles from a Protestant shelf full of different kinds of glasses, choosing the one that best accords with his personal preferences and his private reading of Scripture.

Meanwhile, over at Three Hierarchies, Chris Atwood thinks he’s finally figured out what the private judgment fuss is all about. He explains:

After reading this comment box exchange at “Pontifications,” followed up by this post, I think I know what is the real point of all this “private judgment” talk. Since it is rolls off the back of most Evangelical and Reformed believers like water off a duck, I’ve never understood why its proponents think it such a big gun. But observing the context in which it is rolled out, I think I see against whom it works like a thunderclap: against persons in Protestant churches who have manufactured a private understanding of what their church believes (usually in an “evangelical catholic” or “Anglo-Catholic” direction) and are then rudely brought face to face with the fact that their church as a body does not actually teach that. Since of course, most of the big proponents of the “private judgment” argument spent time as committed “evangelical catholics/Anglo-Catholics” in Reformation churches, they naturally feel its force.

In other words, the private judgment concern is only a concern for those who find themselves living in a denomination that does not formally teach everything they think their denomination should or must teach or is teaching things contrary to what they think their denomination should or must teach. Those who do not feel this conflict of course do not comprehend the force of the private judgment argument. Referencing Pastor Fenton’s article “The Frustrations of Self-determination,” Atwood comments:

Just saw this post, in which Pastor Fenton complains of “self-determination,” in ways that make it clear he is feeling the emotional tensions of the “private judgment” charge. But note that the real basis of it is not some irreducible fact of Protestant identity, but the fact that he just disagrees with the decisions of the LCMS and yet remains in the church. If he agreed with the LCMS, he wouldn’t feel that way, and the question of “self-determination” would be about as disturbing to his ecclesiastical identity as the curious fact that both he and the Pope put on their trousers one leg at a time.

Dr Atwood is correct. If one is happily situated either in a denomination that teaches everything one thinks it should teach, and nothing more, or in a denomination that does not impose beliefs upon its members, then it is unlikely that one will ever experience the crisis of private judgment. The generation of this crisis typically requires the violation of conscience. Atwood’s psychological theory, however, does not touch the deeper issue raised by the private judgment argument—namely, the distinction between revealed doctrine and theological opinion.

2 April 2006


Rod Dreher’s recent announcement that he is seriously considering leaving Catholicism and entering into the communion of the Orthodox Church is receiving great attention in the blogosphere. Michael Liccione observes that Dreher is giving voice to what a number of Catholics and non-Catholics think: “If the Catholic Church is who and what she says she is, then why is she so messed up?” He concludes that lack of holiness is the single “most effective argument against the truth of the Catholic faith.”

I have to register my partial disagreement with Michael. In my judgment the existence of suffering is the single most powerful argument against the truth of the Catholic faith. It is suffering that tempts me to disbelief, not the scandals of the Church. If God the Holy Trinity truly exists, then how can there be so much terrible suffering and destruction in the world? Where is God? How can he permit it? Can the gospel be true when the good and loving creator of the universe allows the slaughter of tens of thousands in Rwanda and the Sudan?

Somehow those of us who believe find that we still believe, must believe, despite the horrific reality of suffering and destruction in God’s good universe.

But what about the evil that is present in the Church, committed by the Church? Does not this evil witness equally against the truth of the gospel? Perhaps. I can understand someone refusing to believe the truth of the Christian faith because of the unholiness of Christians. The Christian faith makes remarkable claims about Christian life. Christians are supposed to be a people who have died and risen with Christ and are reborn in the Spirit. They are supposed to be a people who have been given a new heart for God and who delight in obeying his will. They are supposed to be ontologically different. How then is it possible that Christians are so often as morally compromised as their secular neighbors? This is a true scandal to the world and an obstacle to faith. Yet we who believe find that we still believe, must believe, despite the sinfulness of our fellow Christians and despite our own personal sinfulness and moral failures.

Who of us have not betrayed our faith and brought scandal upon the Church of Jesus Christ? Who of us will not stand before the Holy God at the Great Assize with blood on our hands? Who of us are not guilty of driving away neighbors, friends, acquaintances, and family from the Church and the faith of Christ? We rightly expect the clerics of the Church to exhibit exemplary holiness and fidelity; but are we truly surprised, should we be surprised, when we find that these men are as weak and iniquitous as we ourselves? As Johann Adam Möhler observed, the Church’s priests and bishops do not fall from the skies: “she must take them out of the description of men that the age can furnish.”

I do not intend by these comments to minimize the evil and criminality of those priests who have sexually abused boys and girls entrusted to their care and of the bishops who protected and enabled them. Moral outrage, protest, and reform of the Church is the only proper response to these crimes.

