Everything You wanted to know the Infallibility of the Catholic Church but were afraid to ask about - Part 7

Further along this theme, another resource on infallibility.

source



UNDERSTANDING THE INFALLIBILITY TEACHING

Are Catholics under the impression that unless a doctrine is infallibly  taught, they 
don't have to abide by it?

By Russell Shaw

 By declaring that the doctrine barring women's ordination as priests has  been taught 
infallibly, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cited the  infallibility 
of the "ordinary and universal magisterium." Quite apart from the women's ordination 
issue,  that was an unusual, important and widely misunderstood step.

 Many people seem to have thought the Nov. 18 statement was referring to  papal 
infallibility. That was the case, for example, with The New Republic, in an editorial  
criticizing the Vatican. Even Catholic News Service moved a story reporting that the 
doctrinal  congregation said the doctrine on women's ordination "has been taught 
'infallibly,' by Pope John Paul  II."

 That isn't exactly what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith  said. The 
congregation did not speak of papal infallibility. It said the teaching on women's  
ordination "has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium."

 The distinction -- between papal infallibility and the infallibility of  the "ordinary and 
universal magisterium" -- is important. But because relatively little has been said  about 
the latter -- even the Vatican has been mum about it up to now -- the distinction isn't  
widely understood.

What it means

 Most people have some idea of what papal infallibility means. That dogma,  defined 
by the First Vatican Council and Pope Pius IX in 1870, affirms that God preserves the  
pope from error when he definitively teaches a doctrine of faith or morals.

 The dogma of papal infallibility was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican  Council (1962-
1965) in <Lumen Gentium> (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). Here, the  
council also made several other crucial points.

 One is that infallibility is essentially a gift of God to the Church.  When the pope 
teaches infallibly, one might say, he is exercising this divine gift on the Church's behalf.  
The same thing is true, the council remarks, when the pope and bishops convened in an 
ecumenical  council join in a solemn teaching act.

 Another important point made by Vatican II concerns the infallibility of  the "ordinary 
magisterium" -- that is, the teaching authority of bishops in union with  the pope, 
exercised in "ordinary" acts of teaching outside an ecumenical council.

 Not everything taught by bishops in union with the pope is infallibly  taught, but some 
things are. Section 25 of <Lumen Gentium> explains when.

 "Taken individually," it says, bishops "do not enjoy the privilege of  infallibility." Yet, 
under certain circumstances, they do "proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ."

 As written in <Lumen Gentium>, that is so "when, even though  dispersed throughout 
the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's successor  
[the pope] the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters 
of faith  and morals, they [the bishops] are in agreement that a particular teaching is to 
be held  definitively and absolutely."

 The Second Vatican Council teaching states that four conditions must be  met for an 
infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium of bishops around the world. These  are:

 1. That the bishops be in communion with one another and with the pope.

 2. That they teach authoritatively on a matter of faith or morals.

 3. That they agree in one judgment.

 4. That they propose this as something to be held definitively by the  faithful.

Conditions met

 In appealing to the infallibility of "the ordinary and universal  magisterium," in its 
Nov. 18 statement, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith implicitly was  saying 
these conditions are met in the case of the teaching that women cannot be ordained as  
priests. The statement cited <Lumen Gentium>.

 The doctrinal congregation did not develop this argument. Presumably,  though, it was 
making the point that, whenever in the history of the Church the question of  ordaining 
women as priests has come up, bishops with virtual -- though not necessarily absolute -
-  unanimity have taken the position that it simply cannot be done because it is contrary 
to the will  of Christ.

 Not much has been said about the infallibility of the ordinary  magisterium since 
Vatican II adopted and Pope Paul VI approved <Lumen Gentium> in 1964. For  
obvious reasons, this is not a doctrine dissenting theologians call attention to. Even the 
Vatican has  said very little about it, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church barely 
alludes to it (see no. 891).

 In 1978, however, two American moral theologians -- Jesuit Father John  Ford and 
Germain Grisez -- published what is probably the most important theological  article to 
date analyzing and applying Vatican II's doctrine.

 The article, in the journal Theological Studies, argued at length that  the teaching that 
every act of contraception is intrinsically wrong has been proposed infallibly by the  
ordinary magisterium.

 In reaching this conclusion, Father Ford and Grisez traced the history of  the teaching 
on contraception over many centuries and examined the manner in which it was  
proposed by countless bishops in their individual exercise of teaching authority.

 Even if a substantial number of bishops now or at some time in the future  were to be 
doubtful about the teaching or not accept it, that would have no bearing on the  fact 
that the conditions for infallible teaching already have been met, they argued.

 The Father Ford-Grisez thesis has not been widely embraced by  theologians, and the 
Vatican officially has not said anything about it. But their argument, though  
challenged or ignored by dissenters, has never been refuted. And, as they pointed out 
at the time,  the same argument, if correct, applies not only to contraception but also to 
many other matters  taught by the ordinary magisterium.

 In a Nov. 24 address to members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of  the Faith, 
Pope John Paul expressed regret that many Catholics apparently think they are at  
liberty to dismiss doctrines they don't agree with unless it is formally stated that they 
are  infallibly proposed.

 Different teachings do have different degrees of authority, he said. But  he added, 
"That does not authorize people to think that pronouncements and doctrinal decisions 
of  the magisterium require irrevocable assent only when it presents them with a 
solemn judgment or  definitive act."

 The Pope's regret was well-founded. Apparently, the Vatican concluded  that nothing 
less than invoking infallibility would put an end to pressure for women's  ordination -- 
and it remains to be seen whether even that will work.

 In basing its case against ordaining women on the infallibility of the  ordinary 
magisterium, however, the Vatican has made use of a tool with many other applications  
besides this one. When, whether and in what context it will use the tool again are 
weighty  questions.

Shaw is Our Sunday Visitor's Washington correspondent and director of  public 
information for the Knights of Columbus

This article was taken from the December 17, 1995 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To 
subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, Huntington, In 46750. 

Our Sunday Visitor is published weekly at a subscription rate of $36.00 per year. 

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