A Call To Faith

Suppose that a Pope, any Pope at all, issues a papal document, containing a new definition of dogma. In this hypothetical, everyone agrees that the teaching meets all of the conditions for it to be infallible under Papal Infallibility. However, some prominent faithful Catholics believe the contents of the teaching to be a grave error.

Is this possible? Of course, some Catholics can opine, unfaithfully, that [1] an infallible teaching of a Pope, or [2] of a Council, or [3] of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is error, not infallible truth. But what I am asking is, do the conditions for an infallible teaching, under any of the three modes of magisterial infallibility, include an evaluation as to whether the teaching is true? Or is it true merely because it meets those conditions?

The answer here is not speculative. This is not mere opinion. The First Vatican Council was clear on the conditions for Papal Infallibility:

“when the Roman Pontiff speaks Ex Cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he 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.”

None of these conditions requires the content of the teaching to be true. Thus, none of these conditions permits the faithful, of any rank or number, to judge the content of the teaching as error, and therefore to claim that the conditions for infallibility have not been met. Rather, when a teaching — without any judgment as to the correctness of its assertion — meets these conditions, it must be true. It is true because it meets the conditions.

If the Roman Pontiff is speaking as Teacher of the universal Church, not merely expressing an opinion, and if his assertion is a definition, a definitive act which proclaims a teaching, on a subject area of faith or morals, which is proposed to the whole Church as a required belief, then the teaching must be true, as it falls under Papal Infallibility — without regard to content.

If it seems to millions of Catholics, and if it seems to a vast number of Catholic leaders, however scholarly, wise, and holy they may be, that the contents of the teaching are in error, if it seems to many of the faithful that the new definition of dogma is entirely incompatible with the teachings of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, as well as past magisterial teachings — even so, the new definition must be believed, with the full assent of faith, to be an infallible truth of Divine Revelation. And the faithful must set aside their own contrary understanding, and adhere to the new definition. They must change their interpretation of any other teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, which would seem to conflict with the new definition. For the new definition of dogma is a teaching of Christ, the Lord.

How can this be? It is a matter of faith. Consider the situation of the first disciples of Christ.

They were Jews being taught Christianity. They were being taught by someone claiming to be the Messiah, or whom many said was the Messiah. And He was not what anyone expected. If you polled the Jews of that time, just before Jesus began teaching, and asked what the Messiah would be like, and what He might teach, none of them would have gotten it right. For we are fallen sinners who can easily misunderstand what God knows to be truth.

If the first disciples took the attitude of some Catholics today, that those things only are true teachings of the Church which seem true to their own understanding, how many would have followed Jesus? None. He did not teach what anyone expected. He said eat my flesh and drink my blood. Which of the most holy rabbis, teaching about the future Messiah, got that point right: “He will tell us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Then he will turn bread and wine into his body and blood.” No one anticipated that teaching.

Faith is believing in ideas that make no sense to your own mind. And that goes for the minds of Saints, theologians, Cardinals, and little children — everyone. If you believe everything that the Catholic Church teaches, but only because it all seems right to your own mind, then you do not have faith at all and you are not in the state of grace. If so, then when you die, you will be judged by God and sent to Hell. For you did not believe the only-begotten Son of God made man, in His teachings through His Church. Instead, you treated your own mind as if it were the Messiah.

Consider the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist. What if the Magisterium had not yet defined transubstantiation, or the real presence? What if these ideas were still open questions, and the position we all know to be true were a minority view? And then the Pope defines transubstantiation and the real presence. How many Catholic leaders would object, since it would not be the majority view? How many would refuse to believe, since the teaching would not make sense to them, and would not seem to be in accord with Tradition? (I’m assuming, in this hypothetical, that Aquinas did not teach the doctrine, and Augustine’s error continued to be held as an opinion.) I think it is clear, from the way that many prominent Catholic leaders speak and act today, that they would reject that dogma.

Back to the question of Papal Infallibility. What if the Pope defines a new dogma, which meets all the conditions for Papal Infallibility? Well, then the contents of that teaching must necessarily be true. The faithful may not judge the contents of the teaching, compare it to Tradition and Scripture and past magisterial teachings, and decide whether or not it is true. Even if it seems to be in conflict with past teachings, they must believe it to be true — and in fact it is true. The Pope cannot err, when he exercises Papal Infallibility.

