Is the Pope’s teaching always free from error, even when it’s not infallible?
Priest poses ‘dubium’ on Pope Francis’ novel teaching on the death penalty.
Editor’s Note: Last month, LifeSite’s Rome correspondent, Diane Montagna, published an indepth interview with Father Brian Harrison, O.S. entitled: “It’s not ‘dissent’ to criticize ‘confusing cascade of papal novelties’.”
In the interview, the Australian-born Roman Catholic priest and theologian responded to critics of the recent Filial Correction who accuse the Correction’s authors and signatories of transgressing the requirements of the 1990 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — Donum Veritatis.
Donum Veritatis lays down the circumstances in which scholars might legitimately draw the attention of the Holy See to “deficiencies” in an official teaching document. The CDF document discourages loyal theologians from pursuing such dialogue though the media. On this basis, these critics accused the authors and signatories of the Filial Correction of being ‘dissenters.’
The chief critic, Mr. Emmett O’Regan, responded to the interview with a further essay published on Vatican Insider, in which he expounds upon a claim he made in his original article that Catholics can never in principle be justified in charging the Pope with heresy or doctrinal error in the exercise of his ordinary magisterium.
Now Fr. Harrison responds by proposing to Mr. O’Regan a single ‘dubium’ — a simple “yes” or “no” question – that confronts him with a stark dilemma. Fr. Harrison’s question is both timely and perennial. We print it in full below.
Is the Non-Infallible Papal Magisterium Always Protected from Doctrinal Error?
by Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
In response to criticism of his initial denunciation of the Filial Correction (FC) that was submitted recently to Pope Francis by 62 Catholic scholars, expressing their concerns about heresies effectively being spread as a result of the 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Mr. Emmett O’Regan has posted a new and longer article on the Vatican Insider website.
Here he renews and expounds more fully his claim that Catholics can never in principle be justified in charging the Roman Pontiff with heresy or doctrinal error in the exercise of his ordinary magisterium. According to Mr. O’Regan, even this non-infallible magisterium authenticum of Peter’s Successor is always protected from doctrinal error by the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit. And he claims that those who think otherwise, like the FC authors and others including myself, are implicitly denying the dogma of the Catholic Church’s indefectibility. I find many defects in Mr. O’Regan’s new article, beginning with the unduly restrictive understanding of the word “infallible” that he implicitly resorts to in attempting to defend his contention that teaching guaranteed by the Holy Spirit to be free from doctrinal error can still truly be called “non-infallible.”
However, rather than weary LifeSiteNews readers with a long and detailed analysis and critique of Mr. O’Regan’s arguments over that and other issues, I would prefer to cut to the chase by posing a simple question to him – one that requires the application of these general doctrinal principles to a specific issue that is currently in the news. You could call my question a dubium if you like, since it can be answered with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. First, however, a brief introduction to the question:
If everything taught in the non-infallible ordinary magisterium of Peter’s Successor is guaranteed to be divinely protected from error in faith and morals, then presumably Mr. O’Regan has held that for about 2,000 years the Popes, and virtually all the Fathers, Doctors, and Bishops in union with them, were protected from error in teaching, on the basis of Scripture (e.g., Gn. 9: 5-6, Rom. 13: 3-4) and Tradition that the State has the moral right under some circumstances to impose the death penalty. Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette give exhaustive documentation and explanations of this teaching in a long section, pp. 97-211, of their new book, By Man Shall His Blood be Shed, published by Ignatius Press early in 2017. (Actually, the authors argue persuasively that the legitimacy in principle of the death penalty is so strongly and consistently taught in Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, including the official Catechisms of both Trent and Vatican II, that it constitutes infallible ordinary magisterium. But let’s make things easier for Mr. O’Regan here and assume for the sake of argument that it’s only non-infallible or ‘authentic’ ordinary magisterium.) Presumably Mr. O’Regan himself has in the past, on the basis of his own theological principles, understood this teaching to be divinely protected from error, and has considered himself required (and indeed, “bound”) to give it the religious assent of his mind and will.
However, within the last six months (a little after Feser and Bessette completed their book), a Successor of Peter has for the first time in history asserted repeatedly and unambiguously the contrary of the above doctrine regarding capital punishment. On May 11, 2017, His Holiness Pope Francis preached a homily in which he classified the death penalty, along with slavery and “wars of religion,” as something that’s not only morally wrong under modern circumstances, but morally wrong under all circumstances, past, present and future. He asserted that the death penalty is “something that formerly seemed normal and ‘not sinful’ [but] is today considered sinful: in reality, ‘it was a sin, but that historical period did not allow it to be perceived as such’ (in realtá era peccato, ma il momento storico non permetteva che lo percepisse come tale)”. (Readers can see here my comments on this astonishing papal homily in The Wanderer of 6/1/17.)
As if to banish any possible doubt about the Holy Father’s meaning and intentions regarding the death penalty, he delivered another important allocution several months later (October 11, 2017) commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 55th of the opening of Vatican Council II. In this discourse he bluntly declared that the death penalty is “in itself contrary to the Gospel (in sé stessa contraria al Vangelo)”, and announced his intention to have the Catechism itself revised accordingly. (My commentary on this more recent speech can be read here.)
So here is the dubium I’d like to put to Mr. O’Regan: Does he now feel bound to give his religious assent of mind and will to the non-infallible, ordinary magisterial teaching of Pope Francis that capital punishment in itself is and always has been – or at least since the coming of Christ - mortally sinful, since it is “in itself contrary to the Gospel”?
If he answers “No”, then how does he reconcile that answer with his own thesis that the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit always protects even the non-infallible, ordinary magisterial teaching of Peter’s Successors from error, so that such teaching always requires our religious assent of mind and will?
If he answers “Yes”, then how does he escape the conclusion that his aforesaid thesis regarding the non-infallible ordinary papal magisterium is false? For if Pope Francis is right about the death penalty, the Holy Spirit did not preserve his predecessors in Peter’s See from the grave error – an error resulting in the immoral killing, century after century, of innumerable criminals – of requiring the faithful to believe the false doctrine that capital punishment is in principle allowed by the Gospel?
Finally, if Mr. O’Regan’s answer is “Yes”, then why does he give that answer? I mean, why does he still feel obliged to trust that Francis's teaching on capital punishment has been protected from error by the Holy Spirit, when he must admit that the same Holy Spirit undeniably failed to protect Francis’ predecessors from imposing the opposite teaching on all the faithful for two millennia?