I recently listened to two audios (here and here) where conservative Catholics who take a very interesting narrative to explain the developments inside the Catholic Church since the 2nd Vatican Council. Two of the speakers, Dr. Larry Chapp and Shaun Blanchard, have given a lot of thought on how to explain the changes that has occurred in Catholicism, and I thought I would give some of my own initial takeaways from what I heard. Please note in this preliminary remark that I do not intend to attack or reject what these men are saying, but I am expressing some concerns that, at the very least, need to be addressed by those espousing to their views. I also want the reader to understand that my commentary here is far more a test case of thinking than it is a manifestation of my firm positions. One last thing that the reader should be aware of: whatever is said below about Dignitatis Humanae and the revision on the death penalty has nothing to do with whether I am happy or saddened by their publication. Personally, my own private inclination would be at least in the direction of Dignitatis Humanae, although I can’t say the same for the revision on the death penalty.
The background of these audios is the overwhelming awareness by many in the Catholic Church that certain monuments of her past, including doctrine, have simply changed. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Traditionalists think this is a cause for outcry and resistance in order to be faithful to past decrees of Holy Mother Church. On the other hand, Chapp and Blanchard want to communicate, among other things, that the Church’s magisterium can and has (in the past) promulgated errors that contradict the deposit of divine revelation given by Christ to the Apostles, and therefore we shouldn’t go to extremes (sedevacantists, SSPX, or leave the Catholic Church) simply because we witness a doctrinal reversal of the Church’s doctrine. How do Chapp and Blanchard maintain their belief in the Catholic Church as the one true Church? In other words, how does their admission to a magisterially erring Church maintain un-falsifying discontinuity (i.e., discontinuity that does not falsify). This is the crux of my concern.
They apply distinctions. Magisterial doctrine is divided between two categories: definitive versus non-definitive doctrine. Two examples that come up are Dignitatis Humanae and the recent revision of the Catechism (2267) on the death penalty, but there are far more examples that could be brought to the fore (Nicaea II, disruption of sacraments, indulgences mixed marriages, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, Haec Sancta Synodus, and ecumenism to name several). Blanchard and Chapp are under no illusions: these two revisions are a reversal of prior magisterial teaching, though from the pool of non-definitive teachings. Nevertheless, the Church’s doctrine on the absence of religious liberty within the state, something held by official magisterial texts and from the axiomatic consciousness of the faithful for almost 1,000 years, can simply be calculated to be a widely held error by the Catholic Church. An error that waited until the 20th century for correction. Pope after Pope, Council after Council, myriads of Catholic generations after another – they were all promoting doctrinal errors for literally centuries. And this, even in the mode of authoritative binding formats. But we are told that this does not impugn the supernatural integrity of the Church as the “light of the world,” the “mystical body of Christ,” the “ark of salvation,” or the teaching throne of Christ because, after all this concession to the potentially faulty habits of the ordinary Magisterium, there still exists the occasions of rare and intricately formulated definitively dogmatic decrees which are guaranteed to be infallible. The difficulties that this kind of mentality brings in were already foreseen in the early Church (c.f. Pope Gelasius’s epistles to the East over the requirement to accept all of the Acts of Chalcedon and Constantinople II’s view that every jot and tittle of a Council’s Acts are infallible and how accepting an error in part is tantamount to accepting it as wholly erroneous).
- First, that the Church can be so wrong for so long on faith or morals, essentially misleading souls away from the truth, and only infallible upon rare and intricate conditions. The first consequence of this is you can then potentially have the Church misleading the faithful just like heretical communities do, such as the Protestants. The difference is that when you have the Catholic Church spreading errors, she is excused from the consequence of disqualification simply because she has an explanation for how errors are allowable to happen under certain conditions without compromising her identity. The benefit to divide and re-calculate the worth of past errors is not a benefit afforded to Protestants or Orthodox, only the Catholic Church. Such apparent sovereignty over one’s maintaining the standard seems to allow for this inconsistency.
