Sunday, 22 November

20:06

The unhappy man who lay with his mother [Unam Sanctam Catholicam]

Our humble little publishing operation, Cruachan Hill Press, is about to release a new edition of the Life of St. Columba as told by St. Adamnan, Abbot of Iona. St. Columba (521-597), also known as Columcille, is one of the great saints of the Irish golden age and is known as the Apostle to the Picts and the Apostle of Scotland. The book will also contain several original essays on Columba and Irish Catholicism, as well as an appendix on the hymns of St. Columba. It should be available in the beginning of December.

In working my way through the Vita of this remarkable saint, I came across a section in which St. Columba encounters a penitent who had committed a particularly heinous sexual sin. The saint's reaction is very interesting, especially in light of our contemporary situation vis-a-vis the divorced and civilly remarried, finding "value" in homosexual relationships, etc. Let us read the section in its entirety, taken from St. Adamnan's Life of St. Columba, Book I, Chapter 1:

Regarding an Unhappy Man Who Lay With His Mother

At another time, the saint called out the brethren at the dead of night, and when they were assembled in the church said to them: "Now let us pray fervently to the Lord, for at this hour a sin unheard of in the world has been committed, for which rigorous vengeance that is justly due is very much to be feared."

The next day he spoke of this sin to a few who were asking him about it. "After a few months," he said, "that unhappy wretch will come here to the Iona with [Brother] Lugaid, who is unaware of the sin." Accordingly after the few months had passed away, the saint one day spoke to Diormit [his attendant], and ordered him, "Rise quickly; lo! Lugaid is coming. Tell him to send off the wretch whom he has with him in the ship to the Isle of Mull, that he may not tread the sod of this island." He went to the sea in obedience to the saint's injunction, and told Lugaid as he was approaching all the words of the saint regarding the unhappy man.

On hearing the directions, that unhappy man vowed that he would never eat food with others until he had seen St. Columba and spoken to him. Diormit therefore returned to the saint, and told him the words of the poor wretch. The saint, on hearing them, went down to the haven, and as [Brother] Baitan was citing the authority of Holy Scriptures, and suggesting that the repentance of the unhappy man should be received, the saint immediately replied to him, "O Baitan! This man has committed fratricide like Cain, and become an adulterer with his mother." 

Then the poor wretch, casting himself upon his knees on the beach, promised that he would comply with all the rules of penance, according to the judgment of the saint. The saint said to him, "If you do penance in tears and lamentations for twelve years among the Britons and never to the day of thy death return to Ireland, perhaps God may pardon thy sin." 
Having said these words, the saint turned to his own friends and said, "This man is a son of perdition, who will not perform the penance he has promised, but will soon return to Ireland, and there in a short time be killed by his enemies." All this happened exactly according to the saint's prophecy; for the wretched man, returning to Hibernia about the same time, fell into the hands of his enemies in the region called Lea (Firli, in Ulster), and was murdered."

The man appears to have killed his brother and committed incest with his own mother. I want to note Columba's reactions as the various aspects of this tale unfold. First, when he hears of this sin, his immediate response is horror at the wickedness that has been done. The sins of fratricide and of laying with one's mother is a sin against nature, "for which rigorous vengeance is justly due and very much to be feared." On account of this, he encourages his brethren to "pray fervently" on account of this monstrous act. Columba's initial response is revulsion at this act against nature - he is not interested in finding anything good in the incest and "walking together" from that point. His primary concern is the justice and vengeance of God.

Second, when he finds out that this "unhappy wretch" is planning on visiting the monastery of Iona, he tells his attendant to "send off the wretch whom he has with him in the ship to the Isle of Mull, that he may not tread the sod of this island." He recognizes Iona as a place consecrated to God and is concerned lest the the presence of an unrepentant sinner guilty of such a grotesque crime should pollute the sanctity of the island. He is not concerned with how the "wretch" will feel upon being sent off. He does not put up banners on his church proclaiming how "affirming" and "inclusive" it is. He does not believe that welcoming this unrepentant sinner into the congregation of Iona will be the first step in a gradual leading of the sinner towards the fullness of faith. No - he is mortified that such a person would want to set foot on his island and orders him to be sent off.

Well, in imitation of the Canaanite woman of the Gospel, the sinner begs to see St. Columba, and St. Columba finally relents. It is interesting that one of the monks, Brother Baitan "citing the authority of the scriptures", suggests that the man is penitent and should be received. Baitan seems prone to quickly and easily reconcile the sinner, perhaps moved by a kind of false mercy that would claim to restore grace without the requisite penance. Columba responds by explaining to Baitan the gravity of the sin - essentially saying that this is no ordinary sin, and that ordinary repentance will not be sufficient to restore this man to grace. Because this man has murdered his brother and lain with his mother, "a sin unheard of in the world", an extraordinary degree of penitence is necessary. Columba rightly states that it must be ascertained whether this man has demonstrated sufficient contrition and the willingness to do the proscribed penance. Thus Columba balances Baitan's swift application of reconciliation with a necessary obligation to justice.

