Thursday, January 22, 2009


'That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven' (Saint Matthew 16.18-19).

The promise of Our Lord to Saint Peter is not a promise of personal infallibility to Peter, or to the Bishop of Rome in his chair or office; it is a promise of indefectibility to the whole Catholic Church of Christ in which the Lord assures us that the Holy Ghost will never allow the whole Body of Christ at any given time in salvation history to fall utterly into heresy or apostasy. The promise guarantees that the Catholic and Apostolic Church, the collection of all particular Apostolic Communions, will be preserved from universal error or abandonment of the truth of the Gospel. To quote the late Fr Richard John Neuhaus, with interpolations:

If God intended to reveal any definite truths for the benefit of humankind, and
if Jesus intended a continuing community of discipleship, then some reliable
means would be provided for the preservation and transmission of such truths
through the centuries. Catholics [Anglican and Roman] believe that God did
provide such reliable means by giving the apostles and their successors, the
bishops, authority to teach in His name and by promising to be with them
forever. [BCP page 561] The teaching of the apostles and of the apostolic
churches, securely grounded in the biblical Word of God, continues to this day,
and will continue to the end of time. [Anglo] Catholics believe that, under
certain carefully prescribed circumstances, ... the whole body of bishops are
able to teach with infallibility. That is a word that frightens many, but I
don't think it should. It means that the Church is indefectible, that we have
God's promise that He will never allow the Church to definitively defect from
the truth, to fall into apostasy. Infallibility, Avery Cardinal Dulles writes,
"is simply another way of saying that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church
against using its full authority to require its members to assent to what is
false." Without that assurance, he adds, "the truth of revelation would not be
preserved in recognizable form." And, I would add, to obey the truth we must be
able to recognize the truth.

The quote fully and faithfully echoes what Anglo-Catholics believe about the nature of the Church: the distinction is that we locate the infallibility of the Catholic Church in an altogether different place. Whereas Romanists locate the infallibility of the Church in the office and person of the Bishop of Rome teaching ex cathedra in communion with other Romanist bishops, we locate the infallibility of the Church where the historic orthodox Church of Christ has always centred it, in the undivided episcopate of the whole Catholic Church and in the expressed teaching of the Seven Ecumenical or General Councils of the Undivided Church, and beyond that still, in the consensus fidelium, the common sense of the People of God, the common theological consent and consensus of the whole Church throughout the ages and across the globe. Only that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all is truly and properly Catholic (Commonitorium, Saint Vincent of Lerins) and thus truly and properly infallible - as the Church has been led so to believe by the Holy Ghost.

Anglicans are conciliarists who believe the Holy Ghost makes known the authentic interpretation of the Gospel in the general consensus of the Apostles, Fathers and baptised faithful. 'It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us' (Acts 15.28) Were the totality of the world's Catholic and Apostolic bishops again to meet in ecumenical council, an infallible or indefectible decision on questions of faith or morals could certainly be achieved. Until that happens again, we are uniquely bound to the previous declarations, decrees and judgements, the dogmatic statements, of the Seven Holy Councils.


Fr Jay Scott Newman said...

Your account of Roman Catholic teaching on this matter is incomplete and, for that reason, misleading. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council on this question, found primarily in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) is the best and most complete statement of our understanding of the relationship between the College of Bishops and its head (the Bishop of Rome) and of how the two operate in concert with each other. It is simply a caricature to say that we believe the authority and teaching office of the papacy is independent of the College of Bishops, and a careful study of Lumen Gentium (particularly numbers 18 to 29) provides a more nuanced view of the matter. Don't rely on what others say we believe when you can read the authoritative statement of that belief, particularly that of a Church Council.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Newman,

"Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable."

It seems to me that the above statement from Vat. 1 session 4 ch. 4 par. 9 intends to define the Pope's infallible definitins as independent of the Church (which would include the College of Bishops.

Vat. 2 affirms Vat. 1 in the very paragraphs you mentioned when it says:

"And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith,(166) by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.(42*) And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith."

The Pope's definitions if EX CATHEDRA "need no approval of others" which establishes the Pope's independence of "these others" and they "do not allow an appeal to any other judgment" which seems to em to decisively rule out the College of Bishops because they are "others" to the Pope. After all in the Pope the charism of infallibility is "individually present" when "he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith."

From the looks of it Fr. Chad got it right.

Now the College of Bishops can also enjoy the charism of infallibility - if not individually - as follows:

"The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter."

So that their participation in this charism is directly dependent on the Pope. This "dependence" is a one way street for - as we saw in Vat. 1 and in the paragraphs you mentioned from Vat. 2 - the Pope does not depend on the College of Bishops when he speaks/teaches EX CATHEDRA.

As an Orthodox Christian I do not - of course - agree with either Vat. 1 or 2 on this matter.

But perhaps the passages I found disturbing in Vat.1 and 2 are patient of a more moderate exegesis? Perhaps some extended reflection could give more shape to what you have called "a more nuanced view of the matter"? For now it seems to me that Fr. Chad got it right ...

Dcn Gregory