Fr. Z. promotes the heresy of Reception Theory

Here is the Fr. John Zuhlsdorf post, and not the only one, which promotes “reception theory”. The claim is that a law is not a law unless it is received by the community to which it applies. If they decide to reject it, or if they ignore it, so that it has no effect on them, it is claimed to be “not a law”. Then the community, having rejected the law of the Church, would be said to be innocent of violating that law, which they have deliberately and knowingly rejected. This article will explain why such a theory is heretical.

As has become common in Fr. Z. posts, the post on this topic begins with a series of snarky rebellious comments against the Roman Pontiff. Fr. Z. insults the Pope, again and again; he shows disdain for papal authority; he ridicules the decisions of the Pope.

Fr. Z. claims: “Reception theory states that a law, in order to be a law, a binding law, must be received by the community for which it is intended. If they community does not receive it, that is, they reject it outright or it fails to have any effect on how they live, the presumed law is non-binding and is really no law at all. This doesn’t apply to moral law, because it flows from above, reception or rejection by mere human beings. Reception theory does not apply to moral teaching, but it can apply to certain of the Church’s disciplinary law, which includes liturgical law.”

Reception theory is not Catholic teaching. It has never been taught by any Pope, Saint, Doctor, magisterial documents, or Ecumenical Council. It is not supported by Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition. It is not even a teaching accepted by Orthodox Christians or any major Protestant denomination. It is not a Christian or Catholic teaching.

So, then, how could such a baseless theory, with no support in Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, nullify the disciplinary or liturgical laws of the Church? It cannot. The theory was adopted by the papal accusers — by those who accuse Pope Francis and other Popes, Vatican II and other Councils, of grave error — in order to nullify only those laws that they dislike. It allows them to pick and choose, like any heretics, which decisions of the Church to accept, and which to reject. It allows them to reject some of Canon Law and any liturgical decisions, just as pleases them.

This is contrary to the teaching of Christ:
{16:18} And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
{16:19} And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.”

Why is a law rejected by “the community”? And this appears to mean only conservatives or only traditionalists, as the larger community which is the Church on earth, has accepted those decisions of the Church, in Her laws and liturgy, which Fr. Z. and others wish to reject. Is the law rejected because the Church has become corrupted in Her disciplines? Such a claim contradicts the indefectibility of the Church. Is the law rejected because the Church has made decisions that gravely harm the faith? If so, that claim contradicts indefectibility. If not, then there is no substantial reason for rejecting the decision.

And then verse 19 absolutely refutes “reception theory”. Whatever the Roman Pontiff binds on earth “shall be bound, even in heaven.” Therefore, a law is not only a law when received by the community. What the Church binds or looses by papal authority, or by an Ecumenical Council approved by the Pope, is bound or loosed in Heaven as well, just as Christ taught. Reception theory contradicts the word of our Lord.

Fr. Z. states that reception theory does not apply to the eternal moral law because it “flows from above”. But Christ says that whatever Peter and his successors bind or loose is bound or loosed in heaven, which clearly indicates that this authority of the Roman Pontiff is from above, it is diving authority, not merely human authority — just as Unam Sanctam (n. 8) teaches. And this, too, refutes reception theory.

Then what would happen if a conservative Pope were to require the entire Church to go back to the traditional Latin Mass? If the liberal Catholics tried to use reception theory to reject this decision, Fr. Z. and his cohort would not agree. Reception theory is only applied by them to decisions of the Church that are contrary to the conservative or traditionalist subcultures. It is a disingenuous theory that is not even applied consistently. Rather, it is an excuse to put the preferences of a subculture above the authority of Christ exercised by the Roman Pontiff, and then only when the Roman Pontiff exercises that authority against the subculture’s wishes.

Why is reception theory heresy? It is because the theory contradicts the teaching of Christ in Mt 16:19, as well as the constant teaching of the Church on the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff (see these teachings). The Roman Pontiff cannot fail in faith, nor err gravely in doctrine or discipline. This teaching removes the alleged necessity for reception theory. Then the Roman Pontiff has supreme authority over the whole Church:

Saint Newman, 1801-1890: “I have said that, like St. Peter, he is the Vicar of his Lord. He can judge, and he can acquit; he can pardon, and he can condemn; he can command and he can permit; he can forbid, and he can punish. He has a Supreme jurisdiction over the people of God. He can stop the ordinary course of sacramental mercies; he can excommunicate from the ordinary grace of redemption; and he can remove again the ban which he has inflicted. It is the rule of Christ’s providence, that what His Vicar does in severity or in mercy upon earth, He Himself confirms in heaven.”

Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, in 1896, n. 9; 10 to 16:
“Hence, as it is clear that God absolutely willed that there should be unity in His Church, and as it is evident what kind of unity He willed, and by means of what principle He ordained that this unity should be maintained, we may address the following words of Saint Augustine to all who have not deliberately closed their minds to the truth: “When we see the great help of God, such manifest progress and such abundant fruit, shall we hesitate to take refuge in the bosom of that Church, which, as is evident to all, possesses the supreme authority of the Apostolic See through the Episcopal succession? In vain do heretics rage round it; they are condemned partly by the judgment of the people themselves, partly by the weight of councils, partly by the splendid evidence of miracles. To refuse to the Church the primacy is most impious and above measure arrogant. And if all learning, no matter how easy and common it may be, in order to be fully understood requires a teacher and master, what can be greater evidence of pride and rashness than to be unwilling to learn about the books of the divine mysteries from the proper interpreter, and to wish to condemn them unknown?” (De Unitate Credendi, cap. xvii., n. 35).”