The man seems willing to listen to the saint. He throws himself at Columba's feet and promises to do whatever the saint should tell him. This is a pivotal moment, the moment of grace. How does Columba respond? Is he overly anxious to assure the man that he is forgiven, that he should not be scrupulous about his sins? Does he quickly reconcile the man and tell him to follow his conscience regarding whether or not he should return to communion? Does he give him three Hail Mary's and tell him not to worry about it any more? On the contrary, he tells him, "If you do penance in tears and lamentations for twelve years among the Britons and never to the day of thy death return to Ireland, perhaps God may pardon thy sin."

Of course Columba, being a saint, has the gift of foreknowledge and knows that "this son of perdition" will not complete his penance but will return to Ireland impenitent and be murdered by his enemies.

I will not offer any further comment here except to note the gulf that exists between St. Columba's method of interacting with this sinner and the path favored by the modern apostles of mercy. Was St. Columba being unmerciful? It's hard to say how his foreknowledge changes things; would he have behaved differently if he did not already know this man would die impenitent? Who knows - but the point is that Columba's whole orientation is different than what we see being trotted out these days. The modern apostles of mercy have little concern with the objective state of the sinner's soul, no worry for God's vengeance, only trifling care for His justice, and practically no concept of holiness. They - and those who follow them - have become the "unhappy wretches."

Considering the man had committed murder and incest, Columba's penance was merciful. The point is that mercy does not always look the way the Kasperites think it should.

18:09

Charles De Koninck in the House of Commons [John G. Brungardt, Ph.L.]

Philosopher raised from the dead … forced back into the Cave.

Sancrucensis

In yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons, Sir Edward Leigh gave a remarkably well informed reading of Laudato Si’. He even mentions our very own Charles De Koninck:

The Pope is repeating the philosophy of the 20th century philosopher, Professor Charles De Koninck, who understood that the person, the individual, could not be neglected. He differed from the personalists because he knew that the person had to be integrated within a vision of the common good. In the encyclical, the Pope constantly concentrates on our common good and our common nature: the good of the individual, the good of the family, the good of the village, town, province and country, and the good of the whole world. People—you and I—have to be understood, De Koninck argued and the Pope now argues, in the context of our place in the universe as a whole. That is one thing that…

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12:00

Pontifical Low Mass - Annual General Meeting [St. Conleth's Catholic Heritage Association]

On Saturday, 21st November, 2015, His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin honoured our Association by celebrating a Pontifical Low Mass for the feast of the Presentation in the Capuchin Church, Church of St. Mary of the Angels, Church Street, Dublin 7.  The choir of the Augustinian Church, John's Lane, lent great beauty to the ceremonies with their singing.  The Capuchin Community opened their doors and extended great hospitality to us for the use of the Church for Holy Mass, their refectory for refreshments afterwards, catered by the nearby Cinnemon Café.

Afterwards the Annual General Meeting of the Catholic Heritage Association of Ireland was hosted jointly with our Dublin branch, St. Laurence's Catholic Heritage Association.  Immediately following the election of the Committee of St. Laurence's Catholic Heritage Association, Judge Peter Smithwick introduced a talk by Lord Gill, retired Lord President of the Court of Session of Scotland.  Afterwards, Judge Smithwick made presentations to some of the members of the Association for distinguished service over the years.  The afternoon concluded with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament given by Fr. Padraig, O.F.M.Cap.

















04:40

The end of the year is again upon us... [marcpuck]

And while Holy Mass tomorrow at St Mary's will be in the usus recentior and so of Christ King of the Universe, I'm saying the office of the '24th and last' Sunday after Pentecost. Last year I believe I said the office of Christ the King twice, ahem, which is rather too much of a good thing.  
Excita, quǽsumus. Dómine, tuórum fidélium voluntátes: ut, divíni óperis fructum propénsius exsequéntes; pietátis tuæ remédia majóra percípiant. Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, Filium tuum: qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. R. Amen.
I think this is the version actually in use (although of course you have to go to Mass during the week to hear it):
Stir up the will of your faithful, we pray, O Lord, that, striving more eagerly to bring your divine work to fruitful completion, they may receive in greater measure the healing remedies your kindness bestows.
The Introit is Loquebar de testimoniis tuis... but I cannot find a way to put the recording that is at YouTube here, so, the Introit for the Mass of Christ the King:

02:02

Papal fallibility (Updated) [Edward Feser]

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Catholic doctrine on the teaching authority of the pope is pretty clear, but lots of people badly misunderstand it.  A non-Catholic friend of mine recently asked me whether the pope could in theory reverse the Church’s teaching about homosexuality.  Said my friend: “He could just make an ex cathedra declaration to that effect, couldn’t he?”  Well, no, he couldn’t.  That is simply not at all how it works.  Some people think that Catholic teaching is that a pope is infallible not only when making ex cathedra declarations, but in everything he does and says.  That is also simply not the case.  Catholic doctrine allows that popes can make grave mistakes, even mistakes that touch on doctrinal matters in certain ways.
 
