Not all Catholics take the flagrant line of rejecting authority. Some try to portray themselves as perfectly willing to follow the teachings of the Church—if only the Church will explain themselves in a way which is extremely rare. That’s the claim that they’ll obey all of the teachings of the Church which are infallibly declared. Of course the problem is the Church very seldom makes use of the formal declaration of infallibility (also known as ex cathedra—literally from the chair—referring to the seat of authority the Pope possesses by his office and is a teaching that all Catholics are bound to accept as revealed truth).
In other words, it’s disobedience and rejection again, denying that the Church can teach in a binding way in any other form.
I saw a lot in the past from Catholics who were trying to defend abortion and so called “same sex marriage.” The argument was that the Church never made an ex cathedra definition on the subject, so the teaching was not binding. Unfortunately, now some Catholics are trying to defend torture in the same way: “Well, the Church teaching isn’t made ex cathedra, so it isn’t binding on us. It’s merely optional."
The reasoning seems to be similar to the Fundamentalist who rejects the teachings from the Church Fathers of the first centuries of Christian history. They argument they presented to me was: If the Bible is inerrant, but the Church Fathers are not, then the Church Fathers might be teaching error, and it is not safe to follow their lead. They follow that up with pointing to the differences between their personal interpretation of the Bible and the understanding of the Church Fathers and concluding these differences show it is the Church Fathers in error (never themselves).
Likewise, the ex cathedra only Catholic argues that the infallible statements of the Church are protected from error so we know they are safe. But we don’t know if the non-infallible teachings of the Church are safe to follow. Like the Fundamentalist, these Catholics match the Church teaching against their own personal interpretation of what the Church is supposed to be, and whatever they dislike is considered to be proof of error.
But their reasoning that only the ex cathedra statements are to be followed is based on faulty reasoning.
The Logical Flaw With the Argument
That defense is not a valid defense. The Church has never taught that this was the only way she could teach to the world. It’s an invention based on a false interpretation of Church authority. The basic form is:
- All [ex cathedra statements] are [that which Must be obeyed] (All A is B)
- [Statement X] is not an [ex cathedra Statement] (C is not a Part of A)
- Therefore [Statement X] is not [that which Must be obeyed] (Therefore C is not a part of B)
In logic we call this Denying the Antecedent, which is not a valid argument. That is because the fact that C is not a part of A does not mean that C is not a part of B. We can demonstrate that with a diagram:
C might or might not be part of B, but we don’t know.
The Red Line indicates this uncertainty.
If C (Statement X) is a part of B (that which must be obeyed) the argument is false. If it is not part of B, then it is true (but the argument does not prove that). So at best, this defense is unproven. At worst, it’s false. So we need to investigate this. Does the Church decree one way or another on what to do when the statement of teaching is not ex cathedra?
Data: What the Church Says on Her Teachings
In fact she does, and what she teaches knocks this “ex cathedra only" argument flat. Let’s look at some of these decrees.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent”422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.
Moving backwards, we read the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium #25:
Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
Moving further back to Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis #20:
20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me"; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.
Finally, we can go back to the Vatican I document Pastor Aeternus (which defined infallibility) Chapter III:
And since, by the divine right of apostolic primacy, one Roman Pontiff is placed over the universal Church, We further teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful,* and that in all causes the decision of which belongs to the Church recourse may be had to his tribunal,† but that none may reopen the judgement of the Apostolic See, than whose authority there is no greater, nor can any lawfully review its judgement.‡ Wherefore they err from the right path of truth who assert that it is lawful to appeal from the judgements of the Roman Pontiffs to an Œcumenical Council, as to an authority higher than that of the Roman Pontiff.
If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema.
The Church has made clear in her teachings that when the Pope teaches in a way that is not ex cathedra but still teaches formally on an issue, or when the bishops speak in the name of the Church (and in communion with the Pope), not just in matters of faith and morals but in matters of discipline and governing the Church, we are called to give assent to these teachings and adhere to them. Looking at these statements, the "ex cathedra only” crowd has staked out a position that the Church has rejected.
Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium
The problem with their thinking is that it seems to treat the ex cathedra definitions as if it were a sort of inspired teaching and the rest of the teachings as if the Church was just “making things up as they go.” That’s to miss the point. The Church teaches in different levels of emphasis, based on the needs of the people. The ex cathedra statement is used to define something in such a way as to eliminate any doubt. So, if there are two positions, X and Not-X, and the Church infallibly defines X, then it is made clear that the position Not-X is not compatible with Catholic belief.
But just because the Church has not made an ex cathedra declaration on a subject does not mean one can ignore the declarations made. The Church has not made an ex cathedra declaration on adultery, abortion, homosexual acts, etc. But the Church has continued to pass on the teachings that these things are sinful and may never be done. Do we dare assert that these are the opinions of the Church?
We cannot do so and claim we are being faithful to the Church. The Church continues to make clear that the Church teaching is to be followed from age to age, and emphasizes elements of the teaching that are being neglected in a specific age.
See, when the Church uses ordinary and extraordinary, she is describing that which is the normal way to do things and that which needs to be done in a way outside of the normal way. Ordinary comes from the Latin ordinarius, indicating the regular or usual way things are done, while extraordinary comes from the Latin extra ordinem meaning‘outside the normal course of events.’ The Church ordinarily teaches through the Pope and the bishops in communion with him stating what the Church believes, and calling the faithful to give their assent (agreement) and docility (readiness to accept instruction). But when there is a strong need, the Church can make an extraordinary teaching, saying “We define X in such a way that there can be no more attempts to ignore our usual teaching."
We believe that when it comes to a matter of faith and morals, the Church will be protected from teaching error—otherwise, how could we know if any Pope was teaching truth or whether following him would lead to our damnation? The extraordinary ex cathedra declaration is a special tool which is used in special circumstances. The ordinary teaching of the Church is the usual way the Church makes known what is compatible and incompatible with being a Christian.
Thus, the ex cathedra only Catholic is denying the authority of the Church when she teaches.
The Choice Must Be Made
So, now that it has been made clear: the Church has never taught that only ex cathedra teaching is to be obeyed while the rest can be treated as an opinion. So, now people who have staked out that claim have to make a choice. They can either decide to give their assent to the Church teaching, recognizing that they have erred in the past, or they can cling to their error out of obstinance, now claiming that the Church itself is teaching error while they are not. It is a decision of humility vs. pride—do I admit my own limits and trust in Christ to protect the Church? Or do I hold to pride and assume that I cannot err and the Church teaching must be in error when they conflict?
We need to pray for people faced with this decision. We want them to accept God’s grace. We must also avoid the approach of the pharisee towards the tax collector. Just because we haven’t fallen into obstinacy over this issue, doesn’t mean we won’t do so in other areas where we have comfortably accepted something in our society that goes against the teaching of the Church. We are called to constantly look at our lives and discover where we are not following Christ—seeking to amend our life in this area.