The only other possibility is that Jesus is a liar and not the Son of God at all. Those are the only two options. The reason that Papal Infallibility, and Conciliar Infallibility, and the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium are wonderful gifts to the Church is that they allow us to perceive and adhere to truths which are beyond the ability of the fallen sinner to understand. And the Holy Spirit absolutely prevents any errors at all from entering any teaching which meets the conditions for any of the three modes of infallibility of the Magisterium. It doesn’t matter who the Pope is, or what is personality is like, or how many sins he has (supposedly) committed. When his teaching meets the conditions, it is true. No matter how clearly wrong the teaching might seem to be to innumerable scholars, theologians, and faithful lifelong Catholics, and no matter how foolish or sinful the Pope who teaches may seem to be, it is true.

{11:49} Then one of them, named Caiaphas, since he was the high priest that year, said to them: “You do not understand anything.
{11:50} Nor do you realize that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the entire nation should not perish.”
{11:51} Yet he did not say this from himself, but since he was the high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.

Caiaphas was a particularly wicked person. And he did not have a gift similar to Papal Infallibility, such as “high priest infallibility”. Yet Scripture says that, despite his wickedness, he was able to prophesy truth. Therefore, we should understand that, no matter who the Pope may be, he can still teach infallibly, by the power of God.

Now consider an alternate proposal. What if a Pope teaches heresy in a teaching that meets the conditions for Papal Infallibility? Can we say that the Pope has thereby ceased to be Pope, and therefore the teaching does not meet the first condition (that it be taught by the Pope) or the second condition (that it be taught as an exercise of the Pope’s full authority over doctrine)? No, we cannot. Such a claim would leave all infallible teachings in doubt, and would make a mockery of the gift of infallibility given to the Church, exercised by the Magisterium. How would it be at all useful to have the gift of infallibility, if it could fail in any manner?

It would be as if you gave someone the gift of a crystal bowl, and you told them that the bowl is unbreakable. Then, when the bowl is dropped, it shatters into a thousand pieces. The other person complains, “You said this was an unbreakable bowl!” And you reply: “Yes, but it is only unbreakable when it is a bowl. And when it breaks, it ceases to be a bowl.”

The usefulness of infallibility would be shattered if heresy could be taught by a valid Pope, such that he then becomes not the Pope. And then the explanation would be, “He is only able to teach without error when he is Pope. When he teaches error, he ceases to be Pope.”

That would be a foolish system, which conferred no benefit on the Church. Instead, the prevenient grace of God ascertains that no valid Pope will ever teach or commit heresy, and so he will never cease to be a valid Pope, until his death or valid resignation. Therefore, when a teaching meets the conditions for infallibility, it is certainly true.

The papal critics all make the same mistake, substituting their own understanding and that of the conservative Catholic subculture, for faith itself. Catholics are not called to resist any Pope who teaches ideas contrary to their own understanding. For that attitude makes the arrogant assumption that their own understanding is infallible. Instead, we are called to believe truths that are contrary to our own understanding. That is faith itself.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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25 Responses to A Call To Faith

  1. Francisco says:

    Good post Ron, this reminds me of the discussion that Jesus had with the Pharisees at the Temple (John 8:13 ff). Among other things He told them, “You judge according to the flesh” (8:15), in other words, according to their own limited understanding (of Mosaic laws and appearances), thus they didn’t accept to recognize the true meaning about the Messiah.

  2. Matt says:

    According to messages given to Pedro Regis, the Church what it has declared as the truth for many centuries will be declared false. It will create such confusion and division that many of the faithful will depart and to then go to the new Church under the antipope. The regular Catholic Church will still have a new Pope but few will be members of it. What in the world will the Pope declare false that us Catholics have believed to be true for and cause most of my Catholic brothers and sisters to leave the Church? It has be something so huge that it will shake my faith to the core.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Are you sure that is the correct interpretation of that message? I know we discussed this before, but I don’t recall what the exact message was. Maybe this will be an idea incorrectly declared true by the ordinary non-infallible magisterium in the past, and newly corrected. Or it could be a correct idea taught previously under the same magisterium, but the current Pope teaches the contrary, incorrectly. Popes can err to a limited extent.

  3. The catch is that Francis has not declared anything ex cathedra or infalibly. Instead his words and actions undermine Church teachings and Our Lord’s own teaching in regard to the indissolubility of marriage.

    Pope John Paul II declared ex cathedra that women cannot become priests. This is ignored by many in the Church.

  4. Mark P. says:

    I must admit some of this post is a bit difficult to understand so it will take more re-reading and study on my part. But I assume that an ex-Cathedra proclamation would still have some “rules,” e.g. that it should not contradict a previous ex-Cathedra statement. So a Pope could not rescind the Assumption for instance. And I would also assume that an ex-Cathedra statement could not contradict a plain reading of Scripture by stating something like abortion or same-sex marriage were permissible. But for more “open” questions like limbo, the extent of salvation to non-Christians, etc. – things that are not clear in Scripture or fully developed, I can see where your post makes the most sense with people disagreeing but having to believe.

