One of the important jobs of Christian apologists is to defend the Church against accusations that it has been, overall, an influence for bad in the world, or generally guilty of evil activity and teaching. This is particularly important for apologists who are Catholics, who believe in the holiness, infallibility and indefectibility of the Church. Now, this latter belief does not mean we must deny sins or errors by individual Christians or even by particular Churches (segments of the Church). It only means that we do not accept that the Church ever committed itself as a whole to any such wrongs.
But actions, if pursued throughout the Church and with little or no official censure or, contrariwise, with official approval, constitute a teaching that such actions are morally correct by the Ordinary Magisterium, that is, by the consistent and consensual belief, lived and taught, of the hierarchy. (They thus reflect on both the Church’s holiness and doctrinal trustworthiness.) Therefore, if it could be shown that a particular evil activity had been generally accepted and approved throughout the Catholic Church, that would constitute a falsification of the Catholic truth-claims.
Now, there is no doubt that many of the popular characterisations of “sins” or “mistakes” of the Church are based on exaggeration, selective history or misunderstanding. Nevertheless, not all accusations can be dismissed this way. When someone points to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) of the middle ages justified the use of torture and burning at the stake to “protect the true Faith” and achieve religious ends, they are speaking the truth. To reply that the actual applications of violent force were often left to the civil authorities makes no moral difference, as the RCC condoned these acts and in some cases had religious or clergy directly participate in them, as, for example, in the Inquisition’s torture chambers.
My response to this has always been to note that these extreme evils (for so they must be accounted in the context of the Saviour’s teaching) were not universally practiced or accepted as legitimate in the Church of that time. The Eastern Orthodox Church (EOC), for example, never taught that the use of torture by the Church was justified, even with the occasional compromises by some of its jurisdictions with civil governments in other areas. (One can take a similar approach regarding other excesses involving widespread abuses of ecclesial power within certain regions or jurisdictions.) Since, as an Anglican Catholic, I believe that both the RCC and EOC are part of the Catholic Church, this makes perfect sense from my point of view.
The problem is this. If most orthodox Roman Catholics are correct, and those Churches visibly outside their communion are not properly part of the One (Visible) Catholic Church, then this line of defence is unavailable and plausible alternatives seem to disappear completely. That is why it appears to me incontestable that the RCC’s ecclesiological claims (as normally presented), even in their post-Vatican II, “gentler” version of exclusivity, are implicitly inconsistent with belief in the infallibility of the Church, and so are radically un-Catholic.
To make my position clear, here is the argument:
- If a Church or communion of Churches authorises, condones and engages in an activity with virtual unanimity through its official organs of authority over an extended period of time, this constitutes a definitive teaching affirming the moral goodness of that activity.
- It is not possible for the Catholic Church as a whole to be in error in a definitive teaching on moral matters, any more than in matters of Faith.
- Therefore, a definitive teaching established by the process outlined in (1) cannot be in error if the said “Church or communion of Churches” is equivalent to “the Catholic Church as a whole”. [1 + 2]
- The RCC officially and generally authorised, condoned or practised torturous examinations and executions for religious ends over an extended period of time.
- Therefore, the RCC definitively taught that such torture was morally right. [1 + 4]
- Such torture is, in fact, morally repugnant.
- Therefore, the RCC definitively taught error on an important moral matter. [5 + 6]
- Therefore, the RCC is not the whole Catholic Church. [3 + 7]
I will take it as a given that 2 and 6 are uncontested by all identifying as Catholics. And that 3, 5, 7 and 8 do follow logically from their identified premises. That only leaves 1 and 4. 1 is a theological statement that appears synonymous with the RCC’s teaching on the infallibility of the consensus of the ordinary magisterium. 4 is a historical statement. Is it seriously questioned, even by revisionist historians?
Please note, I am not trying to attack the RCC or deny its Catholic identity. Indeed, if the exclusivist ecclesiology normally held in that Church is abandoned, the apparent scandal of proposition 7 above is seriously qualified. That is, once the RCC accepts that the Ordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church is and was bigger than they have been wont to admit, apparent contradictions between the consensual Magisterial teaching past and present on this matter will disappear. In other words, a more inclusive ecclesiology will also mean a strengthened ecclesiology, with the historical infallibility of the Church protected.