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Friday, March 22, 2019

Thank God for Francis! (Pontificating the Limitations of Papal Infallibility)

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Whether the Catholic Church is the one true Church of Christ depends entirely upon her infallibility as an organ of truth, for if she were not such then she would not be indefectible, Christ’s promise of indefectibility (cf. Matt. 28:20) would be void and He himself could not, therefore, be what he claimed to be: the God who can neither deceive nor be deceived. 


Infallibility of teaching on faith and morals is intrinsic to the divine commission, for without it the Church could not make of all nations disciples of Christ but only disciples of human teaching which may or may not correspond to the revealed truth of the Gospel. This was the lot of the nations that became disciples of Luther and his progeny before any form of the Christian religion was finally banished from all nations by the terminal secularism of political modernity.

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As Cardinal Newman put it: “If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder.” [ An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, II.13] But who or what in the Church is the infallible expounder?

It can only be the Church as a whole, whose supreme leader on earth is indeed the Pope, but whose head is Christ and Him alone.

The infallible expounder cannot be the Pope alone, even if his authority is supreme, universal and direct as to every member of the Church, for it is not the Pope alone who received the divine commission. And while Our Lord said to Peter “thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church (Matt 16:18),” He also said to him almost immediately thereafter, when Peter balked at the Passion: “Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men (Matt. 16:23).”

This would be followed, on the night of the Last Supper, by the prophecy that Peter would deny Him thrice and by the admonition applicable not only to Peter but to all his successors: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren (Lk 22:31-32).”

This article appears in the March 31st issue of The Remnant Newspaper. Read the entire issue online right now!
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Our Lord’s promise of divine assistance to the papacy is not a divine guarantee of inerrant Popes. The Pope is, after all, a man, and a man is always subject to human frailty and the possibility of error that comes with every exercise of free will, which is not lost upon election to the papacy. Hence Saint Paul’s famous rebuke of the first Pope at Antioch on account of his cowardly feigned adherence to Jewish dietary laws, which threatened the entire mission of the Church to the Gentiles by suggesting that they ought to follow the Mosaic law:

But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.

For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision.

And to his dissimulation the rest of the Jews consented, so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation.

 But when I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?  [2 Gal 11-14]

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The Church, however, is not a man or even a mere collective of men, but the Mystical Body of Christ whose subsistence cannot be destroyed by any human error. Lost in the current mania of hyper-papalism is the infallibility of the Church as a corporate whole, extending even to the faithful as a body, which obeys what has always been taught by the Church as a whole and rejects what is foreign to that teaching. As Ludwig Ott explains:

One may distinguish and active and a passive infallibility.  The former belongs to the pastors of the Church in the exercise of their teaching office (infallibilitas in docendo), the latter to the faithful as a whole in its assent to the message of faith (infallibilitas in credendo) Active and passive are related as cause and effect.

During the Arian crisis this “passive” infallibility of the faithful was crucial to the Church’s survival—that is, to the maintenance of her indefectibility. As Cardinal Newman famously explains, the laity were more faithful than their teachers to what their teachers had always taught them in the light of Revelation:

[I]n that time of immense confusion … the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism;… at one time the Pope, at other times the patriarchal, metropolitan, and other great sees, at other times general councils, said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised revealed truth; while, on the other hand, it was the Christian people who, under Providence, were the ecclesiastical strength of Athanasius, Hilary, Eusebius of Vercellae, and other great solitary confessors, who would have failed without them. [On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (1859)]

So, the Church’s infallibility pertains to the whole of her divine constitution: both the hierarchy and the laity which together comprise the Mystical Body. And there are times—our time is one of them—when at least a remnant of the laity keeps the faith they were taught even though the hierarchy has generally failed in its commission to defend and protect it. This is not to deny that there are still many among the hierarchs who believe what they were taught.  To quote Newman again apropos the Arian crisis:

… I am not denying that the great body of the Bishops were in their internal belief orthodox; nor that there were numbers of clergy who stood by the laity, and acted as their centres and guides; nor that the laity actually received their faith, in the first instance, from the Bishops and clergy; nor that some portions of the laity were ignorant, and other portions at length corrupted by the Arian teachers … but I mean still, that in that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the “Ecclesia docta” than by the “Ecclesia docens”…

What is “the faith” the faithful remnant are preserving far more than the generality of the hierarchy in our current “time of immense confusion”? It is nothing other than the total ensemble of doctrines the Church as a whole has taught and believed since apostolic times, otherwise known as the deposit of faith, developed and applied to particular circumstances as necessary but never contradicted.

