Tag Archives: Popes

26 June: What is Theology Saying XIII: Papal infallibility 4.

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The First Vatican Council attributed absolute authority only to God. It declared that the Pope possesses only that infallibility which God willed to give to the Church, whenever he solemnly and officially defines a doctrine to be held by the whole Church concerning faith or morals.

The question of morals is harder to pinpoint, because it is difficult to determine exactly what a doctrine concerning morals might be. The crucial point is that the Council recognises that the Pope, acting officially in the name of the whole Church, possesses that freedom from error that the whole Church possesses. The Council did not believe the Pope was above the Church with special access to truth, but that he could express the truth already held by the Church. The Pope is dependent on the faith of the whole Church, from which he draws his understanding of revelation. The whole Church means exactly that – the people of God along with clergy and theologians – all must be there.

If faith, as the response to God’s invitation, comes first and the attempt to formulate it in words comes second and is dependent on the uses of language and culture, then common faith can be expressed in different ways. If there is only one right answer and the others are wrong, then infallibility means someone is guaranteed to have the right answer. If there are several right answers, then infallibility has a different meaning. It can be expressed as a guarantee that with one specific formulation a belief is within the common Christian tradition, though there other ways of expressing it.

This would not mean that infallibility once formulated could never be changed. It could be rethought and restated by the same channels by which it first came about, though future generations should respect the words already used. Where the Catholic Church has traditionally used one way of expressing a doctrine, other explanations by Protestant and Orthodox Churches are not necessarily wrong. They may be expressing the same Christian faith from a difference in language, culture and society.

Defined dogmas have been brought up and discussed again [the different accounts of the Holy Spirit given by Western and Eastern Churches were discussed at the Council of Florence – 1431]. As long as the Church is alive, with believers trying to live-out their faith in their own time and place, there will always be new understanding and new ways of expression. Jesus said: the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath – he would say to believers worried over dogmatic formulations that these formulations are for believers, to sustain their faith, rather than the faith of believers being for the sake of keeping formulations intact.

The freedom to reopen discussion is important, because too many believers are finding that dogmatic pronouncements no longer sustain them in their life of faith in their present form. It is important because we are not true to the Gospel unless we retain our power to communicate with non-Christians and give a fully alive witness of what the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ means to us in terms of living in the world we share.

AMcC

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June 25: What is Theology Saying? X: Papal Infallibility III.

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Theologians agree that there have been only two papal statements that fall into the infallible category – the Immaculate Conception in the Nineteenth Century and the Assumption in the Twentieth. In both case the popes claimed to be giving expression to the faith of the Church as it could be traced back to apostolic times. In neither case did they give a philosophical or theological explanation of how these dogmas should be interpreted. They simply gave voice to the faith and practice of believers. What was being said about Mary expressed the ideals for which the Christian community was striving. Believers were not asking whether Marian doctrine was to be interpreted in a particular biological sense; they knew it had nothing to do with the purpose for which the teachings were being proposed. Neither did the papal definitions answer those questions, but simply encouraged devotion through which believers expressed their desire to live the Gospel.

Because most Catholics had assumed a static and unified Church organisation, it was easy to assume that this pattern was more or less set by Christ and should never be changed. The study of history shows that it was all changing all the time, and that it looked very different at some times, so much so that we have to ask what is of the divine and necessary plan and what is simply a human attempt to organise life in community as best serves its purpose. Whatever belongs to this category can obviously be changed again when the times call for it.

There is ongoing research into collegiality and the relation between pope and bishops. When Vatican I passed the Constitution Pater Aeternus there were two issues at stake concerning the pope. His power to command and rule in dioceses other than his own, and the question of infallibility. It is not possible to assume that the pope cannot make mistakes, or even fall into heresy. Classic Canon Law says: if the pope falls into heresy he must be deposed. The law considers it most unlikely, but provision must be made for the possibility. If they had held the hot line theory they would never have considered even the possibility of this happening.

Infallibility is severely restricted; an interesting point, because some believed – including some bishops – that the Pope was always infallible and could never make a mistake in teaching Christian doctrine. The Council clearly disagreed, attributing absolute authority only to God. It declared that the Pope possesses only that infallibility which God willed to give to the Church, whenever he solemnly and officially defines a doctrine to be held by the whole Church concerning faith or morals.

AMcC

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June 22: What is Theology Saying? X: Papal Infallibility II.

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So, 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.

Rahner addressed this with a simple and clear explanation. The infallibility of the Pope as recognised by Vatican I applies only to solemn statements – ex cathedra – in which the Pope explicitly claims infallibility. And he can only claim it when it is clear that he is giving expression to the faith of the whole Church, when he is speaking for the whole assembly of the faithful. Pope Paul did not claim infallibility in this statement, but simply gave his personal judgement. He could not have claimed infallibility because his commission, which had studied the tradition from the past and the evidence of the world community of the faithful, had advised him to the contrary of his own judgement.

Some have argued that even when the Pope did not explicitly claim infallibility, the faithful should consider his words infallible and end all discussion. Rahner replied: while Catholics should always listen to the teaching of the Pope with respect, they would not be obeying Christ or the Church if they made no distinction between infallible and non-infallible teachings. They would be refusing to play their own role in the development of doctrine by leaving all the responsibility, unthinkingly, to one man.

