The Küng debate in hindsight

Posted February 4, 2012 by Emil Anton
Categories: Papal Infallibility

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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.


“Papal Infallibility” by Mark Powell

Posted January 27, 2012 by Emil Anton
Categories: Papal Infallibility

Recently I finished reading a very illuminating book: Papal Infallibility – A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue, by Mark E. Powell. Powell investigates four Catholic theologians on papal infallibility, analyses and critiques their positions and offers some constructive suggestions to Catholic theologians. Here’s a summary.

Epistemic criteria, methodism and particularism

Powell’s work takes an epistemological approach, in other words it asks whether papal infallibility works as a method of knowing the truth of things. This means he is not so interested in the historical and biblical issues behind papal infallibility, although they are sometimes mentioned.

Powell expresses his disillusionment with sola scriptura – it is not a sufficient method to prove classical orthodox christology, for the Bible is open to a variety of interpretations. Powell critiques the idea that biblical inerrancy guarantees right doctrine or than Christianity stands or falls with biblical inerrancy as an epistemic method.

Powell finds the Catholic solution of papal infallibility equally problematic: he denies that Christianity stands or falls with papal infallibility. We will soon see why. Powell insists that instead of a method, “methodism”, we choose “particularism”, which means that the truth of things is arrived at by giving various arguments for particular beliefs.

Powell also suggests, in the footsteps of William Abraham, that what he calls ecclesial canons (scripture, councils, papal teaching, liturgy) are better viewed as belonging to the field of soteriology than to the field of epistemology. So bishops, scriptures, etc, are better viewed as “means of grace” than as epistemic criteria for truth.

In other words, though the Bible and Tradition can be quoted to argue for the truth of particular beliefs (which he finds in the “canonical theism of the undivided Church”, whatever that means), Christianity is primarily about salvation, not epistemology.

Manning and Newman

With this in mind, Powell shows what four important Catholic theologians believed and taught about infallibility. These theologians are Cardinal Manning, Cardinal Newman, Cardinal Dulles and Hans Küng. The first he labels a representative of “maximal infallibility”, the next to of “moderate infallibility” and the last one of “minimal infallibility”. The “minimal” here actually refers to a rejection/denial, whereas “moderate” refers to what is sometimes called “minimal”.

Cardinal Manning was Archbishop of Westminister and one of the key proponents and architects of the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I. He held to a maximally broad understanding of papal infallibility, similar to what I earlier noted about bishop Gasser. Both before and after the council, Manning held a wide array of papal documents to be infallible, including encyclicals and the Syllabus.

Manning wanted to secure epistemic certainty with the doctrine of papal infallibility. A convert from Anglicanism, he thought the Pope provided the answer to the problem of private interpretation in Protestantism. Scripture and Tradition needed interpretation, and so an infallible judge is needed. And the Pope himself was also to be the infallible interpreter of infallible papal pronouncements.

Manning also held to the idea of doctrinal immutability, claiming that all Catholic doctrines have always been believed by the Church from the very start. This view became increasingly difficult to hold in the face of historical studies (eg the development of the Marian dogmas). But Manning simply disparaged historical studies as “rationalism”: his only options were Catholicism and skepticism.

Manning’s position runs into many problems. First, historical problems, such as Honorius, which he didn’t know how to deal with but left open. Second, epistemological problems, for his strong foundationalism has become very questionable in later epistemology. Third, hermeneutic problems, for there is in fact no infallible list of infallible pronouncements, and even infallible interpretations need to be interpreted by the fallible believer.

The problems in Manning’s position were seen early on, and it was not shared by another convert Cardinal contemporary to Vatican I, John Henry Newman. Newman’s more moderate view has come to predominate in later Catholic theology. As is well known, Newman developed the idea of doctrinal development.

Newman was first opposed to the definition of papal infallibility, which he held to be too new to be defined. Dogmatic definitions should not be a “luxury”, but something done in the face of the gravest necessity. Newman held papal infallibility to be a theological opinion not sufficiently developed for becoming dogma.

When the definition came, Newman accepted it, because he believed the Church is an infallible judge in deciding which doctrinal developments are authentic and which are not. His theory allowed Catholic theology to embrace infallible dogmas even though they were not found explicitly in the Bible or early Tradition. Newman interpreted Vatican I moderately, holding that in modern times there have been only two infallible papal definitions (the Marian dogmas).

Newman believed that ultimately the infallibility of the Church resides in the sensus fidei, the consensus of the Church. If a papal teaching wasn’t received in the Church, that would be an indication of its non-infallible nature. Newman also mentioned drinking to conscience first and to the Pope second, and he stressed the role of theologians as interpreters and identifiers of infallible statements.

