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The Definition of Doctrine


The Development of Doctrine

In his seminal book "The Development of Christian Doctrine" (1845), John Henry Cardinal Newman brought the Catholic Church to understand that although doctrine does not evolve (i.e. change from one thing to another thing foreign to the first), it does develop (as an oak tree develops from an acorn). Newman identified seven criteria for true developments:
  1. Preservation of its type
  2. Continuity of its principles
  3. Its Assimilative power
  4. Its Logical sequence
  5. Anticipation of its future
  6. Conservative action on its past
  7. Its Chronic vigour
The key difference between evolution (in this sense) and development is that development maintains the central principle(s) at stake faithfully: it is a process characterized by integrity. It is Faithful to the Truth which it progressively reveals, uncovers and discloses. Evolution (in this sense) has no concern per se to maintain any continuity beyond that of consequence. All that matters is that change succeeds, and success is measured in terms of further continuance: "it is expedient that one man dies, rather than the nation should perish". Compare "for this I have come into the world: to bear witness to the truth."
"What is essential, for me, is the Newman-type vision of the Tradition acting as a 'vehicle', but not only 'transporting' but also developing our understanding of revelation as things get better understood through study and contemplation - and arguing against heresies. This is a notion that doesn't at all well go down with many 'traditionalists'. It is what brought Newman to Catholicism, otherwise he would have had to conclude that being Christian is exactly reproducing what the early Church might have been like, according to our limited historical view. 

In my view, real Traditionalism is about having a balanced and objective vision of church history, understanding the difference between organic development (an acorn becomes an oak tree, we were once little babies) and the notion of 'break-offs' or corruptions (like the Novus Ordo or the 16th century Protestant liturgies in relation to the historic Roman rite). There are objective criteria for distinguishing true developments from corruptions - Newman seems to about the best for explaining this in his famous book 'An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine', which he began as an Anglican." [Private Communication from a priest (2005)]

A few contemporary Catholics still maintain that to acknowledge that doctrine develops is to adopt a liberal agenda.
"There are people today who maintain that the Catholic Church is able to change her teachings, so that they may acquire a different meaning or interpretation from that previously held by the Church. These liberals pretend that certain doctrines are no longer relevant, or that they are able to evolve so that they may sometimes even obtain a meaning entirely opposite to that which was once believed in the Catholic Church. For instance .... that no one at all can obtain eternal salvation outside the Catholic Church .... These liberals .... are in grave error". [Thomas Sparkes, private communication: 2003]
This paragraph is full of loaded words. Mr Sparkes has one valid point. It is a fact that on a small number of matters the official teaching of the Magisterium has changed so much over time that it is difficult to see how the change is developmental rather than evolutionary or even revolutionary. He uses this fact to argue that the contemporary Magisterium is heretical, I prefer to argue that:
  • some of the changes are, in fact, developmental: largely because the original definitions were ambiguous.
  • some of the changes are wrong, but not acts of the Extra-ordinary Magisterium.
  • some of the changes are corrections of erroneous acts of the Ordinary Magisterium.
  • some are difficult to resolve, and I patiently await enlightenment.
Others insist that any deviation from the forms and practices with which they are familiar or comfortable amounts to apostocy.
"A developing Tradition is a Living Tradition. Talk about this with some people from the Society of St. Pius X or the 'sedevacantists' - and they'll condemn you as a 'heretic' and a 'liberal'. I have had some arguments with a traditionalist bishop in America who thinks the whole problem in the Church is non-adherence to scholastic theology. When I said that scholasticism is merely one method among others, and not a source of revelation, he went nuts. This is the kind of thing we have to deal with."  [Private Communication from a priest (2005)]

Evolution and Development

Given that truth is "correspondence with reality" [Popper, Tarski, Plato], the distinction between evolution and development is more subtle than it might appear at first. The mark of truth is that "it works": because it corresponds to reality.

I am not saying that something is true because it works, but rather that something will work  if  it is true.

If a doctrine evolves successfully in the long-term; it is plausible that its very success is indicative of its continuing correspondence with (and perhaps improved approximation to) reality. Change that was never justified with reference to a   continuity with Tradition, may in outcome prove to be a faithful development.

This might happen when a dissident pastor, with no concern for Catholic Unity implemented some policy or proclaimed some teaching which he impetuously believed was necessary, given the pastoral conditions that he found himself caught up in. If the policy or teaching in fact turned out to be helpful and contributed to the well-being of his flock, then it is plausible that this dissident pastor, in spite of his intention to revolutionize, in fact perceived a truth and so contributed to the authentic development of doctrine.

The difficulty here is in setting up "success criteria". Such are always debatable. Objective measures of "popularity" as in baptism, marriage, conversion and ordination statistics are not reliable means of judging what is good: else the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, the New Rite of Mass, and the Second Vatican Council which gave rise to it must all be accounted deviations from Tradition, and Islam approved as true.

Some Quantum Mechanical insights

In this essay I explore the role of magisterial pronouncements in the process by with doctrine develops. A physicist by training, I shall argue that there is an analogy between the process of doctrinal development and the continuous propagation of the Quantum Mechanical wavefunction, with experiment and magisterial definition playing similar roles in "collapsing the wavepacket". I hope that those readers unfamiliar with Quantum Mechanics will bear with me. My treatment will not be mathematical, and the ideas involved are quite simple.

Magisterial Infallibility

As a traditionalist Catholic, I strongly affirm that the Magisterium can act definitively and on such occasions decides issues in a final or, better, irreformable or infallible manner. This is a central tenet of the Tradition, attested by Our Lord's words "what you bind on Earth is bound in Heaven, what you loose on Earth is loosed in Heaven", and also by the confident assertion by the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us". Moreover the Oecumenical Councils are a powerful testimony to the Church's awareness of the charism of indefectability promised by Her Lord "I will send you another advocate, who will lead you into all truth."

