Recent discussions on our weblog have led me to realise that some clarifications regarding what the Church's understanding of the authority of Tradition does and does not entail, and regarding church history, might be helpful.
Appeal to the Vincentian Canon, to what has been believed “everywhere, always and by all” within the Church, is a more subtle idea than commonly understood. The appeal to the whole Church's consensus across time does not mean an appeal to any theological opinion enjoying what we might call a simple majority, for example. Nor does it require acceptance of beliefs outside the area of Faith and Morals, no matter how common they have been. It does not even involve acceptance of very common opinions which intersect doctrinal concerns but which are or were held as normal assumptions rather than posited as truths necessary to be held. The apparent consensus of only a brief period is likewise excluded.
So what is included in Holy Tradition (HT henceforth) and considered to satisfy the Vincentian Canon (VC henceforth)? Doctrines defined as dogma by recognised Ecumenical Councils or their equivalent (e.g., local conciliar decisions which are ratified by an Ecumenical Council or otherwise universally treated as correct and authoritative) are the obvious component. However, also included are doctrines held and taught as part of the Faith by an overwhelming majority or virtually universal consensus of Catholic bishops (and accepted by the laity faithful to them) over a long period of time, even if not defined as dogma at a universal level.
It does not matter too much whether certain doctrines are more implicit than verbally explicit for a time, as long as the substance is there throughout. Nor does it matter if a regionalised or temporarily widespread defection from HT can be found. A regional schism based on rejection of an otherwise virtually universal teaching simply characterises that schism as heretical. Too, if something satisfies the VC at one point, it cannot fail to do so later just because a significant number of Christians start to reject it. A very small sample of patristic teaching inconsistent with the consensus does not overthrow it.
It is important to note at this point that this is not an idiosyncratic classification of my own. It is the standard approach. It may be found in Anglican works such as Hall's Dogmatic Theology (e.g., Vol. II, Ch. viii) or Palmer's On the Church (Pt IV, Ch. vi), as well as in Roman Catholic sources (where scholastic terminology differentiates between what is de fide and what is sententia communis theologorum, for example). Eastern Orthodox thinking is very similar.
Now, the standard Catholic position, whether Anglican, Roman or Orthodox, is that Holy Tradition (note the capitals: merely human, ecclesiastical customs are excluded) is infallible. That is, the Church's genuine doctrinal consensus cannot be erroneous or lead Christ's flock astray. However, even here it is accepted that verbalisations may need improvement to give a more complete or balanced view over time.
Three challenges to this thesis have been put by respected contributors to this weblog recently, although none involves outright rejection of the VC or the infallibility of dogma, it should be said. First, there is the claim that counterfactuals exist to this infallibility, that is, truly consensual doctrines of the past now known to be false. Second, there is the claim that the consensus of Holy Tradition (HT henceforth) is infallible only insofar as it can be shown to rest on Scriptural evidence, with the corollary inference by many that HT must be used in a filtered form, with what is considered by the person making the act of faith to be unscriptural being rejected. Third, there is the claim that the VC can often become a useless or simply tautological criterion (especially once the aforementioned filter is taken into account) and that therefore the HT it supposedly identifies is an overly vague concept without definite content that just forces us back to Scripture.
Taking the first challenge, the purported counterfactuals, we find that the following have been proposed: Ptolemaic Cosmology as theologically significant, 24 hr/6 day literalism in the interpretation of Genesis, and support for the moral probity of torturing heretics, Jews and witches for the sake of the defence of the Faith, so to speak. The last two are most easily dealt with, because the supposed universal ancient consensus does not exist.
Most of the earliest Church Fathers condemned the use of force by Christians outright, and even most of the later Fathers who accepted some use of force by Christians rejected the idea that it should be used to compel or kill unbelievers or heretics (e.g., St Ambrose), and we can even find outright papal condemnation of the use of torture (in 866 by St Nicholas I). Early Canon Law forbade clergy even to strike unbelievers or heretics, and threatened them with deposition for this. When the teaching changed, it did so in the West in mediaeval times, due partly to some unfortunate statements of St Augustine extrapolated beyond their original context and partly to the desire of Popes for Ceasar-like powers. While it is true that Church officials often fell short of their ancient teaching as they were compromised by alliances with the civil powers, there was never a universal, East-West consensus as to the legitimacy of the kind of violence seen in the various Western Inquisitions. While the alliance between the Empire and Church produced legislation that subjected certain heretics to severe financial and legal disadvantages, these did not include violent suppression, and the freedom of assembly for heretics and Jews was backed up by the threat of capital punishment for those who disturbed such voluntary assemblies. The Western Church's Law regarding how those opposed in some way to the Catholic Faith were to be treated had to be changed to allow the abuses of the Inquisitions. (On the Eastern side we have instead the mediaeval example of a godly king, St Vladimir, who after his conversion abolished both the use of torture and execution even by the state! And we have just had his feast: July 5th.)
It is also interesting to note that early teaching on witches warned against superstitious acceptance of the supposed powers of witches and showed no paranoid desire to persecute them by burning or execution. In fact, Canon Law threatened excommunication for believing in the reality of the powers of witchcraft! The Council of Frankfurt in 794 prescribed the death penalty for those burning supposed witches. This early tradition was more mocking than fearful. That changed in the later middle ages, and the fatal detour accelerated with the mediaeval publication of the text Malleus maleficarum, which gave credence to the powers of witchcraft and identified witches as a mortal danger needing a violent response.
