Saturday, September 02, 2006

Roman Catholic Ecclesiology (as commonly understood) and Christian Apologetics

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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]
  4. The RCC officially and generally authorised, condoned or practised torturous examinations and executions for religious ends over an extended period of time.
  5. Therefore, the RCC definitively taught that such torture was morally right. [1 + 4]
  6. Such torture is, in fact, morally repugnant.
  7. Therefore, the RCC definitively taught error on an important moral matter. [5 + 6]
  8. 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.


poetreader said...

Finally a statement that truly expresses the indefectibility of the Church Catholic as a whole, while being able to regognize that every part of it has, to some degree and in some way, failed to maintain Truth in its entirety!

This is one of the soundest recognitions I've run across that true Catholicity [i]requires[/i] Romanism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism all to exist, though the scandalous disunity now extant represents yet another failure on the aprt of each of the divisions.

Thank you, Father Kirby.


Jerome+ OSJV said...

Superb piece of work Father!

Mark Windsor said...

At what point did the RCC ever teach that torture was an accepted method of judicial inquiry, and at what point were Catholics required to accept this as a matter of faith?

It just simply didn't happen.

poetreader said...

I suggest that you go back and read Fr. Kirby's piece again. He did not say that the RCC taught that as a matter of doctrine, let alone that it was required as a matter of faith. What he is pointing out is that such practices were indeed authorised and used, and that such authorization (which can be historically documented) did sometimes come from the Holy See. It is indeed so that the official magisterium never elevated this practice to the point of dogma, but it is equally true that official and majority opinion was that the existing practice was right. In Scripture we read more than once that we are known by our fruits. Such behavior says something about the Church of that time and place. Father's point, explicitly given, is that the Church never "committed itself as a whole to any such wrongs." It was rather, the faulty expression of a timebound and geographically bound part of Christ's Church.

Am I right, Father?


Mark Windsor said...


But that's not what's implied by point 7 - the entire piece really.

Infallibility doesn't mean that the Church can't ever make a mistake. Infallibility means that it can't teach error as a matter of doctrine. There are plenty of examples of the Church being in error on moral points, but those points were AT NO TIME elevated to a point where the faithful were required to believe them as a matter of doctrine.

Point 7 specifically states that the Church taught error.

Point 2 specifically ties it to doctrinal teaching and therefore draws in the idea of infallibility.

Point 5 uses the word "definitively."

All this leads to the impression that the doctrine of infallibility is misunderstood on a very basic level in this discussion. For the doctrine of infallibility to be used, it would require that the faithful accept it as a matter of faith - in the same way that the Immaculate Conception was required as a matter of faith. Torture was a mistake - in fact, it was a stupidity as well since confessions extracted by torture were not accepted. But it never rose to the level of doctrine.

If I've misunderstood the father's point, I stand to be corrected. The logic of number 8 it shaky at best, but it really doesn't matter if the basis of the first 7 is a mistaken understanding of the docrine upon which the argument is based.

Mark Windsor said...

Ugh! This particular combox system is way to complicated.

poetreader said...

One teaches both by word and by example. It is what one teaches by word that defines what is truly essential, but what one teaches by example often has much more impact on what the church is perceived to teach. Jesus, you may recall, commended the Pharisees for their official teaching. "They sit in the seat of Moses", but made it clear that what their deciples were learning from the false example of their lives was badly in error. On matters not in the core of necessary dogma (however one determines just what that is -- and that is one of the issues between Rome, Orthodoxay, and Anglicans) the Church has often, by example, and even by word, sometimes presented error as if it were truth, and has had to backtrack on those matters., and high officials, even popes, have witnessed by their lifestyle that they did not accept the basic moral teachings of the church they administered, thus teaching (probably inadvertently) that it was acceptable so to do.
Infallibility is not here at issue, but the possibility of one part of the church seeming to witness to untruth and requiring the whole church to stand in correction. This is Father's thesis, the matter of torture etc being but one possible example of the principle.


poetreader said...

And, yes, as temporary gatekeeper for comments, I second your comments about the program.


Fr Matthew Kirby said...