“Indeed no true and perfect human society can be conceived which is not governed by some supreme authority. Christ therefore must have given to His Church a supreme authority to which all Christians must render obedience.”

“For this reason the Pontiffs who succeed Peter in the Roman Episcopate receive the supreme power in the church, jure divino [by divine law]. “We define” (declare the Fathers of the Council of Florence) “that the Holy and Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold the primacy of the Church throughout the whole world: and that the same Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and the true Vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him, in Blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ to feed, to rule, and to govern the universal Church, as is also contained in the acts of oecumenical councils and in the sacred canons” (Conc. Florentinum). Similarly the Fourth Council of Lateran declares: “The Roman Church, as the mother and mistress of all the faithful, by the will of Christ obtains primacy of jurisdiction over all other Churches.” These declarations were preceded by the consent of antiquity which ever acknowledged, without the slightest doubt or hesitation, the Bishops of Rome, and revered them, as the legitimate successors of St. Peter.”

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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6 Responses to Fr. Z. promotes the heresy of Reception Theory

  1. Penanoke says:

    I think it’s clear Fr. Z has made an idol out of the TLM. His post today about hiding children from men with ropes, in reference to the Church’s Magisterium instructing liturgical unity around the postconciliar Mass, and preparing to resist the eventual prohibition of celebrating the TLM betrays a mind that is not in union with the Church and is not submissive to her divine authority. He built his life and a cult of personality around the TLM and being a blogger instead of Catholic faith and priesthood in service to the Church, and now he’s seeing his life having been misspent for naught, when he should have embraced postconciliar liturgy and priesthood in service to the Church.

  2. Vít Lacman says:

    Dear Mr. Conte, I write to you (hopefully) for the final time. I want to ask you again about supreme/sovereign contrition as I did on your Q&A 19th October. Since that I have searched through the internet for more information on this subject. And the position I presented to you seems to be prevalent among catholic teachings. For example Catechism of the council of Trent, catechism of St. Pius X, Catholic encyclopedia, Catholic dictionary and many other books and articles from both laity and religious say something similar if not the same on contrition. All of them stating that contrition should or must be supreme/sovereign. They don’t seem to apply this quality or condition only to perfect contrition but to (true) contrition in general, both perfect and imperfect. So I wanted to ask you, are you completely sure of what you have written to me? I would love you to be right, but your position doesn’t seem to hold much ground.
    I am sorry, if I am annoying, but you will surely understand that questions regarding forgiveness of grave sins and thus eternal salvation are very important to me.
    Thank you very much for your time and answers. It was a great help to me.

    A few quotes out of many I found:

    “Qualities of Sorrow for Sin
    It Should Be Supreme”
    –Catechism of the council of Trent

    “Why must sorrow be supreme?”
    –Catechism of St. Pius X

    “QUALITIES.—In accord with Catholic tradition contrition, whether it be perfect or imperfect, must be at once (a) interior, (b) supernatural, (c) universal, and (d) sovereign.”
    –Catholic encyclopedia

    • Ron Conte says:

      You should read the current Catechism of the Catholic Church on this topic. Contrition is interior; exterior only would not be real sorrow for sin. Contrition is supernatural as it is a cooperation with grace. It is universal in the sense that one cannot have sorrow for one mortal sin, but not another; that would be contrary to a true cooperation with grace, which rejects all sin, but especially all mortal sin. It is not sovereign in the sense of being, as you seem to imagine, extreme or extremely full or the sorrow of a Saint or the like. It is only sovereign or supreme in the sense that one’s contrition must be above sin. But it is not true that even imperfect contrition must somehow be so extremely full that it would be hard for fallen sinners to obtain.

      You are simply reading an old text, with archaic theological terms, and misinterpreting them by using a modern and rather secular definition of those words (supreme, sovereign). And then when I tell you otherwise, you continue to hold to your own misinterpretation, of those texts. I’m not contradicting those sources, but rather your interpretation. And I would advise you not to get caught up in older terminology, which can be misunderstood.

      For example, “ex cathedra” is used today to refer to Papal Infallibility. But in past centuries, it was used for any decision of the Roman Pontiff on doctrine or discipline. Then there are ancient texts referring to non-ordained women deacons, as we would phrase it today, using the term ordination or ordained (meaning simply enrolled as deaconesses). Another example would be the term “dogma”, which today means infallible teaching, but was used originally as any order from the Roman empire; next, it was adopted by the Church for any decision of Church authority; later, it was narrowed only to teachings, and finally only to infallible teachings. Do not get tripped up by older terminology.

  3. Vít Lacman says:

    Ok, then what is a correct interpretation of these texts?:

    “Our sorrow is supreme when we hate sin above every other evil,
    and are willing to endure any suffering rather than offend God
    in the future by sin.”

    “true contrition includes the firm will never to sin again, so that no mater what evil may come, such evil must be preferred to sin”

    “It is finally sovereign if the sinner freely recognizes sin as the greatest of all evils and is willing to make amends accordingly.”

    “When I say that our sorrow should be sovereign, I mean that we should grieve more for having offended God than for any other evil that can befall us.”

    • Ron Conte says:

      Those texts refer to an ideal, not to the minimum to be forgiven by God in Confession. The catechism of Pius X and the catechism of the Council of Trent are not infallible. The latter was not issued or approved by Trent, but was simply issued to help spread the teachings of Trent to the whole Church.

  4. Thomas Mazanec says:

    it is diving authority, not merely human authority


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