As for the literal, “24/6” interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, dissent from this is found in men like Origen, St Augustine and St Aquinas. In other words, the three most influential minds in the history of the Church! Here again, we have a non-existent consensus.
Speaking of Augustine, it was he who advised biblical exegetes not to over-dogmatise on the interpretation of Scripture when this intersected with questions of the physical nature of the universe. He recommended they use some humility and pay attention to the scientific consensus, though that exact term was not yet invented. Now, it was the scientific consensus of the era of the Fathers that Ptolemaic (geocentric) theories were correct and the theories of Aristarchus (which were heliocentric) implausible. This was not the result of mere ignorance. For example, if Aristarchus was right, pre-Copernican astronomers understood that there should be a parallax “movement” of the nearer stars compared to the background stars as the Earth moved around the Sun. No such parallax was observed. The reason for this, we now know, was that the parallax was real but too small to be observed with the naked eye, requiring a telescope. Yes, exegesis of certain biblical passages also had an influence for many, but this was a post facto “demonstration” of the harmony of the Bible with accepted science, not imposing the Bible on the natural philosophers. More importantly, the Ptolemaic cosmology was not generally or normally part of catechesis or doctrinal teaching properly speaking, it was simply assumed and, at certain points, appropriated. In these circumstances, if one can not find a widespread ancient tradition in the Fathers of condemning the views of Aristarchus as objectively heretical, it is false to claim that the Church had a consensus of dogmatic geocentricism.
The second challenge to the definitive authority of HT is to accept it but with a significant qualification: whatever the VC and HT direct Christians to believe must be accepted as long as it is also founded on the Divine Revelation of Scripture. The difficulty with this challenge is that it is true but potentially misleading as it stands. This qualification is not what it appears, since it is the teaching of Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers that the Church Universal will never impose anything as “of Faith” on its members that is contrary to or not founded in the Divine Revelation. Therefore, the qualification is true, but “trivially” so, as mathematicians would put it. Consider, as an analogy, the following theological statement. "The Church only remains the Body of Christ so long as Jesus retains his human nature, since it is in his incarnate state that he is the Bridegroom who unites with himself the Church as his Body." It is strictly true, but not worth saying, since we know that Jesus' humanity is unending. Similarly, this qualification is not practically helpful, as the set of teachings which would satisfy the VC and HT, but is not Scriptural, is a null set necessarily. This means that the qualification, though trivially true, must never be used by any Catholic Christian to reject any part of HT on the grounds that he or she does not see that that part is Scriptural. To deny this statement is to deny the essence of Catholic epistemology and to open up the door to every heresy, since many heresies have made exactly such a claim sincerely, that is, claimed that a particular doctrine is un- or anti-Scriptural, no matter the consistency of consensus. We cannot coherently make the Church Universal the final judge of what is the correct interpretation of Scripture, but reserve to individuals or isolated particular churches the right to judge whether or not the Church was being Scriptural in this determination.
Now for the third challenge. Does the VC, understood correctly, succeed in identifying the HT in practice? That is, does it reveal the HT in such a way as, not merely to repeat Scripture, but to elucidate it in ways not accessible to superficial reading or private judgement and to provide a clear set of Catholic teachings which either must be affirmed or, in some cases, at least may not be denied? The following doctrines may all be found as satisfying the VC properly understood. The doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement contained in the Creeds and defined by Ecumenical Councils; the divine inspiration of Scripture and the necessity to follow HT in interpreting it; the necessity to the Catholic Church of the threefold ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon; the benefit of prayers for the dead in Christ; the benefit and reality of prayers by the dead in Christ for those living and the legitimacy of asking for those prayers; the validity of Christian art and cautious reverence for icons; the immaculacy and heavenly repose of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary; the teaching that the Bread and Wine become (and do not merely signify or contain) respectively the true Body and Blood of Our Lord in an ineffable, spiritual but real manner; the teaching that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice for quick and dead, drawing upon the One Propitiation of the Cross; and the nature of all of the commonly identified “seven sacraments” as divinely appointed means of grace. Given that one can find solid support for them in official Roman Catholic sources, anti-Pelagian Conciliar decrees and in the Eastern Fathers, I would add the soteriological truths 1 to 12 I identified here as well. This is very much a non-trivial list, and is not exhaustive. It is this HT which the Affirmation of St Louis and the Constitution and Canons of the ACC commit members of that Church to unreservedly. Were we to fall back at all as a corporate body from this affirmation, we would thus cease to be a Catholic jurisdiction. I trust that will never happen.
While we must always be cautious to avoid overdogmatising and must carefully distinguish between traditions and the Tradition, let us never lose our trust in God's promises to his One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church or pit ourselves against her manifest mind and heart. Let us never neglect to listen to the Church (Matthew 18:17). She is, without doubt, the “pillar and ground of the truth”, against whom “the gates of Hell shall not prevail”, “the fulness of Him who fills all in all” and the Body to whom Christ has corporately given the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who guides us into all truth (1 Timothy 3:15, Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 1:23, 1 John 2:27, John 16:13). Thanks be to God.