Many Catholics know all this, but they often misunderstand papal authority in yet other ways.  Some think that a Catholic is obliged to accept the teaching of a pope only when that teaching is put forward by him as infallible.  That too is not the case.  Contrary to this “minimalist” view, there is much that Catholics have to assent to even though it is not put forward as infallible.  Others think that a Catholic is obliged to agree more or less with every view or decision of a pope regarding matters of theology, philosophy, politics, etc. even when it is not put forward as infallible.  And that too is not the case.  Contrary to this “maximalist” view, there is much to which a Catholic need give only respectful consideration, but not necessarily assent.  As always, Catholic doctrine is balanced, a mean between extremes -- in this case, between these minimalist and maximalist extremes.  But it is also nuanced, and to understand it we need to make some distinctions that are too often ignored.

Papal infallibility

First let’s get clear about infallibility.  The First Vatican Council taught that:

[W]hen the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.  Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

What the Council is describing here is the pope’s exercise of what is called his “extraordinary Magisterium,” as opposed to his “ordinary Magisterium” or everyday teaching activity in the form of homilies, encyclicals, etc.  The passage identifies several conditions for the exercise of this extraordinary Magisterium.  First, the pope must appeal to his supreme teaching authority as the successor of Peter, as opposed to speaking merely as a private theologian, or making off-the-cuff remarks, or the like.  An exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium would, accordingly, typically involve some formal and solemn declaration.  Second, he must be addressing some matter of doctrine concerning faith or morals.  The extraordinary Magisterium doesn’t pertain to purely scientific questions such as how many elements are in the periodic table, political questions such as whether a certain proposed piece of legislation is a good idea, etc.  Third, he must be “defining” some doctrine in the sense of putting it forward as official teaching that is binding on the entire Church.  The extraordinary Magisterium doesn’t pertain to teaching that concerns merely local or contingent circumstances.

But there is a further, crucial condition on such ex cathedra statements.  The First Vatican Council emphasized it in a passage that comes several paragraphs before the one quoted above:

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

Papal teaching, then, including exercises of the extraordinary Magisterium, cannot contradict Scripture, Tradition, or previous binding papal teaching.  Nor can it introduce utter novelties.  Popes have authority only to preserve and interpret what they have received.  They can draw out the implications of previous teaching or clarify it where it is ambiguous. They can make formally binding what was already informally taught.  But they cannot reverse past teaching and they cannot make up new doctrines out of whole cloth. 

Along the same lines, the Second Vatican Council taught, in Dei Verbum, that the Church cannot teach contrary to Scripture:

[T]he living teaching office of the Church… is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully…

Pope Benedict XVI put the point as follows, in a homily of May 7, 2005:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law.  On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word.  He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism…

The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church's pilgrimage.  Thus, his power is not being above, but at the service of, the Word of God.  It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.

Though the pope’s exercise of his ordinary Magisterium is not always infallible, it can be under certain circumstances.  In particular, it is infallible when the pope officially reaffirms something that was already part of the Church’s infallible teaching on the basis of Scripture and Tradition.  For example, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed traditional teaching to the effect that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith thereafter confirmed that this teaching is to be regarded as infallible.  The reason it is to be regarded as infallible is not that the papal document in question constituted an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium, but rather because of the teaching’s status as part of the constant and universal doctrine of the Church. 

Now, what makes some constant and universal teaching of the Churchinfallible is itself an important topic, but one that is beyond the scope of this post, which is concerned with the teaching authority of the pope, specifically.  Suffice it to emphasize for present purposes that, precisely because exercises of the pope’s ordinary Magisterium are infallible when they merely reaffirm the Church’s own constant and universal teaching, they too do not involve either the reversal of past teaching or the addition of some novelty. 

Papal infallibility, then, is not some magical power by which a pope can transform any old thing he wishes into a truth that all are bound to accept.  It is an extension of the infallibility of the preexisting body of doctrine that it is his job to safeguard, and thus must always be exercised in continuity with that body of doctrine.  Naturally, then, the pope would not be speaking infallibly if he taught something that either had no basis in Scripture, Tradition, or previous magisterial teaching, or contradicted those sources of doctrine.  If it had no such basis, it could be mistaken, and if it contradicted those sources of doctrine, it would be mistaken. 

