In this edition of Thinking with the Church: Part II of a conversation with theologian Christopher Wells, who is pursuing a doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas – the Angelicum – here in Rome.
Here, we delve more deeply into the historical roots and theological origins of the two teachings – but we come to that part of the conversation rather organically – beginning as we do with a discussion of the role of the Pontifical universities in the life of the Church.
Image credit: Wellcome Images, Collegium Romanum, Rome: with the extended piazza a key to the surrounding buildings. Line engraving – via Wikimedia Commons
Our discussions – taken singly or together – constitute what sounds like a “deep dive” into the issues of Papal Supremacy and Papal Infallibility: the truth is, we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Just a few of the outstanding questions that listeners have raised include:
- Just exactly what does constitute “binding doctrine”? Could the Pope, for example, teach in a formal and binding way on, e.g. climate change?
- What is the “hierarchy” of Papal pronouncements – i.e., given that, e.g., Papal interviews and homilies are not eis ipsis magisterial, and given that Popes have been using what is pretty much the most powerful tool in their teaching toolbox – the encyclical letter – for quite some time now to opine on all manner of question under the sun (Pius XII really got the ball rolling on that one), and given that the supreme governing authority of the Roman Pontiff is such, that it may be used to bind the faithful, even without teaching infallibly: what is the ordinary “scale” of authority controlling the various Papal teaching and governing tools in the present day?
- What do we do if a Pope appears to teach something contradictory to previous teaching, or teaches something that appears to contradict established doctrine?
Well, those are hard questions, and well worth investigating with a blue-ribbon panel of theologians.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask us, and we’ll do our best to answer you.
I will say one word on the subject broadly and generally: this is my personal opinion – and while I believe it is in perfect conformity with orthodox Catholic faith – I certainly can’t bind anyone to it.
So, for what it’s worth, here goes:
Popes have held – even publicly – positions either declared heretical later or later discovered or declared to have been contra fidem even at the time the Pope was holding/publicly proclaiming it/them.
The locus classicus is Jn. XXII on the saints’ enjoyment of the Beatific Vision:
In the last years of John’s pontificate there arose a dogmatic conflict about the Beatific Vision, which was brought on by himself, and which his enemies made use of to discredit him. Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter. In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision. – From The Catholic Encyclopaedia
His scriptis, the promise of Christ – which cannot fail – of the Holy Spirit, is such that no Bishop of Rome shall ever formally teach heresy.
The upshot of this is that we are free to question both the prudence of his procedure, and the correctness of this or that attempt to implement his teaching (up to and including the need for any such implementation).
With regard to this last point, Paul’s rebuke of Peter as recorded in Gal. 2:11-15, is perhaps especially pertinent and instructive: Paul rebuked Peter not for having taught erroneously, but for having taught one thing rightly (viz. table fellowship with Gentiles), and then refused to give his correct and true teaching the corroboration of personal example.
Broadly and generally speaking, then: one can disagree with the prudence of a measure, (take, e.g. the disciplinary rules regarding altar girls or communion in the hand), or with the manner in which a thing is done, viz. then-Card. Ratzinger’s criticism of what he saw as the incompleteness of HV (he thought it would have been well served by an extensive treatment of the philosophical underpinnings of the notion of nature on which the teaching rests), and yet accept wholeheartedly and even offer a full-throated defense of both the disciplines and the teachings with the prudence and/or execution of which one disagrees or for which one harbors reservations.
Perhaps Trumpkin the Dwarf said it best in Prince Caspian: “You are my King. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s the time for orders.”
It is the mark of a wise and prudent ruler, that he should not give orders, but after taking counsel from those he knows will speak frankly and disinterestedly, nor in such a manner as to allow for doubt among candid subjects regarding what his orders are, let alone whether he has given orders at all.
There are exceptions even to these general rules of conduct, though, and a good subject will always know how to obey.
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