The theoretical problem

On the other hand, there is an epistemological difficulty lurking here. Any doctrinal definition is inevitably couched in human language and set in a cultural context. The meaning of any form of words is always contextual. This cannot be avoided. Insisting that the formula should be given the unique or simple or direct  meaning (apparently) intended by its framer(s) does not help. This is because even the author of a formula can only give an account of what they intended by it in terms of their subjective and partial background knowledge, and in accord with their conscious and unconscious assumptions and prejudices. Hence, if it later turned out that one or more of their key presumptions was mistaken, the significance of the formula would have to be re-evaluated. Indeed its author(s) themselves would do so. It seems to me that this is all entirely inevitable and inescapable.

From the point of view of the Traditionalist, eager to defend Magisterial infallibility, this epistemological dilemma is regrettable. It would seem that no statement made in human language can possibly be irreformable! This is just because it is necessarily a fragment of a whole. Unless the immutability of the definitive formula were somehow communicated to its context, subsequent change in that (otherwise mutable) context will change the applicability and significance of the formula.

I take it as obvious that any such propagation of infallibility beyond a definition to all that the Magisterium (implicitly!) envisaged in a definition is extravagant and entirely outside any orthodox account and understanding of Ecclesial Infallibility.
So it would seem that the Church is wrong when She says that She could define doctrine inerrantly!

The concrete evidence of history

This conclusion can, regrettably, be corroborated by historical facts. Boniface VIII's Bull "Unum Sanctum" clearly imposed the doctrine on the Catholic Faithful "that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff." It is difficult to see any difference in form between the mode of address of this magisterial act and those which defined the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God. Unlike the recent Pope's declaration regarding women and the Apostolic Ministry, "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis", it was not issued in the context of  an official commentary from the Prefect of the Holy Office to the effect that it was not in itself infallible! Now while Boniface did not couch his teaching in negative terms and did not explicitly attach an anathema, in the context these are poor arguments against its intended infallibility. The positive statement is trivially negated and is not then extravagant in its extent: though it is highly objectionable in its intention. Moreover, the preface "we declare, we proclaim, we define" makes it quite obvious that Boniface meant to teach in the most solemn manner possible, especially given that he has just referred to the Petrine power of Binding and Loosing!

Pope Eugenius IV, teaching in explicit fellowship with the Oecumenical Union Council of Florence said much the same thing.

I think it is clear from the general content and tone of "Unum Sanctum" that Boniface meant by his definition to proclaim that if some one died without explicitly, unequivocally and formally submitting to the Roman Pontif, then that person was inevitably damned. This is particularly obvious, given that the manifest political aim of the Bull was to intimidate the King of France into doing what the Pope wanted him to! This is certainly the understanding that certain small but vocal groups of reactionary Catholics have of this Bull.

Now this doctrine, at least in its manifest and simple meaning, has been utterly repudiated in subsequent Catholic thought. For example, Pope Pius IX, taught that "By faith it is to be firmly held that outside the Apostolic Roman Church none can achieve salvation .... Nevertheless equally certainly it is to be held that those who suffer from invincible ignorance of the true religion, are not for this reason guilty in the eyes of the Lord."  This apparent contradiction is reconciled by the doctrine that those in "invincible ignorance" of the True Faith are united to the Church imperfectly before they die and perfectly at their particular judgement: at the moment of death.

Hence, either Pius IX deviated from Apostolic truth in this matter (and with him the overwhelming majority of Catholic theological thought!) or Boniface VIII went too far in what I take to be his infallible definition. The situation is compounded by  Vatican II, which takes Pius IX's teaching even further.

Other examples of magisterial error exist: Semi-Arianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Monothelatism, Usury, anti-Semitism, Slavery, Geo-centric CosmologyContraception. It is not my business here to painfully rehearse them again.

The traditional response

Traditionally, such errors have been accounted for in the following way. It is argued that when a Pope or Synod is about to make an erroneous infallible definition, he/they must have subjectively adopted the error that is about to be proclaimed as his/their own personal belief. As it is in objective fact heresy, he/they will have by this adoption become (a) heretic(s) and so ceased to be Catholic. He/they would by this fact cease to be the Pope/Oecumenical and so forfeit the charism of Infallibility.
"A pope who is a manifest heretic automatically (per se) ceases to be pope and head of the Church, just as he ceases automatically to be a Christian and a member of the Church. Wherefore, he can be judged and punished by the Church. All the early Fathers are unanimous in teaching that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction. St. Cyprian, in particular, laid great stress on this point."
[St Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621): De Romano Pontifice, II. 30]
Hence at the moment that they made the apparently infallible definition they were constitutionally unable to do any such thing! Once it was realized by the Church that an error had been apparently been proclaimed by the Magisterium, it would be up to the Church at large to denounce the putative Pope or Synod and if the parties to the false decree did not repent of their act, to pronounce them excommunicate and deposed.

Moreover, many of the errors are clearly acts of the Ordinary Magisterium, rather than the Extraordinary, and as such can be argued to be non-infallible.

The limitations of this response

The astute reader will notice that there are three problems with this analysis:
  1. It tends to empty infallibility of all meaning.
  2. It fails to address the real problem.
  3. It amounts to after the event special pleading.
Infallibility is shorn of any practical meaning
It would seem that the heart has been ripped from the idea that the Church can ever define doctrine irreformably. What the Tradition seems to say is that an infallible Magisterial act is nothing more than one where the agent simply happens objectively to be orthodox. Obviously, whenever anyone who is orthodox makes any statement of doctrine; then that statement will certainly be orthodox, by definition! After all, if the statement isn't orthodox, its proposer would cease to be orthodox in the very act of making it. All Catholics enjoy this "charism of infallibility", but it doesn't amount to anything worth mentioning!

Hence the traditional answer is based on a circular argument and tends to make infallibility meaningless.