Newman’s view solves some problems but creates new ones. First, his theory of doctrinal development was initially looked upon with suspicion as a novelty, for the assumption of the bishops of Vatican I was rather doctrinal immutability. On the other hand, his theory could be used against him, and in fact he heard some bishops appealed to it in favor of the definition of papal infallibility, which he didn’t want to happen. Third, the Pope’s authority becomes much more relative when the final arbiters of infallible doctrine are the theologians or the faithful at large.

So even in the time of Vatican I there could be Cardinals disagreeing with each other over the range of papal infallibility. Papal infallibility does not solve the problem of private interpretation but simply pushes it a step backwards. Now you need to identify and interpret infallible papal pronouncements.

It seems Vatican I started with maximal assumptions about infallibility, but added restrictive conditions to satisfy the “inopportunists” (the minority of bishops opposing the definition as inopportune), which in turn allowed for a more moderate interpretation. But now epistemic certainty was not gained but lost: the infallible definition was left too vague to secure anything.

Dulles and Küng

When we come into more modern times, we see how Catholic theologians increasingly recognize the difficulties in the doctrine of papal infallibility. Avery Dulles with his “symbolic realism” affirms that doctrinal statements are obscure, always historically conditioned and relative, never reaching truth fully and always being open to reinterpretation.

Dulles takes a moderate view where infallible definitions are very rare. He wants to minimize the burden of the doctrine, because he sees it is a significant ecumenical problem. On the one hand he firmly believes the Pope can issue infallible definitions and has done so (eg the Marian dogmas), but on the other hand he is for lifting the anathema following the Vatican I definition and thoroughly reinterprets the dogma.

Dulles sees Vatican I as primarily concerned with Gallicanism and affirming the supreme teaching authority of the Pope. He questions many of the historically conditioned assumptions the fathers of Vatican I held about philosophy and theology, and even suggests it might be possible to say infallibility itself is one of those historically conditioned erroneous assumptions.

Dulles himself is not willing to go so far, though. But still he makes the astonishing claim that papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas are rather peripheral and secondary in the hierarchy of truths and thus should not be required for reconciliation with non-Catholic Christians. He also says that the word “infallibility” would not be used if the doctrine was defined today and that the Church might have erred in some of its most solemn acts.

Dulles’ position seems to have the advantage of being able to deal with problems while still affirming Catholic belief. He is moving in the right direction in recognizing that the Marian dogmas would not be necessary for ecumenical union. Yet it is clear that Dulles’ position is fraught with problems. It seems somewhat dishonest to claim to believe in infallibility while granting mistakes and contradicting the intention of Vatican I and the preconciliar Popes with such audacious reinterpretation.

It is even less credible to argue, as Dulles does, for the necessity of an infallible teaching authority, while at the same time having to reinterpret and effectively deny the import of the concrete infallible teachings. This is why Hans Küng was led to change his mind on the subject and reject papal infallibility altogether.

Küng’s concern in “truthfulness”, refusing to call changes and contradictions “development”. Küngs book and his main arguments I have already summarized in an earlier post. What Powell points out is that Küng laid the foundations for the program at the II Vatican Council with his book on the Council and reform. What started out according to the spirit of Küng, ended up in a different spirit – Vatican II was sort of a mirror image of Vatican I – this time the conservatives got to shift the direction of the council towards the end. Again the Church was left with vague statements open to very different interpretations.

Although Küng is to praised for his honesty in the case of the historical problems, Powell criticizes Küng’s argument about propositions, suggesting he confuses propositions and sentences, the former being either true or false. Powell also criticizes the fact that Küng simply opts for another problematic epistemic method: liberal Protestantism (influenced by Barth and Käsemann), or the gospel of Jesus as discovered through historical-critical exegesis of the Bible.

Orthodoxy without infallibility

Powell ends by restating his case for orthodoxy without infallibility. He found that all of the four Catholic theologians treated the canons of the Church as epistemic criterion, and a clear commitment to “methodism” was seen in many cases.

Powell suggests that Catholic theologians take into account his ecumenical and epistemological proposal. According to the ecumenical proposal ecumenical unity should be based on the theism found in the canonical heritage of the undivided church, and no single epistemology should be canonized. According to the epistemological proposal ecclesial canons should be viewed primarily in the arena of soteriology, not epistemology, and particularist commitments should be adopted instead of methodist ones.

Based on this, papal infallibility could be viewed either as a local epistemological proposal of the Catholic Church that is not binding within the larger ecumenical union. Other canonical theists could be part of this union without confessing papal infallibility.

But even more preferably, some of Dulles’ moves could be used to relocate Pastor Aeternus outside the field of epistemology. A supreme teaching function in the Catholic Church could be admitted for the papacy without making the Pope an infallible belief-producing mechanism.

“Infallible?” by Hans Küng

Posted January 19, 2012 by Emil Anton
Categories: Papal Infallibility

Tags: , , ,

Today I finished reading Hans Küng’s book Infallible? (SCM Press LTD, 1994 New expanded edition with additional documents from 1979, which eventually resulted in the removal by Rome of his license to teach) I must say it was one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a while.