I do not deny that a believer might lose his faith in light of these crimes. Faith is a mystery, as is the loss of faith. But the wise counsel of St Francis de Sales is surely appropriate here:

Those who commit scandals are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder by destroying other people’s faith in God by their terrible example…. But I’m here among you to prevent something far worse for you. While those who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, those who take scandal—who allow scandals to destroy their faith—are guilty of spiritual suicide!

Rightly did Dorothy L. Sayers state that the eternal Son of God has endured three great humiliations in his rescue of humanity: the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Church.

But Mr. Dreher, himself a convert to Catholicism, has not lost his faith in Christ. He has lost his faith in the Catholic Church and is thus entertaining the abandonment of her communion. Mr. Dreher offers three reasons for his possible decision to depart from Catholicism: “complete burnout over the Catholic sex-abuse scandal,” the undermining and rejection of Catholic faith and practice at the parish level, and concern for the spiritual welfare of his children. Yet as emotionally compelling as these reasons are, I do not understand how they rationally justify a departure from Catholicism to either Orthodoxy or Protestantism. Turpitude, corruption, betrayal, and heresy are universal in all Christian denominations; but the degree of such varies from culture to culture, generation to generation. Is it reasonable to judge a two thousand-year-old transnational institution on the basis of a minority of American Catholics in the late twentieth century?

I have great sympathy for Dreher’s struggles, and I pray God will direct him in his future decisions. Hence it is best to depersonalize the discussion at this point and simply speak of any Catholic who presently finds himself tempted to leave the Catholic Church and join a non-Catholic Church.

Newman the convert is instructive here. Newman offended many when he wrote in his Apologia: “There are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other.” Or as he wrote to Mrs. Froude almost twenty years earlier, “There is really no medium between scepticism and Catholicism.”

A hundred and fifty years ago Newman clearly saw that the ideology of modernity must, logically and inevitably, lead to relativism, skepticism, and atheism. He also saw that the claims of a historically-given divine revelation cannot be rationally defended against modernity in the absence of a divinely-directed institution that can infallibly identify the content of the divine revelation. As Newman put it so well in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine: “A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.” Newman became convinced that the Catholic Church, the communion of churches gathered around the bishop of Rome, did in fact enjoy this divine authority and charism to accurately identify and proclaim the apostolic revelation. Hence Newman’s famous words in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “We must take things as they are; to believe in a Church, is to believe in the Pope.”

Newman’s logic is compelling and inexorable. If the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ, then we must believe in the Catholic Church, or give up Christianity altogether. Or as Newman wrote to William Todd in 1850: “To deny Catholicism is logically to deny religion.”

The scandal of Catholicism is revealed. The Catholic Church is not just one Christian denomination among many. As Vatican II declared, “The Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government.” Hence the Council Fathers insisted on the salvific necessity of the Catholic Church:

Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, [this Sacred Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. (Lumen gentium 14; emphasis added)

Thus Newman would emphatically urge his correspondents who were seriously contemplating conversion to the Catholic Church, to count the cost, including the cost of intellectual submission. “Can you accept as from God whatever the Catholic Roman Church has taught and shall teach?” he asked one Archibald MacCall. To a Miss Rowe he wrote, “The prime, I may say the only reason for becoming a Catholic, is that the Roman Communion is the only True Church, the Ark of Salvation.” “Let no one make a Catholic of you,” he counseled Mrs. Helbert, “TILL you can say with me ‘I believe all that the Church formally teaches to be the very word of God, revealed by His Son, transmitted by Him to His Apostles and committed to the Church after them.’ This you must believe. What the Church in Ecumenical Council declares or has declared is final; and this is the sacrifice which you must make of your reason.” To Miss Phillips he wrote, “It is quite true that the Catholic Church claims absolute submission to her in matters of faith—Unless you believe her doctrines, as the word of God revealed to you through her, you can gain no good by professing to be a Catholic—you are not one really.”

Richard John Neuhaus has repeatedly asserted that the decisive difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the Church as object of faith:

Cardinal Ratzinger some years ago remarked that the difference between Protestant and Catholic sensibility is that for a Catholic, the act of faith in Christ and the Church is one act of faith, not two acts of faith; whereas for the Protestant, typically, the act of faith in Christ is one act of faith and an act of faith in the Church is a very subordinate, secondary, tertiary question that may never in fact get addressed.