Not all "heretics" are not Catholics
Moreover, it isn't as simple as this. Just happening to hold a mistaken belief doesn't make one a (culpable) formal heretic, only an (innocent) material heretic. It is plausible that no Catholic that ever lived has ever not been a material heretic. To escape the (unimportant) charge of material heresy, all of one's beliefs (even those held implicitly!) have to be orthodox. This is a tall order, to put it mildly. Above all, one should remember that what counts in God's eyes is charity, not exactness of belief: though this particular statement of orthodox belief is itself pretty important!

While a Pope who is about to attempt to define an erroneous doctrine is by that very fact a material heretic: as long as he holds the mistaken opinion in good faith, then he does not thereby cease to be a Catholic, and so remains the Pope when he makes the definition. He can certainly be in good faith when he does not act in opposition to the consensus of the Church, perhaps manifested by the advice or admonishings of the Episcopacy. In passing, it is worth remarking that before the definitions of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption, the Pope took the trouble to consult the entire Episcopacy, in a spirit of true Christian fellowship, in order to formally confirm that exactly this condition held true!

Hence the traditional answer doesn't help. It is logically quite possible for a pope to innocently attempt the definition of heresy.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing
The final problem with the traditional answer is its aptness for misuse. All past erroneous pronouncements of the Ordinary Magisterium (no matter how terrible in consequence) can be excused as non-infallible: "the Pope was only teaching as a private theologian", we may be told. At the same time, it can be maintained that many pronouncements of indistinguishable character (e.g. Humanae Vitae, Dignitatis Humanae) are infallible, because they represent the manifest consensus of Episcopal teaching.

Hence the traditional answer confuses the issues at stake and offers no guidance as to how acts of the Ordinary Magisterium are to be interpreted.

Modifying the traditional response

I believe that Holy Spirit acts in a real and causative manner to protect the Magisterium from error when it acts extraordinarily to define doctrine. I also believe that Holy Spirit guides and underwrites the Catholic Episcopate so that when it teaches coherently as a body some doctrine as being constitutive of the Faith, then that teaching (even if it is informal) will also be inerrant. This goes beyond the positive (non infallible) teaching of the Oecumenical Vatican Council:
"Wherefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed,  whether by her solemn judgement or in her ordinary and universal magisterium."
[Oecumenical Council of the Vatican: Session Three, Ch 3]
In effect, I believe that: "By divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed as divinely revealed, which are proposed by the church to be contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition, whether by exercise of her extraordinary or ordinary magisterium." This is subtly different (stronger than, though compatible with) the Conciliar teaching.

However, I do not believe that one can always clearly perceive when the Extra-Ordinary Magisterium is exercised, still less when and in what particulars the Ordinary Magisterium is infallible. Neither do I believe that the true meaning of any definitive teaching can be apprehended without difficulty at the time it is made. Holy Spirit only protects the Magisterium from error. She does not, at least ordinarily, direct the Magisterium to speak the truth, still less speak the truth in a helpful manner.

Unum Sanctum
If infallibility means anything useful, as I believe it does, the Pope must be protected by Holy Spirit from proclaiming error (when he teaches ex-cathedra), even though (by hypothesis) he is directly (though innocently) set upon doing so. Now the case of "Unum Sanctum" is moot here. I contend that:
  • it is apparent exactly what Boniface meant to proclaim;
  • he was understood by his contemporaries as having proclaimed exactly what he meant to proclaim;
  • so Boniface succeeded in effecting exactly what he intended;
  • it is very plausible that the Episcopacy supported his teaching, perhaps even with enthusiasm;
    • after all, Boniface's teaching was not long after more or less repeated by Eugenius in Oecumenical Council:
    • hence there is no reason for supposing that Boniface lapsed into formal heresy in making the proclamation,
    • hence he did not manifestly cease to be Pope: either before or while he made the proclamation;
  • and yet what Boniface meant to proclaim was erroneous.
Nevertheless, I maintain that the proclamation was infallible. How can I do this? Does it mean anything to do so, beyond a jesuitical twisting of words and ideas?

I suggest that Holy Spirit did indeed prevent Boniface from defining error. To see this we must look at what in fact he said.  Not what he meant to say nor what he was understood by his contemporaries to have said. Neither of these are accessible to us. The simple meaning of Boniface's words is an almost triviality. While he means much more, he says only that it is a universally necessary condition for salvation that a person be subject to the Roman Pontif.

Boniface does not in fact say that this subjugation must be:

  1. for an extended period of time;
  2. professed by the person in question;
  3. acted on by the person in question;
  4. a public fact;
  5. ratified as being the case by the Roman Pontif; or
  6. subjectively recognized as true by anyone!
He only says that it must be (objectively) true.

I grant that Boniface meant all or most of the above: perhaps even more! I also expect that his contemporaries believed that Boniface had in effect said all the above. It would never have occurred to them to dissect the statement in the way that I believe it is absolutely necessary that we do.

When the Pope sought to bind, Holy Spirit proclaimed freedom!
On this account of Boniface's definition, one sees that it is in objective fact entirely benign, though in subjective intention malign. Given that the Roman Pontif is, by Divine Right, the vicarious head of the Church Militant; all members of the Church Militant are necessarily subject to his jurisdiction. This is inevitable. At the particular judgement, a person passes from membership of the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant (possibly via purgatory, which is not at issue here). Someone who dies in invincible ignorance (i.e. as a friend of God, in a state of grace, but only associated with the Church Militant, not formally a member of it and so not subject to the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontif) will become a member of the Church Militant at the moment of death, when God makes clear to them the truth of their lives. Hence, for at least an instant, they do become subject to papal jurisdiction: though not in any way that any pope could ever use against them! It follows that non-Catholics can benefit from the plenary indulgence applicable at the moment of death, because (in accordance with Boniface's definition) at that very moment they become momentarily subject to the pope's pastoral care!