    • Ron Conte says:

      When a teaching meets the conditions, then it is true and it does not contradict past infallible teachings or Scripture. There is not an additional criterion where the faithful get to judge whether the new teaching is or is not contrary to past teachings or Scripture.

    • sircliges says:

      A cannot be equal to not-A.

      We don’t need an additional criterion because logic is not a criterion, but the way. It’s pre-axiomatic.

      Christ is the Logos and Logos means also Reason.

  5. stefano says:

    Ron, you have made a purely hypothetical case, not representative of an actual case and without a comparison with present reality.

    One of the common criticisms to this pontiff is that he does not teach authoritatively. Moreover, he does so intentionally and on purpose, even when he writes formal documents.

    The idea behind is that the catholic thought is permanently incomplete, therefore debatable; not only, but it shoud be presented as such in order speak to the world and to announce the Gospels of Mercy (he uses the expression “liquid”, as opposed to “rigid”).

    Now, this raises a twofold question: a) how can you confirm your brothers in the faith on these premises? and b) how can you claim absolute obedience and the assent of faith “ad intra”, when you liberally debate “ad extra”, accepting opposite views as worthy, but, at the same time, condemning as wrong many traditionally catholic positions on various subjects (by the way, exacerbating the divisions within the Church, where you openly root for one part against another)?

    • Maurilio Piazza says:

      You wrote:

      “One of the common criticisms to this pontiff is that he does not teach authoritatively.”

      So Pope Francis doesn’t teach authoritatively just because critics say so? Or is it rather that, when he does teach under papal ordinary magisterial authority and critics don’t accept the teaching, they rationalize their rejection of his magisterium by downgrading the Pope’s statement at hand to non-magisterial opinion?

      You wrote:

      “The idea behind is that the catholic thought is permanently incomplete, therefore debatable; not only, but it shoud be presented as such in order speak to the world and to announce the Gospels of Mercy (he uses the expression “liquid”, as opposed to “rigid”).”

      Very ambiguous statement. Please define what you meant by “permanently” and “incomplete” in this context.

      At any given time, legitimate teachings in the Church include infallible magisterial doctrines, non-infallible magisterial doctrines and fallibile non-magisterial doctrines (opinions from various authorities and of various levels of reliability). In principle, debate is closed about the infallible, but still partially open about the non-infallible (though it is the Church’s official doctrine enjoying divine assistance and everyone in the Church is bound to give it sincere preference over any contrary opinion) and even more open about the fallible. Moreover, unchangeable infallible doctrines allow for a better understanding of the same in light of the Church’s growth in understanding of the non-infallible and of the fallible, therefore even the infallible can be licitly re-formulated without incurring violation of Vat I’s “Dei Filius”, i.e. without incurring heresy (modernism), as long as the meaning of the new formulation is fully consistent with the historical meaning of the original definition, otherwise the new formulation would result in a different teaching violating a definitive doctrine. In light of this, has there ever been a time in history with Catholic thought enjoying “completeness” status (all questions solved, all revealed truths defined) and with no legitimate “ad intra” or “ad extra” debate over Catholic thought?

      Now for your twofold question:

      “a) how can you confirm your brothers in the faith on these premises?”

      What you presented as premises is not objective reality (see above).

      Rather, how can any pope confirm his brothers if popes are capable of giving wrong answers about definitive doctrines, as is implied by the Cardinals’ 5 dubia? No pope could, under such presupposition: even if the pope’s answers were deemed to be correct by the askers, his very answering would not be enough for them to know that his answers are correct, which defeats the very purpose of asking him to confirm them. This is structural antinomy, serving as “per absurdum” demonstration that the above presupposition is indeed a grievous doctrinal error and that truly every pope, besides being able to define infallibly ex cathedra, is also permanently unable to err in definitive matters, i.e. every pope’s petrine charism is not only “of truth” but also “of never-failing faith” (“fidei numquam deficientis”), per Vat I.

      So the real question is: how can certain brothers be truly confirmed by any pope as long as they presume they themselves cannot err in definitive matters and do not reject the belief that popes can? How will those misguided brothers, so anxious to impossibly correct the pope about definitive matters, be able to accept legitimate papal teaching and correction of any kind?

      “b) how can you claim absolute obedience and the assent of faith “ad intra”, when you liberally debate “ad extra” […]?”