- What doctrines are definitive versus non-definitive? To the degree that the answer to this question is left to obscure and nearly undiscernible criteria for the average mind is the degree of scope that a member of the Church can expect to see potential reversals in the future. In other words, if it is nearly impossible to discern what is non-definitive versus definitive, then the average member of the Church can expect nearly anything, or perhaps all things which are just an eyelash below the level of infallible doctrine (thereby making it non-definitive), to be potentially reversed! One doesn’t even need to spell out how terrible such a circumstance would be, and it would actually justify the great C.S. Lewis held that he could never become Catholic because, among other reasons, he couldn’t trust that what the Catholic Church teaches today is what she will teach tomorrow. Given such a handicapped view of the Church’s teaching office as Chapp and Blanchard, one can say that the words of Lewis were very well stated! With the stage set up in this manner, the reasonable mind begins to lose a good part of his confidence that what the Catholic Church today teaches will be what she teaches 50 years from now. And with such reversals that appear with the 2nd Vatican Council, we can see that a great degree of chance is allowed, nixing any hope of expecting the potency for change to be minimal. With this admixture of error and infallible doctrine in the Church’s magisterium, it calls into question how the Catholic Church expects to be fairly judged as to whether she has been faithful to the original doctrine of Christ. What criteria does the Church give that is scientifically observable, i.e., devoid of the Church’s own picking and choosing at will, wherefrom one might obtain a clear knowledge of that body of teaching which we can be confident is flawlessly right versus that which is fallibly right or wrong? Why is it that the majority of Catholics today think that there have only been 2 ex-cathedra Papal decrees? We know for a fact that there are more than 2, and yet we don’t have a settled compilation of ex-cathedra decrees. In fact, if you put 10 theologians of the magisterium in the room, you will have a different number of ex-cathedra statements identified by them. This shows that these issues are not easy to recognize.
- Some of the past magisterial decrees that have been simply overturned in recent years were disseminated at extremely high levels of authority. Mirari Vos and Quanta Cura, as two examples, have Papal decrees which contain extremely strong language seeking to bind the Church with the representational authority of Peter. And yet, given Dignitatis Humanae, which (prima facie) directly contradicts those two previous magisteria, such decrees have simply been tossed into the flowing water of a strong river. Or how about Dr. Ed Feser’s book on the Church’s historical doctrine on the death penalty? That has simply been tossed into the same river. Feser and his co-author Joseph Bessette wrote an entire book showing the high levels of acceptance and the high-natured authority that went into the decrees issued by previous Popes which speak to the justice of the death penalty. A Thomistic philosopher such as Feser thinks that the liceity of the death penalty is a Christian doctrine that can’t be revised. And yet, Pope Francis said that the Church has simply changed her beliefs on this because of the development of doctrine. Therefore, this distinction between definitive versus non-definitive teachings is not like telling the difference between whether it is snowing outside or whether it is a scorching hot summer day. What we are talking about here are near undiscernible criteria that are left to be judged by the Magisterium of the Church. That’s all fine and dandy, as I’m not one to oppose the concept of Church authority. However, even brute exercises of authority, if not possessed of a coherent consistency or intellectual integrity, can serve to ruin the credibility of said authority. When the magisterium can be flat out wrong for a great period of time in a non-definitive form, only then to later correct itself in a more definitive way, then one injury done to the credibility of the magisterium is that it seems to issue the claim that it can be just as wrong or right at any given time, and yet in both instances be truly the one true Catholic Church despite its being a ship lost in the sea of error. The inconsistency of this can be illustrated by its resulting conundrum. What is that? It is this: the non-definitive errors of Protestant or Orthodox communities constitute the cause for their being disqualified from being the true Church, and yet when the same non-definitively erring quality exists in the magisterium of the Catholic Church, it results in no disqualification, but only a firm doubling down on its status as the Ark outside of which there is no salvation. How is it possible to claim such an exclusive right to the stewardship of salvation when the Catholic Church can be immersed for ages upon ages in doctrinal errors that only get resolved spontaneously at future times? What this looks like for the critical analyzer who inquirers into the cogency of this doctrinal paradigm is the ability of the Catholic Church to be in error for whatever length of time only later to be able to revise the cost of these errors by minimizing their weightiness, i.e., distinguishing between non-definitive fallible teaching versus definitive infallible teaching. This is very much like someone who gets an F on a test of 20 questions by getting 1/20 (or 5%) of them correct, only later to turn around and say that the 1 question you got right carried the worth of 95% of the test, while the other 19 questions carried only fractions of the remainder. With that kind of revising and manipulative power (post hoc), one wonders how anyone couldn’t ace the tests! When this is the kind of rigging that can be done, you can’t pretend to be the championship team anymore. And it is precisely because the champions are graded by what they deem as applicable, whereas other teams (Protestants and Orthodox) are simply penalized for any and all errors (not some erring in a certain kind of mode). The result of this is that one loses confidence in the doctrinal protection of the Catholic Church, and no Catholic wants that.