It is very rare, however, that a pope says something even in his ordinary Magisterium that is manifestly either a sheer novelty or in conflict with existing doctrine.  Popes know that their job is to preserve and apply Catholic teaching, and thus when they say something that isn’t just a straightforward reiteration of preexisting doctrine, they are typically trying to draw out the implications of existing doctrine, to resolve some ambiguity in it, to apply the doctrine to new circumstances, or the like.  If there is some deficiency in such statements, then, it will typically be subtle and take some careful thinking to identify and correct.  There is in Catholic doctrine, therefore, a presumption in favor of what a pope says even in his ordinary non-infallible Magisterium, even if it is a presumption which can be overridden.  Hence the default position for any Catholic must be to assent to such non-infallible teaching.  Or at least that is the default position where that teaching concerns matters of principlevis-à-vis faith and morals -- as opposed to application of principle to contingent concrete circumstances, where judgments about such circumstances are of their nature beyond the special competence of the pope.

Five categories of magisterial statement

So, when must a Catholic assent to some non-infallible papal statement?  When might a Catholic disagree with such a statement?  This is a subject greatly clarified by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) during his time as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.  Perhaps the most important document in this connection is the 1990 instruction Donum Veritatis: On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, though there are also other relevant statements.  Cardinal Avery Dulles has suggested that one can identify four general categories of magisterial statement in Donum Veritatis.  (See Dulles’s essay “The Magisterium and Theological Dissent” in The Craft of Theology.  Cf. also chapter 7 of Dulles’s book Magisterium.)  However, as other statements from Ratzinger indicate, Dulles’s fourth category appears to lump together statements with two different degrees of authority.  When these are distinguished, it is clear that there are really five general categories of magisterial statement.  They are as follows:

1. Statements which definitively put forward divinely revealed truths, or dogmas in the strict sense.  Examples would be the Christological dogmas, the doctrine of original sin, the grave immorality of directly and voluntarily killing an innocent human being, and so forth.  As Dulles notes, according to Catholic teaching, statements in this category must be affirmed by every Catholic with “divine and Catholic faith.”  No legitimate disagreement is possible.

2. Statements which definitively put forward truths which are not revealed, but closely connected with revealed truths.  Examples would be moral teachings such as the immorality of euthanasia, and the teaching that priestly ordination is reserved only to men.  According to Donum Veritatis, statements in this category must be “firmly accepted and held” by all Catholics.  Here too, legitimate disagreement is not possible.

3. Statements which in a non-definitive but obligatory way clarify revealed truths.  Dulles suggests that “the teaching of Vatican II, which abstained from new doctrinal definitions, falls predominantly into this category” (The Craft of Theology, p. 110).  According to Donum Veritatis, statements in this category must be accepted by Catholics with “religious submission of will and intellect.”  Given their non-definitive character, however, the assent due to such statements is not of the absolute kind owed to statements of categories 1 and 2.  The default position is to assent to them, but it is in principle possible that the very strong presumption in their favor can be overridden.  Donum Veritatissays:

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.  It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions.

For this reason,

the possibility cannot be excluded that tensions may arise between the theologian and the Magisterium… If tensions do not spring from hostile and contrary feelings, they can become a dynamic factor, a stimulus to both the Magisterium and theologians to fulfill their respective roles while practicing dialogue…

[A theologian’s] objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.

However, Donum Veritatis also makes it clear that in the normal case even a justifiably doubtful theologian’s further investigations into the matter will eventually result in assent.  The burden of proof is on the doubting theologian to justify his non-assent, and

Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable.  Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine.

Nor, as Donum Veritatis makes clear, could theologians legitimately express their disagreement in these cases with a polemical spirit, or apply political pressure tactics in order to influence the Magisterium, or set themselves up as a counter-Magisterium.

As William May has pointed out, the most plausible scenario in which “theologians [might] raise questions of this kind [would be] when they can appeal to other magisterial teachings that are more certainly and definitively taught with which they think the teaching questioned is incompatible” (An Introduction to Moral Theology, p. 242). 

4. Statements of a prudential sort which require external obedience but not interior assent.  As Dulles notes (Magisterium, p. 94), Cardinal Ratzinger gave as an example of this sort of statement the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the early 20thcentury.  Dulles suggests that the Church’s caution about accepting heliocentrism in the 17th century would be another example.  These sorts of statements are “prudential” insofar as they are attempts prudently to apply general principles of faith and morals to contingent concrete circumstances, such as the state of scientific knowledge at a particular point in history.  And there is no guarantee that churchmen, including popes, will make correct judgments about these circumstances or how best to apply general principles to them.  Hence, while Donum Veritatissays that it would be a mistake “to conclude that the Church's Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments,” nevertheless:

When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.  Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question.