So, the objective import of Boniface's definition is more or less the opposite of what he subjectively intended. He meant to impose his coercive will on the King of France by threatening His Majesty with damnation if he didn't do as he was told. In fact he established only the liberality of God, in that every person appearing in good faith before the Judgement Throne can benefit equally from the "Church's Treasury of Grace", whether or not they were in their earthly life a formal member of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Evangelical and Orthodox Church!

As a correspondent has put it to me:

".... the Unam Sanctam issue .... is easier to resolve than you think. I certainly wouldn't go as far to say that it was repudiated by Vatican II. The definition is lifted verbatim from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Contra Errores Graecorum (2,38) where, in context, it was simply a restatement of ‘No salvation outside the Church’, as stated in the first sentence of Unam Sanctam.

Lumen Gentium agrees that there is no salvation outside the Church, but asserts that the Church extends beyond its visible boundaries and that some people are in the Church invisibly.

All those who are inside the Church (even if not formally) are ipso facto subject  to the Roman Pontiff .... whether they know it or not, and just as baptised babies, though they’ve never heard of any 'Roman Pontiff', are ipso facto subject to the pope. So, even by Boniface VIII's thinking ('cause I'm certain he didn't intend to say that baptised babies go to hell because they can't consciously submit to the Pope!), it is possible to be subject to the Pope without consciously submitting to him.. Thus, the Lumen Gentium teaching certainly isn't ruled out.

Given the context of the bull (Boniface was arguing with Phillip the Fair of France who refused to submit to his authority), I would argue that Boniface VIII's intention was to simply reaffirm papal authority rather than give a definitive pronouncement on the fate of the invincibly ignorant anyway. Perhaps he did believe that all non-Catholics were damned but nevertheless - whatever his intentions were, all he actually dogmatised was that "it is altogether  necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff" which, interpreted as I have above, isn't at all contradicted by Lumen Gentium." [Bernard (November 2005)]

