“Obviously, a pope speaking on an airplane is very different than every bishop in the world agreeing about something. And bishops all agreeing that Jesus is the Son of God is very different than the bishops all agreeing that Jesus’s favorite food was, indeed bacon. So, when the Church teaches, the weight of the teaching is going to depend on the infallibility of the subject, the nature of the object, and the context.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, definers and recliners, welcome to another episode of Clarifying Catholicism! You’re watching part seven of a series on the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Most of this information is from Francis Sullivan’s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. So, if you’d like an in-depth dive into these topics, make sure to pick up a copy of his book. To see the rest of the videos in this series, click the playlist in the description. Without further ado, onto the show!”
Okay! So! Throughout this series we’ve discussed where the Church gets it authority to teach from (Christ’s promise that He will abide in His established Apostolic Church forever and that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church into the fullness of truth) and who in the Church gets to teach authoritatively (the bishops when they agree with each other when they are dispersed throughout the world, the bishops when they issue a definition at an ecumenical council, and the bishop of Rome when he speaks from the chair of Peter, or ex cathedra), and we’ve even stated multiple times that not everything that bishops, councils, and popes teach is necessarily infallible. Today we are going to lay down a concrete, systematic set of conditions by which infallible definitions can occur.
Okay, so when someone teaches, there is a teacher, something that is taught, and a context in which it is taught. In philosophical terms, we have a subject, the person who is teaching something, an object, the thing that is being taught, and a context, the conditions in which subject and object meet. Notice how this is different than how subject and object are defined in grammar. Subject is me, who teaches about objects in the context of the world.
Obviously, a pope speaking on an airplane is very different than every bishop in the world agreeing about something. And bishops all agreeing that Jesus is the Son of God is very different than the bishops all agreeing that Jesus’s favorite food was, indeed bacon. So, when the Church teaches, the weight of the teaching is going to depend on the infallibility of the subject, the nature of the object, and the context. Let’s dive in.
Subject! Who’s the teacher here?
Okay. In the last two episodes, we covered three primary mechanisms by which bishops teach infallibly: the universal ordinary magisterium, the bishops when they agree on a definition in an ecumenical council, and the pope when he speaks ex cathedra.
Object! What is being taught?
We’ve mentioned how bishops, councils, and popes can’t just teach about any ol’ topic. Only something that has already been taught in revelation and just needs a little clarification or affirmation can be taught. This is why, again I say, the Church does not teach anything new. Anything and everything the Church teaches infallibly can be traced back to the teachings Christ revealed to His Apostles. But Jesus didn’t sit down and teach His Apostles algebra. After all, remember that according to Nicaea one plus one plus one equals one! Just as an astronomer’s authority is restricted to the topic of astronomy, the Church’s authority is restricted to matters pertaining to Christianity. And since Christianity concerns itself with belief and action, the First Vatican Council proclaims that the Church is infallible in serious matters of faith and morals. This means that the Church doesn’t have much of a right to dogmatize scientific theories unless they have a direct bearing on Christian beliefs and Christian living.
Finally, context! In what situation is the subject teaching about the object?
A pope committing heresy because he is held at gunpoint or, perhaps more historically accurately, knifepoint by an Eastern emperor, probably doesn’t count as a legitimate infallibly taught doctrine, even if it occurs at a council. On a less hostile note, a conciliar document describing Pope John as “the most resplendent Pope John” probably isn’t infallibly defining that Pope John is the most resplendent man who ever lived. As we discussed in one of prior episodes, councils make it abundantly clear when they are solemnly defining something.
Same with popes. Since the 1800s, popes have gone to town writing encyclicals, letters which address a wide variety of theological issues. And, as I’ve mentioned several times now, the theological opinion of a pope should almost always be respected and obeyed because he spends all day praying and thinking about complex theological issues that you and I don’t have the time and resources to consider. That said, he only teaches infallibly when he speaks ex cathedra or if he teaches something the Church has already defined.
Now let’s talk about a rather controversial topic involved in determining the legitimacy of a teaching: reception. I call this a controversial topic since many theologians continue to debate precisely how reception occurs. Simply put, if a proposed doctrine fails to take hold among the Church in the aftermath of its definition, it was never fully received into the Church. Already, we’re at a sticky point, since it took over 50 years for Nicaea’s teachings to be truly accepted by all of Christianity. So, there really isn’t a cut off point for doctrine to be received.
Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned a few times, Christ’s abidance in His Church isn’t simply confined to His bishops; it’s to all Christians. So, whereas more conservative theologians, myself included, would limit the reception of a doctrine to how it was received among bishops, there are theologians out there who would ascribe reception to the laity as well. At the very least, if the bishops reject a teaching after its promulgation, pretty much all theologians can agree it was not received.
For example, Pope Honorius’s acceptance of Monothelitism, a heresy, in the seventh century, was almost immediately condemned after his death. Boom. Non-reception. A more complex example of reception is the Church’s stance on usury, or charging interest, which John T. Noonan extensively treats in his chapter in Change in Official Catholic Moral Teachings. Noonan describes how Pope Pius V’s papal bulls, or decrees, in the late 1500s condemned the practice of usury. However, as Europe’s economy started failing because of said decretals, several cardinals and theologians circumvented the document by declaring parts of the decrees as coming from opinionated rather than revelatory origin. While the documents that condemned usury were never explicitly repealed, their effectiveness was nullified and, arguably, not received. So, now we’ve summarized the conditions for an exercise of infallible teaching authority to occur. What other mountains could possibly be left to scale? Well, there’s a rather large elephant in the room. What about non-infallibly taught teachings? We’ll dive into that next episode, which will be the final one in this series. Until then, have a great day! God bless you!