This formulation—“the act of faith in Christ and the Church is one act of faith”—helpfully states, I think, the understanding of Newman. Christ is so united to his ecclesial body that surrender to the Church is surrender to Christ, for the Church is the “oracle of Christ.” She dogmatically speaks in his name, with his authority, under the guidance, direction, and protection of his Holy Spirit. Hence Newman can provocatively and offensively insist: “A man may inquire before he is a Catholic, he may not after.”

May not inquire? What kind of fundamentalist nonsense is this? The offense is only muted slightly when we observe that “inquire” here means the pursuance of doubt. The pursuance of doubt is, for Newman, a hallmark of Protestantism. In 1850 he wrote to William Todd:

I agree with you that grace is received in schismatical portions of the Church (I am not allowing here that the English Establishment is a portion of the Church, i.e. has the Sacraments,) by those who are in involuntary ignorance; but directly a person begins to doubt, he is bound to pursue his doubt. An Anglican has no excuse for not pursuing his doubt. His Church bids him inquire. I bid you to bring passages from the formularies of the divines of your Church bidding you exercise that absolute submission of reason which the Catholic Church injoins. On the contrary the article expressly says that every particular Church has erred, (I forget the wording.)—In trying the truth of your Church, you are but obeying her invitation. And the one idea of religious dutifulness in the Anglican Church, is inquiry, and rules are continually given it in religious books how we ought to conduct it. What warrant then have you to quench doubt? nature does not teach—nor your Church—who? the private decision of this man or that, whom you have taken for your guide.

To be Catholic is to refuse to doubt the de fide teachings of the Catholic Church, for to doubt these teachings is to doubt Christ himself: “It is, then, perfectly true, that the Church does not allow her children to entertain any doubt of her teaching; and that, first of all, simply for this reason, because they are Catholics only while they have faith, and faith is incompatible with doubt. No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God’s name, is God’s word, and therefore true. A man must simply believe that the Church is the oracle of God; he must be as certain of her mission, as he is of the mission of the Apostles” (“Faith and Doubt”).

It is hard for me to think of anything more scandalous today than the Catholic proscription of doubt. The great project of modernity has been the liberation of conscience from the authoritative witness of the Church, and it has done so by encouraging skepticism and the rejection of all dogma. As Newman acutely perceived, this project must logically conclude in atheism. If the Church does not speak for God and thus cannot rightly command our assent, then we are left to ourselves to invent our own religion, our own morality, our own story. The story of the Church has been replaced by the story of private judgment and freedom. As Stanley Hauerwas observes:

The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy…. The story of freedom has now become our fate.

Hauerwas has accurately diagnosed the problem; but he has not seen that the only solution is the one that God has provided—a community that authoritatively presents us with the infallible teaching of God. The name of that community is the Catholic Church.

We return to the problem that provoked this article—namely, the Catholic who is tempted to abandon the communion of his Church because of her scandals. This is an impossible possibility. A Catholic can only seriously entertain this possibility by stepping outside the circle of faith. At that moment he has ceased to believe. At that moment he has placed his immortal soul in peril.

8 May 2006


“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

I thought of this verse when I read Rod Dreher’s apologia for his conversion to Orthodoxy. I had heard about Dreher’s reception into the Orthodox Church shortly after it occurred, but I refrained from publicly commenting on it, hoping that he would himself refrain from publicly commenting on it. But he has announced his decision and declared his reasons for leaving the Catholic Church, and now Catholic blogdom is astir.

I wrote two articles back in May when Mr. Dreher announced that he was exploring Orthodoxy: “Ten Thousand Scandals Do Not Make One Doubt” and “Dare We Entrust Our Children to the Catholic Church?” In light of Dreher’s departure from the Catholic Church, I only have one question: Was he in fact a Catholic? I do not have access to Dreher’s heart and soul, and I certainly do not condemn him for his decision. I regret that he has left the Catholic Church, and I grieve the sins of the Church that led him to renounce the divine authority of the Vicar of Christ. I pray that I may never be so tested.

My interest at this point is purely theoretical. How are we to understand a person who enters into the communion of the Catholic Church and then departs from that communion? John Henry Newman raises precisely this question in his Grammar of Assent:

A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.” Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.

To become Catholic, to be Catholic, is to surrender one’s private judgment to the magisterial teaching of the Church. It is to believe that what the Church teaches and will teach as belonging to the deposit of revelation is from God. One may investigate the rational grounds for de fide dogmas; but one may not doubt them nor inquire whether or not they may be true. As Newman remarks, a Catholic “cannot be both inside and outside of the Church at once.”

I wonder how many priests and RCIA instructors understand what Catholic assent is. I wonder how many converts to Catholicism have been instructed in the irrevocable, definitive, full assent to magisterial teaching that is being asked of them when they enter into the communion of the Catholic Church.

14 October 2006

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