      The claim, or attribution of such prerogatives, by the pope is from divine revelation, not from the individual pope. Whoever resists the individual pope here, resists God. So, when an act of the individual pope requires unconditional (“absolute”) obedience or the assent of faith from those subject to his authority, obedience and faith are simply due, regardless of what those outside think or do or how the individual pope relates to those outside (and btw, given the incorrect premises above, you should question the correctness of your understanding of the nature and intention of papal “ad extra” debates or dialogues that is behind your usage of the word “liberally”).

  6. Matt Z. says:

    When I pray Lauds and Vespers most of the time I add my own prayer request during the prayers and intercessions. I pray for “unity in the Church and in the United States.” Unity is so important, yet so many are divided.

  7. Tom Mazanec says:

    What was Augustine’s error? Where was it made?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I thought he considered the Eucharist to be a mere symbol, but I did a little more reading just now, and that is disputed.

  8. Paul M. says:

    Ron, I agree with your assertion that faith in Christ and his Church is essential in the life of faith. How does this coexist with your other articles that a person who keeps from mortal sin, regardless of their beliefs about God, can be saved? How does the Church’s historic teaching on the importance of faith and works condemn one (the Catholic following their own thinking) and allow for justification of another (the Protestant, nonChristian or atheist)? Is it enough that a person puts their faith in something outside of themselves, even if it is not in the one, true God?

    With Luke 12:48 in mind about one who is given much, are you proposing that there are multiple levels of culpability, and that faith in the Church that Christ established is only required for Catholics? What of the person, like a Protestant, who rejects the Catholic Church, but in his mind he is convinced that Protestantism is true? Is he not in the same boat as the Catholic you describe? Ultimately, can it not be argued that the atheist who tries to lead a good life has no saving faith because he is only relying on his own viewpoint? Thanks.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Everyone is judged by his own conscience. So if a Protestant realizes that the Catholic Church is the one true Church, he must convert, or he sins gravely. But if he doesn’t realize it, then he avoids actual mortal sin. The Catholic who follows his own thinking, rather than putting his faith in the Church sins, but whether to the extent of actual mortal sin is for God to judge. The Catholic who relies too much on his own point of view might be comparable to a Protestant. He might err without full culpability.

      “Ultimately, can it not be argued that the atheist who tries to lead a good life has no saving faith because he is only relying on his own viewpoint?”
      That might be the case for some. But an atheist can have faith in God implicitly, despite not accepting the idea that God exists. The virtue of faith exists, with love and hope, in baptized infants, who do not intellectually adhere to any doctrine. So faith is not limited to belief in certain propositions. Persons who do not believe in God must have faith in God implicitly, by means of the things of this life that show us what God is like: love, mercy, justice, truth, etc. So they are putting their faith in God, even if they do not realize it.

  9. Alex says:

    Very good article!

    How could we be ever open to something new, if we judge the pope with old set of mind whether he is “correct”or not, or even “heretical”as some say? Isn’t it exactly because of that, to avoid being judged by outdated paradigms, that he gets the infallibility in order to lead God’s people further the way? Isn’t it for that purpose that the Holy Spirit is outpouring His gifts always anew, and not waiting the old status quo to be played over and over again? If it was not that way, we’d be sitting now not with the Tridentine council but with the Nicaea council that had pretty harsh measures towards those who sin (forgiven only once for adultery for example). In other words, we all would be thrown out of the board, if we want so much to return the old form of Christianity, that nonetheless is not exactly what Jesus preached, rather its temporary interpretation in 4th and following centuries.

    If the pope will repeat all the time what the Tridentine or another councils already said, (and why Tridentine if there are much older councils), there is no need to do that, even more, there is no need of a Petrine office to exist. ” Everything has already been said…” Much alike the Orthodox churches who do not accept that authority rather believe only the old councils and the old church fathers.

  10. sircliges says:

    «Faith is believing in ideas that make no sense to your own mind.»
    I think this is the crucial point of everything.
    This concept of faith is more close to lutherans and muslim than catholic. This is at the far opposite with thomism, with Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor, with the Ratisbona’s speach. This concept of faith is a fruct of dehellenization. L’ha relativism and irrationalism. It’s a catholic version of the Socing, the doctrine of the Party in Orwell’s 1984, in which 2+2=5 if the Big Brother says so.
    It’s the negation of the Logos.
    God is rational, and we are rational too because we are shaped “in his own image, in his likeness”. Our mind is similar at a basic level to God’s mind. God cannot pretend to us to believe something that “makes no sense”, because God’s nature is tied to reason.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I did not literally mean makes no sense. That was rhetorical. But certain mysteries will be only partially comprehended. And, because we are fallen sinners, some persons will say “that makes no sense” about a teaching that is entirely reasonable, such as the condemnation of intrinsic evil.

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