- With the ability to be in error in the mode of the ordinary magisterium, and given that this can be as long as centuries, if not millennia, what is the good purpose of having a magisterium in the first place? If Christ promised perpetual divine assistance to the Church to lead, guide, and sanctify the members of Christ’s mystical body, then how can it be that for so many years the magisterium guides the faithful into an admixture of errors and truths without the magisterium losing its antecedent appeal in light of Christ’s prophecy of the indefectibility of the Church? Pointing out that the doctrinal protection from error kicked in only twice in history (with those who think there are only 2 ex-cathedra Papal decrees) or merely at the time during an Ecumenical Council doesn’t sufficiently match the kind of infallible protection that Christ spoke regarding His Church.
At the same time, I’m also under no illusions. I am well aware that throughout the Church there have been divisions between erroneous content from bishop versus correct doctrine. During the Arian crisis, Sts. Jerome and Vincent de Lerins tell us that practically the majority of the 4th century bishops had turned over to some form of Arianism. There was the collapse of unity between the bishops of Egypt, Syria, and Armenia over the council of Chalcedon. Bishops hotly contested one another over what the truth actually was. For every single one of the Ecumenical Councils, there were contestants. This would mean that there were always bishops that rejected either Papal or Conciliar authority as something a priori binding upon the conscience. Rather, consciences were held captive to what the individual understood about antiquity. This is seen as late as Nicaea II (787) when Byzantine bishops, as well as Latin bishops of Frankia at Charlemagne’s court, rejected its decrees. It was not until the Imperial power rose up to defend image-venerators that it was put to rest (842). Likewise, among Papal decrees, we find a challenging discrepancy. The letters of Pope Honorius to Patriarch Sergius were condemned as heretical by the 6th Ecumenical Council, and these letters were intended to inform the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Emperor himself. Another instance of this would be the 1st constitutum of Pope Vigilius which solemnly judges a certain letter addressed to Mari the Persian was perfectly in harmony with the Council of Chalcedon. Only, it was merely 5 or 6 months that the Pope went ahead and corrected himself and annulled his former constitutum and issued a new one. Both constituta were issued with high claims of irreformable authority based on the dignity and power of the Apostolic See of Peter. Which one was infallible, if both were issued with the same weight of appeal to the authority of the Apostolic See? That is difficult to judge with any clarity. Perhaps a more difficult case is the decree of Haec Sancta at the Council of Constance (15th century) where you seem to have a teaching which has been solemnly issued by the authority of an Ecumenical Council, but which has now been rejected in light of Vatican 1. How, then, can we know when the Church is infallible or merely fallible in her teaching? Scholars debate these things, and even educated laymen are forbidden from truly knowing with certainty. That is also of concern. High levels of Papal teaching (Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors & Vigilius’s 1st constitutum) have been deemed wrong in place of newer teaching (Dignitatis Humanae & Vigilius’s 2nd constitutum, respectively). It used to be that the Catholic Church would have never condoned the liberty of conscience to practice false religion without hindrance from the God-given authority of the state. Today, this is absolutely rejected. These are undeniable facts from Church history, and it seems to me that their intellectual consequence of them has not yet been adequately processed in a satisfying manner by Catholic theologians.
