Archive for February 2012

Dave Armstrong on Infallibility

February 24, 2012

Today I have been going through the apologetics articles of Dave Armstrong on the doctrine of infallibility. (You can find them under this link when you scroll down to “Papal Infallibility and Supremacy”) I did not read every line (and so I might have missed something), but I read a lot (and there is a lot!), and I have a lot to comment.

First I need to give Dave credit for his wide-ranging apologetics. He has read and written a lot, and he deals with issues that other apologists don’t. Taking Infallibility as an example, he is aware of the work of Döllinger and Tierney and posts some responses. Unfortunately, however, Armstrong’s arguments aren’t so strong.

(In what follows, I will be referring to Armstrong’s writings in general without giving exact citations and links. I take the responsibility for possible inaccuracies in presenting Armstrong’s views.)

Historical positivism?

In dealing with Döllinger, Armstrong criticizes what he calls “historical positivism”, i.e., reading history without faith. Similarly, when Küng published his book, he was mostly attacked on methodological grounds. It seems the most sophisticated Catholic criticism of non-infallibilists is precisely this: calling their method rationalism, positivism, historicism, or something of the sort.

I find this strategy very telling. In Church history, when there were dogmatic quarrels, it was customary to appeal to the sources of revelation, to Scripture and Tradition. Somehow in this debate the “orthodox” side has practically given up this method and resorted to a wholly new strategy.

It would be just as easy for me to label the “orthodox” position “fideistic”, “anachronistic” or something of that sort. But that is not the way to solve doctrinal questions. It is not a question on our side of approaching history without faith. Nor is it true that non-infallibilists presuppose their position when approaching history.

As far as I know, both Küng and Tierney changed their mind during their study. They both started with faith, they both changed their mind during their study. I myself came to doubt infallibility precisely because I was approaching history with faith and trying to defend the Church’s message. It was my faith in Paul, Irenaeus and Vatican II (that is, in Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium) that forced me to abandon the infallibility of the medieval councils.

The answer, then, to Armstrong’s two main rebuttals to non-infallibilists, is clear. He asks: 1) Why, then, be Catholic? What keeps you from becoming Anglican or Orthodox? 2) What criterion do you propose for determining orthodoxy, if you reject the Church’s dogmatic teachings?

I answer: 1) Because I belong to the Catholic Church which is my home and my family, because I love the Gospel delivered to the fathers of my Church, and because I am committed to the Church in love. If my father suddenly said he was infallible, I would not tell him I’m changing fathers. Rather I’d try to talk sense to him. 2) The Gospel, the Rule of Faith/Apostles’ Creed, communion with the Church (one’s Bishop who is in communion with the Pope).

Scripture and Tradition

I remarked that theologians used to appeal to Scripture and Tradition, but in this case the strategy has changed. Although Armstrong partly follows this new strategy, he also tries to play the old game. His major Scriptural argument for infallibility is Acts 15:28. It is also the passage Theodore Abu Qurra used when he first invented conciliar infallibility in the 9th century.

But the passage does not teach the a priori infallibility of ecumenical councils. All it says is that after the Apostles had agreed on the issue, they believed that the Holy Spirit had spoken. A modern parallel would be Vatican II: to be sure, the Holy Spirit spoke through the Bishops, when they (virtually) unanimously reformed many outdated magisterial teachings (like extra ecclesiam and religious liberty). And yet Vatican II worked without claiming infallibility to back up any of its teachings.

Armstrong rejects Protestant explanations (that this was isolated and unusual and restricted to the apostolic age) of Acts 15:28 as if they were the only arguments against this passage teaching infallibility. But of course it is as simple as this: the passage does not mention infallibility, the a priori immunity from error of ecumenical councils’ dogmatic definitions.

Another point to be made is that the Council in Acts, like Vatican II, made its decisions in favor of the Gospel, removing obstacles from its way (Acts: circumcision and Mosaic Law, V2: extra ecclesiam in favor of the common witness to the salvific Gospel by all Christians and the recognition of non-Catholic Churches). By contrast, many of the so-called infallible definitions from 325 to 1950 have done the opposite: they have added new obligations and conditions allegedly necessary for salvation, making the Gospel void.

