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.
[Pastor Æternus Chapter III. First Vatican Council]
I’ve been reading a book, What Went Wrong With Vatican II by Ralph McInerny that leaves me with a strange sense of déjà vu. The main premise is the rejection of authority in the 1960s did not come about because of Vatican II, but because of Humanae Vitae. A good portion of this book deals with the fact that the Pope made a binding teaching of the ordinary magisterium which people did not like, and to justify their dislike, they invented a theology which never had been taught before which claimed the right to judge the teachings of the Church and reject those which they did not wish to follow.
The déjà vu portion comes when I see what liberal dissenters did in 1968 in rejecting magisterial authority—and see just how similar their arguments are to the arguments used by radical traditionalists today in rejecting the magisterial authority of the Church when it makes decisions they dislike.
The basic premise of both groups of dissent is in the argument that when the Pope makes a teaching which is not ex cathedra, it is fallible and therefore not binding. Liberal dissent used this argument from the 1960s on in trying to undermine the teaching authority of the Church when it came to sexual matters. It was argued that because the Church teaching on contraception was not made in an infallible pronunciation like the pronunciation of dogmas in 1854 (The Immaculate Conception) and 1950 (The Assumption of Mary), there could be error in it. Playing on the fear of uncertainty, a string of spurious reasoning was created:
- This document was not infallible, therefore it is fallible.
- Because it is fallible, it contains error.
- We cannot be bound to follow error.
- Therefore we cannot be bound to follow this document.
The whole string is laden with error. It starts out with the development of the “Either-Or” fallacy by way of giving an equivocal meaning to the word fallible. The meaning is, generally speaking, “capable of error.” All of humanity is fallible by nature. But dissenters like to manipulate the meaning to make it sound like it means “containing error.” Thus the argument is made that, “if it’s not infallible, I don’t have to obey it.” But the problem is, dissenters are giving infallibility a meaning that is too narrow, while giving fallibility a meaning which is too broad. The fact is, the Church does not teach that one may ignore a teaching which is not made ex cathedra. The truth is quite the opposite.
What the faithful are bound to accept is not limited to the ex cathedra pronunciation—those are intentionally rare and the Popes govern by other methods. Indeed, the Church has taught that there are two means of teaching—both of which are binding. The Catechism says:
891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.… The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.
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” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.
Regardless of whether the Pope is speaking on contraception, abortion, economics or ecology (or other topics involving faith and morals), if he teaches in a way that is not ex cathedra, he is still teaching in a way which binds us to obey. As the 1983 Code of Canon Law says:
can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.
So, the teaching of the Church is something we must give the obedience and assent of faith to, making a religious submission of intellect and will, and avoiding those things that are contrary to this teaching. Unfortunately, many confuse a teaching which is not done in a “definitive manner” with a mere opinion. But there is a massive difference. A Pope can offer his opinion on the best way to carry out the Church teaching on social justice, but that is different than the Pope teaching that social justice requires economics to be carried out with ethics.
So the dissent from the radicals in the 1960s to the present against the Church is no different than the dissent of the modern anti-Francis mindset of today. Both reject the authority of the Church to interfere with behavior they do not want to change. Both want to give the impression of being faithful in a larger sense by being disobedient in a “smaller” sense. Both feel that it’s both the other side and the magisterium who are the problem.
The fact is, being a faithful Catholic requires that we are obedient to those who have the authority to determine what is in keeping with the Deposit of Faith and what is not. If we refuse to be obedient, then regardless of our work on the defense of marriage, social justice, life issues or any other area, we are being faithless and usurping the authority of the successors of the Apostles. Such people can claim to be faithful, but they are deceiving both themselves and others.