The subtleties of maximizing papal authority

We’re all practical sedevacantists.  For the most part, that’s a good thing.  The day-to-day functioning of Catholics and their local Churches should not depend on papal input.  Even among those who follow the pope’s statements, how many could be said to allow themselves to be taught by them?  Did Amoris laetitia actually change anyone’s mind about ‘”irregular unions”‘?  The liberal and the traditionalist will accept or reject what Francis says based on its consistency with their own prior beliefs.  Those who claim to accept everything Francis teaches but always read “in the light of tradition” (i.e. replacing his obviously intended meaning with something orthodox) just do this more subtly.

I do not believe that Catholics, because we have a pope, are somehow in a different epistemic situation than Protestants.  That is, we are still forced to interpret documents, and we must still each decide whether the source is reliable and the overall system is coherent.  In terms of settled, articulated doctrine, we just have more documents to work from than the Protestants.  I really don’t know what my fellow Catholics are talking about when they criticize “private interpretation” of the Bible, except that it means interpreting this one document (on one’s own or not doesn’t matter) without checking for consistency with the others.

A pope would be shortsighted to think that being allowed to refashion doctrine without any restrictions would maximize real papal power.  If a pope is not bound by his predecessors, his successors are not bound by him, so he cannot expect any of his innovations to outlive him.  In fact, it’s worse than that.  If Catholic doctrine can be X today and not-X tomorrow, then Catholic doctrine can only be accidentally connected with truth, and no one would have any reason to feel bound by it.  Nor does it practically matter what linguistic rationalizations are used to avoid formal contradiction.  If the meaning of papal statements are so opaque that the faithful are not qualified to recognize a contradiction, then communication is not really taking place at all, and again, no one need feel bound by statements he is told he can’t understand well enough to reason from independently.

It turns out to be a very tricky thing to give the Church the authority she needs to clarify doctrine without also giving the laity the excuse it wants to ignore clarifications it doesn’t like.


15 Responses

  1. We’re all practical sedevacantists.

    Who is we? I for one was never waiting for an Amoris Laetitia to come around to clarify a subject that was never muddy, nor one which the Pope required me to submit to “clarifications.”

    I do not believe that Catholics, because we have a pope, are somehow in a different epistemic situation than Protestants.

    If you approach the Church as the Protestants do the Bible, i.e., as an instruction manual of what to believe, I suppose you are consistent in your belief.

    I understand that you may find it difficult not to think this way, but I hope you remain unsettled in conclusion on this as your posts on the subject seem to suggest.

  2. I always imagine that it’s 1580 and it will take many months for the pope’s messages to arrive, if they arrive at all.

  3. Does the Church not instruct me on what to believe?

  4. Yes, NBS, back when everyone knew exactly when to look the other way so as not to be scandalized by the pope’s example. Fortunately back then Catholics were also aided by pontiffs’ prudence in not twittering their personal diaries and thought-development journals. At least we have no record of this.

  5. Any idea how unorthodox most local Churches are? It’s frightening. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t last ten years on their own without becoming full Unitarian. Do you know what is “the mystery hidden from the ages and from the generations” according to our Novus Ordo priest? That you can be happy even when you’re sad because Jesus. So don’t worry about Francis – for the vast majority of Catholics, he is still a conservative.

  6. Infallibility works in a similar way. The main implication of infallibility is that very, very few magisterial acts are infallible.

    In my experience it is largely Protestant converts to Catholicism who believe that the magisterium solves the ‘problem’ of interpretation and private judgment. But of course judging what is and isn’t true, consistent, etc is not something that can be avoided. No matter how infallible some expression of doctrine happens to be, the interpreter — I — am not infallible.

    So in the end it all has to rest on faith, that is, a simple trust in God. There simply is no other possibility — not because of God’s nature but because of our nature.

  7. If Catholic doctrine can be X today and not-X tomorrow, then Catholic doctrine can only be accidentally connected with truth, and no one would have any reason to feel bound by it.

    Yes, this is the nut of it. Every further change now makes the rupture easier to see. Every time some theologian or apologist comes forward to say, “No, no, you don’t understand. Let me lay some third-rate Talmudism on you . . .” it becomes easier to see the rupture. And easier to see the intellectual unseriousness of the whole liberal/conservative project.

    Yeah, we’ll have womenpriests. Don’t worry, though, we’ll call together the very best Catholic theologians, sit them down in the Basilica of Pope St Joan, and have them make lots and lots of words. And footnotes, too!

