Friday, 30 April 2010

Infallibility: The Incredible Shrinking Doctrine

"...each individual church should be the keeper of her sisters. To know this is the beginning of true ecumenicity." Hermann Sasse (1895-1976) 'Thoughts on the Centenary of the First Vatican Council', Reformed Theological Review, 29.2, May-August 1970.

I once knew a Lutheran pastor who converted to Rome. The driving force in his conversion, if I understood his position correctly, was the guarantee provided by what he had come to believe was the infallibility of the teaching office, or Magisterium, of the Roman Church, which meant that when the bishops gathered in council with the Pope at their head and defined church teaching, or in extraordinary cases when the Pope himself spoke authoritatively (ex cathedra, lit. from his seat or chair as successor of Peter) on a matter of faith or morals, the matter was closed: Roma locuta est, causa finita est - Rome has spoken, the case is closed!

"Scripture is self-evidently not a clear or sufficient authority", this Lutheran pastor reasoned, "since sincere Christians who follow scripture alone come to different conclusions on matters of faith. Where, then, is one to find certainty?". “Ah, look to Rome, young man” was the advice he was given by a prominent former Anglican priest who had already swum the Tiber, “and you will find the certainty which you seek”. And look to Rome the young pastor did, with the bright-eyed fervour that only a new convert can muster.
“So, if the Pope declared tomorrow that women could be ordained”, I once asked him, since that matter was the occasion of his initial doubts about the truth of the Lutheran position on scripture, “you would accept it without question?” “Yes” was his immediate response. "Even if it contradicted your present understanding of what scripture teaches?" I replied, incredulous. "Yes, I must submit my private judgment to the Magisterium of the Church", was his almost immediate reply, punctuated with only the slightest perceptible hesitation as his mind was presumably weighing up just what was at stake. My diary notes indicate I left off the discussion at that point - it is pointless to argue with such blind faith.

But some recent comments I have received off-blog from a life-long Roman Catholic suggest my erstwhile friend and colleague was incorrectly advised. Infallible pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Magisterium, I have been assured, are extremely rare, so rare that no more than two, or at most five doctrinal definitions meet the criteria set down for such pronouncements. I have to say I am not convinced by this argument. As I wrote in the last blog post on this subject, I can understand why modern Roman Catholics, even ostensibly conservative ones, push this line of thinking and even sincerely believe it; it is probably the only way they can meet the historical and theological difficulties inherent in the doctrine. But it does seem to render the doctrine practically useless - if there is no agreement even among Catholic theologians (or bishops?!) on which pronouncements or documents are infallible and which are not, how does this help the ordinary Catholic in the pews navigate her way through the doctrinal and moral maze of post-modernity? Infallibility is, after all, not an abstract question of interest only to theologians, it is an eminently practical matter.

The most well-known modern case of the perplexities this intra-Roman confusion over the status of papal and magisterial pronouncements gives rise to among the ordinary Roman faithful is the 1968 official teaching document Humanae Vitae, in which Pope Paul VI solemnly taught that contraception, even when practiced by married couples, was unlawful, evil and to be condemned. This teaching was variously received: some still contend it is infallible (for argument’s sake, I’m inclined to agree with them!), while others insist it is not and therefore loyal Catholics may in good conscience dissent from it, both in theory and practice, without their status as communicant members in good standing with the church being jeopardised - and the anecdotal evidence is that many...very many, do dissent. And once uncertainty as to the status of the Pope’s teaching is fostered or allowed, as more than a few Roman bishops, theologians, priests, teachers and lay intellectuals have done in the post-Vatican II period, the much-vaunted unity of the Roman Church that Protestant converts praise so highly in the delirium of their conversion begins to unravel into tatters like a flag that has flown too long in the wind. That is precisely the position Rome is in today, especially in the West, as the present Pope has admitted, but also in formerly traditional Roman strongholds like Central and South America where liberalism, evangelicalism and the revival of animism threaten to render traditional Catholicism irrelevant (the crisis the present Pope faces because of the ever increasing reports of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy has exacerbated these problems, challenging as it does the credibility of the church in peoples' eyes, but we will leave that aside for the moment as a separate issue).

But as interesting as the present-day fortunes of the Roman church are, that is a subject for another post. What I want to focus on presently is the question of whether the view put to me by my RC interlocutor, which might be called the 'minimalist position on infallibility', is historically accurate and theologically defensible if one claims to accept the Roman Catholic position on authority. To determine whether this is so, we need to go back to Vatican I, where the doctrine of infallibility was officially asserted.

-- + --

To be continued.

No comments: