In responding to my charge that the extraordinary magisterium has contradicted itself over time, one of the commentators to my blog said that I should consult the writings of Shawn McElhinney.
It is striking that when challenges to the magisterium come up, we are once again referred to a defense of the magisterium by someone below the magisterium.
But just to make sure that I’ve left no stone unturned, let’s see what McElhinney has to say on the subject.
The most relevant and representative writing of his on the subject at hand appears to be something he wrote in reply to James White on the possibility of salvation outside the church.
If this still leaves something important out of consideration, loyal Catholics are more than welcome to draw my attention to whatever I overlooked.
<< While infallibility is involved in the universal resolutions of a lawfully ratified Ecumenical Council, this does not mean that the texts of the Council are either verbally inspired or that they necessarily state a teaching in the best possible way. >>
1.Notice that McElhinney has already tipped his hand. He is going to defend the consistency of magisterial teaching by driving a wedge between the infallible resolutions of an ecumenical council, and the text of the council, which is not necessarily (?) verbally inspired or phrased in the best possible way.
2.One wonders how he is able to extract the infallible resolutions from the fallible text of the resolutions. What is our source of information regarding the resolutions if not the text of the resolutions? Note, he applies this to the autographa, not the copies.
3.Likewise, how do we separate the infallible resolutions from the actual wording of the resolutions?
4. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that his disjunction is valid, it preserves the authority of the magisterium in the abstract by sacrificing the authority of the magisterium in the concrete. For even when an ecumenical council has spoken, there remains an indefinable area of uncertainty.
So we’re left with the question, where do you find the mind of the true church?
<< There is also the element to interpretation known as the sitz im leben. >>
This is a valid principle. So why does he not apply it to the above disclaimer? Does Florence itself include a disclaimer to that effect? Is there any evidence from this general period or before that when an ecumenical council has spoken, this left room for a disjunction between its universal resolutions and the text or wording of is resolutions? Does such a disjunction comport with original intent?
McElhinney then quotes from the council, beginning “It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life.”
This is followed by his own gloss:
<< [T]he statement above was specifically directed towards the Apostolic churches which were re-aligning themselves with Rome in the fifteenth century. Those Apostolic churches who (seeking reunification with Rome) knew of the necessity of union with Rome for salvation. In this context, the decree from the Council of Florence must be assessed because otherwise it is not being properly understood. >>
How does this have the least bearing on the conciliar statement? Although that statement was addressed to those who supposedly “knew of the necessity of union with Rome for salvation,” it is a statement about many of those who did not know or acknowledge any such necessity, viz., pagans, Jews, heretics, schismatics. And it specifically says that they are damned “unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock.” So even though the scope of the audience is quite narrow, the scope of the referent—of those outside the pale of salvation—is extremely broad.
<< There is also the fact that the statement itself, while definitive, is not formally so. (Instead it is definitive statement because it was reiterating the dogma extra ecclesia nulla salus as previously defined by Lateran IV and particularly by Pope Boniface VIII in the Apostolic Letter Unam Sanctum.) In that sense the exposition element of the teaching would not necessarily fall under the mantle of infallible teaching - particularly since this Decree was to a particular church and not one promulgated to the universal church either expressely or tacitly. >>
1.What does it mean to say that such an exposition “would not necessarily fall under the mantle of infallibility?” What are the criteria for arriving at this determination? Do these criteria date from the time of the council itself (the sitz-im-leben)? Are they magisterial criteria? Has the magisterium ever applied these criteria to the document in question? Or are these riders and waivers being raised after-the-fact, as a face-saving device?
2. Here we have a declaration by one ecumenical council, which reaffirms a declaration by another ecumenical council, which reaffirms an “Apostolic letter” by a medieval pope. Yet McElhinney says that there is still this cloud of uncertainty surrounding the precise force of the conciliar statement.
Isn’t this a losing proposition either way you take it? If, on the one hand, the statement is authoritative, then you have a contradiction between Florence and Vatican II.
But if, on the other hand, the statement is not authoritative, then you can never know when the RCC speaks authoritatively—for even when the pope has spoken, and his statement is reaffirmed by two ecumenical councils, that doesn’t settle the issue once and for all.
A Catholic apologist can only save the reputation of his church by turning his church into a moving target. But, in that event, universal skepticism reigns supreme.
3. What is the value of a General or Ecumenical council which has no more force than a local or particular council?
4. Why is infallibility such an elusive property, anyway? Is it a rare and nonrenewable resource which must be meted out with an eyedropper lest the church use up her limited stock of infallibility in the first few centuries, and have none left for the remainder of the church age? Was Florence running low on infallibility? Was it in danger of running out before the session ended?
This is not a principled distinction, but a polemical distinction—a makeshift distinction concocted by an institution or apologist to save appearances.
<< Those who are not culpably aware of their obligations within this realm were not the intended target of this decree. >>
Which target? The target audience? No, they are not the target audience.
But they are the referent. Although the decree was written to a particular audience, it is not written about a particular audience. After all, if it was only concerned with the target audience, it did not need to talk about pagans and Jews, did it? For it was not pagans and Jews who were seeking reunion with Rome. So the decree goes out of its way to target a much larger swath of humanity. That’s the context.
<< Removing one small sentence from a Bull several pages in length and divorced from the time period and target audience guarantees an error in proper interpretation because the sitz im leben would be undermined. >>
This is a misrepresentation of the charge. You have the papal statement followed by the conciliar statement followed by another conciliar statement. So this is not an isolated sentiment. There is a pattern here.
<< To fortify the earlier contextual placing of the Decrees of Florence, some work from the late great catechist Fr. John Hardon will be referenced:
Alongside this strong insistence on the need for belonging to the Church was another Tradition from the earliest times that is less well known… they also had the biblical narrative of the "pagan" Cornelius who, the Acts tell us, was "an upright and God-fearing man" even before baptism. Gradually, therefore, as it became clear that there were "God-fearing" people outside the Christian fold, and that some were deprived of their Catholic heritage without fault on their part, the parallel Tradition arose of considering such people open to salvation, although they were not professed Catholics or even necessarily baptized. Ambrose and Augustine paved the way for making these distinctions. By the twelfth century, it was widely assumed that a person can be saved if some "invincible obstacle stands in the way" of his baptism and entrance into the Church.  In other words, this was the operating assumption of the Council of Florence when restating the dogma of faith on the necessity of the Church for salvation at Florence… Thomas Aquinas restated the constant teaching about the general necessity of the Church. But he also conceded that a person may be saved extra sacramentally by a baptism of desire and therefore without actual membership by reason of his at least implicit desire to belong to the Church. >>
1.After having drawn all those hair-splitting distinctions about the target-audience and a decree which is definitive, “but not formally so,” suddenly all that is cast to the winds and we are treated to the private opinions of miscellaneous theologians, as though an ecumenical council does not speak formally and universally, but an individual theologian does. The instant descent into special-pleading could not be more conspicuous.
For example, Aquinas also believed that there were circumstances under which a priest could break the seal of the confessional. But that did not become Catholic dogma.
It is an easy matter to quote the church fathers on both sides of the issue. For example, one can just as well cite St. Augustine against the baptism of desire: “And how many sincere catechumens die unbaptized and are lost forever!" (Augustine the Bishop, Van Der Meer, p.150),”
I’d add that, to my knowledge, the baptism of desire was never “formally” defined by the church. And even if you treat it as solemn dogma, that does not justify its extension to those outside the Catholic faith:
In its proper meaning, this consists of an act of perfect contrition or perfect love [that is Charity, which necessarily implies that one has the True Faith], and the simultaneous desire for baptism. It does not imprint an indelible character on the soul and the obligation to receive Baptism by water remains.
R. Broderick, The Catholic Concise Encyclopedia (1957), 126. Imprimatur by Francis Cardinal Spellman.
2. And notice, to, the huge leaps in logic. Was Cornelius saved because he didn’t know any better? No. He was saved by believing the Gospel. He was not saved as a pagan qua pagan, but, at most, as a pagan qua convert.
Indeed, Cornelius was not a pagan. He was a God-fearer in the technical sense of Gentile worshipper of the God of Israel.
3. “Widely assumed.” “The operating assumption” of Florence. All Harden and McElhinney are doing here is to assume that it was assumed at Florence. They are not going by what Florence actually says, but by something that Florence never says. Indeed, what Florence actually says runs counter to what they assume it was assuming all along.
4. But let us play along with the logic of their claim. About 99% of the pagan world was in no position to know about the claims of Rome. By that rough estimate, about 99% of pagans were invincibly ignorant. So 99% of pagans are actually exempt from the exclusionary formula.
So when Florence tells us “it firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life,” we have to read between the lines.
To paraphrase it according to Harden and McElhinney, what Florence really meant to say was: “it firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life—excepting, of course, for the 99% of the heathen who can become participants in eternal life.”
We can quibble over the exact percentiles if you like. I’ll cede you 2% or 5% or 10%. Makes no difference. To suppose that Florence is actually making allowance for the vast majority of pagans who ever lived and died doesn’t strike me as a plausible assumption. But I’ll leave the reader to draw his own conclusions.
5. And there are two additional difficulties: first of all, note the adversative construction: “not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics.”
It goes from those who know the least to those who know the most—from those with the least contact to those with the most.
Now, is this adversative construction saying that ignorance is an attenuating or exculpable circumstance? Quite the contrary! It is saying that even if you’re in a position to know much more—even if you’re a mere schismatic, which is the least culpable category, you are still damned. So the actually wording of the statement treats ascending degrees of ignorance as an aggravating rather than a mitigating circumstance, much less exculpatory.
6.Finally, what Harden and McElhinney are doing here is to harmonize one magisterial contradiction by invoking yet another magisterial contradiction. What about the parallel tradition of the invincibly ignorant?
The presupposition of the exclusionary formula is that saving grace is sacramental grace. God has channeled his saving grace through the means of grace. And only the true church, by virtue of apostolic succession, has access to valid sacraments.
Beyond the distinction between valid and invalid sacraments, a further distinction was drawn between valid and irregular sacraments in the case of those who retain a sufficient affiliation with true church that, although alienated from her communion, still had valid sacraments. As McElhinney himself puts it:
<< We know with certainty where the Church is; we are without certainty as to where the Church is not. When churches and ecclesial communities broke away from the one, true church, they cannot help but take doctrines and certain rites with them, and many, to this day, still retain their efficacy. Obviously the degree of grace in each situation differs somewhat. For example, where there is still a valid priesthood all the Fountains of Grace (Sacraments) are available. If Apostolic Succession is lacking, there is still the valid Rite of Baptism. And even where the Rite of Baptism is denied, there is still the Holy Scriptures, which can excite in the believer a love for Our Lord and a longing to be a member of His Body the Church. All of these gifts, as the Second Vatican Council taught, come from the one Church of Christ and receive their efficacy from her. >>
There is, indeed, a certain logic to this exception—if you grant the premise. But that very logic cuts against extending the grace of God to those with absolutely no such corporate connection to the visible church. For a Catholic to say that Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists can be saved is to decouple saving grace from the means of grace—in which case the priesthood is superfluous.
Because Catholic tradition is so very diverse, you can always quote from something in early Catholic tradition to support later Catholic tradition, but that does nothing to harmonize the diversity itself. Rather, it gives you parallel traditions with linear consistency and horizontal inconsistency. Each individual tradition may have a certain inner consistency, but be inconsistent with a parallel tradition.
McElhinney later quotes from Pius IX and Pius X. But while these may reflect a tradition feeding into Vatican II, they do not supply the Sitz-im-Leben for Florence or Lateran IV.
<< And as far as "clarity" it seems to this author that the Church has clarified herself continually when certain tenants of the faith are misrepresented. This has been accompanied by a development in doctrine and understanding. >>
<< Perhaps Dr. Art Sippo put it best… There was a clear development in doctrine from Bl. Pope Pius IX and his successors up to and including Vatican II, which crystallized the developments in a Dogmatic Constitution of no small degree of magisterial weight. The authentic understanding of this teaching has further been expounded upon in the magisteriums of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. >>
Note the bait-and-switch scam. McElhinney began by invoking the Sitz-im-Leben of Florence, but ends by invoking the development of doctrine. Yet these are contradictory criteria. The Sitz-im-Leben is tied to original intent, based on the life-situation of the original speakers. The development of doctrine is not tied to original intent. Rather, its frame of reference is the chronological position and historical viewpoint of those who are living centuries after the sociological setting of the original document. And it indulges in a frankly anachronistic reading of the original by having it shoehorn into a retrospective trajectory of which the original framers had no cognizance or precognition.
Like the Cheshire cat, the Catholic Church seems quite tangible and substantial at first sight, but when you try to pin down its claims, it does a slow-mo vanishing act.