Synod Post-Game Show 2: Infallibility, Ultramontanism, Sede Vacantism


As I noted earlier, the Synod has resulted in a number of Catholics to question how this could happen.

In this trying time it is important to understand the principles of the Catholic Faith, especially concerning the Infallibility of the Pope and the Church.


Courtesy of Dr. Shaw - LMS Chairman


Infallibility, Ultramontanism, Sede Vacantism

The Cross stands while the world turns.
Over on Rorate Caeli there's an interesting article by John Zmirak. I agree with the general thrust of the article, although some of it lacks theological precision, and I want to focus on something which is clearly, and sadly, true. Asking what will happen if there is an official accommodation with adulterous relationships, he writes:

Some conservatives who value authority over truth will dutifully defend this papal decision, and pretend that they never argued against it in the first place. Some traditionalists will split off altogether, and claim that Pope Francis became a heretic and lost his office as pope. They may even gather and elect an anti-pope.

We have here the twin temptations of faithful Catholics who see, or think they see, a divergence between perennial moral (or other) teaching and papal authority. Deny the one, or deny the other.

I've said it before, but it is worth repeating. The Catholic who says that whatever the Pope says goes, and the Catholic who says that the Pope is a heretic and therefore isn't the Pope any more, are not opposite extremes with everyone else in between. There is only a hair's breadth between them. They share a belief which everyone else rejects, and draw from it different conclusions based on the finest of judgements. The Ultramontanist and the Sede Vacantist are brothers.

The rest of us reject, and must keep on rejecting, the idea that there is an irreconcilable conflict between Traditional teachings properly understood and Papal authority properly understood. To do this we need to keep both sides in check: we need to avoid an exaggerated understanding of Traditional teachings, and an exaggerated understanding of Papal authority. Even these exaggerations are not opposing tendencies: you will get more exaggerated teaching if you have an exaggerated notion of teaching authority. The two exaggerations go together.

What I mean by the first is, for example, the temptation to say that some favoured theological ideas from the past or present are teachings of the Church. The best example of this is the idea that the definitive ritual, the 'matter', of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, is the giving of the Chalice to the ordinand, instead of the laying on of hands. This even found its way into the decrees of a general council of the Church, the Council of Florence-Ferrara. That Council did not teach it infallibly: it did not issue an anathema against those who denied it. It taught it fallibly, and it was wrong. There are more immediately relevant example from the 19th century and from the post-Conciliar era, but those will be more controversial. The general point is: just because there is a theological consensus in a particular era, a consensus reflected in official documents and even the Papal magisterium, does not make it 'the teaching of the Church'. Fashions change in theology, one set of concerns replace another. The teaching of the Church remains the same.

This is important because when one theological fashion replaces another, we are NOT necessarily witnessing the Great Apostasy of the Book of Revelation. We are just witnessing a change of fashion. But note, that if we want to say this about many changes of theological opinion since 1960, we must be equally wary of the new consensus. If the neo-Scholasticism of the early 20th century wasn't in the Deposit of Faith, neither is the fashionable guff taught in its place since then.

The Magisterium is not in the business of manufacturing doctrine. It is not for any Pope or Council to establish new things that Catholics must believe. The Magisterium's business is guarding the Deposit of Faith. At the end of the Synod Pope Francis warned against

The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it];

In doing so the Magisterium may from time to time define a doctrine infallibly. This establishes a specific theological formula which is guaranteed to be free from error, and therefore commands the assent of Catholics; it does not establish a new doctrine. If there is anything really new in a Council decree or a Papal teaching document, it is not doctrine.

So the teaching of the Church, properly speaking, is a bit less extensive than it may be thought. This is precisely because not every word falling from the lips of the Pope establishes doctrine. The Pope can't change doctrine; he can only confirm what was taught before. Since we know what was taught before, from the Tradition, we have a way of telling whether what he is saying is the teaching of the Church, or something else: a theological explanation, a prudential judgement, a speculation. This way of telling is essential, because the type of document the claims are in won't tell us on its own.

The temptation of Ultramontanism, an exaggerated conception of the authority of the Pope, is intellectually lazy. It means we don't have to bother studying the Tradition; we just look at the latest Papal off-the-cuff remark and it will tell us what to believe. It will be something else in the next Pontificate, it was something else in the last one. But who cares? Let's not be 'rigid'!

Ultramontanist neo-conservatives like George Weigal want to say that the importance of the Papal States, reiterated again and again by Popes, was never a doctrine. To be consistent, he must (but doesn't) say all the more that St John Paul II's criticism of the death penalty isn't a doctrine. You really can't have it both ways.

But it is exactly the same refusal to distinguish genuine exercises of the Papal teaching office from little unscripted quips to journalists which is the root of Sede Vacantism. The intellectual effort really is worth it, my friends!

I have said repeatedly that Pope Francis is not going to change doctrine. It is easy to say because, in fact, he can't, and he knows this. A reader might say: 'but for practical purposes this is scant comfort, because with a new 'pastoral policy' or, for that matter, a new liturgy, something other than the doctrine may de facto be taught.' I don't deny that, but it remains important that the Pope doesn't (try to) change the doctrine de jure, because it means we don't have to choose between Ultramontanism and Sede Vacantism. We can do our best to correct for the unfortunate apparent implications of the pastoral policy by pointing at authoritative statements of the doctrine.

That may be something we'll have to do a lot in the coming months.

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