The Nature and Mission of Theology – Ratzinger on Infallibility

In his book The Nature and Mission of Theology (Ignatius Press 1995), then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) gives an interesting commentary on the CDF Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of a Theologian (from 1990). In it the CDF admitted a theologian could disagree with the Magisterium with regard to non-definitive teachings. But there was a point that provoked understandable criticism.

“Regarding the matter itself, it must be conceded that numbers 29 to 31 of the Instruction can be misunderstood if they are isolated from their context, especially paragraphs 25 and 26. Taken out of context, in fact, they can give rise to the impression that the Instruction allows the theologian the sole option of submitting divergent opinions to the magisterial authorities in secret and obliges him to suffer in silence if he is unsuccessful.” (p. 117)

Ratzinger goes on to give the correct interpretation: “Nevertheless, in the light of the whole text, which speaks of fruitful tensions and their value, it is quite obvious that the Instruction is not proposing ‘secret’ communications but dialogue which remains on an ecclesiastical and scientific plane and avoids distortions at the hands of the mass media. If this is ‘secret’, then all science must be called ‘secret’. In actuality, the point is precisely to use arguments instead of pressure as a means of persuasion.” (p. 117)

The only remaining problem is that this is allowed only with regard to so-called non-definitive teachings. What should be recognized is that since there is no list of such teachings and since many teachings once considered definitive have been reversed, such a distinction is not fruitful. In terms of papal infallibility, it can be questioned on the basis of the non-definitiveness of conciliar infallibility.

Ratzinger on infallibility

Ratzinger knows the problems of infallibility. He reacts in his comments to a tendency which wishes to limit obedience to Church authority solely to infallible statements, whereas the rest would rest on arguments alone.

“It seems to me that we have before us a typically Western restriction and legalistic reduction of the notion of faith which radicalizes certain one-sided developments which begin to make their appearance around the High Middle Ages.” (p. 111)

Pay attention to how Ratzinger describes the doctrine of infallibility: it is a one-sided medieval development, a far cry from the Christ-given truth-guaranteeing dogma of Vatican I. Ratzinger concedes, “as was demonstrated in the controversy with K√ľng”, that “infallibility first developed with such rigorous clarity in the Middle Ages” (p. 112). When faith is restricted to the “skeleton of infallibility”, “what really matters is lost”, that is, “the rule of faith and the Creed” (p. 112).

Ratzinger proposes the concept of auctoritas as more important than infallibility. States and parents are obeyed and their decisions are binding even though not infallible or irreformable. The same should apply to the Church. (p. 112-113)

All of that is exactly what I have been saying on this blog for some time already. The only thing Ratzinger doesn’t seem to see or want to admit is that the whole infallibility doctrine is the very reason why these wrong distinctions have been made and why what really matters has been lost. He says the “knowledge” of the gift of infallibility “cannot and ought not be withdrawn” (p. 112).

Supposedly the reason the doctrine of infallibility is “knowledge” and why it “cannot be withdrawn” is that it was defined by Vatican I and that magisterial dogmas are to be taken as a given in Catholic theology. However, if the sense of faith of the Church does not support the dogma (let’s say, optimistically, that 30-50% of Catholics believe it), it might be a sign of its non-infallibility.

The curious thing about this sensus fidei argument is that for Ratzinger it works only one way: “the dogmas of 1854, 1870 and 1950 became possible because of the sensus fidei had discovered them, while the Magisterium and theology followed its lead and tried slowly to catch up with it” (p. 105). But when the same phenomenon takes place in the other direction, it is called “dissent”, “principle of majority rule”, “a countermagisterium” (p. 107).

Yet Ratzinger himself was the one who, in the CDF document of 1990, allowed that “there are magisterial decisions which cannot be the final word on a given matter as such” but are a “sort of provisional policy” whose “particulars determined by circumstances can stand in need of correction” (p. 106).

Examples? “In this connection, one will probably call to mind both the pontifical statements of the last century regarding freedom of religion and the anti-Modernist decisions of the beginning of this century, especially the decisions of the then Biblical Commission.” “They were superseded after having fulfilled their pastoral function in the situation of the time.” (p. 106)

The problem here is threefold. 1) The documents in question were not always presented as prudential provisional policies but as absolute truths the opposite of which was condemned as grave sin. 2) The Church has never officially revoked these statements or explicitly declared them superseded. 3) Under the assumptions of doctrinal immutability and maximal infallibility of many of the infallibilists of Vatican I, these statements would qualify as infallible.

Conclusions? Ratzinger’s view already relativizes Vatican I, so why not be consistent and go back to “what really matters”? The Church’s authority is based on the truth it has received from the Apostles, the truth expressed in the rule of faith and the Creed. The additional doctrine of infallibility adds nothing but confusion.

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