This man does not have the experience of married people and cannot even put their questions to theologians unless married people describe to him their experience and the questions arising out of this. Nor does he have the expertise and time for research that theologians have. If the whole Church waits for him to ask the right questions and find the right answers, many will be shirking their own responsibility – and perhaps would deserve to wait indefinitely for answers.

We must be sure to understand papal infallibility correctly. An easy but erroneous analogy – the Pope has a private hot-line to heaven, and when he is stuck he gets a revelation to solve the problem. The communication is not drawn from heaven but from the tradition of believers down through the ages. They were taught that public revelation ceased with the death of the apostles, in the sense that the Church would not be given special answers from heaven to new problems; there will always be the need to search the Scriptures and tradition.

AMcC

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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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9 May: What is Theology Saying? IV: Every believer has a part to play.

According to the ordinary knowledge of the universe current at the time, it could not have occurred to the theologians or Church authority that when Genesis speaks of the six days of creation, and itemises what happened on each day, that this was poetic rather than literal. Today, the increasing knowledge of the universe, along with the rapidly accumulating evidence for the unified and organic evolution of the universe and all things in it, caused many to say that the traditional way doctrine was taught no longer makes sense. The Church while not denying doctrine, reformulated it radically, so that believers could take it seriously. Today people are more comfortable with an account of creation that has incorporated all we currently know of evolution. Thirty or forty years ago many were still worried, and fifty years ago almost all Catholics believed evolution contradicted faith.

Theological development: every believer has a part to play, but not all are properly equipped to do so. When the faithful say that existing explanations do not make sense any more, it is a wake-up call to theologians that it is time to reconsider why these formulations were made in the first place, what was the important message and the historical circumstances leading to such a formulation. Having made this study, theologians then attempt to reformulate doctrine in a way faithful to the Christian message, but which is also up to date for contemporary believers. Not an easy task! They try to do it in different ways, according to what their people share with them. The way theologians think in Italy and Spain will differ from those in Central Europe, for example.

Dogmatic development: because the experience of various kinds of believers is so different, there are often clashes between different schools of theology – sooner or later, because of differences, they will ask the teaching authority of the Church to intervene with an official version. There are usually many ways of expressing the truth; there has never really been only one correct way of doing it. The teaching authority of the Church has no hot line as to which is the better way. Even when infallibility is invoked by the Holy See or a General Council it does not mean that this statement was made on the basis of a new revelation. It means that it claims to be the authentic interpretation of what the faith of the people as a whole has always explicitly been or implied.

Such statements tend to be conservative, because that is their purpose. This does not mean there has been no dogmatic development. It takes third place because there cannot be a judgement on something until it has been discussed [the role of theology], and cannot be discussed until human experience has given rise to the query [the role of all faithful]. Some feel guilty when thinking differently from official pronouncements. They should respectfully and responsibly express this mismatch, because this is how development of doctrine has always taken place, and must continue to do so.

AMcC

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August 17: Water of life

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It was my joke, when I was researching in Rome, that my constitutional walk was down the Via Aurelia, round the fountain and back to the HQ of the Missionaries of Africa, and the (thankfully dust-free) files in the archives. The fountain was a good goal to aim for: you could hardly miss it, unless you mistook it for the one on the opposite side of the piazza. And a thing of beauty it is with the water playing in the sunlight.

This summer it is not playing. When the old popes brought water from the hills to furnish these fountains and many others throughout Rome there were many fewer people drinking less water, using less for washing and all the many processes that need water. The spring rains have not come this year: the City of Rome may soon ration water, so the Vatican City has turned off the supply to many of its fountains in solidarity with the Roman people.

People come before ornamental fountains, though even in April I was glad of the drinking fountain in the wall of the Vatican. I hope that is still running in the heat: my friend Fr Dominique Arnauld told me that the water in the fountains of Rome is reliably fresh and drinkable; and cold. You could spend a small fortune buying bottled water!

Let us not take water for granted – nor the needs of our fellow human beings, brothers and sisters. Nor indeed all the creatures that depend on water from the hills and from springs and rivers and the clouds. I’m sure I could use a little less each day. And you?

Laudato Si’ !

 

 

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Evening Lectures at FISC: “What is theology saying?”

austinFr Austin McCormack will be speaking on Thursday evenings this term. I recommend these lectures to any Christian, including those from Reformation traditions who may wonder what we Catholics are all about. Please feel free to come to as many of these lectures as interest you.
Start time 19.00. You are asked to make a donation to cover expenses.
WT.
The subject of the course is:

“What is theology saying?”

3. 27/10: How about Papal infallibility?
4. 03/11:  How should we explain the Eucharist?
5. 10/11:   Who is Jesus Christ?
6. 17/11:  What difference does Grace make?
7. 24/11: What about Original Sin?
8. 01/12: What morality did Jesus teach?
9. 08/12: Should we renounce the world or change it?
10. 15/12: Is there salvation in other religions?

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Are we listening? Open Lectures at FISC.

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September 10: Interruption: Evening Talks at FISC this Autumn.

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Our writer Friar Austin (AMcC) is proposing to offer the following series of talks next term. These will be given on Monday Evenings at 7.00 from 10th October (TBC).

1.  Can Church teaching change?

2. What did God really reveal?

3. What about Papal infallibility?

4. Explain the Eucharist.

5. Who is Jesus Christ?

6. What difference does Grace make?

7. Have we forgotten Original Sin?

8. What morality did Jesus teach?

9. Renounce the world or change it?

10. Is there salvation in other religions?

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