Infallibility works only if God guaranteed it, if Christ taught it and if the Apostles passed it on. This is what Vatican I claims. If and since Vatican I is wrong on this and infallibility is a medieval theological opinion that made it to a conciliar teaching, then for the sake of truth it is better to question conciliar infallibility than to abandon faith or reason.

As far as Tradition goes, Armstrong sometimes appeals to the development of doctrine, but sometimes he seems to hint that the Church believed in infallibility from the very start. Specifically, he quotes Pope Leo, Thomas Aquinas and Francis de Sales. The only one of these with a doctrine like that of Vatican I is Francis de Sales, which simply confirms the fact that the doctrine is no older than the Middle Ages.

As for the development of doctrine, Armstrong appeals to Newman. But the problem here is that Pastor Aeternus does not present its doctrine as a development but as something given by Christ and believed from the beginning. The whole Tradition from Irenaeus to Vatican I operates under the idea of doctrinal immutability. If Newman is right, the Tradition is wrong, and the Councils are not infallible.

The meaning and merit of the doctrine

With Newman, Armstrong endorses moderate infallibility and claims that the Council (V1) was actually a defeat for the Ultramontanists – the definition is supposedly very restrictive, a win for the inopportunists (like Newman). My understanding is quite different.

First of all, the Faith Commission that was in charge at Vatican I consisted of infallibilists alone, no inopportunists were allowed to it. Although the inopportunists had been going out of their way to include a phrase about the other Bishops, Tradition, or the larger Church into the definition, the only significant last-minute correction to the text of the definition was the addition of the infamous ex sese -clause, stating that the Popes’ definitions are irreformable of themselves.

Second, it was not Newman but Manning who sat in the Commission of Faith at the Council, and Manning continued to interpret papal infallibility in maximalist terms even after the Council. For him, Pastor Aeternus did not restrict papal infallibility to rare cases. The conditions could well be interpreted much more widely.

Third, in fact the “official” interpretation given by Bishop Gasser favored precisely this maximalistic view. As I quoted in my review of Gasser’s relatio, he says there have been “thousands and thousands” of dogmatic definitions, not 6-12 like some postconciliar theologians have concluded.

And this brings me to the final issue of the merits of the doctrine. In a dialogue with a Protestant, Armstrong defends the very naive position that it is clearly laid out what Catholics must believe. He says that it is irrelevant which definitions are infallible, because Catholics are bound by all magisterial teaching.

Well, first of all, the CDF conceded in 1990 that theologians can disagree with the Magisterium on non-definitive teachings after prayer and study. Many bishops’ conferences reacted similarly after Humanae Vitae. Whereas Armstrong thinks HV is infallible doctrine (whether ex cathedra or not), many doubt this, and not just dissidents but top theologians such as Francis Sullivan.

So even though Armstrong says the intricacies of “what is infallible and what not” don’t make a difference for the ordinary Catholic, it is very clear that this is a utopia. Bishops worldwide disagree on such a concrete life-affecting issue as contraception.

Armstrong also appeals to the Catechism. But Ratzinger has written that the individual doctrines in the CCC receive no other weight than that which they already have, and that the CCC can be criticized. Which takes us back into determining which teachings are definitive and which are not. And there is no definitive list.

Armstrong did well to point out that the Catholic is in a better position that the solascripturist, because the various theological issues have been dealt with at one point or another. We are not ahistorical, we need to take the history of dogma into account. But it is that very history of dogma that shows us how flawed the infallibility doctrine is.


The Nature and Mission of Theology – Ratzinger on Infallibility

February 22, 2012

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 Küng”, 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.

Catholic Answers on Papal Infallibility

February 6, 2012

Since Catholic Answers is the largest Catholic apologetics organization, many people interested in apologetics on a popular level rely on their materials. I also used to be one of those who thought, more or less: “If it appears in the pages of C&F [Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism], it must be true!” (That is how James White put it in this article.)