Küng’s argumentation is strong but charitable, he truly respects the Pope but calls for a critical examination of the claims of the Magisterium on the basis of the original Christian message, the gospel. He thinks the Petrine primacy is a good idea in the Church, if it is understood as a primacy of service.

But he is, as the title suggests, critical of the doctrine of infallibility and suggests it would be better for the Church to drop it altogether. In this post I would like to summarize Küng’s arguments and suggested solution to the main problem.

Fallible infallibilities

Küng starts out by asking why the progressive majority of the birth control commission failed to convince Paul VI to modify his predecessors’ teaching on contraception. He shows that the arguments of the commission (new historical context, the fact that Casti Connubi was not ex cathedra) failed to graps the real issue: the Roman theory of infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

The conservative minority had a good case for the fact that the immorality of contraception had been universally taught by Popes and bishops as definitively to be held. According to preconciliar textbook theology (eg. L. Ott), in such cases the ordinary and universal magisterium is infallible. What was not realized is that this doctrine itself should be questioned.

Küng shows that this doctrine is based on two false assumptions: first, that the Apostles believed themselves to be infallible, second, that the Bishops are historically and exclusively the successors of the Apostles. The Apostles did not present themselves as infallible, nor are the bishops exclusively the successors of the apostles (rather, the hierarchy is a result of a complex doctrinal development).

A similar argument is used in the criticism of the definition of papal infallibilty at Vatican I. Both sides of the debate at the council shared the presupposition that the promises of Christ to the Church are linked with infallible propositions. But this assumption is false, the Church can remain in truth without any infallible propositions.

Fundamental objections

Küng’s criticism seems to boil down to two points, biblical-traditional and philosophical-linguistic. First, the doctrine of infallibility is without any support in Scripture or early tradition. None of the usual passages, Mt 16, John 21, Luke 22, John 14-16, Mt 28, 1 Tim 3, say anything about infallible propositions or definitions. They only speak of the Church’s maintenance in truth.

Vatican I’s only explicit text for papal infallibility, Lk 22:32, was never interpreted as infallibility of the Bishop of Rome by the fathers of East or West or even the medieval canonists. Mt 16 wasn’t quoted at all in the first 2 centuries (significantly Irenaeus doesn’t appeal to it in his polemics), it was first quoted by Tertullian and not applied to the Bishop of Rome but to Peter. Later it was used to argue for the primacy or authority, but the doctrine of infallibility developed only in the Middle Ages.

In terms of councils, Küng points out that Nicea did not see itself as a priori infallible, its authority derived from the fact that it had the gospel truth behind it. Later, ecumenical councils corrected each other, contradicted each other, some councils started as ecumenical but weren’t received as such, some started as particular councils but ended up being received as ecumenical.

Therefore Küng denies it is possible to say that a priori ecumenical councils are infallible. But perhaps even more fundamental is the point that propositions as such are subject to the laws of propositions: they never wholly capture the truth/reality, they can be misunderstood, they are not always translatable, words have fluid and different meanings. Language is not a static structure but a dynamic event. It remains totally unproven that faith is dependent on infallible propositions.

Küng also wisely points out that negative propositions such as polemical condemnations are often half-truths. There is always some truth in each heresy, and the danger is that condemnations overlook the truth mixed with the error and condemn them both. Half-truths are also half-errors, and Küng says this sort of thing has happened over and over again in Church history.

It is not all purely speculative. Küng does provide numerous examples of magisterial errors, past and present. The excommunication of Photius (causing the Eastern schism and lifted by Paul VI), the ban on lending money at interest, the condemnation of Galileo, the upholding of the Pope’s temporal power even with excommunications, the condemnations of the application of the historical-critical method, the condemnations of so-called modernism (freedom of religion and conscience, ecumenism), and Humanae vitae.

Küng does not explicitly deal with the Marian dogmas, but sometimes states in passing that the definitions were dubious and without a basis in Scripture or early tradition. He also points out that infallible articles such as the Extra ecclesiam have been turned into their contradictions.

Some other doctrines or dogmas not supported by Scripture or (authentic, early) tradition (and thus magisterial errors) include the contraction of original sin through procreation, the “indelible mark on the soul” of ordination, the theological-dogmatical distinction between priest and bishop, and a number of statements in the Syllbus of Errors.

It is irrelevant to debate which of these points were infallibly defined and whether Küng is not wrong on some of these points. In any case we have to deal with the reality of magisterial error and the problem that the doctrine of infallibility has no firm foundation in the sources of revelation.

Truth, error and infallibility

So how does Küng deal with the problem of error? What has happened to the promises of Christ to his Church? Küng suggests that we speak rather of the indefectibility or indestructibility of the Church, meaning that the Church will always remain in truth even despite its errors.