  8. Most of my financial support goes to the SSPX. As far as I can discern, they are the best “compromise” that I’ve seen, organized on a broad basis.

  9. Bonald, you cannot accept or reject a doctrine based on whether or not you think it is compatible with previous teaching. It is precisely the task of the current magisterium to interpret the earlier magisterium and to decide what is and isn’t compatible with it. As theologians used to say, the current magisterium is the “proximate rule of faith” (regula fidei proxima) relative to the earlier magisterium, which is the “remote rule of faith” (regula fidei remota). Similarly, the magisterium is the “proximate rule of faith” relative to divine revelation, which is the “remote rule of faith.” Just as you have to interpret the Bible and Apostolic Tradition through the lense of the magisterium, you also have to interpret the earlier magisterium through the lense of the current magisterium.

    If Pope Francis had intended to teach that unrepentant public adulterers can sometimes receive Holy Communion, I would have assented to that statement, and I would have believed that I had overestimated the doctrinal weight of the traditional position. But due to the assistence of the Holy Ghost, he has deliberately refrained from teaching his erroneous private opinion; “Amoris Laetitia” is deliberately vague and ambiguous on this issue.

    There is precedent for deliberate ambiguity in magisterial statements. When Ven. Pius XII solemnly declared the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1950, he intentionally chose a wording (“having completed the course of her earthly life”) which was compatible with the theory that our Blessed Mother never died, although he believed she did die at some point.

  10. “[N]o one need feel bound by statements he is told he can’t understand well enough to reason from independently.”

    This is false. E.g., you must believe that the (notoriously difficult to understand) Book of Revelation is free from error, even if you have no idea what it means.

  11. “Even among those who follow the pope’s statements, how many could be said to allow themselves to be taught by them?”

    I do. Because of “Evangelii Gaudium” #254, I now believe that non-Christians can be in the state of grace (even though I still think they can’t die in the state of grace).

  12. DK,

    If what you’re saying is true, you cannot even now say that unrepentant public adulterers cannot receive Holy Communion, or any other thing whatsoever that you imagine belongs to the Catholic Faith, because that would imply that any future pope who should state otherwise would be contradicting the Faith, something you will never countenance no matter what he says. Which again means that communication by the Church’s teaching office is impossible, so what’s the point in even having it?

  13. I was reading Céline the other day. He was ranting about the jewish nature of the Church, so alien to aryan nations. The constant search for loopholes and exceptions to the rules, the bargaining with God, the pervasive amibiguity of it all… Pure Talmuldism. He was disgusted, and I can understand why. So maybe your quest for clarity, coherence and logic is doomed to fail. The Greek elements of Christianity are purely decorative. There are no definitive answers. It’s all a mystery. We just have to overcome our instinctive feeling of disgust…

  14. Bonald,

    the fact that I “will never countenance” that such-and-such a scenario might happen doesn’t imply that I cannot describe what that scenario would look like.

    I am happy to admit that any pope who said [insert heretical statement here] would be contradicting the Faith. I simply believe the Holy Ghost would prevent popes from commanding the entire Church to assent to a heresy. This could be empirically falsified.

    Maybe you think I am such a dyed-in-the-wool papolator that I would always find an excuse for even the most ridiculously heretical papal statements, thereby making my position unfalsifiable. However, I really think I have given serious arguments for my claim that Catholics can keep the Faith without dissenting from “Amoris Laetitia.”

    If Pope Francis should ever say, “The Holy Ghost is a mere creature,” I promise you I wouldn’t find an excuse to harmonize that with the Faith. Instead, I would do one of the following:

    a) Claim the statement isn’t magisterial.
    b) Claim the statement is magisterial, but not directed to the entire Church.
    b) Admit I was mistaken about my theory that (even non-infallible) magisterial statements directed to the entire Church cannot be heretical.
    c) Claim Francis, before making his statement, had already lost the papacy due to public heresy.

    You might argue I cannot decide in a non-arbitrary manner what is or isn’t “magisterial” or “directed to the entire Church.” Admittedly, there are some difficult cases, but one can also find clear-cut ones.

    On reflection, I have to admit that it can be legitimate to privately refuse assent to a diocesan bishop’s teaching if you are sufficiently well-educated in theology and morally certain the teaching is contrary to more authoritative doctrine. I don’t think this applies to papal or conciliar statements if they are directed to the entire Church.

  15. DK,

    From this latest reply, it seems that we agree after all. Popes are bound by their predecessors in ways that even lowly laymen can understand. The record shows that thus far the Church has been self-consistent.

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