In conclusion, Blanchard and Chapp are certainly right to point out the inconsistency of the trad position. The trad position holds that the Papacy and an Ecumenical Council (Vatican 2) have basically failed and that the way forward is to recognize-and-resist until a new Pope comes and annuls the 2nd Vatican Council and the post-conciliar Papal documents in defense of it. This is simply absurd. How can it be that Christ promised to found His Church on Peter in order for its perpetual protection against the gates of hell, only then to turn that very foundation into the source of offensive attack against the Church? With that kind of scorched earth position, the whole farm is sold and there is nothing left with which to sustain a Church at all. However, Chapp and Blanchard recognize that the 2nd Vatican Council does involve more than simply a continuity of faith with a mere discontinuity of discipline. They recognize that the Council brought in doctrinal reversals, fully admitting that there had not been simply unofficial mistakes in prior teaching but rather full-blown official doctrine, up to or less than just an eyelash under the bar of those conditions that produce definitive and infallible doctrine, that has been reversed. To them, this capacity to revise prior teaching, so long as it remains within the non-definitive compartment of magisterial teachings, does not do violence to the integrity of the Catholic Church akin to the trad position. However, I am not sure how they think their position leaves the Church unscathed. They presume to think that the non-definitive teachings that have been changed, such as on religious liberty and the death penalty, are blatantly non-definitive. As I pointed out, this has been hotly contested by well-educated Catholic theologians. It is as this point that folks such as Chapp and Blanchard would simply pull out the 2nd weapon, which is that the Church has the right to decide what is definitive versus non-definitive. That point has been conceded, but I also brought out how destructive to the Church’s credibility it is when the magisterium itself has to expose its own frailty when admitting to being in error for lengthy periods of time throughout history. One point that came up was the manner in which Christians should read Genesis. It is well known that the Church Fathers held to a literal-historical reading of Genesis (even St. Augustine, himself a young earth creationist, and his comments on the relationship between the divine Word and the infallible revelation in nature, as observed by science, do not overhaul the force of the Patristic consensus). And yet the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has recently dropped its posture to stick with older views on this. The late Fr. Avery Dulles, SJ, was apt to say the following in this regard:
Occasionally the magisterium issues pronouncements without adequate theological consultation. In spite of all efforts to enforce acceptance by appeals to the authority of office, these pronouncements become an embarrassment to the Church. Some years later they have to be corrected or retracted and as a result, the general confidence of the faithful in the magisterium is undermined. An obvious case in point would be the series of responses issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission during the aftermath of the Modernist Crisis. Many of these decrees are now dead letters. In the long run, it would have been better for the authority of the magisterium is more liberal Scripture scholars had been called in to share in the drafting of these responses. The same may be said of certain Encyclicals of the anti-Modernist period, such as Spiritus Paraclitus and even sections of Humani generis that have, in retrospect, proved unduly restrictive and were not reaffirmed by Vatican Council II.” (The Survival of Dogma, 102-3)
Even Dulles (with whom I have the same concerns as with Chapp & Blanchard) admits that there is an injury that is done to the Church when she utilizes her magisterial office, only then to admit that she was wrong. And since, as rehearsed above, the differences between the mode of the magisterial teachings which have been reformed versus those which are admitted to be irreformable is often undiscernible, being as open to a magisterially erring Church as Chapp and Blanchard are gets one eerily close to the absurdity to the trad position, especially when considering how far they are willing to see change. And this gets me to the heart of why I think Chapp and Blanchard offer something nearly indefensible: they posit the Church as having the power to be authoritatively wrong in commanding sinful behavior in non-definitive modes of teaching (perhaps the majority of the Church’s pastoral activity?), and even threatening excommunication to all Christians who disobey in the command to do what is later condemnable by a higher magisterial teaching. How is that preserving? Or another way of saying this is that this view seems to suggest that the Church, in all her excommunication and communicating power, she was duly authorized to have power over souls by the criteria of erroneous beliefs. This would be the case, for example, if, as the Lateran Council (1215) threatens, state officials were excommunicated if they did not coerce their citizens to obey Catholicism. But if those state officials in the 13th century proleptically obeyed the decrees of Digniatis Humanae, they would have been in disobedience to the authority of an Ecumenical Council. Would the excommunications, hypothetically, of such state officials in the 13th century have been authoritatively valid? I think that is an important question.