The Catholic Answers tract on Papal Infallibility is still substantially the same, decades after C&F and over a decade after White’s criticism. White did receive two responses (links provided at the end of the article), but the Steve Ray link doesn’t work, so there is really only one, by Scott Windsor.

Scott Windsor’s response is, I concur with White, in stark contrast with the scholarship provided by White. The patristic Peter-quotes are provided with no awareness of the fact that these do not necessarily need to have anything to do with the Bishop of Rome.

Also, the “three conditions” for infallible statements are not those of Pastor Aeternus, and anyway Vatican I interpreted its conditions much more widely than these modern apologists. By the standards of the intention of Vatican I, the Zosimus case is indeed a strong argument against the dogma.

The Catholic Answers Tract on Papal Infallibility

Treating the inadequacy of Keating’s patristic arguments as established by White’s article, I would like to take a look at the rest of the arguments made by Keating in favor of papal infallibility. I will also deal with Jason Evert’s article “How to Argue for Papal Infallibility“.

Keating’s article begins by saying what papal infallibility is not. Among other things, it is not only the Pope that is infallible but also the bishops in union with him (the ordinary and universal magisterium), when they solemnly teach a doctrine as true. This teaching, first taught officially at Vatican II (LG 25), Keating claims we have “from Jesus himself” in Lk 10:16 and Mt 18:18.

Jesus didn’t say anything about the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium in solemn doctrinal teachings. He said that people would be hearing his voice when the 70 disciples preached the gospel of the Kingdom (Lk 10:16) and that the Apostles could forgive sin and excommunicate (Mt 18:18).

The infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium is a product of the Counter-Reformation, as far as we know, and it has never been dogmatically defined. The same goes for the infallibility of ecumenical councils, which was first suggested by Theodore Abu Qurra in the 9th century.

Early Church and development

Keating goes on to say that the doctrine of papal infallibility is not a doctrine that suddenly appeared in the Church. But the historical study of Brian Tierney suggests just that: it appeared rather suddenly in the Middle Ages. I am not aware of Catholic Answers materials dealing with Tierney.

Keating basically admits that the doctrine was not taught explicitly in the Bible or in the early Church, rather, it is “implicit” in the early Church and in the three Petrine texts (Mt 16, Lk 22, Jn 21). He admits that Christians “developed” an understanding of papal infallibility, and the “clear beginnings” of this development are seen in the early Church.

Here Keating cites Cyprian and Augustine, and these are the texts James White shows do nothing to show these fathers believed in papal infallibility. One might defend Keating’s tract by saying he only talks of the beginnings of a development. But Keating does not even try to justify his “development” approach which runs counter to the “doctrinal immutability” approach taken by Vatican I.

Maximalism or minimalism?

Under “Some Clarifications” Keating makes some general comments about infallible definitions, implying that there are quite many of them in the end, when you combine those of the Popes, the councils and the “ordinary magisterium” (he must mean “ordinary-and-universal”). Later, citing Knox, Keating seems to affirm that all the anathemas of the Popes throughout the centuries are infallible.

But at the same time Keating points out there are many teachings which haven’t been defined and that infallibility only applies to “solemn, official teachings on faith and morals, not to disciplinary decisions or even to unofficial comments on faith and morals”. He does not specify what he means by “solemn” and where simply “official teachings on faith and morals” would belong (these, of course, are the most common!).

This ambuguity is quite standard. The positive presentation only excludes discipline and unofficial teachings from infallibility. But when cases of erroneous official doctrine are presented, the defender retreats to the word “solemn” and restricts infallibility to only a few cases. Usually it is not asked how the distinction between doctrine and discipline has traditionally been understood and whether it was Vatican I’s intention to restrict papal infallibility to only a few cases.