This approach is an approach of faith, whereas the obsessive need to prove the truth of the system in every point lest the whole thing fall is lack of faith. The Christian does not believe in a Church or in the Bible or in Tradition, but in God and Jesus Christ and his gospel. The Bible, Tradtion and the Church witness to that truth and must be interpreted in its light.

The truth is not a set of infallible propositions, the truth is Jesus Christ. Despite its darkest centuries, the Church has always survived, there have always been believers, and there will always be believers. A dogmatic error in the mind of a believer or a papal document does not prevent the Spirit of God from working in the Church. This approach finds support in Scripture, where the promises of Jesus and the failures of the Apostles coexist side by side. It is also supported by Tradition and history.

Finally, Küng called for an ecumenical commission, along the lines of the birth control commission, to investigate the doctrine of infallibility. In fact, he alluded to leading Catholic theologians (Congar, Kasper, Von Balthasar) who have called for a re-evaluation of the doctrine of Vatican I, or even suggested that it was a terrible accident. So the question did indeed seem to be urgent.

However, Rome replied by taking away Küng’s license to teach and by simply reiterating the traditional teaching of Vatican I and II, at best with slight modifications. His arguments were not answered. But appealing to Vaticans I and II is begging the question, for precisely their doctrine is the issue. It is not enough to say “we are infallible because we’ve said we’re infallible”. However, I am aware of at least two books in response to Küng, and I am looking forward to reading and commenting on them soon.

Still Catholic?

Küng also answers the question whether one can remain Catholic with such opinions. Küng answers in the affirmative, saying that it is not un-Catholic to oppose the Roman system, it would be un-catholic to separate and “fall victim to a ‘Protestant’ radicalism and particularism which has nothing to do with authentic gospel radicalism and concern for the community”. The infallibility of propositions is more “part of the curialist system than of the Catholic Church as it has understood itself from the beginning”. (p. 221)

I tend to agree with Küng, but I think a solution must be found in the system itself which will allow the doctrine of the infallibility of propositions to be reshaped into a more credible form. I agree with Küng that the Church would gain and not lose credibility by admitting its errors, but the Church can’t simply drop the teaching with no good explanation. After all, Vatican I excludes from the Church those who dispute its dogmatic definition.

I suppose this is something Küng would’ve wished the commission to do, but since there is no commission so far, let me repeat the suggestion I made in my previous post. The fact that the infallibility of the Church (in ecumenical councils) has never been defined by any council or Pope, nor has it been taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium, nor is it believed by the whole people of God, allows us to believe that ecumenical councils are in fact not infallible.

Once it is granted that it is possible for the Church to grant the possibility of error in a definition of an ecumenical council, then it will also be possible to say (using the gospel, Scripture and Tradition as criterion, as the Magisterium should) that the Church fallibly (and in fact erroneously) defined papal infallibility.

Having granted this, it will be no problem for the Church to revise its teaching (in LG 25) on the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium as well as of the people of God as a whole. A new wording will emphasize indefectibility and indestructibility, God’s fidelity, the Church’s preservation in truth, the presence of Jesus Christ and a community of believers in him in this world until the end of time.

“The Gift of Infallibility”

Posted January 17, 2012 by Emil Anton
Categories: Papal Infallibility

Today I finished reading The Gift of Infallibility – the relatio of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican I and the commentary by Fr. James T. O’Connor (Ignatius Press 2008). It confirmed me in my desire to write a doctoral dissertation on the subject, which, God willing, will be a part of a process in which the Church will make its teaching on infallibility ever more clear and credible.

Vatican I’s arguments

Bishop Gasser’s relatio is of supreme importance in understanding the mind of Vatican I. Half of the references of Lumen Gentium 25, the key Vatican II chapter on infallibility, are to Gasser’s relatio. It is a lengthy presentation of the way the Deputation de fide at Vatican I understood papal infallibility.

Gasser presents the arguments for papal infallibility from Scripture and Tradition. Two things especially struck me. First, the seriousness of the argument that this is indeed nothing new but something given by Christ to Peter and the Apostles and always believed from the beginning. There is absolutely no talk of any “development of doctrine”. Second, the weakness of the arguments.

As far as Scripture goes, Gasser simply asserts that infallibility was given to Peter together with the primacy. So the well-known primacy passages (Mt 16, Lk 22, Jn 21) also prove papal infallibility. How come? Here Gasser resorts to unconvincing speculative arguments: If the Pope could fall into error, the “Church would dissolve”. Or: how could the Pope fulfill his mission if he did not have an authority which all other would recognize as unassailable?

Easily. There are plenty of examples of people correcting the Popes throughout history. There are examples of Popes correcting each other. If the Pope makes one mistake, but the Church still proclaims the Gospel and celebrates the liturgy throughout the world, there need be no talk of the Church dissolving. One day that mistake will be corrected, by the sensus fidelium or another Pope.

