June 21: What is Theology Saying? X: Papal Infallibility I.

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A question you put to one side rather than asking it out loud? Friar Austin has written four posts about it, two before and two after Saint John’s day. Thank you Austin, off we go!

We have seen how Church teaching changes through the ages, and what revelation is and how it happens. But for some of the faithful the process of revelation and the development of doctrine are happenings, but they have come to an end. The end is when the Pope speaks about a matter of doctrine, and the matter is closed. When that point is reached many believe the matter in question should not be raised again; not even by a General Council or by another Pope.

Others believe that because situations change, what one Pope may have said in a given situation, may not apply currently. Culturally and socially the papacy lives in an earlier stage of history than the people say of Northern Europe and North America, and is teaching from the world it knows, and so may not appear relevant for some. Add to this the disquiet the Reformers feel on issues of the papacy – the belief that there should be no such office as pope. Things have changed – many Protestants believe all churches need a leader who is not just a functionary – like President of the World Council of Churches – but chosen, holy person set aside as a spiritual figure, voicing the conscience of the Christian community in the world – issues of peace, justice, hunger and poverty.

Many people – not Catholic – are interested in what Pope Francis is doing. They approve of what he is saying and doing, and welcome him in their own countries; especially with his desire to meet with civil and religious leaders of all faiths and none.

But there remains concern about papal infallibility; and questions are asked about the Catholic Church and its commitment to the revelation of Jesus Christ and the guiding presence of the Spirit alive in the Church in the way we regard papal teaching. Studies have taken place about what exactly the First Vatican Council meant in giving formal definition to Papal Infallibility in the Nineteenth Century. Why was it made and how does it sit with the infallibility of the Church’s General Councils, and the infallibility of faithful practice? How the claim to Roman primacy first arose, and how it was understood, have been the subject of meticulous research.

Rahner says [The Christian of the Future] that although infallible pronouncements once served the purpose of the Church, they really do not do so any longer. He sees future Popes not making such pronouncements, and infallibility will cease to be an issue. But what about Humanae Vitae? The German bishops, advised by Rahner, issued a statement telling the people the importance of the encyclical and its primary aim to protect the person and the sanctity of marriage. They also pointed out that the encyclical did not take from them their ultimate, personal decision of conscience in the matter of birth control. Some asked how this could be when the Pope had given his judgement on the matter and the Pope is infallible.

AMcC

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