For a teaching to reach the level of infallibility, it does not require an official, binding statement by the Magisterium as a whole. The latter would correspond to an act of the Extraordinary Magisterium. All that is required for a teaching to require the status of infallibility under the aegis of the Ordinary Magisterium is long-standing moral unanimity of teaching by the hierarchy. Threats of excommunication if the teaching is not believed are not necessary. Neither are statements that "This is Dogma! Believe it or else!"

That is why it is generally accepted by orthodox Catholics that the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady tradition has reached the status of infallibility, despite the absence of explicit definitions and promised official sanctions to back them up. Similarly, the impossibility of the "Ordination of Women" was already covered by the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium before the "recent" relvant papal statements. In fact, that is exactly what those statements were saying. So, while those supporting the innovation before these statements were not subject to discipline as heretics, nor commonly condemned as such, their opinion was in fact materially heretical because it directly contradicted the consensual, long-standing teaching of the whole Church and its bishops and doctors.

Finally, Ed is correct to note that there are different modes of teaching, some more implicit. But it is important to note that explicit teaching to the effect that the violent and torturous acts of the Inquisitions were intrinsically justifiable was common right up until the Twentieth Century in the RCC, both at the popular level and in official statements. (I have even seen defences of these acts at the present day among ultraconservative RCs, including those "in communion".) Thus, the practical consensus in teaching (and not just by example) was clear and lasted for centuries.

Mark Windsor said...

Father Kirby,

With respect, this is still unconvincing. The teachings of the Ordinary Magesterium, to reach the level of infallibility, would have to be pertaining to faith or morals, revealed by God, apostolic, and proposed by the Church for belief by the faithful. Your statements re the ordination of women miss the apostolic element...they were apostolic before any modern innovation took hold.

To be honest, I had a longer reply, but Blogger seems to have lost it. The comments system is such that I'm not going to type it all in again. Why does it take four attempts to get the comments accepted? Rhetorical question...

Fr Matthew Kirby said...


To answer your question about comments: I don't know. Even though I can submit without moderation, I still copy almost all of my comments just before I submit them so they are held in the editing buffer, just in case. I do this because of previous occassions where long comments got swallowed by the web never to return. Very frustrating, I know.

If I remember correctly, the main reason moderation was enabled was to allow us to shut the gate to a white supremecist, antisemitic "priest" who commented here not so long ago and looked like he wanted to use this forum to spread his poison. I will look into finding a better way around this problem.

Please accept my apologies for this problem. We are relatively unskilled in this technical arena but will continue to refine the system as much as we are able.

You give four conditions for a teaching to reach infallibility via the Ordinary Magisterium, other than it corresponding to a long-standing consensus of the Church's teachers.

1. Pertains to faith and morals.
2. Divinely Revealed.
3. Apostolic.
4. Proposed for belief.

But all four conditions only apply to teachings said to be infallible and de fide. As explained in Ad Tuendam Fidem and its official commentary, another class of infallible teachings are recognised by the RCC that do not have to have been directly revealed by God or explicitly contained in Apostolic Tradition and therefore require acceptance as certainly true, but not acceptance by divine faith. (Cf. the revised Canon 750 of the RCC's Canaon Law.) In other words, only conditions 1 and 4 are necessary to confirm my argument, not 2 and 3.

The long-standing authorisation, practice and apologetic (in the old sense of the word) defence of "torture for the protection of orthodoxy" by the RCC as an institution and as a whole satisfies your condition 1 explicitly and 4 implicitly. If a Church both enjoins and performs a certain activity with virtual unanimity, it is undeniably teaching authoritatively that such an activity is not sinful. To quote a famous RC theological text by Monsignor Van Noort (Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church, Translated and Revised by John J. Castelot, S.S., S.T.D., S.S.L. & William R. Murphy, S.S., S.T.D., The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1957.):

"The imposing of commands belongs not directly to the teaching office but to the ruling office; disciplinary laws are only indirectly an object of infallibility, i.e., only by reason of the doctrinal decision implicit in them. When the Church's rulers sanction a law, they implicitly make a twofold judgment: 1. “This law squares with the Church's doctrine of faith and morals”; that is, it imposes nothing that is at odds with sound belief and good morals. (15) This amounts to a doctrinal decree. 2. “This law, considering all the circumstances, is most opportune.” This is a decree of practical judgment.