Gasser doesn’t support his philosophical-theological-speculative argument by Scripture or Tradition. Evidently the Apostles and Fathers thought you could have the Church and truth without an infallible Pope. Bishop Gasser does provide some arguments from Tradition, though. But these are “indirect” testimonies, to the effect that one must stick with the Church of Rome. As some council fathers pointed out, they do not prove anything more than the primacy.

One comment merits mention, though. My earlier intuitions, evidenced by earlier posts on this blog, that St. Irenaeus plays a key role in the discussion, were confirmed. Gasser’s first argument from Tradition was AH 3:3:2. But amazingly enough he sets this up as a “more secure rule” than the rule of faith which all the Churches agree to. He fails to cite the rule Irenaeus himself lays out in AH 1:1:10 or discuss the implications of laying it aside in favor of a “more secure rule” of the Church of Rome.

Gasser also deals with the arguments of the official text, i.e. the ecumenical councils of Consantinople IV, Lyon and Florence. Of these, only the last one really supports infallibility, if one reads the interpretations behind the original text. But if infallibility comes up only in the middle ages, then the argument is totally undermined that this is something coming from Christ and the Apostles.

Minimalism vs. maximalism

And now we come to the most astonishing part. To my suprise, Bishop Gasser’s relatio makes clear that the nowadays prevailing “minimalist” interpretation of papal infallibility (only 1-2, or even 6-10 instances), is totally foreign to the intention of Vatican I. According to Bishop Gasser, there have been “thousands and thousands” of such dogmatic judgments. How can this be?

An important detail here is the meaning of the word “define”. It was specifically clarified at Vatican I that this is not to be interpreted in a restrictive juridical sense. It requires no formula and is not limited to ending disputes. It refers broadly to any definitive judgment by the Pope on matters of faith and morals.

Whenever he has condemned something as heretical, whenever he has proclaimed something about faith or morals, no error has ever come from the Roman Pontiff. In addition, the “secondary object of infallibility” is also taught as certain, i.e. not only revealed truths but also things that are necessary to guard the deposit of faith.

Now it should be abundantly clear that this understanding of papal infallibility won’t hold. Not only would the Honorius and Galileo arguments as well as other old issues go through, but the preconciliar and postconciliar encyclicals would prove papal infallibility false by disagreeing with each other on many issues relating to faith and morals.

That is probably why most favor a minimalist approach to papal infallibility: to be able to say in the face of errors, contradictions and changes: “that was not an infallible definition”. They like to quote the canon law (which, remember, comes after Vatican I, after the definition and its interpretation had become increasingly problematic) where it says that no statement is to be understood as infallible unless it is manifestly clear.

But this is a dead end. First of all, “manifestly clear” is very subjective, and I could even argue that Ineffabilis Deus does not meet all the criteria of Vatican I for an infallible definition, maybe even Munificentissimus Deus (after all, the words “infallible” or “ex cathedra” are not used). Even granting these two cases, and perhaps a few others, the point is that now we have totally departed from the understanding of Vatican I itself, and this is very problematic.

The problem is that in the Vatican I scheme there is still a link (though imaginary) between Jesus, the Apostles, the Fathers and modern definitions. But if we adopt a minimalist view, or a “development of doctrine view” (like granting papal infallibility comes from the Middle Ages, following Tierney), there is a gulf between the supposedly revealed, Christ-given gift and the much later application of it.

What is the point in a “charism of truth” given to Peter which almost none of his successors would ever use, most of them not even being aware of it? Did Christ really think he is attaching to the promises to Peter a special gift to be discovered and used only in the 19th century? Why keep the Vatican I definition if we reject the “thousands and thousands” paradigm, where papal infallibility is absolutely central to the preservation of the Church in the truth?

Future perspectives

So what would be the way out of this mess? One insight is the Divine Providence that kept Vatican I from defining the infallibility of the Church in defining dogma. The infallibility of the Magisterium gathered in a council in matters of faith and morals is taught in Vatican I and Vatican II, but it has never been defined as a revealed dogma of faith. Thus, it is possible to disagree with this teaching after prayer and study.

Now, if it is possible that the teaching on conciliar infallibility is wrong, then it is also possible that Pastor Aeternus as a conciliar definition was not infallible, i.e., it could also be wrong. If it could be wrong, then all papal declarations could also have some errors in them. This is a criticism that seems to me is possible to make while being a fully faithful Catholic.

Vatican III will need to rethink infallibility. My suggestion is that it would be possible to keep the language about the Pope and the Bishops teaching infallibly when guarding the deposit of faith. But this should be defined to mean the real deposit of faith received from the Apostles, i.e. the Irenaean Rule or the Apostles’ Creed. Later dogmatics could still be taught, but it would be recognized as not entirely immune to error.

Papal Infallibility debate

Posted December 31, 2011 by Emil Anton
Categories: Papal Infallibility

Tags: , , , , ,

Call it a call to Catholic apologetics to rise to a higher level. Call it an imaginary debate on Catholic theology. Call it a critique of the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Call it what you like, but here’s an outline of the arguments.

