Monday, 28 April 2014

When Is a Church Council Not Infallible?

"In many places, [the Fathers at Vatican II] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict and open the door to a selective reception in either direction."
Cardinal Walter Kasper,  L'Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013.

When is a church council not infallible? This is not a question that keeps Lutherans awake at night, since we hold that church councils may indeed err and have done so in the past - it is not the church that is infallible but God and his Word. Lutherans would rather say the church is indefectible - it will last until the Last Day - in accordance with Christ's promise in Matthew 16:18b: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (a belief given expression in Grundtvig's well known hymn). But thoughtful Roman Catholics might be troubled by the admission last year of Cardinal Walter Kasper (former head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) that compromise statements were written into the documents of the Second Vatican Council (hereafter Vatican II) in order to placate otherwise irreconcilable camps in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

"So what?" you might ask, "isn't that a mark of human deliberations?" Indeed, but here's the problem: according to Roman Catholic teaching the bishops of the church meeting in council with the pope at their head constitute an extraordinary level of the church's magisterium or teaching office whose teachings on faith and morals, once promulgated by the pope, are infallible and therefore require the full assent of the faithful.*

But how can the teaching of a document be infallible if the bishops themselves disagreed on its content to the extent that compromises which reflected not just ambiguities but different doctrinal positions had to be written into it? In the Bible, God's prophets and apostles did not speak out of both sides of their mouths - why would their supposed successors do so? How can the faithful give their full assent to the teaching contained therein if the bishops themselves could not and if the documents actually contain contradictory positions, as the cardinal implies?

It is no wonder that, according to the cardinal, these compromises opened the door to the conflict and division - not to mention the outright crisis of the precipitous decline in priestly and religious vocations and participation in the sacramental life of lay Catholics - that has racked the Roman church ever since (which, it is lately hoped, Pope Francis can heal, although in attempting to do so he seems to be adding to the confusion). It is also no wonder that traditionalist Roman Catholics, according to their lights, regard Vatican II as indeed not infallible and thus by definition a false council...nay, even a robber council through which a strange spirit has taken hold of their church. The times are indeed strange when confessional Lutherans and traditionalist Roman Catholics find themselves in agreement!

Now, to answer our question: when is a church council not infallible? Well, there are several things a Lutheran would offer in response, but apropos the cardinal's remarks I will just say that self-evidently a council cannot be infallible if the bishops do not speak with one heart (concordia!). So much for the oft vaunted magisterium of the Roman church, which has more than once been proposed to me as the solution to what ails Lutheranism and a panacea for those seeking religious certainty.

* Someone contacted me overnight to query if this was correct. The definition of the authority of the magisterium meeting in an ecumenical council can be found in the Roman canon law [Canon 749.2]. It is true that there are many educated Catholics, even priests and religious and perhaps also bishops for all I know, who opine that Vatican II was a pastoral council, not a dogmatic one, and that therefore its documents "only" speak with the authority of the ordinary magisterium, or indeed even less authority - presumably something akin to the magisterium cathedrae magistralis of the theology professors of the middle ages whose proposals could be debated and dissented from in good conscience (this second, more liberal interpretation is certainly erroneous). The origin of this somewhat artificial distinction, which has not been applied to any previous ecumenical council recognised by Roman Catholics, appears to be a personal statement by Pope Paul VI the exact meaning of which is debated. The main problem, as I see it, with designating Vatican II as a "pastoral council" is what exactly does this innovative designation mean? Sound pastoral counsel rests on the dogmatic foundation of the faith and includes doctrinal instruction - Catholics and Lutherans can agree on that. Furthermore, the most important document of Vatican II is Lumen Gentium - the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church and the next in importance is Dei Verbum - the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; are we to regard these as "pastoral documents" and not authoritaive promulgations of Roman dogma?

It is true the other 14 documents of the council - the most notable of which are Sacrosanctum Concilium (liturgy)Unitatis Redintegratio (ecumenism) , Nostra Aetate (non-Christian religions) and Gaudium et Spes (pastoral constitution of the church), focus on more practical questions of church life, but these documents also are informed by and inform their readers of the Roman church's doctrinal teachings. No, the "pastoral council" designation, while it may reflect the spirit which supposedly animated Vatican II, is too inexact for what was, according to both John XXIII who opened it and Paul VI who closed it, the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. But let us give the final word on the Roman view of the authority of ecumenical councils to noted Roman Catholic philosopher Ralph McInerny:

"The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out the infallibility of an ecumenical council:
"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the Faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to Faith or morals.... 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.
Consequently, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are the official teachings of the Church. That is why the more than thirty years that have passed since the close of the council are evaluated by the Church in the light of the council. That is why Paul VI and John Paul II have regarded their papacies as dedicated to the implementation of what was decided during those fateful three years of the council. That is why rejecting the council is simply not an option for Catholics."
Ralph McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II? (Sophia, Manchester, NH, 1998)


Next month, God willing, we'll continue to focus on issues that stem from Roman claims to infallibility, considering another logical contradiction from the pages of recent church history and also the doctrine's relation to religious certainty.

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