The same applies to the examples from the Bible and Church history. The Gal. 2 case as well as the cases of Liberius, Vigilius and Honorius are dismissed because they do not meet the requirements for an infallible definition set out by Pastor Aeternus. It is not asked how the Council Fathers interpreted these requirements, nor is it asked whether such distinctions were recognized by Jesus and the Apostles or the early Church.

A case in point is Honorius the Monothelite. The tract cites Knox, who resolves the problem by saying that Honorius was an inopportunist who decided not to define doctrine. I wonder whether Knox and Keating are confusing two things. Honorius did not take a stand in the debate over operations, but he did write rather solemnly that we confess one will in Christ. And Ecumenical Councils and later Popes condemned him for that. This Keating ignores. Was Honorius wrong, or were those later condemnations wrong?

Speculation with unproven assumptions

Keating continues with a theological speculation about infallibility where he states the Tridentine understanding of infallibility: “[The Church] must prove itself to be a perfectly steady guide in matters pertaining to salvation.” But this can be maintained with a general indefectibility and without solemn papal additions to the deposit of the faith (such as the Marian dogmas).

A related argument goes as follows: if the Church ever apostatized by teaching heresy, then it would cease to exist; “because it would cease to be Jesus’ Church”. This is naive. As long as there are people baptized and believing in Christ and gathering in his name and as long as the Eucharist is celebrated, the Church endures.

One would need to define “heresy”, “Church”, “apostatize”, and see how these terms have been understood throughout the centuries. We would see that Keating’s logic stands on fallible ground – his assumptions are unnecessary and unapostolic.

One more time Keating commits the same mistake: “Thus the Church cannot teach heresy, meaning that anything it solemnly defines for the faithful to believe is true”. The Church is “God’s spokesman” – 1 Tim 3:15 and Lk 10:16 cited as purportedly evidencing the same mindset. Of course the Church is God’s spokesman when it proclaims Christ and his gospel faithfully. But this needn’t have anything to do with new dogmatic definitions about Mary in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Again Keating’s above sentence is initially very wide-ranging (the Church cannot teach heresy) and fits well with the idea that the Church is God’s spokesman. But the second sentence restricts this to “anything it solemnly defines”, again leaving the interpretation vague enough to help run from counter-arguments. Keating knows that there are problematic magisterial documents, that Bishops and even local councils can teach heresy, that large parts of the people of God have believed heresy, etc.

No explanation is given why “Church” should be equated with “solemn” (the meaning of which remains unexplained) definitions (also unexplained) of the magisterium (the development of which is also ignored).

Evert’s article

Jason Evert’s article adds little to Keating’s. He often confuses papal infallibility (which he is trying to defend) with the infallibility of the Church. Again 1 Tim 3:15 is cited as well as Cyprian, and, lo and behold, Robert Sungenis! But no patristic evidence is given for this intepretation of Mt 16.

The Irenaeus passage is quoted, again (as almost always) ignoring the fact that Irenaeus has presented the faith/tradition he is talking about in 1,10,1, and it doesn’t include papal infallibility. The same goes for the Sixtus quote: Rome was authoritative because it bore witness to the truth, truth was not made truth by Roman decisions. None of these quotes absolutely preclude the possibility of future error.

Evert also argues from the parallel between inspiration and infallibility. Incidentally, Scott Hahn argued similarly just recently on Catholic Answers Live. “If God could take fallible men and use them as authors of infallible Scripture, why couldn’t he make fallible Popes infallible, too?” Well, of course he could, but this is pure speculation in the absence of evidence that he did.

The Küng debate in hindsight

February 4, 2012

Lately I’ve taken a look at the debate that Hans Küng’s book Infallible? An Enquiry caused in the early 1970s. My sources for these thoughts are Joseph Costanzo’s The Historical Credibility of Hans Kung, Küng’s memoirs in Disputed Truth as well as some German articles in Zum Problem Unfehlbarkeit, a collection of responses to Küng by top theologians (such as Rahner and Ratzinger) right after the publication of his book.