All I can say is that I agree.
The Extraordinary Magisterium
  • All acts of the Extraordinary Magisterium (whether of the Pope or Synod) are protected from error.
  • Such acts are not guaranteed by Holy Spirit to be :
    • easy to understand;
    • easy to interpret; or even
    • at all helpful!
  • I believe that a Pope could fall into error when attempting to make an infallible definition.
    • If he acts in good faith, either naively or after canvassing the consensus of the Episcopacy before making his definition:
      • he cannot be guilty of formal heresy (even if he intends to define something that is materially heretical);
      • he may nevertheless explicitly intend to define some material heresy that happens to be in accordance with the contemporary theological consensus and/or secular common sense.
      • In this case Holy Spirit will act to ensure that nothing that is actually defined is erroneous.
      • Boniface VIII's "Unum Sanctum" is a prime example of this possibility.
    • If he acts under duress (as did Pope Liberius: though he never attempted a definition), then
      • he cannot be guilty of Formal Heresy (whatever he says or does), because it must be presumed that he does not actually believe what he might be made to say;
      • neither is his "teaching" protected in any way by Holy Spirit.
      • No act under duress is an act of the Magisterium.
      • Nothing a Pope says or does while under duress has any theological significance.
      • It is up to the Church Catholic to determine whether a Pope is acting under duress.
      • A similar argument would apply to a Pope who became insane.
    • If he acts in bad faith: against the advice or admonishings of brother Bishops; contrary to the consensus of the Church Catholic; or with no concern for these issues (as, it seems, did Pope Zosimus: though he never attempted a definition), then his adoption of material heresy will immediately pass on to his becoming a manifest formal heretic (as envisaged by St Robert Bellarmine):
      • "It has always been maintained by Catholic theologians that for heresy the Church may judge the Pope, because, as most maintain, by heresy he ceases to be Pope. There is no variance on this head amongst theologians that I know of, except that some, with Turrecremata and Bellarmine, hold that by heresy he ipso facto ceases to be Pope: whilst others, with Cajetan and John of St. Thomas, maintain that he would not  formally [as opposed to materially] cease to be Pope until he was formally deposed." [Fr. H. I. D. Ryder (1837-1907)]
      • In this case, what "the pope" says is of no account, as he has ceased to be the Pope and should be denounced, excommunicated and deposed. Such an act on his part would provoke outrage in the Church Catholic. Of course, this process of resolving the ensuing conflict would take time and be politically messy. The "great schism" in the West at the end of the Avignon Papacy, gives some idea of might happen.
      • Pope Vigilius' "Constitutum" is a prime example of this possibility: though it was not an infallible definition, the Church acted just as severely towards the Pope as if it had been.
      • Of course, it is also possible that a Pope might rightly act against the advice of a majority of the Episcopacy. The Church is not a democracy. In any case, truth is never fixed by a majority vote. If the majority of the Episcopacy fell into error (as seems to have been the case at the time of the Arian heresy) then it might be incumbent upon a Pope to proceed to the definition of some doctrine against the strong admonishings of most of the Episcopate. In the end, the rightness or wrongness of such action could only be judged in retrospect. Eventually, either the Pope or the Episcopal Consensus would emerge as vindicated in the judgement of the Church Catholic, and the papal act be revealed as either heroic, orthodox and definitive or hubristic, heretical and insignificant.
A lesson in humility
An immediate lesson to be learned is that one should treat all statements issuing from the Magisterium of the Church with a great deal of care. One should not presume that their true significance is manifest, and certainly not that it is what is intended or contended by the Magisterium! Just as it was obvious to Boniface's contemporaries that Unum Sanctum settled the question at issue (it turned out not to, even though it was infallible) it is obvious to conservative Catholics that Paul VI's Encyclical "Humanae Vitae" or Vatican II's Declaration "Dignitatis Humanae" or John-Paul II's Apostolic Letter "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" (though none of  these are infallible) settle the questions that they deal with ("hormonal contraception", "religious liberty" and "women priests").
The Ordinary Magisterium
Of course, the kind of protection that I believe is afforded by Holy Spirit to the Extraordinary Magisterium is not afforded to the Ordinary Magisterium. This is because, of the very nature of the case, the Ordinary Magisterium never produces a definitive text. If it did do, then it would cease to be Ordinary and become Extraordinary. In as far as the intended teaching of "Humanae Vitae" may be flawed, there is no guarantee that a way of reading it (natural or otherwise) will be found that rescues it from formal error, because it is not a definitive text. Nevertheless, according to Cardinal Ratzinger:
"It should be noted that the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is not only set forth with an explicit declaration of a doctrine to be believed or held definitively, but is also expressed by a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church's faith, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition: such an infallible teaching is thus objectively set forth by the whole episcopal body, understood in a diachronic and not necessarily merely synchronic sense. Furthermore, the intention of the ordinary and universal Magisterium to set forth a doctrine as definitive is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity; it is enough that this be clear from the tenor of the words used and from their context." [Doctrinal commentary to "Ad Tuandum Fidem", note 17]
In this commentary, Ratzinger does no more than set forth the positive (non infallible) doctrine of the Oecumenical Vatican Council that the Episcopacy can teach infallibly outside Oecumenical Council. Hence when a doctrine is in fact "attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition" by being "set forth by the whole episcopal body" throughout an extended interval of time (diachronically, not just at some specific moment: synchronically), the Ordinary Magisterium has taught this doctrine infallibly. However:
  1. How can it be known when "the whole episcopal body" taught something, unless all the Bishops somehow got together to say so. However they chose to do this, it would be an Oecumenical Council, in effect even if not in form: an exercise of the extra-ordinary Magisterium.
  2. The infallible teaching of the ordinary Magisterium can only be "informal", from the very nature of the case, it "is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity". There can in principal be no text. The common formulation of such a text would be equivalent to the exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium! Hence one can never know exactly what might have been diachronically set forth.
  3. Moreover, even if one did somehow have a text, I suspect that it would not be so simple, direct, precise and limited as the typical "definition", and that it would be open to multitudinous interpretation!
  4. I suspect Ratzinger would like to view documents such as Papal Encyclicals and the Catechism as texts that represent "the whole episcopal body" diachronically setting forth doctrine. If an Encyclical were to be issued on some subject, after extensive consultation with the Episcopacy (perhaps within or after a Synod, as was done at Florence) it might do so. However, in the typical Encyclical, the Pope addresses the Episcopacy as its head to admonish, encourage and strengthen the faith and resolve of his brethren bishops. He does not address the Church as spokesman of an Episcopal consensus. If He did, this would be an exercise of the extra-ordinary Magisterium.
  5. For the Pope to assert that in fact "the whole episcopal body" had believed and taught something, would be a significant event; but it would not be a definitive event. In the last analysis, this is nothing more than his opinion concerning a question of historical fact. He might be mistaken.
  6. All the Pope could do is to express his opinion (as Pope, and so to be taken very seriously) that "the whole episcopal body" had "diachronically set forth" something in common. He can't define that this is so, because the putative fact in question is not a matter of Faith or Morals, but of History. Such statements are outside the remit of the Magisterium of the Church! Hence when the Pope remarked in "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" that the ordinary Magisterium had previously definitively taught that it is impossible for any women be ordained priest, he did not change anything, because he may be wrong (and I think that He is) in this historical judgement!
  7. This cannot be got round by the Pope providing a text which He simply says is what "the whole episcopal body" had "set forth". He can't possibly know this without asking them, which would amount to an oecumenical consultation and an exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium of the Church! Moreover, even if the "whole episcopal body" had consistently "set forth" some teaching, this might have been in accordance with mistaken secular common sense (human "wisdom") rather than Apostolic Tradition. Only by attempting a definition of the matter would this (eventually) be revealed.
  8. On those recent occasions that popes have manifestly exercised the charism of Infallibility, they did so after such     exhaustive consultation with the Catholic Episcopate that the procedure looked more like the collegial exercise of  the Ordinary Magisterium (which it wasn't) than the personal papal exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium (which it was). In other words, before the 1960's, the traditional exercise of Papal Infallibility was impeccably collegial; in the Twenty First Century, the exercise of Papal noninfallibility is tending towards the imperial.

  9. Whereas the Fathers of the Oecumenical Vatican Council may have thought that the doctrine that the ordinary Magisterium (that is, themselves when they went home) could teach infallibly would counterbalance the definition of Papal Infallibility, in fact it is leading to a totalitarian exercise of arbitrary power by the Vatican. In effect the Vatican is getting into the habit of  telling the College of Bishops "We know what you believe better than you do yourselves!"

And so to Quantum Mechanics

The situation is much as in Quantum Mechanics. Generally, the state-of-affairs (the Wavefunction) is ambiguous and subject to point-of-view: full of potentiality and open-ness to various possible resolutions. It develops (propagates) continuously and smoothly as time progresses in accordance with certain principles of internal coherence (the Dirac equation, or its approximate form the Schrodinger equation) and the environment or context in which it finds itself (the "potential"). Every so often, things are brought to a head when specific questions are posed (an experiment is conducted) and on such occasions, an unambiguous answer to the very specific and particular question is obtained. The Wavefunction is said to suddenly and discontinuously "collapse", all its ambiguity (regarding the question at issue) dissipates.