1) The faith is one, you cannot pick and choose which dogmas to accept or reject.

– So says Irenaeus, and quoting him, the CCC. But Irenaeus gives the content, too, and there is no papal infallibility there. Same goes for Paul and basically all the Church fathers. Papal infallibility was developed in the Middle Ages, so it is a theological opinion, not a revealed dogma.

2) But Irenaeus says all must agree with Rome because Peter’s successor is there and the apostolic tradition is faithfully kept there.

– Exactly, the apostolic tradition the contents of which he has already outlined. Rome’s authority comes from it guarding the heritage of Peter and Paul. No mention of Matt. 16 or infallibility.

3) But you don’t have the authority to interpret tradition or the Bible on your own, that authority belongs to the Church.

– Here “Church” has been defined to mean the 19th century magisterium, which taught differently from both the 2nd century Church as well as the post V2 Church. The Church is the body of its members, and non-magisterial theologians have always interpreted Bible and Tradition (sometimes becoming great Fathers, like Justin). The Church encourages theologians to do theology, and theology studies Scripture and Tradition, so of course I can and should interpret them as best as I can. Often theologians’ insights get accepted by the Church later.

4) But here we’re dealing with an infallibly defined dogma. That’s outside the freedom of a theologian.

– But Hans Küng has publicly criticized infallibility and still remained a priest in good standing. Pope Benedict even had lunch with him. So in practice it’s possible to be a Catholic and be critical of papal infallibility.

5) But Jesus promised the Church that the gates of Hades would not prevail, that whatever Peter would bind would be bound in heaven, that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church to the fullness of the truth, that he would be with his Church till the end. So he can’t allow the Pope to err.

– But the Church still recognizes the Pope can err in all kinds of matters (even faith-related, just not ex cathedra statements, which are very few), so the question is how we want to understand truth and the nature of Jesus’ promises. None of the early fathers interpreted any of those passages to mean that the Bishop of Rome can make solemn dogmatic statements which cannot err. Rather, Jesus will always keep the Gospel alive in the Church till the end.

6) But there are quotes from the Fathers saying that no error can come from Rome and that the Roman See has never erred.

– Again, that as such would prove too much for the dogma, for the dogma restricts papal infallibility to solemn declarations, of which there is no official (not to mention) infallible list. Most theologians think these sorts of declarations started long after the Fathers, in the Middle Ages or as late as the 19th century. The way Rome didn’t err was by keeping the Christological faith of the universal Church, not by defining new infallible dogmas on its own.

7) But there you have it: the Roman See always kept the true Faith. The Pope was never heretical.
– This is true only from the perspective of the ones that agree. According to the Nestorians and Monophysites, the Pope was heretical. Later the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestants thought the same. After Vatican II Traditionalists and Sedevacantists think he is.

8) But Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail. God couldn’t let the Church go astray.

– The verse doesn’t talk about Peter’s successors, and again the early Christians wouldn’t have understood it that way. And we’re not in the position to say what God couldn’t do: he allowed the great schisms, heinous sins committed in the name of the Church, the Galileo affair, the Arian crisis and the Vatican II confusion. I wouldn’t like him to have allowed all that. So it’s totally possible that God would allow the Church to make dogmatic mistakes, as long as the core of the truth (the Gospel and the Apostolic faith) are preserved, as they are.

9) That’s too big of a leap, in none of the cases mentioned above did the Pope make an infallible declaration that was in error.

– This is precisely the problem: in the face of mistakes the scope of infallibility is narrowed down. But then the argument becomes futile that infallibility is needed to preserve the Church in truth, if it only concerns a couple modern definitions (such as the Marian dogmas). How did the Church manage to stay in the truth for all those centuries without infallible definitions? But take the Marian dogmas. Neither one of them is contained in the sources of revelation as the definitions claim. The Assumption first appears in the apocrypha, the Immaculate Conception in the 13th century speculations of Duns Scotus.

10) But the consensus of the Church believes these traditional dogmas, the Pope consulted the bishops and found universal agreement, it is the faith of the Church.

– The sensus fidelium isn’t enough, it has been declared to have been revealed, and general revelation is taught to have ended at the death of the last Apostle, so you have to find it in the 1st century or in the next generations as a strong tradition. And besides, in Vatican II ecclesiology the sensus fidelium doesn’t work any more, for half of the body of Christ (Orthodox, Protestants) deny these dogmas.

11) The dogmas were implicitly revealed, and you have to understand the development of doctrine.

– The development of doctrine is a modern idea. Not that it is false, but the point is that the Apostles and Fathers always denied that something could be added to the faith. Growing insight is very different from solemn declarations: we could believe the Marian dogmas as theological opinions that deepen our devotion, but we cannot require anyone to believe them as divinely revealed under the pain of anathema.