The positive outcome of the debate, as Küng sees it, is a threefold agreement among theologians. First, theologians seem agreed that the magisterium can err and has occasionally erred. Second, there is a tendency to avoid talking about infallibility and to prefer other terms. Third, there is agreement on the fact that the Church is preserved in truth despite its errors.

According to Küng the difference is only over the question whether the Holy Spirit can guarantee the a priori infallibility of propositions. This, he claims, no theologian has been able to (or even tried to) prove. But as Fr. Costanzo pointed out, it is not very clear what would constitute such proof.

The way Küng puts the questions seems to me to confuse things somewhat. The emphasis on propositions takes the debate too much toward philosophy and directs attention away from the biblical and historical data. Pastor Aeternus appeals to the Bible and to history; it does not phrase the issue in terms of propositions and philosophy.

The Bible and history do seem to be decisive for Küng as well. He lists three insights brought out by the debate: 1) The inventor of papal infallibility is the 13th century Franciscan (heretic?) Petrus Olivi, 2) The teaching authority of the councils does not rest on infallible statements but on the gospel, 3) There is no support for the infallibility of the Bishop of Rome either in the NT or in the tradition of the first three centuries.

So, we could infer that for Küng the proof would have to be clear biblical teaching and an apostolic tradition stemming from the very first centuries. This is not an unreasonable demand, in fact it is precisely what Vatican I claims. But Küng is right to say that nobody has been able to bring forth such evidence.

Instead, the dogma of Vatican I has been reinterpreted in Catholic theology along very moderate lines. Küng quotes a letter from Brian Tierney pointing out that Küng’s opponents such as Rahner never notice that their nuanced theories are incompatible with the dogma of Vatican I. One amusing insight is that according to the moderate interpretation Vatican I actually ended up defining papal fallibility.

Instead of trying to bring out evidence from the Bible and Church Fathers, Rahner’s strategy against Küng was to dispute his theological method. According to Rahner, Küng’s book posed a “deadly threat” to his Catholic faith. Rahner said this was no longer an intra-Catholic debate but a dialogue with a liberal Protestant.

It is true that Küng’s views and methods were much influenced by Karl Barth and Ernst Käsemann. But is it enough to simply denounce Küng and question his Catholicism? Unfortunately even Ratzinger takes this approach: How can one claim to be French or German or Swiss if one puts oneself against everything that constitutes one’s tradition?

I would say that as long as one had German blood and German citizenship, one would be German even if one didn’t want to speak German or sing German songs or follow German law. Similarly, as long as one is in communion with one’s bishop who is in communion with the Pope, as long as one is nourished by the blood of Christ, one is a Catholic.

Ratzinger did manage to point out many historical errors in Küng’s book (so did fr. Costanzo), but these remain peripheral in terms of the main argument of the book. Ratzinger also criticized Küng’s militant rhetoric, which was fair enough. But he had some good things to say, too: he praised Küng’s exposition (or exposal) of “Roman theology”, which is not necessarily the same as Catholic theology.

Some interesting statements by Karl Rahner include that Jesus would’ve understood nothing of Pastor Aeternus and that papal infallibility guarantees the infallibility of other dogmas, but is not itself infallible. Or, if one wants to say it was infallible on the basis of the infallibility of the ecumenical council, one simply pushes it a step back, because that will not be an infallible teaching.

In other words, the doctrines of infallibility are not what faith is based on, they are rather parts of the system that is accepted on other grounds. Küng told Rahner his book was not really a threat to his Catholic faith but to his theological method, which constantly started from dogmas in order to return to them.

In general, skimming through the contributions to the Küng debate, it seems that much of it missed the point. Whether Humanae vitae was infallible or whether it was wrong, whether propositions are true or false or both or neither, whether Küng is Catholic enough or not. But as we have seen, there were some positive and concrete results, too.

The debate died out for some decades, but now it seems it is time for it to rise from the grave, transformed, in the form of an non-polemical ecumenical dialogue. In my estimation it should systematically lay out the biblical, historical and hermeneutical problems and offer tentative solutions for the Church to work with in a future council.