As the examples given indicate, statements of category 4 generally concern what sorts of positions theologians might in their public writing or teaching put forward as consistent with Catholic doctrine.  The concern is that theologians not too rashly publicly endorse some idea which may or may not turn out to be true, but whose relationship to matters of faith and morals is complicated, and where mistakes may damage the faith of non-experts.  Here what is called for is external obedience to the Church’s decisions, but not necessarily assent.  A “reverent silence” might be the most that is called for, though since Donum Veritatis allows that a theologian might in principle legitimately raise questions about category 3 statements, such questions could obviously be legitimate in the case of category 4 statements as well.  Presumably (for example) a theologian could in principle legitimately say: “I will in my scholarship and teaching abide by such-and-such a decision of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.  However, I respectfully request that the Commission reconsider that decision in light of such-and-such considerations.”

The examples of “prudential” judgments which Donum Veritatis addresses and which Dulles discusses in his comments on that document are all judgments which are very closely connected to matters of principle vis-à-vis faith and morals, even if the statements are of a lesser authority than statements of categories 1-3.  For example, the prudential decisions regarding heliocentrism and modern historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship were intended to preclude any rash judgments about the proper interpretation of scripture. 

However, statements by popes and other churchmen which lack any such momentous doctrinal implications, but instead concern issues of politics, economics, and the like, are also often referred to as “prudential judgments,” because they too involve the attempt prudently to apply general principles of faith and morals to contingent concrete circumstances.  Donum Veritatis does not address this sort of judgment and neither does Dulles in his discussion of the document, but it is clear from other statements by Cardinal Ratzinger that it constitutes a fifth category of magisterial teaching:

5. Statements of a prudential sort on matters about which there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics.  Examples would be many of the statements made by popes and other churchmen on matters of political controversy, such as war and capital punishment.  Cardinal Ratzinger gave these as specific examples in a 2004 memorandum on the topic “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles,” wherein he stated:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.  There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia. (Emphasis added)

End quote.  Note that Cardinal Ratzinger goes so far as to say that a Catholic may be “at odds with” the pope on the application of capital punishment and the decision to wage war and still be worthy to receive communion -- something he could not have said if it were mortally sinful to disagree with the pope on those issues.  It follows that there is no grave duty to assent to the pope’s statements on those issues.  The cardinal also says that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty,” despite the fact that Pope John Paul II, under whom the Cardinal was serving at the time, made very strong statements against capital punishment and the Iraq war.  It follows that the pope’s statements on those issues were not binding on Catholics even on pain of venial sin, for diversity of opinion could not be “legitimate” if it were even venially sinful to disagree with the pope on these matters.  In the memorandum, Cardinal Ratzinger also explicitly says that Catholic voters and politicians must oppose laws permitting abortion and euthanasia, as well as abstain from Holy Communion if they formally cooperate with these evils.  By contrast, he makes no requirement on the behavior (such as voting) of Catholics who disagree with the pope about capital punishment or the decision to wage war.  So, papal statements on those subjects, unlike category 4 statements, evidently do not require any sort of external obedience much less assent.  Catholics thus owe such statements serious and respectful consideration, but nothing more. 

Contemporary works of theology written by theologians loyal to the Magisterium often recognize this category of prudential statements to which Catholics need not assent.  For example, in his book The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy, J. Michael Miller (currently the Archbishop of Vancouver) writes:

John Paul II’s support for financial compensation equal to other kinds of work for mothers who stay at home to take care of their children, or his plea to cancel the debt of Third World nations as a way to alleviate massive poverty, fall into this category.  Catholics are free to disagree with these papal guidelines as ways in which to secure justice.  They can submit to debate alternative practical solutions, provided that they accept the moral principles which the pope propounds in his teaching. (p. 175)

Germain Grisez suggests that there are five sorts of cases in which assent is not required (The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, p. 49).  The first would be cases in which popes and other churchmen are not addressing matters of faith and morals.  The second are cases where they are addressing matters of faith and morals, but speaking merely as individual believers or private theologians rather than in an official capacity.  The third sort of case would be when they are teaching in an official capacity, but in a tentative way.  The fourth are cases where popes or other churchmen put forward non-binding arguments for a teaching which is itself binding on Catholics.  The fifth sort of case is when they are putting forward merely disciplinary directives with which a Catholic might legitimately disagree even if he has to follow them.

It is perhaps worth noting that the works just cited are works bearing the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur.  The reason this is worth noting, and the reason it is also worth emphasizing the significance of Cardinal Ratzinger’s memorandum, is that certain Catholic writers have a tendency to accuse fellow Catholics who disagree with papal statements on matters of political controversy of being “dissenters.” For example, it is sometimes claimed that any Catholic who is consistently “pro-life” will not only agree with papal statements condemning abortion and euthanasia, but will also agree with papal statements criticizing capital punishment or the war in Iraq, or endorsing certain economic policies.  The suggestion is that Catholics who reject the Church’s teaching on abortion and euthanasia are “left-wing dissenters” and Catholics who disagree with recent papal statements on capital punishment, the war in Iraq, or specific economic policies are “right-wing dissenters” -- as if both sides are engaged in disobedience to the Church, and disobedience of the same sort.

