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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Is the Magisterium Infallible or Not?

We should be straightforward and transparent about all this: “Can the Magisterium promulgate errors that contradict the deposit of faith?” I suspect that part of the problem is that the Church finds herself in an ever-changing world. While teachings about the nature of God, the sacraments, the basic appreciation of the marks of the Church, the saving works of God, etc. are generally fixed; certain moral truths and their practical or subjective application are more fluid given the messiness of human existence and changing culture. Note that except for the Western clarification of the Filioque, the Creed has remained unchanged since the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). The Council of Chalcedon (451) pretty much settled the Christological debates: Jesus is a divine Person with a complete divine and human nature. 

When we think of the role of the papacy what immediately comes to mind is the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1869–1870) and the solemn pronouncements that fully fulfill its defined criteria: the definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), the Assumption of Mary into heaven (1950), and the exclusion of the priesthood to men (1994).  Development on all these themes is evident in the history of the Church and in the piety and faith of believers. The Pope essentially clarifies what is the Church’s long-standing belief. Some wrongly refer exclusively to the two Marian dogmas when speaking about the gift of infallibility given the Church. Most of what the Church believes is not solemnly defined but also irreformable. As proof of this, anyone who would deny that Jesus is a divine Person or that he rose from the dead would commit apostasy against the Christian faith. Jesus is God because we cannot save ourselves; only God can save us.  Jesus is risen or else he is a failed prophet and we will one day merely be the food for worms. The Magisterium is defined as the Pope and all those bishops who teach in union with him.  We are obliged to receive the teachings of the Pope since he is the Vicar of Christ made the visible ROCK of the Church by our Lord. The invisible head of the Church is Jesus. We are even required to give filial assent or respect to the religious views of the Pope that are not solemnly defined. Thus, while we are not required to give a slavish intellectual assent to every opinion of the Pope, this religious assent can be challenging because it requires that we would treat as true even those matters which remain dubious. It is in the grey area that theologians faithful to the Holy See would assist in determining the truth.  This is made problematical when dissenting theologians contradict settled doctrine and take an adversarial stance to both the historical and the living Magisterium. There must always be a profound respect to the sources of Christian doctrine that make possible the deposit of faith.  The Church has long taught that public revelation ends with the death of the last apostle, John.    

Does the Church have all the answers? No, even though all that we need to know for salvation subsists in the Church. Sometimes theories or “our best guess” are taught by theologians as certain. Later, we have to roll statements back. For instance, there is a catechetical inconsistency in the Church’s teaching about the state of children who die before the age of reason or the sacrament of baptism. While many lament the subtraction from the universal catechism of the medieval concept of limbo with its imposed ignorance and natural happiness; we often forget that this theory arose because of an aversion to the earlier patristic claim that unbaptized children were sentenced to hell. Today, while we are hopeful or even optimistic about the Lord’s mercy, there remains an uncertainty on this question.  Thus, the Church still encourages the speedy initiation of the little ones into the Christian dispensation. Along with this, the Church has further engaged in debates about baptism by desire and by blood.  Some of these conflicts have reached into modern times, as in the American crisis with Fr. Leonard Feeney.

The matter of doctrinal development, especially when there seems to be a reversal, is indeed problematical and in need of honest investigation.  We cannot merely resort to the hackneyed qualification “that the Church has always taught such and such” when this is clearly not the case. All this might sound controversial but religious thinkers on the right also find themselves engaged with developing or changing teachings.  We need to ask what must stay the same (definitive) and what is privy to legitimate expansion (not definitive).

One Response

  1. I have found the book Teaching with Authority by Jimmy Akin somewhat helpful in understanding the magisterium. However, it also shows how complex the whole affair is. I wish the Church would have a definitive list of infallible teachings, and those that are irrefutable if not infallible, and perhaps a grading system on percentage-infallible.

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