Although it would he rash to cast aspersions on the timeliness of a law, especially at the very moment when the Church imposes or expressly reaffirms it, still the Church does not claim to he infallible in issuing a decree of practical judgment. For the Church's rulers were never promised the highest degree of prudence for the conduct of affairs. But the Church is infallible in issuing a doctrinal decree as intimated above — and to such an extent that it can never sanction a universal law which would be at odds with faith or morality or would be by its very nature conducive to the injury of souls." [Emphasis added.]

Therefore, according to the RCC's own standards, the manifest consensus on the justifiability of Inquisitorial torture as a disciplinary mechanism over centuries, as implicitly taught by that Church's consistent authorisation of the same (and even commanding of the same at certain times), constitutes an infallible teaching in the second category, if (and only if) the internal consensus of the RCC is equivalent to the consensus of the whole Church. Thus, to accept both the moral illegitimacy of such torture and the infallibility of the Church requires rejection of the abovementioned equivalence.

Seraph said...

Father Kirby would know this better than I, but in Leo X's bull against Martin Luther, "Exsurge Domine" of 1520, Luther is condemned for many propositions, among them point 33, "It is against the Spirit to burn heretics".

The condemnations in the bull say that the propositions are "rash, scandalous, heretical", etc. My Latin is not good. Does the bull say the propositions are "rash and scandalous and heretical" or "rash or scandalous or heretical"? Between "and" & "or" is a world of difference.

In other words, did Pope Leo condemn point 33 as heretical, or only think it was "rash" of Luther to oppose burning heretics?

And, yes, many councils of the Catholic Church did command the torture and burning of heretics. How do such commands of councils compare with actual teachings?

Catholic Mission said...

According to the Home Mission Briefing on the website of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of England and Wales(1) there is a joint mission program with the liberal Protestant World Council of Churches.(2)

The English bishops who teach that those saved with the baptism of desire or in invincible ignorance are visible to us (3) are suggesting that Christians, do not have to convert into the Catholic Church to avoid Hell. (Lumen Gentium 14, Ad Gentium 7, dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus, Cantate Domino Council of Florence etc).

Vatican Council II says all Christians need Catholic Faith and the baptism of water for salvation. (4)

The Ecumenism policy of the English bishops is contrary to the Magisterium of the Church. It is a refutation of Catholic Tradition and the Church’s interpretation of the Bible.They have been evangelised by the Protestants.

They are unable to state that Vatican Council II and the dogma Outside the Church there is no Salvation teaches that all Protestants and Orthodox Christians are oriented to the fires of Hell unless they convert into the Catholic Church.

According to the Catholic Bishops, Protestants and other Christians can be saved in invincible ignorance etc just as in inter religious dialogue with non Christians it is assumed by the bishops that those saved in invincible ignorance among non Christians are known to us in the present times.They imply that this is an exception to the dogma.This is the rejection of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus and Vatican Council II (Lumen Gentium 14, Ad Gentes 7).

Young Catholics in England would have to say that everyone needs to enter the Church for salvation in the present times but there could be defacto exceptions like those saved with the baptism of desire. The baptism of desire is assumed to be visible and so is an exception to the dogma.The dogma indicates everyone needs to be an explicit, visible member of the church to go to Heaven.

If the baptism of desire was implicit for candidates it would not contradict the dogma, it would not be an exception. Since it is allegedly explicitly known, it is an exception to the dogma. Candidates with a religious vocation would be accepted who presumably could 'spot' these rare exceptional cases.Those who cannot do so will not be able to priests and nuns.

So candidates with a religious vocation in England would also have to accept also that Fr. Leonard Feeney was ‘condemned’ for holding the same view as the popes, including Pope Pius XII, who referred to 'the dogma', the saints and the dogma itself.

This is the teaching of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales on Ecumenism and inter faith dialogue. This is their policy when accepting candidates with a religious vocation and in teaching at Pontifical seminaries in Rome,the English and Beda College.

This new visible baptism of desire doctrine contradicts magisterial documents.It is also irrational. (a) No one knows of a particular case of someone being saved with the baptism of desire and (b) Fr.Leonard Feeney was not excommunicated for repeating the same teaching of the popes, Councils, saints and the thrice-defined dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus.-Lionel Andrades

Fr. Robert Hart said...

How odious the zeal of a RCC traditionalist kook.