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Dr. Edward Feser


When popes can be wrong: breaking down the degrees of papal authority

Dr. Edward Feser

Editor’s Note: The following is part of an in-depth essay on “papal fallibility” which LifeSiteNews is running in three parts. This is the third and final part. Find the first, "Papal errors of the past show the ridiculousness of ‘spin-doctoring’ the pope," here, and find the second, "Can the Pope change doctrine? It’s time for some clarity on papal infallibility," here.

December 7, 2015 (EdwardFeser) – When must a Catholic assent to some non-infallible papal statement?  When might a Catholic disagree with such a statement?  This is a subject greatly clarified by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) during his time as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.  Perhaps the most important document in this connection is the 1990 instruction Donum Veritatis: On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, though there are also other relevant statements.  Cardinal Avery Dulles has suggested that one can identify four general categories of magisterial statement in Donum Veritatis.  (See Dulles’s essay “The Magisterium and Theological Dissent” in The Craft of Theology.  Cf. also chapter 7 of Dulles’s book Magisterium.)  However, as other statements from Ratzinger indicate, Dulles’s fourth category appears to lump together statements with two different degrees of authority.  When these are distinguished, it is clear that there are really five general categories of magisterial statement.  They are as follows:

1. Statements which definitively put forward divinely revealed truths, or dogmas in the strict sense.  Examples would be the Christological dogmas, the doctrine of original sin, the grave immorality of directly and voluntarily killing an innocent human being, and so forth.  As Dulles notes, according to Catholic teaching, statements in this category must be affirmed by every Catholic with “divine and Catholic faith.”  No legitimate disagreement is possible.

2. Statements which definitively put forward truths which are not revealed, but closely connected with revealed truths.  Examples would be moral teachings such as the immorality of euthanasia, and the teaching that priestly ordination is reserved only to men.  According to Donum Veritatis, statements in this category must be “firmly accepted and held” by all Catholics.  Here too, legitimate disagreement is not possible.

3. Statements which in a non-definitive but obligatory way clarify revealed truths.  Dulles suggests that “the teaching of Vatican II, which abstained from new doctrinal definitions, falls predominantly into this category” (The Craft of Theology, p. 110).  According toDonum Veritatis, statements in this category must be accepted by Catholics with “religious submission of will and intellect.”  Given their non-definitive character, however, the assent due to such statements is not of the absolute kind owed to statements of categories 1 and 2.  The default position is to assent to them, but it is in principle possible that the very strong presumption in their favor can be overridden. Donum Veritatis says:

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.  It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions.

For this reason, the possibility cannot be excluded that tensions may arise between the theologian and the Magisterium… If tensions do not spring from hostile and contrary feelings, they can become a dynamic factor, a stimulus to both the Magisterium and theologians to fulfill their respective roles while practicing dialogue…

[A theologian’s] objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.

However, Donum Veritatis also makes it clear that in the normal case even a justifiably doubtful theologian’s further investigations into the matter will eventually result in assent.  The burden of proof is on the doubting theologian to justify his non-assent, and

Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable.  Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine.

Nor, as Donum Veritatis makes clear, could theologians legitimately express their disagreement in these cases with a polemical spirit, or apply political pressure tactics in order to influence the Magisterium, or set themselves up as a counter-Magisterium.

As William May has pointed out, the most plausible scenario in which “theologians [might] raise questions of this kind [would be] when they can appeal to other magisterial teachings that are more certainly and definitively taught with which they think the teaching questioned is incompatible” (An Introduction to Moral Theology, p. 242). 

4. Statements of a prudential sort which require external obedience but not interior assent.  As Dulles notes (Magisterium, p. 94), Cardinal Ratzinger gave as an example of this sort of statement the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the early 20th century.  Dulles suggests that the Church’s caution about accepting heliocentrism in the 17th century would be another example.  These sorts of statements are “prudential” insofar as they are attempts prudently to apply general principles of faith and morals to contingent concrete circumstances, such as the state of scientific knowledge at a particular point in history.  And there is no guarantee that churchmen, including popes, will make correct judgments about these circumstances or how best to apply general principles to them.  Hence, while Donum Veritatis says that it would be a mistake “to conclude that the Church's Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments,” nevertheless:

When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.  Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question.

As the examples given indicate, statements of category 4 generally concern what sorts of positions theologians might in their public writing or teaching put forward as consistent with Catholic doctrine.  The concern is that theologians not too rashly publicly endorse some idea which may or may not turn out to be true, but whose relationship to matters of faith and morals is complicated, and where mistakes may damage the faith of non-experts.  Here what is called for is external obedience to the Church’s decisions, but not necessarily assent.  A “reverent silence” might be the most that is called for, though since Donum Veritatis allows that a theologian might in principle legitimately raise questions about category 3 statements, such questions could obviously be legitimate in the case of category 4 statements as well.  Presumably (for example) a theologian could in principle legitimately say: “I will in my scholarship and teaching abide by such-and-such a decision of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.  However, I respectfully request that the Commission reconsider that decision in light of such-and-such considerations.”

The examples of “prudential” judgments which Donum Veritatisaddresses and which Dulles discusses in his comments on that document are all judgments which are very closely connected to matters of principle vis-à-vis faith and morals, even if the statements are of a lesser authority than statements of categories 1-3.  For example, the prudential decisions regarding heliocentrism and modern historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship were intended to preclude any rash judgments about the proper interpretation of scripture. 