At best this reflects serious theological ignorance.  At worst it is intellectually dishonest and demagogic.  A Catholic who disagrees with the Church’s teaching on abortion or euthanasia is rejecting a category 1 or category 2 magisterial statement -- something that is never permitted.  But a Catholic who disagrees with what recent popes have said about capital punishment, the war in Iraq, or specific economic policies is disagreeing with category 5 statements -- something that the Church herself holds to be permissible.  Hence, Catholics who condemn their fellow Catholics for disagreeing with category 5 statements are themselves the ones who are out of sync with what the Church teaches -- not to mention exhibiting a lack of justice and charity. 

Papal error

Since the Church allows that Catholics can under certain circumstances legitimately disagree with statements of category 3, not to mention statements of categories 4 and 5, Catholic teaching thereby implies that it is possible for popes to be mistaken when making statements falling under any of these categories.  It is even possible for a pope to be mistaken in a more radical way if, outside the context of his extraordinary Magisterium, he says something inconsistent with a statement of category 1 or category 2.  And it is possible for a pope to fall into error in other ways, such as by carrying out unwise policies or exhibiting immorality in his personal life.  Indeed, short of binding the Church to heresy, it is possible for a pope to do grave harm to the Church.  As Cardinal Ratzinger once said when asked whether the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of popes:

I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.  I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. (Quoted in John Allen, Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election)

Here are some examples of popes who have erred, in some cases in an extremely serious way:

St. Peter (d. c. 64): As if to warn the Church in advance that popes are infallible only within limits, the first pope was allowed to fall into serious error.  Before the crucifixion, he denied Christ.  On another occasion he avoided eating with Gentile converts lest he offend the more hardline Jewish Christians, leading St. Paul famously to rebuke him.  Says the Catholic Encyclopedia:

As this action was entirely opposed to the principles and practice of Paul, and might lead to confusion among the converted pagans, this Apostle addressed a public reproach to St. Peter, because his conduct seemed to indicate a wish to compel the pagan converts to become Jews and accept circumcision and the Jewish law… Paul, who rightly saw the inconsistency in the conduct of Peter and the Jewish Christians, did not hesitate to defend the immunity of converted pagans from the Jewish Law.

Pope St. Victor I (189-98): Western and Eastern Christians had long disagreed over the date on which Easter should be celebrated.  Though earlier popes had tolerated this difference, St. Victor tried to force the issue and excommunicated several Eastern bishops over the matter.  For this excessive severity and departure from previous papal policy, he was criticized by St. Irenaeus. 

Pope St. Marcellinus (296-304): During a persecution of Christians, Emperor Diocletian ordered the surrender of sacred books and the offering of sacrifice to the gods.  It is said that a fearful St. Marcellinus complied, and later repented of having done so.  Historians disagree about whether this actually occurred.  However, as the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

On the other hand it is remarkable, that in the Roman “Chronograph” whose first edition was in 336, the name of this pope alone is missing, while all other popes from Lucius I onwards are forthcoming…

[I]t must indeed be admitted that in certain circles at Rome the conduct of the pope during the Diocletian persecution was not approved… It is possible that Pope Marcellinus was able to hide himself in a safe place of concealment in due time, as many other bishops did.  But it is also possible that at the publication of the edict he secured his own immunity; in Roman circles this would have been imputed to him as weakness, so that his memory suffered thereunder, and he was on that account omitted… from the “Chronograph”…

Pope Liberius (352-366): With the Arian heresy having been endorsed by many bishops, and under pressure from the emperor, Pope Liberius acquiesced in the excommunication of the staunchly orthodox St. Athanasius and agreed to an ambiguous theological formula.  He later repented of his weakness, but he would be the first pope not to be venerated as a saint.

Pope Honorius I (625-638): Pope Honorius at least implicitly accepted the Monothelite heresy, was condemned for this by his successor Pope St. Agatho, and criticized by Pope St. Leo for being at least negligent.  Though his actions are in no way incompatible with papal infallibility -- Honorius was not putting forward a would-be ex cathedra definition -- they caused grave damage by providing fodder for critics of the papacy.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia says: “It is clear that no Catholic has the right to defend Pope Honorius.  He was a heretic, not in intention, but in fact…”

Pope Stephen VI (896-897): In the notorious “cadaver synod” -- an event which some historians consider the low point of the papacy -- Pope Stephen exhumed the corpse of his predecessor Pope Formosus, dressed it in papal vestments and placed it on a throne, put it on trial for alleged violations of church law (see the illustration above), found it guilty and declared all of Formosus’s acts while pope null and void, then had the corpse flung into the Tiber.  Formosus’s supporters later deposed Stephen and put him in jail, where he was strangled.

