XII. Blunders of the Magisterium:
Let us run through a number of examples in which the magisterium appears either to have contradicted itself or staked out an untenable position, from which it later retreated.
i) In the papal Bull "Unam Sanctam," Boniface VIII declared there to be only one true Church, outside of which there is to be found neither salvation nor the remission of sin, and he identified this Church with the Roman communion in particular since he went on to conclude, by way of consequence, that it is altogether necessary to one’s salvation to be in submission to the Pope. This position came to be codified at the councils of Florence and Lateran IV. Similarly, the Tridentine faith, as well as the oath of papal primacy (Vatican I) are both imposed on pain of damnation. Likewise, Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors (3:17; cf. 3:15-16,18), denies that a good hope is to be held out for the salvation of those who are not members of the true Church.
When, however, we turn to Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 16; Gaudium et spes 22; Nostra Aeta 3); or John-Paul II’s book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope; or Cardinal Ratzinger's book, God and the World, every allowance is made for the possible and actual salvation of an indefinite number of non-Catholics and even non-Christians. And, in this, the Pope and the Prefect are merely parroting the universalism of Rahner and Urs von Balthasar.
ii) In the Council of Trent, "Sacred Tradition" is equated with an oral tradition that traces directly back to the words of Christ and the Apostles (Decree on the canonical scriptures). For the Tridentine debate, cf. D. Wells, Revolution in Rome (IVP 1972).
That distinction is reaffirmed in Vatican I. Pius XII draws the same distinction in a major encyclical (Humani generis ).
But by the time we get to Vatican II, the two-source model does a diplomatic disappearing act as we watch Sacred Tradition morph into a fluid and dynamic principle that is identified with the progress of dogma— scarcely distinguishable from the magisterium itself (Dei Verbum 8-10). The same tactic is on display in Ratzinger's defense of the Assumption, which is a model of historical revisionism. Cf. Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (Ignatius, 1998), 58-59.
iii) The traditional teaching of the magisterium repeatedly and emphatically affirms the plenary inspiration of Scripture—extending to its factual inerrancy—in opposition to Modernism. Cf. Vatican I; Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors; Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus; Pius X, Lambentabili; Pascendi; Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus; Pius XII, Humani generis.
But in a watershed encyclical (Divino afflante Spiritu), Pius XII made allowance for a form of genre criticism that opened the door a dehistorical reading of Biblical narrative, and by the time we arrive at Vatican II, only a version of partial inspiration is affirmed, limiting inerrancy to those truths that God has confided in Scripture "for the sake of our salvation (Dei Verbum 11)." Cf. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, H. Vorgrimler, ed. (Herder & Herder, 1969), 3:199-246.
And since, as we’ve already noted under (i), the magisterium now maintains that Christian revelation is inessential to salvation, there is, in principle, nothing left in the subject-matter to Scripture to which inspiration necessarily attaches.
iv) Vatican II affirms that the universal consensus of the laity cannot err in matters of faith and morals (Lumen Gentium 12). Now according to Paul VI’s’ famous or infamous "Humanae Vitae," artificial birth control is inherently evil. This position is reaffirmed, among other places, in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (¶2366-2370)—a work that carries the Imprimi Potest of Cardinal Ratzinger and an apostolic constitution of John-Paul II declaring it to be nothing less than "a sure norm for teaching the faith...by virtue of his Apostolic authority." Yet it would be hard to find a magisterial teaching that has provoked more nearly uniform dissent on the part of the laity (not to mention priests and theologians. So which are we to choose? The magisterium or the consensus of the faithful?
v) Vatican II quotes from the Pastoral and Prison Epistles in support of apostolic succession (Lumen Gentium 20). Such an appeal assumes the Pauline authorship of this correspondence. But since Roman Catholic scholars (e.g., R. Brown, Fitzmyer, Murphy-O'Connor, Quinn, Wacker, Wikenhauser) are now at liberty to deny Pauline authorship, the Magisterium is not entitled to collect on a claim after having cancelled the policy. So this appeal would, at most, prove pseudo-apostolic succession.
This is commonplace. Vatican II carries over many of the traditional prooftexts from Trent and Vatican I. But those were underwritten by a Tridentine view of Scripture which Vatican II no longer endorses. It ought, in all honesty, make the necessary adjustments in its methods of prooftexting. But that would uncover an open rift between Trent and Vatican II, bringing both bodies into disrepute.
I'm arguing, now, on its own grounds, not on Protestant turf. Even assuming Pauline authorship—which is a Protestant presupposition— the appeal falls well short of the mark, for it overspecifies their import, overgeneralizes their range reference, and disregards the distinctive role of the Apostolate.
vi) Vatican II cites Acts 2:4 as a prooftext for the sacrament of holy orders (Lumen Gentium, 3:21). But this reading cuts against the grain. In context, the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit is treated as the firstfruits of a "universal," as a anointing on the people of God (2:16ff.,38f.). To limit this charism to a clerical class runs in express opposition to the emphatic direction of the text—as G. B. Caird has pointed out, ibid., 37-38.
vii) In Vatican II, Paul VI attaches an "explanatory note" ("Ministeria quaedam") to Lumen Gentium—in which he has to counter the conciliarist thrust of Lumen Gentium and restore papal supremacy. Here we have a flat contradiction between the Pope and the Council.
viii) In 1590, Sixtus V issued an edition of the Vulgate—the proud result of his own text-critical prowess—accompanied by a bull in which he declared this to be, by virtue of his apostolic fullness, and as an item of absolutely certain knowledge, the authentic and irreformable text of the Vulgate. But the Sistine edition turned out to be so riddled with blunders that it was quietly withdrawn from public circulation after his death, and a revised edition issued under Clement VIII, who naturally served up the same superlatives in favor of his own version.
ix) In its canonical list, Trent mistakenly attributes the composition of James to the Apostle rather than the Lord’s brother. This identification has been surrendered even by Catholic scholars (R. Brown, ibid., 725-727,741).
x) In the same context, Trent also codifies the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, although this cannot be sustained on either internal or external grounds, and is not defended by modern Catholic scholarship. (Cf. R. Brown, ibid., 693-695; cf. L. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament [Fortress 1999], 460-61)
xi) Vatican II has the disconcerting habit of appealing to the long ending of Mark to bolster some of its claims. To take just one example, it informs the reader that Christ himself "explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5)," (Lumen Gentium 29:14). But since the long ending of Mark is admittedly spurious on all hands, the Council is trafficking in an open falsehood.
xii) Trent declares the Vulgate to be an "authentic" translation of the scriptures, and condemns anyone who would reject it under any pretext whatsoever. Now to point out just one of many major obstacles in the way of making good on this claim, standard editions of the Vulgate use the Gallican Psalter, which was not a direct translation from the Hebrew, but from the LXX, and thus a tertiary translation.
xiii) Trent declares that all seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, the Mass, penance, last rites, holy orders, and matrimony) were instituted by Christ (Decree on the Sacraments [Session 7, canon 1]). Of course, this claim is exegetically unsupportable. Indeed, I doubt you could find one major exegete of the post-Vatican II era who would attempt to defend it as it stands. Some might still defend seven sacraments, but that would be by appeal to the progress of dogma rather than direct dominical institution.
xiv) In fact, the Tridentine Fathers depart from their own rules of evidence. For in the canons on Confirmation, no appeal is made either to Scripture or tradition. And in its defense of the sacramental status of marriage, it makes initial appeal to Gen 2:23f. But that is subversive of its claim that marriage is a dominical institution—for the recourse to the book of Genesis implies that marriage was a creation-mandate rather than a Christian sacrament. This ordinance obviously antedates the NT. Indeed, Trent still can’t come up with any dominical prooftext regarding the sacramental status and origin of marriage. It quotes Jesus on divorce, but that isn’t to the point—and, indeed, presupposes the institution of marriage. Finally, it cites the Apostle Paul. But this appeal is flawed on a couple of grounds:
a) Even if this were adequate to establish the sacramental standing of matrimony, that goes no distance to establish its "dominical" origin.
b) The Tridentine Fathers appear to be dependent on the Vulgate, which renders mysterion (Eph 5:25,32) as sacramentum. This reliance is doubly inept, by first assuming that sacramentum was a technical term in Jerome’s time, and then assuming that the semantic domain of sacramentum coincides with the semantic domain of mysterion. The former assumption is a semantic anachronism, while the latter is a semantic fallacy.
Notice, once again, that I’m not imposing my Protestant rule of faith on the deliberations of Trent. It is the Tridentine Fathers who are trying here to justify their position by appeal to Scripture. By their own yardstick, they just don’t measure up.
xv) We see the same pattern in their discussion of last rites. They begin by defining this "sacrament" as a means of perfecting the grace of penance, to be administered at the end of life. But they then go to Mk 6:13 and Jas 5:14-15 to corroborate their claim. Yet these verses are concerned with divine healing. The sick are cured and rise from their deathbed. This is a new lease on life, and not a rite for the dying. The difference could not be more elementary.
I’ll wrap up with a few juicy gleanings of Ignaz von Döllinger, the great church historian:
xvi) "Innocent I and Gelatius I...declared it to be so indispensable for infants to receive communion that those who died without it go straight to hell. A thousand years later the Council of Trent anathematized this doctrine," The Pope and the Council (Boston, 1870), 42." Incidentally, would this anathema apply retroactively, rendering Innocent and Gelatius excommunicate and thus making them anti-popes?
xvii) "The Capernaite doctrine, that Christ’s body is sensibly touched by the hands and broken by the teeth in the Eucharist...was affirmed by Nicholas II at the Synod of Rome in 1059," ibid., 45."
xviii) "In a Bull of 1471, Sixtus IV reserved for himself, as an exclusive prerogative of the Pope, the fabrication of waxen lambs used as a preservative against enchantments. According to him, their touch bestowed, besides remission of sin, security against fire, shipwreck, lightning, and hailstones," ibid., 207."
In addition to the examples above, there are a number of other celebrated cases implicating at least a half dozen of the popes, viz., Liberius, Zosimus, Vigilius, Julius I, Honorius I, Celestine I, and Eugenius IV. Besides von Döllinger, consult J.N.D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford, 1986); B.J. Kidd, The Roman Primacy to AD 461 (London: SPCK, 1936); R. McBrien, Lives of the Popes (HarperCollins, 1997), and The New Catholic Encyclopedia (CUA 1967, rev. 2003-). My citations are from the 1967 ed. If there are serious differences, that would only illustrate the instability of RC teaching.
XIII. Face-saving distinctions
Conservative Catholic scholars are not, of course, unmindful of these sorts of objections, and have a number of escape routes at their disposal. When pressed, they distinguish between (i) thought and deed; (ii) form and content; (iii) the ordinary/extraordinary magisterium, (iv) premise/conclusion, and (v) sacred/profane.
Before addressing the specifics, some preliminary comments are in order. They take the Magisterium for granted and field a variety of objections to its concrete expression. But even if they were valid, they have no purpose on all my objections leading up to the blunders of the magisterium. Magisterial blunders are just one more nail in the coffin.
i) Even if the distinction were valid, it saves the infallibility of the Pope by sacrificing the indefectibility of the Church. For if a pope may act in such a manner that his actions have misled the faithful, even though he himself knew better, then the whole rationale for having papal infallibility is lost inasmuch as its purpose was not to confer personal immunity on a pope, but to immunize the Church from the possibility of defection.
ii) This distinction rests on an unsettled area of Catholic theology, for it remains an open question whether a Pope can become a heretic. The problem is that infallibility is in tension with another division of Catholic theology, for the Roman Church insists that a true believer can apostatize. The Pope is not exempted from this danger. In principle, then, he could become a heretic, and in that role take the Church down with him since the Church stands or falls in its head.
iii) Even if the Pope were protected from error in his official capacity, that does not, by itself, protect the membership, for every member must still appropriate the rulings of the magisterium at a personal level. Institutional security does not guarantee personal security. Indeed, Trent expressly denies the individual assurance of salvation (Canons on justification, 15-16). So papal infallibility is like the neutron bomb, which leaves the buildings intact at the expense of the inhabitants.
iv) This distinction, if it were tenable at all, would be more applicable to individuals instead of institutions inasmuch as conciliar acts cannot be blamed on character flaws. When some modern-day theologians say that we must make allowance for the polemical formulations of Trent on the grounds that it was a reactionary document, confronting a crisis, is to effectively abandon both the infallibility of the magisterium and indefectibility of the Church; for if even an ecumenical council can get carried away in the heat of controversy, then it is no longer operating under the charism of infallibility, and has ceased to be a sure guide to the laity.
i) This distinction saves infallibility by sacrificing certainty. For if the infallible meaning of solemn definitions is never fixed by the formulation, then to what vehicle of meaning is infallibility supposed to attach? Where do we locate the infallible sense? How do we identify the infallible content? We can’t get at the propositional content apart from its verbal expression. So, if one drives a wedge between form and content, infallibility is reduced to an empty norm inasmuch as it no longer refers to any ascertainable unit of meaning.
ii) The distinction relieves Catholic theology at one pressure point by shifting the internal tension to another point. For while Vatican II codifies the very distinction in question, this runs into point blank contradiction with prior teaching of the magisterium, which—with vehement explicitness—rejects any such disjunction. Vatican II says, "Christ calls the Church to continual reformation...there are deficiencies...even in the way that the Church teaching has been formulated--to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself" (Unitatis redintegratio, 6). But Vatican I says, ""If anyone asserts that it’s sometimes possible, in the progress of science, to attribute dogmas declared by the church a sense which is different from what the Church has understood and understands: Let him be anathema" (cf. Pius XII, Humani generis, 14-16). Once again, who speaks for Rome?
iii) So flaccid a distinction could just as easily justify the Protestant break with tradition. It could always be said that we’re remaining true to the original thinking, but simply disentangling that from the culture-bound thought-forms in which it was enshrined.
To be sure, an apologist for Rome might reply that only a divine teaching office can supply the requisite powers of discrimination. The problem is that when the reality and rationale for such an office is the very point at issue, and when the magisterium has applied that distinction to itself, such an appeal is self-serving and question-begging. Which brings us to the next point:
3. Ordinary/extraordinary magisterium:
i) This distinction again saves infallibility by sacrificing certainty and indefectibility. Yes, one can always assert that a problematic statement by a pope falls outside the scope of an ex cathedra pronouncement. But there are no clear external controls on such a contention. Many embarrassing papal pronouncements have been prefaced by very solemn sounding formulas, invoking the full authority of the papal office, while insisting on the irreformable character of the teaching, and the dire consequences of insubordination.
Indeed, this distinction is, in the nature of the case, always drawn after the fact—even by centuries. When, in the "progress" of dogma, the Roman church comes around to affirming salvation outside its communion, or the limited inerrancy of Scripture—contrary to past pronouncements and previous apprehensions, then that retroactively relegates the former teaching—even if framed in no uncertain terms—to the reformable category of the ordinary magisterium. But the price-tag for such a tactic is that the "authentic" interpretation and ex cathedra status of a papal bull or encyclical or apostolic constitution is always future to its publication date. No Catholic living at the time of "Unam Sanctam" or "Pascendi" would have understood them as they have since come to be construed. So how does this maneuver safeguard the Church from doctrinal defection when the final interpretation of a magisterial proclamation has to be postponed until the question is reopened at some indefinite future date—long after the original crisis has passed? What is the value of a definition that is never definitive? To take a stock case, the Roman Church only came around to Galileo’s view after the Copernican revolution had long ceased to be a live issue—either to Galileo’s contemporaries, since they’re no longer in much position to care—or to us moderns.
As Anthony Kenny points out,
"if a doctrine is defined, then it must be definable. And if definable, it must be contained—whether we would ever have guessed this for ourselves or not—in Scripture and tradition. For revelation ceased with the death of the last Apostle. If we accept these criteria, then no difficulty can be brought against the doctrine of the immutability of faith. The only trouble is that our criteria render the doctrine impregnable at the cost of making it vacuous. First we say—in order to avoid Modernism—that the Church teaches only those doctrines that are contained in Scripture and tradition. Then we ask: which doctrines are contained in Scripture and tradition? In order to avoid both the inadequacy of private judgment and the difficulties from Church history, we reply: those doctrines are contained in Scripture and tradition which the Church teaches. We have come round in a circle," A Path From Rome: An Autobiography (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985), 165.
For his own part, Rahner offers a concrete illustration of the problem,
"the present pope [John-Paul II] spoke about the Yahwist in a public talk, that is, about one of the many hypothetical authors of the Pentateuch. If he had spoken about the Yahwist like that as a biblical scholar in 1910, he would have been removed. Today, even the pope himself regards such progress in OT studies as self-evident. He no longer notices that he has a mentality that is totally different from the one officially allowed seventy years ago," I Remember: An Autobiographical Interview with Meinold Krauss (Crossroad, 1985), 95.
ii) Although present-day popes may like to abrogate some statements by past popes, they don't like to have future popes abrogate their own statements by a similar stroke of the pen.
iii) The distinction doesn't seem to be of much practical value or application.
Pius XII denies that encyclical teaching "does not of itself demand consent." Rather, once the pope has so spoken, the issue can no longer be considered an open question in theology" (Humani generis, 20), while Vatican II stresses that "submission of the will and intellect," along with "sincere assent" must be accorded the pope "even when he doesn’t speak ex cathedra" Lumen Gentium, 25).
The Magisterium is in a bind. It wants an out for itself, without allowing an out from itself by others. This is not a question of high principle, but political expediency.
iv) Some of my examples have been drawn from the extraordinary magisterium (general councils), where appeal to the ordinary magisterium is inapplicable.
v) It unnaturally partitions the human psyche. Gerbert, astrologer and alchemist, is hermetically sealed off from Sylvester II, Vicar of Christ. But such a schizophrenic bifurcation of his personal belief-system is psychologically stilted.
i) In various documents that I’ve already cited, the magisterium either deduces a given conclusion from a given premise or at least tries to justify the conclusion by corroborative evidence and supporting arguments. To try and drive a wedge between the formal definition and the formal warrant does not represent an interpretation of the text before us; the distinction does not arise from the text itself. Rather, it is imposed from the outside long after the fact, and under the pressure of apologetic expediency. It has nothing to do with origin intent or historic import, but is introduced as an ad hoc face-saving maneuver.
ii) While it is possible for a conclusion to be true apart from the supporting argument, we would need some independent source of information to draw that distinction in practice. But when the distinction is being applied to the magisterium itself, there is no higher court of appeal.
iii) The magisterium is supposed to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. If we need to retrofit these statements, then the whole rationale for a magisterium collapses. The Magisterium was supposed to be the bulwark. But if we need a bulwark for the bulwark, lest the magisterium itself become an object of damage-control, then we are either caught in a vicious regress or circular argument.
iv) To claim that the charism of infallibility only operates on formal definitions, is another artificial restriction. Why must divine inspiration be so carefully rationed? Is inspiration a nonrenewable resource? Is the Holy Spirit in danger of running out of steam?
We are told, nowadays, that infallibility only attaches to sacred matters of faith and morals, and not to mundane matters. So, for example, it might be objected that the Sistine Vulgate doesn’t fall within the parameters of infallibility.
i) This distinction is analogous to the various theories of partial inspiration and limited inerrancy. The problem with such a distinction is that doesn’t carve nature at the joints, for truth isn’t neatly sorted by subject-matter. When a pontiff personally undertakes to edit a version of the Bible for official use in the church, and then affixes his seal of approval on the final product, this certain implicates faith and morals inasmuch as the Bible is a font of revelation and source of sacred theology.
ii) Even within its own stated domain, however, this distinction could be applied to other magisterial claims that the Church would be less willing to relinquish. If, for example, the charism of infallibility doesn’t apply to the Sistine Vulgate, then, by parity of argument, why should it extend to the Tridentine decree on the canon of Scripture (session 4)? What, in principle, is the difference? Both bear on the rule of faith.
XIV. A Distinction without a difference:
As a final and more general point, one way of testing a consequential argument is to compare its claim with the net-result of the opposing position. Would the Roman Church have made a different call on evolution or Bible criticism or the Galileo affair or the status of non-Christians if it hadn’t had the benefit of a divine teaching office? At the end of the day the Roman Church came over to the winning side, but only after losing a popularity contest, staging a strategic retreat, and then reemerging after a decent interval of mourning. Doesn’t it look like the Church follows conventional wisdom, and when the head of the parade changes direction, it takes a fair amount of time for the stragglers to adjust course and catch up with the parade?
How does the practical outcome differ from what you’d expect of any uninspired institution that is taking its cue from the intellectual establishment of the day and having to improvise accordingly? It throws its weight behind the elite, when there's a shift in the critical consensus, it's caught off guard and takes a while to regain its balance.
What is especially striking is the parallel between modern-day Catholic theology and its modern-day Protestant theology. In their views of Scripture, science, salvation and ethics, they went in by different doors but came out the same door. Now one of them lays claim to a divine teaching office, and the other doesn’t, yet the end-game is much the same. And it’s often the Roman Church following the lead of the liberal Protestant thought, even panting to make up for lost time. So the whole rigmarole of a magisterium looks like a paper theory.
I'm not necessarily saying that the Church of Rome made originally made the wrong call and then corrected herself, without admitting as much. I myself am an unreconstructed Calvinist—equally at home in the 16C or the 21C.
In sum, a number of historical, exegetical, and a priori arguments have been adduced in defense of the Catholic rule of faith. On closer examination, the exegetical arguments are found to be fallacious. The a priori arguments are invalidated by the a posteriori evidence of Bible history and church history. The historical arguments are overturned historical counter-evidence. Hence, the Catholic case for a divine teaching office fails to meet its own burden of proof.