Tag Archives: Protestant

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 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.

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