Experiments and Definitions

In the life of the Church, the equivalent of an experiment is an infallible definition. On the occasion of such a declaration, the Tradition is said to be "defined", and some truth is set forth irreformably; without any possibility of error. However, neither the Tradition nor the Wavefunction becomes fixed as a result of such a resolution. Instead it immediately resumes its continuous development (though along new lines, influenced by the answer obtained from the collapse or definition).
Who is the observer?
According to the standard account of Quantum Mechanics, if someone other than myself makes an experimental observation; I should properly account for that observer and their observation as part of a wider whole which is itself described by an extended Wavefunction. In this case, the Wavefunction (that now also describes the other observer) would not collapse and yield (to my consciousness) a definite answer. I would instead have a probabilistic and ambiguous description of what the other would subjectively account for as a definite and precise result. All that I could say is that certain probabilities were associated with various outcomes, and that if the exact same set of circumstances were to repeat themselves, then these probabilities would determine the relative frequencies with which the various distinct outcomes occurred. The Wavefunction only discontinuously collapses for the subject who actually makes the observation. For all the rest of us, life continues its continuous development.
Epistemological ambiguity
Similarly, the only person for whom a doctrinal definition is clear is the agent making it: and that is in fact not even the Pope or Synod who profess the form of words, but rather Holy Spirit. All other observers have a remote view of the definitive event, and for them it is not epistemologically definitive!
Linguistic ambiguity
Moreover, any answer obtained either from a physics experiment or an ex-cathedra definition is itself properly part of the same state-of-affairs and so; while unambiguous in principle, can only be apprehended in practice subject to human uncertainty. With the best will in the world, texts (including technical papers published in learned journals and Papal Encyclicals) are ambiguous; and the more succinct and clear in themselves, the more they rely on reference to presumed background knowledge.
Questions and Answers
Further, the question may not have been adequately proposed, as in "What is the answer to life and everything?" [D. Adams "The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy" (1979)], so although the correct answer is obtained, in this case "42", one might not be any the wiser! (An aside addressed to fellow physicists: One presumes that "42" is the Eigen-value of the many-body Hamiltonian of the Entire Cosmos :-) Worse still, one might obtain the correct answer but entirely misinterpret it, as in "Unum Sanctum": with potentially disastrous consequences.

Cause for epistemological despair?

How then does one ever learn anything? How can one grasp what is true? What use are ex-cathedra doctrinal definitions or physics experiments, if the results obtained are themselves always subject to interpretation and diverse resolution? The answer is simple. One should not expect immediate and absolute answers on call. "Human knowledge" is never absolute "episteme", either an immediate knowledge of a thing by intuitive apprehension of its inner form or certainty obtained by remorseless induction. It is always and inevitably subjective "doxa": obtained by a process of continual approximation [Sir K.R. Popper "Conjectures and Refutations" (1963)]. Remember that orthodoxy means straight-opinion, not correct-knowledge. In all this I beg to differ with the epistemology espoused by John Henry Cardinal Newman ["Grammar of Assent" (1870)].
Faith and Certainty
Religious faith is no different in species than any other kind of belief. It is a compelling opinion concerning matters that are sufficiently important and which is held with sufficient conviction as to motivate action. At the heart of faith there must be both doubt (for else faith becomes fanaticism) and love (for else faith becomes faint-hearted). Though belief is never absolute certainty, it can and should be "certain enough for action". Faith involves the will as well as the reason.

The Teaching of the Oecumenical Council of the Vatican

Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other .... Hence, so far is the church from hindering the development of human arts and studies, that in fact she assists and promotes them in many ways .... but .... she takes particular care that they do not become infected with errors by conflicting with divine teaching, or, by going beyond their proper limits, intrude upon what belongs to faith and engender confusion. For the doctrine of the faith which God has revealed is put forward not as some philosophical discovery capable of being perfected by human intelligence, but as a divine deposit committed to the spouse of Christ to be faithfully protected and infallibly promulgated. Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.
"May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding". [Vincent of Lerins]
[Third Canon] If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the church which is different from that which the church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.
[Third Session of the Oecumenical Vatican Council: Chapter 3]
This anathema seems to directly contradict the import of my essay. It seems to say that if Popes Boniface VIII and Eugenius IV themselves (together with their contemporaries) meant by their declarations that all those who were not explicitly in Communion with and submissive to the Pope during their mortal lives prior to their deaths were damned, then this is the meaning that must be attached to their declarations.

Of course, it does not.

  • The context of the anathema makes it clear that it is concerned with the defence of the Apostolic Tradition from supposed advances of natural sciences that are in fact mistaken.
  • The anathema does not explain how "the sense ... that the church has understood and understands" dogma is to be determined. It is not obvious that this is the sense that its original proponent intended! Indeed the Conciliar commentary on the anathema states that "the meaning of the sacred dogmas" is "declared by holy mother church". This suggests that "dogma" is objective fact and the "sense" or "meaning" is the form of words used to "declare" it.
  • The reassignment of sense condemned by the canon is the kind espoused by liberals who are content to let outward forms rest, so long as the meaning of all forms of words can be divorced from "the divine deposit" of Apostolic Tradition.
  • Moreover, the anathema presumes that the sense in which the Church "has understood and understands" a dogma is clear. Only in this case can a subsequent sense be "different" from it.
In the case of the teaching of Unum Sanctum, I dispute that the sense of the doctrine was clear originally. At the time, the Church thought that it understood the declarations: but it transpires that in point of fact, it did not understand them at all! If the matter had been so clear-cut, would the Council of Florence have been successful in temporarily healing the Eastern Schism? After all, the Conciliar bulls of Eugenius IV seem to make out that the Eastern Bishops were hell bound (along with all their predecessors in "schism") until they acceded to the Roman account of Apostolic Tradition. This is hardly a position apt to engender the (temporary) break-out of amity that in fact occurred.

In the case of Unum Sanctum, the understanding that developed over time is not "different" from the original understanding of its promulgator: for this did not properly exist! It is not that a clear and acknowledged signification (like that of the homousion) has been changed for another meaning, altogether foreign to Apostolic Tradition. Rather, the passage of time allowed the doctrine to take substance and the orthodox understanding of it (as championed by Pope Blessed Pius IX) to develop.

Now that this understanding has developed, it is fixed: so far as it is clear and coherent. The advance of secular and theological knowledge may further deepen the Church's understanding of the dogma, and further surprises may lie in wait: but the realization at the heart of the dogma will never change. It would be heretical to assign a sense to it that is at odds with this core signification. The case is similar to the legitimate progress of physics. Einstein's kinematics, mechanics and gravity did not refute or contradict the Newtonian system: they merely revealed Newton's theories as approximate, valid as far as they went in the non-relativistic limit of ordinary experience.