12) But St. Paul anathematized all who preach a different Gospel than the Church. So he too thought that the Church’s faith was infallible.

– A different gospel than his, that is, and his Gospel was the death and resurrection of Christ. And notice how he phrased it: even if we ourselves were to preach a different Gospel, or an angel from heaven, etc. So hypothetically even the apostles could fall into preaching a false Gospel. Perhaps that’s what happened to the 19th century Popes. Isn’t it strange that they condemned Gospel-believing Protestants to hell for denying Papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas still in 1950, whereas in 1965 these same Protestants were suddenly officially recognized as justified brothers among whom the Holy Spirit works salvifically through their ecclesial communities?

William Lane Craig vs. Stephen Law

Posted November 8, 2011 by Emil Anton
Categories: Stephen Law, William Lane Craig

I’d like to leave intra-Christian and intra-Catholic debates behind for now and comment on the debate that took place on the Reasonable Faith tour in England between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and atheist philosopher Stephen Law.

Both Craig and Law have commented on the debate post factum, and it has generated quite a bit of discussion.

Both won?

After listening to the debate, I had the impression that actually both could be interpreted to have won the debate. And indeed the post-debate comments by Craig and Law seem to confirm my impression:) The problem was that the speakers seemed to be speaking past each other.

From Craig’s perspective, Craig established the existence of a God with the cosmological argument, which Law was unable to refute. Moreover, the problem of evil (Law’s main argument) simply shows that objective moral values exist, and so God, too, must exist, for atheism cannot explain objective moral values. Moreover, the Resurrection of Jesus shows God to be the Judeo-Christian God: the Resurrection is much more plausible than UFO-sightings because of the religious salvation-historical context.

From Law’s perspective, the huge amount of suffering in the world gives us powerful evidence against a good God (Craig’s God), just as the huge amount of good in the world gives us good grounds to rule out a hypothesis of an “evil God” behind the cosmos. Since the cosmological argument is morally neutral, it doesn’t establish Craig’s good God, and the good God can be ruled out as an explanation as well as an evil God. Any appeal to God’s mysterious ways equally apply to the evil God. So, why Craig’s God?

The arguments

Craig brought only 3 arguments into the debate: the cosmological, the moral, and the historical (leaving out fine-tuning, the ontological argument, and the argument from religious experience). Law went with just one: the problem of evil combined with the evil God hypothesis.

In response to the cosmological argument, Law confessed he is not exactly sure what is wrong with it, but that there are still some conclusions that can be reasonably ruled out, such as the evil God hypothesis. If so, then why not rule out the good God, too? Craig wished simply to establish a Creator as a part of a cumulative case for the Christian God.

In response to the moral argument, Law argued Craig has not provided evidence for the premise that there are no objective moral values if God does not exist. Craigs response was to say it’s a matter of the best explanation. Both agreed that there seem to be objective moral values, but no consensus was reached on what they are based on, if anything.

The third argument focused on the resurrection of Jesus. Unfortunately, this argument was minimally handled by both debaters and thus cannot play a decisive role in the evaluation of the debate. Law responded by saying unusual things are sometimes reported, but that does not mean they really happened or should be believed.

As for the evil God argument, Craig responded briefly by saying there can be no evil God, for the definition of God entails worthiness of worship. One could posit an evil Creator, though. Here Craig says one does not come to believe in a good/evil God/Creator by an inductive survey of good and evil in the world. In addition, we could never show God cannot have sufficient reasons for allowing evil or suffering in the world – perhaps only in such a world the maximal number of people would freely come to God.

The misunderstanding

Both in the debate and in the post-debate comments, Craig seems to have misunderstood the evil God argument: it’s not saying we should (positively) come to know the moral character of God by looking at the world, and so we can conclude that there is neither a good nor an evil God, because there is both good and evil in the world.

What it is trying to say is that just as we can and do (negatively) rule out an evil God by looking at all the good in the world, so we can as well rule out the existence of a good God. The question is: why the good God instead of the evil God? What’s the evidence for one and not the other? The difference is subtle, and Craig seemed to miss it.

The misunderstanding is evident in Craig’s comment in the debate where he says “I agree that the good things in the world fail to disprove anti-God” (at 0:46:50). This is precisely the disagreement, not the agreement: for Law, the good in the world rules out anti-God just as the evil in the world rules out God. As a consequence, I believe, Craig focused too much on giving reasons for why the good God might permit evil, thus falling into Law’s trap of “the same argument could be made for the evil God”.

Conclusions and contributions

Although at around the middle of the debate Craig seemed to be doing better in the debate (in terms of arguments, debating style and rhetoric as well as audience applause), after the entire debate and some of the post-debate comments I can see why even a Christian blogger could argue that Craig lost the debate.