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Too little attention has been paid in our day to the one criterion by which the validity of all Church teaching is judged: the constancy of what she has handed down in her corporate function as teacher versus the novelty of some particular pronouncement extrinsic to the depositum fidei.  Blessed Pius IX, the very Pope who narrowly defined papal infallibility by approving the Vatican I decree, was at pains to make clear in answer to Johannes Dollinger, before Dollinger’s apostasy and ultimate excommunication, that the teaching Church as a whole is infallible, not only as to “dogmas expressly defined by the Church” but also when it comes to “matters transmitted as divinely revealed by the ordinary Magisterium of the whole Church dispersed throughout the world and, for that reason, held by the universal consensus of Catholic theologians as belonging to the faith.” [DZ 2879]

It is of decisive importance in our current circumstances to recall how Vatican I’s definition of papal (versus ecclesial corporate) infallibility was strictly limited to the rarity of singular and solemn papal pronouncements commanding universal assent on a matter of faith and morals. The Council’s conditions for papal infallibility are that the Pope: (1) “when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, acting in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,” (2) “defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,” (3) “a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church…” [DZ 3074]

Only then, the Council declared, can it be said that the Pope in his singular definitions “possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.” But even in the exercise of this extraordinary Magisterium the Pope can do nothing but define solemnly as dogma matters already “transmitted as divinely revealed by the ordinary Magisterium of the whole Church dispersed throughout the world”—including, of course, Popes and Councils presided over by Popes and the body of bishops as a diachronic moral totality.  (The body of bishops does not mean episcopal conferences in particular countries, which are no part of the divine constitution of the Church and were not even given formal juridical status until the  Second Vatican Council’s decree Christus Dominus, which Paul VI implemented in 1966 with his motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae­—one of his many prudential blunders.)

In short, the Pope has absolutely no power to define a novel doctrine that was never a part of the Church’s Magisterium, either ordinary or extraordinary. As Vatican I declared in the very process of defining and delimiting papal infallibility: “For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that they might disclose a new doctrine by his revelation, but rather that, with his assistance, they might reverently guard and faithfully explain that revelation or deposition of faith that was handed down through the apostles.”  [DZ 3070]

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Now, none of the novel notions by which Bergoglio has afflicted the Church can be found anywhere in the deposit of faith laid down by the Church as a whole since apostolic times. His authorization of Holy Communion for certain public adulterers, his notion of environmental “sins against the Earth,” his absurd attempt to repeal the Church’s bimillenial teaching in defense of capital punishment by calling the purported repeal a “development,” his innumerable distortions and misrepresentations of the Gospel to suit his endless philippic against observant Catholics, and so forth, are nothing but his own ideas. As such, by definition, they cannot belong to the Magisterium. Nor, for that matter, can they be considered Catholic doctrine at all, as opposed to the doctrine expounded by Jorge Mario Bergoglio yet never imposed on the Catholic conscience by a solemn dogmatic definition, which is impossible given the very novelty of what Bergoglio preaches. 

Novel ideas are not Catholic doctrine but rather something else that is literally of no moment for a believing Catholic. And so it is with all of the novel notions and practices that have proliferated in the Church since Vatican II.  For example, no Catholic is obliged to believe in ecumenism, dialogue, interreligious dialogue or collegiality, whatever these notions might mean, for the simple reason that the Church had never heard of them before 1962—putting aside the further problem of their virtual meaninglessness as mere conceptual containers for various recklessly imprudent ecclesial activities.

The question that confronts us with Bergoglio, therefore, is simply this: Is it possible for a Pope’s personal teaching to depart from what the Church as a whole has always taught and believed in favor of his own novel ideas?  It must be possible, for it were not then there would be no distinction between the extraordinary and the ordinary Magisterium and the Pope would have to be viewed as simply inerrant tout court.  Pope Benedict XVI certainly recognized the peril of a Pope who promotes his own ideas when he said the following at the outset of his own pontificate, from which he was driven to pave the way for Bergoglio in a Roman intrigue worthy of the medieval epoch:

The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: The Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.