There is a process here. What is true becomes apparent over an extended period of time, as a coherent pattern builds up. The Apostolic Tradition dawns upon our understandings with greater and greater clarity as the Church grapples with the business of living and preaching the Gospel. Infallible, but ambiguous, definitions follow one after the other: all in the context of the whole episcopal body setting forth the Gospel in a diachronic manner. Gradually, but steadily, and with developing precision the Gospel Truth emerges from the pastoral experience of the Church as She studies the Holy Scriptures, preaches the Divine Tradition and contemplates God in prayer.

The Truth will Out. Time will Tell. The fact that each infallible definition is immediately caught up in the onward flow of the living Tradition does not make it less certain in itself: but the onward flow is the context in which its meaning has to be understood and evaluated.

"True knowledge is modest and wary; tis ignorance that is bold and presuming. They that never peeped beyond the common belief in which their easy understandings were first indoctrinated, are strongly assured of the truth and comparative excellency of their receptions; while the larger souls are more cautious in their resolves, and more sparing to determine." [Joseph Glanville "Scepsis Scientifica"]
Conservative catholics, like physicists (understandably) clinging to deterministic mechanics, may wish that this untidy situation was a nightmare from which they will wake: to find a tidy pile of magical papal bulls granting certain knowledge on any number of issues awaiting their immediate attention. They create their own nightmare. Reality is nothing to fear:
"Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.'" [Jn 8:31-32]
Liberal catholics may revel in the license that they may perceive in what I have said. There is none. One has no license with reality. One cannot choose what is true. As Prof. Feynman said in a Physics context "you know something's real when it kicks back". Politicians may subscribe to the idea that if one makes an assertion enough times it becomes true, but this is not the business of either the physicist or theologian.

They are traitors to the Gospel who do not enter into the process with integrity, seeking to understand the Living Tradition, not trying to warp it to their own ends and agendas. I am not saying that all who identify as "liberal Catholics" do this. Certainly, some who identify as "conservative Catholics" behave as if they have personal agendas. In the end, it doesn't matter how one self-identifies. All that matters is personal integrity, a commitment to be Faithful to the Truth, wherever it leads. The contrary stance is the sin against Holy Spirit, it cannot be forgiven because it denies that truth is truth and that it matters.

" of the joys of being Catholic is that we are not
a group united by an ideology,
nor a group who adhere to a text,
nor a group under the command of a leader or set of leaders,
but a group being brought into being along with an ordered way of life as we undergo a certain form of listening: listening to a crucified and risen victim, as he shows his forgiveness of us and undoes our ways of being together - which tend to be judgmental, violent and so on - so that we can share God's life forever.
What keeps us as Catholics .... is that we can count absolutely on the crucified and risen Lord, present in our midst especially in the Eucharist, who is gradually teaching us how to reinterpret our world in such a way that we build each other up, and do not fear the truth which will set us free.
The presence of the crucified and risen Lord teaching us, together, as Catholics to inhabit Words like 'Go and learn what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice' or 'the Sabbath is made for humans, not humans for the sabbath'. His Presence is the still small voice that is at work through and in all our debates and disjunctions, and will always be opening us up to being made anew starting from where we are....
'Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.' Those words are the living interpretative presence of One who loves us starting exactly where we are, One who reaches us in the midst of all the collapses of what seemed sacred, and the coming upon us of new dimensions of ourselves which seem terrifying until we learn to look at them through the eyes of One who loves us so much that He longs to be us, and longs for us to be free and happy with Him, forever."
[James Alison: London December 2003]

"Ours is not a religion based on the analysis of dead texts, like Protestantism. Ours is a religion of the Living Holy Tradition.  Ultimate authority lies not in a text, whether it be Scripture, Canon Law, Council documents, or any other writing, but in the Living Tradition as celebrated in the Liturgy of the Mass, the Office and the Sacraments, and thus, in the Church Herself, the keeper, transmitter, celebrator and interpreter of that Tradition. It is greater than any one person, any group of persons, any time period, any theological style, any time-bound customs or prejudices. The Tradition is the essence, the rest are but tools which serve that Tradition.

Granted, the ultra-liberals and modernists who corrupt the Mass and the Sacraments actually comprise a different religion, and are no longer truly Catholic. But those ulta-traditionalists such as the sedevacantists, who reject the last four popes and consider the See of Peter to be vacant, or - as one lay representative of them here told me - consider the throne of St. Peter not to be vacant, but to be occupied by the Devil! - these people risk also becoming a non-catholic sect, just as the Montanists, the Donatists, and the spiritual descenants of the Jansenists - the Old-Catholic Church - have become. Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes."  [private communication from a priest, 2004]

Appendix I: A True Traditionalism

I am convinced that a careful elucidation of what the word/concept "Tradition(alism)" should/does mean would help in a lot of the trouble that the Church has gotten itself into. Traditionalism does not mean simple static conformity to the exact ideas and practices of some short time ago. 
  • Because these may themselves be flawed, partial, misguided or corrupt.
  • Because Holy Spirit is always disclosing to the Church new depths and subtleties in the Deposit of Faith.
  • Hence, static conformity would be a great sin against Holy Spirit.
Neither does Traditionalism imply a reversion to some golden age as a response to an interlude of deviation or corruption.
  • However, a regular look back to how things were a very long time ago is healthy as a partial sanity check.
    • "What then should a Catholic do if .... some new contagion were to try to poison .... 
      all of  the Church at the same time, then he will take the greatest care to attach 
      himself to antiquity which, obviously, can no longer be seduced by any lying novelty." 
      [St. Vincent of Lerins: C400-C450]
  • Deviation and corruption are a constant danger, so any technique that helps them to be spotted and corrected for is to be welcomed.
  • The fact that some great Doctor of the Church (even Athanasius, Augustine, Basil or Chrysostom) says something emphatically does not make it true.
Neither does Traditionalism mean accepting the latest decisions of the curia or pope.
  • Often such decisions turn out (in the fulness of time) to be wrong.
Tradition is a living dynamic process of discovery.