Pope John XII (955-964): E. R. Chamberlin, in his book The Bad Popes, describes the character of Pope John XII as follows:

In his relationship with the Church, John seems to have been urged toward a course of deliberate sacrilege that went far beyond the casual enjoyment of sensual pleasures.  It was as though the dark element in his nature goaded him on to test the utmost extents of his power, a Christian Caligula whose crimes were rendered particularly horrific by the office he held.  Later, the charge was specifically made against him that he turned the Lateran into a brothel; that he and his gang violated female pilgrims in the very basilica of St. Peter; that the offerings of the humble laid upon the altar were snatched up as casual booty.

He was inordinately fond of gambling, at which he invoked the names of those discredited gods now universally regarded as demons.  His sexual hunger was insatiable -- -- a minor crime in Roman eyes.  What was far worse was that the casual occupants of his bed were rewarded not with casual gifts of gold but of land. (pp. 43-44).

Of his demise, J. N. D. Kelly writes in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes: “[H]e suffered a stroke, allegedly while in bed with a married woman, and a week later he died.”

Pope Benedict IX (1032-44; 1045; 1047-8): Benedict IX was elected through bribes paid by his father.  Kelly tells us that “his personal life, even allowing for exaggerated reports, was scandalously violent and dissolute.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia judges: “He was a disgrace to the Chair of Peter.”

Pope John XXII (1316-34): Pope John XXII taught the heterodox view that the souls of the blessed do not see God immediately after death, but only at the resurrection -- a version of what is called the “soul sleep” theory.  For this he was severely criticized by the theologians of his day, and later recanted this view.  As with Honorius, John’s actions were not incompatible with papal infallibility -- he expressed the view in a sermon rather than by way of issuing a formal doctrinal statement.  But as James Hitchcock judges in his History of the Catholic Church, “this remains the clearest case in the history of the Church of a possibly heretical pope” (p. 215).

Pope Urban VI (1378-89): Urban is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as an “inconstant and quarrelsome” man whose “whole reign was a series of misadventures.”  The cardinals attempted to replace him with another pope, Clement VII -- beginning the infamous forty-year-long Great Western Schism, in which at first these two men, and later a third man, all claimed the papal throne.  Theologians, and even saints, were divided on the controversy.  St. Catherine of Siena was among the saints who supported Urban, while St. Vincent Ferrer is among the saints who supported Clement.

Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503): This Borgia pope, who had many children by his mistresses, notoriously used the papal office to advance the interests of his family.

Pope Leo X (1513-21): Leo X is the pope who is famously said to have remarked: “Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us.”  Says the Catholic Encyclopedia:

[T]he phrase illustrates fairly the pope's pleasure-loving nature and the lack of seriousness that characterized him.  He paid no attention to the dangers threatening the papacy, and gave himself up unrestrainedly to amusements, that were provided in lavish abundance.  He was possessed by an insatiable love of pleasure, that distinctive trait of his family. Music, the theatre, art, and poetry appealed to him as to any pampered worldling.

Leo was pope during the time of Luther’s revolt, with which he did not deal wisely.  The Catholic Encyclopedia continues:

[When we] turn to the political and religious events of Leo's pontificate… the bright splendour that diffuses itself over his literary and artistic patronage, is soon changed to deepest gloom. His well-known peaceable inclinations made the political situation a disagreeable heritage, and he tried to maintain tranquillity by exhortations, to which, however, no one listened

The only possible verdict on the pontificate of Leo X is that it was unfortunate for the Church… Von Reumont says pertinently -- “Leo X is in great measure to blame for the fact that faith in the integrity and merit of the papacy, in its moral and regenerating powers, and even in its good intentions, should have sunk so low that men could declare extinct the old true spirit of the Church.”

Further examples could be given, but these suffice to show how very gravely popes can err when they are not exercising their extraordinary Magisterium.  And if popes can err gravely even on matters touching on doctrine and the governance of the Church, it goes without saying that they can err gravely with respect to matters of politics, science, economics, and the like.  As Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val wrote in his 1902 book The Truth of Papal Claims:

Great as our filial duty of reverence is towards what ever [the pope] may say, great as our duty of obedience must be to the guidance of the Chief Shepherd, we do not hold that every word of his is infallible, or that he must always be right.  Much less do we dream of teaching that he is infallible, or in any degree superior to other men, when he speaks on matters that are scientific, or historical, or political, or that he may not make mistakes of judgment in dealing with contemporary events, with men and things. (p. 19)

[E]ven to-day a Bishop might… expostulate with a Pope, who, in his judgment, might be acting in a way which was liable to mislead those under his own charge… The hypothesis is quite conceivable, and in no way destroys or diminishes the supremacy of the Pope. (p. 74)