However, statements by popes and other churchmen which lack any such momentous doctrinal implications, but instead concern issues of politics, economics, and the like, are also often referred to as “prudential judgments,” because they too involve the attempt prudently to apply general principles of faith and morals to contingent concrete circumstances.  Donum Veritatis does not address this sort of judgment and neither does Dulles in his discussion of the document, but it is clear from other statements by Cardinal Ratzinger that it constitutes a fifth category of magisterial teaching:

5. Statements of a prudential sort on matters about which there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics.  Examples would be many of the statements made by popes and other churchmen on matters of political controversy, such as war and capital punishment.  Cardinal Ratzinger gave these as specific examples in a 2004 memorandum on the topic “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles,” wherein he stated:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.  There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia. (Emphasis added)

End quote.  Note that Cardinal Ratzinger goes so far as to say that a Catholic may be “at odds with” the pope on the application of capital punishment and the decision to wage war and still be worthy to receive communion -- something he could not have said if it were mortally sinful to disagree with the pope on those issues.  It follows that there is no grave duty to assent to the pope’s statements on those issues.  The cardinal also says that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty,” despite the fact that Pope John Paul II, under whom the Cardinal was serving at the time, made very strong statements against capital punishment and the Iraq war.  It follows that the pope’s statements on those issues were not binding on Catholics even on pain of venial sin, for diversity of opinion could not be “legitimate” if it were even venially sinful to disagree with the pope on these matters.  In the memorandum, Cardinal Ratzinger also explicitly says that Catholic voters and politicians must oppose laws permitting abortion and euthanasia, as well as abstain from Holy Communion if they formally cooperate with these evils.  By contrast, he makes no requirement on the behavior (such as voting) of Catholics who disagree with the pope about capital punishment or the decision to wage war.  So, papal statements on those subjects, unlike category 4 statements, evidently do not require any sort of external obedience much less assent.  Catholics thus owe such statements serious and respectful consideration, but nothing more. 

Contemporary works of theology written by theologians loyal to the Magisterium often recognize this category of prudential statements to which Catholics need not assent.  For example, in his book The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy, J. Michael Miller (currently the Archbishop of Vancouver) writes:

John Paul II’s support for financial compensation equal to other kinds of work for mothers who stay at home to take care of their children, or his plea to cancel the debt of Third World nations as a way to alleviate massive poverty, fall into this category.  Catholics are free to disagree with these papal guidelines as ways in which to secure justice.  They can submit to debate alternative practical solutions, provided that they accept the moral principles which the pope propounds in his teaching. (p. 175)

Germain Grisez suggests that there are five sorts of cases in which assent is not required (The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, p. 49).  The first would be cases in which popes and other churchmen are not addressing matters of faith and morals.  The second are cases where they are addressing matters of faith and morals, but speaking merely as individual believers or private theologians rather than in an official capacity.  The third sort of case would be when they are teaching in an official capacity, but in a tentative way.  The fourth are cases where popes or other churchmen put forward non-binding arguments for a teaching which is itself binding on Catholics.  The fifth sort of case is when they are putting forward merely disciplinary directives with which a Catholic might legitimately disagree even if he has to follow them.

It is perhaps worth noting that the works just cited are works bearing the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur.  The reason this is worth noting, and the reason it is also worth emphasizing the significance of Cardinal Ratzinger’s memorandum, is that certain Catholic writers have a tendency to accuse fellow Catholics who disagree with papal statements on matters of political controversy of being “dissenters.” For example, it is sometimes claimed that any Catholic who is consistently “pro-life” will not only agree with papal statements condemning abortion and euthanasia, but will also agree with papal statements criticizing capital punishment or the war in Iraq, or endorsing certain economic policies.  The suggestion is that Catholics who reject the Church’s teaching on abortion and euthanasia are “left-wing dissenters” and Catholics who disagree with recent papal statements on capital punishment, the war in Iraq, or specific economic policies are “right-wing dissenters” -- as if both sides are engaged in disobedience to the Church, and disobedience of the same sort.

At best this reflects serious theological ignorance.  At worst it is intellectually dishonest and demagogic.  A Catholic who disagrees with the Church’s teaching on abortion or euthanasia is rejecting a category 1 or category 2 magisterial statement -- something that is never permitted.  But a Catholic who disagrees with what recent popes have said about capital punishment, the war in Iraq, or specific economic policies is disagreeing with category 5 statements -- something that the Church herself holds to be permissible.  Hence, Catholics who condemn their fellow Catholics for disagreeing with category 5 statements are themselves the ones who are out of sync with what the Church teaches -- not to mention exhibiting a lack of justice and charity. 

Since the Church allows that Catholics can under certain circumstances legitimately disagree with statements of category 3, not to mention statements of categories 4 and 5, Catholic teaching thereby implies that it is possible for popes to be mistaken when making statements falling under any of these categories.  It is even possible for a pope to be mistaken in a more radical way if, outside the context of his extraordinary Magisterium, he says something inconsistent with a statement of category 1 or category 2.  And it is possible for a pope to fall into error in other ways, such as by carrying out unwise policies or exhibiting immorality in his personal life.

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Edward Feser’s blog.

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