However, it cannot simply be said that any tendency or new outlook or new understanding that arises within the Church is part of Tradition. Many - perhaps even most - novel ideas are nothing other than heresy. What is heresy and what is new orthodoxy can, in the end, only be discerned at the end of an extended temporal process of debate and prayer and definition of doctrine.

I reserve my judgement on what "new-fangled" ideas will eventually be recognized as orthodox and authentic developments of Tradition. The more sure that anyone is that something is either right or wrong, the more I suspect their judgement. 

  • So, I am pretty sure that woman can and should be admitted to Holy Orders, but would prefer this issue to be decided by an Oecumenical-Union Council in order not to further alienate the East and West. 
  • I am pretty sure that some version of Evolution theory is compatible with orthodoxy.
  • I am pretty sure that all people of good-will are justified by an implicit desire for baptism; especially adherents of Judaism.
  • I can countenance the possibility that some or perhaps many protestant clergy have "objectively valid orders" (by a special grace of God) even though they have no claim to Apostolic Succession.
When any of these - or similar - issues are decided by an Oecumenical Council - that is ratified as such by a pope who is acknowledged as pope by the Church-As-A-Whole: then they will be clearly known to be authentic developments of (and so part of) Apostolic Tradition.
"There are still aspects of theology undergoing development, particularly our understanding of the Church, and, precisely, this question of Tradition. The doctrines of the Trinity and Christ were largely complete by the 7th Ecumenical Council (Nicea II). The Council of Trent clarified the Sacraments. All these things were the result of long reflection, debate and decisions by the Pope and the Bishops." 
[Private Communication from a priest (2005)]

Appendix II: The exercise of papal infallibility

There is disagreement as to when Papal Infallibility has been exercised. The minimalist position is that only the following papal decrees are infallible:
Pius IX, "Ineffabilis Deus", (8 Dec 1854)  The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin.
Pius XII, "Munificentissimus Deus", (1 Nov 1950)  The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
A near maximalist position is that all of the following papal decrees are infallible:
Pope and Date Title of decree. Topic Pharsea's Comment
A long gap! The Christological Debate
Leo I    (449) "Lectis Dilectionis" The doctrine of the Incarnation. Not infallible.
A gap.
Agatho (680) "Omnium Bonorum" Condemnation of monothelatism. Not infallible.
A very long gap! Assertion of Papal Authority.
Boniface VIII (1302) "Unam Sanctum" Subjection to the Pope is necessary 
for the salvation of any human being.
Awkward doctrine: 
clearly infallible.
Boniface believed himself 
to be infallible and intended 
to exercise that power.
Benedict XII (1336) "Benedictus Deus" Definition of the immediacy of the 
Beatific Vision upon death.
Single use of  the word "define".
Another gap. The Reformation
Leo X  (1520) "Exsurge Domine" Condemnation of  Martin Luther. Some suggestion of infallibility.
Another gap. The Jansenist Controversy.
Innocent X (1653) "Cum Occasione" First condemnation of Jansenism. Some suggestion of infallibility.
Innocent XI (1687) "Coelestis Pastor" Condemnation of Quietism. Not infallible.
Clement XI (1713) "Unigenitus" Further condemnation of Jansenism. Not infallible.
Pius VI       (1794) "Auctorem Fidei" Final condemnation of Jansenism. Not infallible.
Now we really get going!  The Modernist Controversy.
Pius IX   (1854) "Ineffabilis Deus" The Immaculate Conception. Clearly infallible.
Pius IX   (1864)  "Quanta Cura" Condemnation of Modernist errors. Not infallible.
Leo XIII (1896) "Apostolicae Cura" The invalidity of Anglican Orders. Not infallible.
Leo XIII (1899) "Testem Benevolentiae" Condemnation of Americanism. Not infallible.
Pius X    (1907) "Lamentabili" Condemnation of Modernist errors.  Not even a papal decree!
Pius X    (1907) "Pascendi" Condemnation of Modernism. Not infallible.
Pius XI   (1930) "Casti Connubii" The theology of marriage. Not infallible.
Pius XI   (1931) "Quadregesimo Anno"  First enunciation of social teaching. Not infallible.
Pius XII  (1950) "Munificentissimus Deus"  The Assumption. Clearly infallible.
Paul VI   (1968) "Humanae Vitae Condemnation of contraception. Not infallible.
John Paul II (1994) "Ordinatio Sacredotalis" Women priests are impossible. Some suggestion of infallibility.

I must stress that I enthusiastically accept as entirely authentic teaching the content of almost all of the decrees that I here assert are not infallible. The teachings which a Catholic is bound to accept are not limited to just to those that carry the charism of infallibility. The doctrine that Our Lord rose bodily from the dead has not yet been defined infallibly, but it does not follow that Catholics are free to reject the doctrine!

I should also say, in accordance with remarks I have made elsewhere, that any exercise of infallibility subsequent to the great schism of 1054 is flawed; as not having occurred within the context of Catholic Consensus. Hence, it will only become subjectively clear beyond any reasonible disputation that even the three papal decrees that I state above to be "clearly infallible" were in fact objectively infallible, if and when organic union with the Eastern Church(es) is restored.

I suspect that proponants of the "maximalist position" only identify selected decrees prior to 1850 AD as being infallible in order to set a context for the torrent of later decrees that they wish to account infallible. It is interesting that none of pope John-Paul II's Encyclicals are included in the above list. The single Apostollic Letter of John Paul II that might be thought to be infallible, "Ordinatio Sacredotalis", has been specifically, publically and explicitly categorised as "not infallible" by the Cardinal Prefect of the Holy Office.

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