My own feeling is that both won, as explained above. Since I am writing from a Christian perspective, in a way I’m happy with Craig’s perspective. But on the other hand, from Law’s perspective the question was left unanswered. Not that I want to try to convince Law in a brief blog post, but I do think I have an important point to make about how one should approach Law’s argument.

First, Craig should’ve pushed the philosophical concept and definition of God more. I think he did much better in his post-debate comment:

“Since this being is evil, that implies that he fails to discharge his moral obligations. But where do those come from? How can this evil god have duties to perform which he is violating? Who forbids him to do the wrong things that he does? Immediately, we see that such an evil being cannot be supreme: there must be a being who is even higher than this evil god and is the source of the moral obligations which he chooses to flout, a being which is absolute goodness Himself. In other words, if Law’s evil god exists, then God exists.”

Here Law tries to escape by retracting from “evil god” to a god who “likes suffering”. Then he goes on to say this is question-begging because it all assumes Craig has a good moral argument for God. I disagree: it seems to me this itself is a moral argument for God, it leads us to recognize that the supreme being cannot be evil.

And then why equate evil with suffering? Here you face the sort of problems Sam Harris did in equating good with the well-being of conscious creatures. It seems to me that if you give up the moral aspect of the argument (evil), the whole argument fails, since all along it focused on the moral nature of God.

Second, Craig should’ve run the argument from religious experience. Law’s nagging question was: why believe in the good God, but not the evil God? Why rule out the evil God, but not the good one? The answer seems to be linked with the fact that we along with countless others have a religious experience of a good God. Curiously, there are no world religions of evil gods.

Third, Craig should’ve focused more on the salvation-historical argument, for here lies the real cause of our faith in a good God. The reason to believe in the good God is the whole of salvation history, the marvelous works of the God in history, his self-revelation, culminating in the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit (leading to and coupled with the Christian religious experience throughout the centuries).

Obviously, this is too broad a reality to defend in a short debate, but precisely because of its vast scope it provides us with a decisive weapon against equating a hypothetical evil God with the God of Christians.

Robert Sungenis vs. Peter Dimond on NA and Islam

Posted October 10, 2011 by Emil Anton
Categories: Robert Sungenis, The Dimond brothers

I can’t help but to comment on the recent debate between Robert Sungenis and Peter Dimond on whether Nostra Aetate 3’s teaching on islam is heretical. The comment won’t be long though, for the general impression of the debate was simply that of a “foolish controversy” (Tit. 3:9).

The debate can be listened to here. The debate was not a formal, public, well-organized debate like most of the ones Sungenis has done with James White. It was rather a privately organized, rather poor-quality (probably via Skype or something) debate, where both parties kept repeating more or less the same arguments for about an hour, changing turns every 2 minutes.

Robert Sungenis

Sungenis’ arguments can be summed up in his post-debate summary here. He did a good job in showing how esteeming other religions is in line with Paul’s approach in Acts 17 (as well as Romans 1-2, perhaps). Sungenis also pointed out that NA 3’s “esteem” is linked with monotheism (as well as other elements common between us, perhaps), not all of islam.

Sungenis did a poorer job in answering Dimond’s quotes from earlier Popes as well as St. Thomas. Sometimes he didn’t answer at all, he didn’t seem to be familiar with the particular texts or prepared to deal with them in this context. Sungenis also lost a lot of credibility in trying to explain away consistent papal teaching on Vatican II (labeling them mere “private opinions”).

Sungenis’ intention to keep all Church doctrine together is laudable, but he ends up not “thinking with the Church”. In my view his problem is in the hierarchy of truths: for him, infallibility, authority and inerrancy are in the center (if there’s one error, there can be all kinds of errors and the whole thing goes), rather than at the periphery where they should be (the Gospel, Christ and the Church communion are in the center, inerrancy and infallibility were late developments from, not the foundation of the faith).

Peter Dimond

Peter Dimond did a good job in showing the contrast between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar approaches to Islam. They truly are very different, although some aspects might be explained by different emphases. Dimond did a good debating job as well, sometimes making the debate a bit awkward for Sungenis (eg. the Thomas Aquinas quote as well as the post-conciliar papal teaching argument).

Dimond’s problem is his obsession with heresy. He sees heresy everywhere, when he is in no position to judge. Dimond is also obsessed with ex cathedra dogmas and infallibilities. The fact that a Pope has stated in an encyclical that something is a dogma does not make it a dogma, for encyclicals are not dogmatic definitions. He should point to the dogmatic definition rather than non-infallible papal documents to prove his point.

Dimond suffers from the same problem as Sungenis: a failure to recognize the development of dogma and a fixation in the, say, 13th-19th centuries. The fact is that 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th century Christianity looked very different than medieval Catholicism should make a Catholic open to further developments as well.

Jesus Christ does not change, but he lives and works miracles in His Church, one of which is Her new attitude toward Islam, which can facilitate world peace, fruitful religious dialogue and hopefully true and informed conversions.