Monday, January 9, 2012

Ask Tony: What does "infallible" mean?

Some people have butchered the definition of “torture” and twisted it up like a pretzel in order to fit the politically correct culture of today. This even departs from Church Tradition. Since the Catholic Church is infallible and it has sanctioned torture in the past how can it possibly be an intrinsic evil? If the Church committed an intrinsic evil that would mean that the Church is fallible and that is impossible.

This question occurs in the last paragraph of Teresa Rice's post on Catholibertarian, "The Tortured Definition of Torture".  The question is meant to be rhetorical; and yet, it involves a highly mistaken and misleading understanding of infallibility and how it applies to the Catholic Church.  I do have thoughts on torture, but the topic of infallibility seems better suited for this forum; look for a post on torture on The Other Blog within the next day or so.

Perhaps we should start first with what infallibility is notIt does not mean that the Pope and bishops are right about everything.  It does not mean the Pope and bishops have never committed sins or made mistakes of prudential judgment (that would be impeccability, not infallibility).  It does not mean that every passing comment coming out of B16's mouth or pen should be treated as magisterial pronouncements or changes in Church teaching, as happened with the controversial "condom" passage in Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times (with Peter Seewald); in fact, the Pope has written his books on the life and ministry of Jesus under his secular name, Joseph Ratzinger, in order to separate them from the Petrine authority of the Papacy.  It is most certainly not a claim that the Church possesses every little detail of God's plan for the universe.

What is infallibility, then?  According to the definition given in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition:

INFALLIBILITY: The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church whereby the pastors of the Church, the pope and bishops in union with him, can definitively proclaim a doctrine of faith or morals for the belief of the faithful (para. 891).  This gift is related to the inability of the whole body of the faithful to err in matters of faith and morals (para. 92).

Although I've linked to the relevant passages of the Catechism, let's bring them into the discussion so we can drill into this further:

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 (Lumen Gentium 25; cf. Vatican Council I). When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed" (Dei Verbum 10 § 2), and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith" (Lumen Gentium 25 § 2). This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself (Cf. Lumen Gentium 25).

91  "The whole body of the faithful ... cannot err in matters of belief.  This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals" (Lumen Gentium 12; cf. St. Augustine, On the Predestination of Saints 14, 27).

Before we go too far afield, we need to make an important clarification.  The "sensus fidei" has been abused in the last forty years to argue towards changes in Church teaching on moral laws.  But "the whole body of the faithful" includes not only a segment of Catholics in Europe and North America but also South America, Africa, the Middle East (yes, there are Catholics there) and Asia; it includes not only the living but also those who have "fallen asleep" (to use St. Paul's term).  So you just can't grab the latest numbers from the Pew Forum or ABC/Gallup polls and say, "Well, this is what the majority of Catholics are doing and saying now, so this is where the sensus fidei lies!"

Now we're in a better position to talk about infallibility.  Infallibility covers:  1) Teachings of faith and morals that have been dogmatically defined by ecumenical councils; 2) teachings of faith and morals which have been consistently held and defended over the course of the Church's long life; 2) extraordinary definitions promulgated by the Roman Pontiff with the consent of the bishops and the whole faithful (i.e., the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mother). As I explain elsewhere, the Church has been promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:26, 16:13); because God's promises are reliable, and the Holy Spirit (the third Person of the Trinity) is reliable, His guidance is reliable, so the Church's teachings must be reliable.

There are teachings and there are teachings.  One of the best resources you can get is Dr. Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma; while it's sixty years old, nothing it teaches has been contradicted or outdated by Vatican II or any subsequent Church documents.  The great benefit is that Ott graded the teachings according to theological certainty, from de fide (immutable truth) to sententia communis (common belief).  While even sententiae communis can be controverted only with great care and thoroughly-documented arguments, there are Catholic beliefs where it's possible to disagree without breaking communion.

A guarantee against error in teaching doesn't mean a guarantee against error in application.  A good Scriptural example is St. Peter's treatment of Gentile Christians in Antioch, to which St. Paul refers in Galatians 2:11-14.  Both Ss. Peter and Paul taught that the Gentiles were Christians and need not adopt the Law of Moses (Ac 15:7-11); St. Peter was trying, in his own stumbling way, to "be all things to all people".  As Tertullian put it, "Forasmuch, then, as Peter was rebuked because, after he had lived with the Gentiles, he proceeded to separate himself from their company out of respect for persons, the fault surely was one of conversation, not of preaching" (The Prescription Against Heretics 23).

Let's give a couple more examples:

  • Friday abstinence from meat — Abstinence from meat is required on Ash Wednesday, Christmas Eve, and all Fridays in Lent.  For many centuries, abstinence was required every Friday of the calendar, though the requirement was lifted for certain feast days (such as the Feast of St. Joseph, which falls on March 19).  Now, "meatless Fridays" outside of Lent are strongly encouraged but no longer binding on pain of sin.  This change doesn't go against infallibility, however, because abstinence from meat is a discipline and therefore subject to change.
  • Copernicus and the IndexStrictly speaking, the conclusions of science aren't within the jurisdiction of the Church except insofar as others extrapolate from them to contest matters of faith and morals.  Nor was the geocentric theory of the universe a defined dogma of the Church, although it had plenty of credence and the Sacred Congregation (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) believed it was warranted by Scripture; it isn't even relevant to Christian belief.  Nor did Catholic bishops and theologians universally agree with the Sacred Congregation's decision.  Yes, the Sacred Congregation goofed in placing Copernicus' On the Motions of the Celestial Spheres on the Index ... but it wasn't acting within the protective bubble of infallibility, either.
Our modern dislike of torture is a fairly recent development.  While the Church adopted it along with much else in Roman civil law, various ecclesial figures were leery enough of it that, when rules for inquisitors were being drafted, the circumstances in which torture could be used to produce a confession were heavily restricted.  In fact, many civil courts were more prone to torture or trial by ordeal than were the various inquisitions.  And even after the Protestant Reformation, as the inquisition fell into disuse everywhere but Spain (where it became more of a function of the government than the Church), the civil, non-Catholic use of torture didn't disappear; indeed, the "third degree" still obtained in American criminal interrogations to some extent up to 1931.  The conviction that torture is immoral has been present to some degree for most of the Christian Era, but has only flowered in the last three or four centuries.
So the question actually has two edges:  
  • First, if Church officials cooperated in evil by handing suspected heretics over to civil authorities for torture, does that mean a future ruling on torture as intrinsically evil is impossible?  No; Bl. John Paul II, among others, has openly admitted that the Church was wrong to use violence in the Inquisition (see Luigi Accattoli, When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II, pp. 171-175).  Once wrong is admitted, hypocrisy is no longer a relevant charge.   
  • Second, would the Church's own history make a doctrinal definition fallible?  Again, no; if you'll remember, infallibility is not impeccability.  If tomorrow Pope Benedict promulgated an encyclical defining torture as intrinsically evil, so long as it conformed with the First Apostolic Constitution of the Church, it would be infallible; if a future ecumenical council in communion with the Holy See made such a definition, it too would be infallible.  What individual popes and bishops do doesn't affect the infallibility of what they teach ... although it does admittedly affect their personal credibility as teachers.

Whatever else can be said for Rice's argument about torture, her last paragraph is painfully naïve; it's almost as if the notorious anti-Catholic Dr. James White were putting the argument in a "Catholic" mouth.  Faithfulness to the Church's teachings doesn't require blindness to the sins of commission and omission done by men in the name of Christ and his Church.  In fact, if anything, it means tacitly acknowledging them as facts of history.