And as theologian Karl Adam wrote in his 1935 book The Spirit of Catholicism:

[T]he men through whom God's revelation is mediated on earth are by the law of their being conditioned by the limitations of their age.  And they are conditioned also by the limitations of their individuality. Their particular temperament, mentality, and character are bound to color, and do color, the manner in which they dispense the truth and grace of Christ… So it may happen, and it must happen, that pastor and flock, bishop, priest, and layman are not always worthy mediators and recipients of God's grace, and that the infinitely holy is sometimes warped and distorted in passing through them. Wherever you have men, you are bound to have a restricted outlook and narrowness of judgment.  For talent is rare, and genius comes only when God calls it.  Eminent popes, bishops of great spiritual force, theologians of genius, priests of extraordinary graces and devout layfolk: these must be, not the rule, but the exception…  The Church has from God the guarantee that she will not fall into error regarding faith or morals; but she has no guarantee whatever that every act and decision of ecclesiastical authority will be excellent and perfect.  Mediocrity and even defects are possible.  (pp. 248-9)

That popes are fallible in the ways that they are is as important for Catholics to keep in mind as the fact that popes are infallible when speaking ex cathedra.  Many well-meaning Catholics have forgotten this truth, or appear to want to suppress it.  When recent popes have said or done strange or even manifestly unwise things, these apologists have refused to admit it.  They have tied themselves in logical knots trying to show that the questionable statement or action is perfectly innocent, or even conveys some deep insight, if only we would be willing to see it.  Had Catholic bloggers and pop apologists been around in previous ages, some of them would no doubt have been assuring their readers that the Eastern bishops excommunicated by Pope Victor must have had it coming and that St. Irenaeus should have kept silent; or that Pope Stephen was trying to teach us some profound spiritual truth with the cadaver synod if only we would listen; or that Liberius, Honorius, and John XXII were really deepening our understanding of doctrine rather than confusing the faithful. 

This kind of “spin doctoring” only makes those engaging in it look ridiculous.  Worse, it does grave harm to the Church and to souls.  It makes Catholicism appear Orwellian, as if a pope can by fiat make even sheer novelties and reversals of past teaching somehow a disguised passing on of the deposit of faith.  Catholics who cannot bear such cognitive dissonance may have their faith shaken.  Non-Catholics repulsed by such intellectual dishonesty will wrongly judge that to be a Catholic one must become a shill.

The sober truth is that Christ sometimes lets his Vicar err, only within definite limits but sometimes gravely.  Why?  In part because popes, like all of us, have free will.  But in part, precisely to show that (as Cardinal Ratzinger put it) “the thing cannot be totally ruined” -- not even by a pope.  Once more to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia, in its judgment about the outcome of the Great Western Schism:

Gregorovius, whom no one will suspect of exaggerated respect for the papacy… writes: “A temporal kingdom would have succumbed thereto; but the organization of the spiritual kingdom was so wonderful, the ideal of the papacy so indestructible, that this, the most serious of schisms, served only to demonstrate its indivisibility”… From a widely different standpoint de Maistre holds the same view: “This scourge of contemporaries is for us an historical treasure.  It serves to prove how immovable is the throne of St. Peter.  What human organization would have withstood this trial?”

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 UPDATE: The esteemed Dr. Edward Peters, canon lawyer extraordinaire, kindly comments on my article at his blog.  He argues that, contrary to what I implied in my post, John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis did indeed constitute an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium.  He makes a strong case. 

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11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
July 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
June 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
26272829303101
02030405060708
09101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30010203040506
May 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293001020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829303101
April 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
31010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293001020304
March 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
24252627280102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31010203040506
February 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282930310102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627280102
January 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30310102030405
06070809101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930310102
December 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
25262728293001
02030405060708
09101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30310102030405
November 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293001
October 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
August 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
29303101020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829303101
July 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
01020304050607
08091011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
29303101020304
June 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282930310102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
May 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
29300102030405
06070809101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930310102
April 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
01020304050607
08091011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
29300102030405
March 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
25262728010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
February 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728010203
January 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
31010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
December 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
26272829300102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31010203040506
November 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
29303101020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829300102
October 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
01020304050607
08091011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
29303101020304
September 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282930310102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
June 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293001
May 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
March 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282901020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829303101
February 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30310102030405
06070809101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282901020304
December 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293001020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829303101
November 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
31010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293001020304
July 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282930010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
April 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293001
March 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
November 2010
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
01020304050607
08091011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
29300102030405
August 2010
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
26272829303101
02030405060708
09101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30310102030405
June 2010
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
31010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293001020304
January 2010
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
December 2009
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
November 2009
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
26272829303101
02030405060708
09101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30010203040506