To deny that a given Pope can ever depart from orthodoxy by proclaiming his own ideas is to argue implicitly that every utterance of a true Pope touching on faith and morals must be accepted without question. And it is precisely this Protestant caricature of the papacy to which the sedevacantists resort in opposition to the traditionalist position that Bergoglio may be resisted in his errors while yet being recognized as Pope. To quote the leading sedevacantist website in this regard:

By saying Francis is Pope but then refusing his magisterium, the would-be traditionalists in the Vatican II Church are doing untold damage to the traditional Catholic doctrine of the Papacy because the papal office was instituted as the sure norm of orthodoxy at every point in time in Church history, guaranteed by Christ Himself. This does not mean that every papal magisterial act is infallible, but it does mean that every papal magisterial act is authoritative, thus binding on consciences and, by the providence of Almighty God, always safe to follow. This means that souls cannot be led astray by any pernicious error if they follow the teaching of the Pope. That safety is guaranteed and caused by Christ Himself. [emphasis added]

So, according to the sedevacantists, while not every magisterial act by a true Pope is infallible, his every magisterial act is authoritative, binding on conscience, safe to follow and free from pernicious error. This laughable self-contradiction is at the heart of the sedevacantist polemic. And so it must be.  For if the sedevacantists were to admit that a Pope is capable of erring in his ordinary day-to-day teaching even once, then their position would collapse into a vain argument over a matter of degree: How much error must a Pope manifest before it can be concluded that he has un-Poped himself or that he never was Pope in the first place? Would only one error suffice?  If not one, then how many?

There is no escaping this fatal flaw in the sedevacantist position: they must hold that any Pope who errs in any matter of faith and morals by proclaiming some novelty, such as Bergoglio’s opinion (contrary to divine revelation) that capital punishment is an attack on human dignity, cannot be a true Pope. That necessitarian logic means that they must also hold that we have had no Pope since Pius XII, given the profusion of doctrinal novelties—or what they would call doctrinal novelties—and novel practices that litter every pontificate following his in this time of immense confusion. Bergoglio has simply made it appear easier to sustain the ludicrous sedevacantist contention that we have had no Pope since 1958.

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From our perspective, however, the Bergoglian Debacle is an evil from which God has already drawn a great good.  For Bergoglio has demonstrated dramatically, once and for all, that the limitations of the papacy are exceeded whenever a Pope, in the exercise of his free will, fails to correspond to the grace of his state, departs from the path of Tradition and chooses to “proclaim his own ideas” rather than “constantly bind[ing] himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.”  Bergoglio has dispelled the pious fiction, long promoted by ultramontane theologians, that the faithful are obliged to believe unconditionally that the Holy Ghost infallibly insures the “safety” of every papal teaching and that we must not trouble ourselves with any apparent departure from what the Church has always taught.

Philip Lawler has rightly observed of Bergoglio that “the current Pope’s leadership has become a danger to the faith.”  That conservative Catholics now recognize what traditionalists have always understood—that a Pope’s leadership can be a danger to the faith—is a major step toward the greater recognition that the entire ecclesial crisis of the past half-century has emanated in the first instance from epochal failures of papal governance and that it will end only when a future Pope finds the courage to right the wrongs his predecessors have committed—just as Benedict XVI, at least to some extent, attempted to do before he abdicated the papal throne.

As Bergoglio has said concerning his own conduct of the papacy:  “On the other hand, I am by nature oblivious, and so I go ahead.” [“D’altra parte, per natura io sono incosciente, e cosi vado avanti.”]. Perhaps “oblivious” is too kind a translation of the Italian “incosciente,” whose alternate meanings are reckless, thoughtless, irresponsible and imprudent.  But then the entire post-conciliar aggiornamento has been reckless, thoughtless, irresponsible and imprudent. The Bergoglian pontificate is but a logical continuation of the same ruinous pursuit of vain novelty.  Surely that must now be obvious to anyone who still cares about the faith of our fathers. This is what Jorge Mario Bergoglio has shown to those who still did not know.


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Last modified on Sunday, March 24, 2019
Christopher A. Ferrara

Christopher A. Ferrara: President and lead counsel for the American Catholic Lawyers Inc., Mr. Ferrara has been at the forefront of the legal defense of pro-lifers for the better part of a quarter century. Having served with the legal team for high profile victims of the culture of death such as Terri Schiavo, he has long since distinguished him a premier civil rights Catholic lawyer.  Mr. Ferrara has been a lead columnist for The Remnant since 2000 and has authored several books published by The Remnant Press, including the bestseller The Great Façade. Together with his children and wife, Wendy, he lives in Richmond, Virginia.