Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Are Ecumenical Councils Infallible?

"I put no trust in the mere authority of the pope or the councils, since it is obvious that they have often been mistaken and have contradicted each other." Martin Luther, before the Diet of Worms, 1521.

Are Ecumenical Councils infallible? Every Evangelical knows the answer given to that question by Martin Luther. The church may err, it has done so in the past, and may do again, and yet the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. For the Lutheran, infallibility is not a special charism granted to this or that office in the church, but a promise that the light of the Gospel will never be fully dimmed within her ranks (more properly termed the church's indefectibility). But in Rome's eyes Ecumenical Councils are infallible; at least that's what I always thought. Imagine my surprise then when a Roman Catholic wrote to tell me it was not so!

Yes, a Roman Catholic wrote to me off-blog to say that my point in the previous post titled 'Infallible?' about the Roman Magisterium contradicting itself and thus committing a formal error of logic as well as an error on a substantive matter of faith was null and void, since the document Lumen Gentium is not infallible. Now, I realise that this is a common view among Roman Catholics, and indeed it is perhaps the only way a contemporary, thinking Catholic can meet the theological and historical difficulties posed by the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope and the Catholic Church. But I beg to differ on the question of the infallibility of the teaching contained in the document. It seems to me that infallibility - protection from error - is precisely what the Roman Catholic Church claims in regard to church councils, where their bishops are viewed as exercising the charism of their infallible teaching power in an extraordinary manner (as opposed to the ordinary manner, when they teach authoritatively in their dioceses).

Let us remind ourselves once again of what Lumen Gentium actually says on the subject: "The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an Ecumenical Council." Lumen Gentium 25, [italics mine]. Indeed, I would contend that it was one of the goals of Vatican II to vest the charism of infallibility more solidly in the church as a counter-balance to the very strong claims made for the infallibility of the Papacy in the Vatican I document The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ.

However, this view - the infallibility of church councils - was certainly de fide even before Vatican II defined it in this manner. Consider what Ludwig Ott writes in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, a standard dogmatics text from the immediate pre-Vatican II period:

The Council of Trent also teaches that the Bishops are the successors of the Apostles (D 960); and so does the Vatican Council [ I ] (D 1828). As successors of the Apostles they are the pastors and teachers of the faithful (D 1821). As official teachers of the faith, they are endowed with the active infallibility assured to the incumbents of the Church teaching office.
Two forms of the activity of the teaching office of the whole Episcopate are distinguished - an extraordinary form and an ordinary one.
a) The Bishops exercise their infallible teaching power in extraordinary manner at a general or ecumenical council. It is in the decisions of the General Councils that the teaching activity of the whole teaching body instituted by Christ is most decisively exercised.
It has been the constant teaching of the Church from the earliest times that the resolutions of the General Councils are infallible. St Athanasius says of the Decree on faith of the Nicene Council: 'The words of the Lord which were spoken by the General Council of Nicea, remain in eternity' (Ep. ad Afros 2). St. Gregory the Great recognises and honours the first four General Councils as much as the Four Gospels; he makes the fifth equal to them (Ep. I 25) . . .
b) The Bishops exercise their infallible teaching power in an ordinary manner when they, in their dioceses, in moral unity with the Pope, unanimously promulgate the same teachings on faith and morals. The Vatican Council [ I ] expressly declared that also the truths of Revelation proposed as such by the ordinary and general teaching office of the Church are to be firmly held with 'divine and catholic faith' (D 1792) . . ."
[Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, tr. Patrick Lynch, Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur granted, The Mercier Press, 1955].

It might be gainsaid that Lumen Gentium is not a dogmatic pronouncement. It is true that it does not formally set forth dogmatic pronouncements with the usual formulae, nor does it contain any anathemas, in accordance with Pope John XIII's goal that the Council be a pastoral one, but it contains no shortage of dogmatic assertions, including the one quoted in my original post, which are clearly intended to teach and guide the faithful. In further defence of our claim, we note that the document's formal title is Dogmatic Constitution on the Church , and that it is most definitely a teaching document set forth by "Paul, Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God, Together with the Fathers of the Sacred Council for Everlasting Memory", and it concludes with these words, "Each and all these items which are set forth in this dogmatic Constitution have met with the approval of the Council Fathers. And We by the apostolic power given Us by Christ together with the Venerable Fathers in the Holy Spirit, approve, decree and establish it and command that what has thus been decided in the Council be promulgated for the glory of God." We can only suggest that if such confusion as to the status of documents like this reigns even within Roman Catholicism, it might be advisable henceforth for the Holy Father and his bishops to explicitly state when a teaching is infallible, and when it is not.

One other possible objection to my point would be to claim that Boniface VIII's statement was not pronounced ex cathedra, and thus is not vested with infalliblity. I'm inclined to view this objection as a case of special pleading. I've already noted in that post the solemn formula which precedes the statement, and asked if it is not infallible, what is? Indeed, if this were a valid objection, we might well be justified in referring to papal infallibility as "the incredible shrinking dogma".


Matthias said...

Hey pastor I note that the Roman catholic you speak to has placed his comments and your 'banning' of him on his blog.
I was not going to blogwrite ,as i have high regard for your correspondent-as does Schutz- but belief in the inflallibility of the Bishops,eve if now discounted, ,and with deepest respect to our Brother,highlights the humanism that crept into the Church. The Bible is the infallible and inerrant Word of God,inspired by the Holy Spirit,and many churchmen were also inspired ,but they were and are sinners saved by Grace,and we will only be perfect and infallible in the Presence of the Risen and Returned Lord,whenever that will be-as i ain't no dispensationalist

M.A. Henderson said...

Actually, Wayne, it was another Roman Catholic who contacted me. As for 'Cardinal Pole', what he does on his own blog is his prerogative, but his tone will have to improve if he wants his comments to appear here, and I would prefer it if he identified himself to me. Just as there are some things I wouldn't tolerate in my house, so there are some things I won't tolerate here at the virtual manse, like rudeness and pomposity.