The stark contrast between post-Tridentine Catholicism (1570) with post-Vaticanal (1960) Catholicism is enough to raise an alarming suspicion over how Chapp and Blanchard’s position coheres with ecclesial indefectibility just as much as it merits sympathy (perhaps not agreement) with the trads. Another way of seeing the difficulty of their position is to simply ask when is the first time do we see a Church Father or a theologian speak about the ability of the Church’s magisterium to be wrong? I can’t recall a Saint, Doctor, Theologian, or even a Christian commentator within the 1st thousands years who admits that the Church can be magisterially erroneous. This also echoes a concern that I had from listening to a recent debate on creationism between Gideon Lasar (Creationist) and Jimmy Akin (Evolutionist). The former was rehearsing the unanimous consensus of the Fathers while Akin was busy cleverly trying to show how recent postures of the Catholic magisterium have figured a way to simply change beliefs with time without injury to substantial dogma. This is not a statement to the wrongness or righteness of either side, but it is to observe that the average Catholic position (represented by Akin, obviously) is one that spend more time justifying doctrinal change than basing things off the sources of revelation. If anything, it is a note to observe.
“Just trust Christ and His Church, Erick” – Yes, this is always a must. However, when we are afraid to confront the intellectual difficulties because they pose a real threat, then our admonitions to trust the Church are not better than an Anglican or a Baptist who says they trust in their Church and would appreciate no more disturbances from Catholic evangelists. In other words, if reason is to be indefinitely discarded from our critical analysis of our faith, then we just brought the market of all faith back onto the table.
“Alright Erick, so then what?”
I am not exactly sure what alternative there is, but there has to be a better one. An easy alternative would be to simply say that the Catholic Church is, like other Christian bodies, simply an admixture of truth and error and that she, like other Christian bodies, is simply doing the best it can to follow Christ. However, this outlook is already a denial of essential Catholic doctrine, and so would situate you in some invisible Church enterprise within the Protestant paradigms of ecclesiology. In short, one holding to this wouldn’t be Catholic anymore. For those who can’t entertain this option, there seems to be a huge puzzle unsolved. Perhaps the solution does lie in some kind of position that admits an erring Church and an inerrant Church depending on quite undiscernible conditions, but I’m simply saying that such a solution isn’t so apparently satisfying, and it gets very close to the dumbfounding position of the traditionalists who say that Vatican 2 erred. What seems to make more sense (even if it is a typical Protestant perspective, if not the interested unbeliever) is that the Catholic Church simply wanted to change her beliefs to update with the times, and this explains why a Catholic who lived in 14th century Spain would feel like a fish out of the water if he were to walk into St. Peter’s Basilica today to sit down and listen to Pope Francis. That just is a far more understandable explanation that explains why Pope Leo X could never tolerate sitting next to Pope Francis, or why the Apostle Paul, who was adamant to avoid syncretism with paganism (1 Cor 10), would have a terribly difficult time bearing to see what occurred at the prayer meetings of Assisi (1986). However, such ease of thought doesn’t itself dictate what actually is the case. Whatever else might be said, it will have to wait for further contemplation…..