Sunday, September 26, 2010

Revealing the Mystery Behind the Magisterium

This post started out as a quick response to something that Mr. Fan wrote about my friend, fellow Catholic, and apologist, Matthew Bellisario, in an article Bellisario Swings and Misses after Mr. Bellisario criticized Mr. Fan’s article entitled, Test Case of the Infallible Magisterium: Ordination of Women in an article posted on his Catholic Champion blog captioned Another “Expert” on Catholicism Misrepresents Church Teaching. After trying to keep track of the all the articles, the various positions taken by Messrs. Fan, Bellisario, and the individuals who left comments, and writing this out, it turned into something a bit more expansive than a comment.

Leaving aside the digressions on the use of certain forms of rhetoric to persuade, I thought I would focus on the issues presented by Mr. Fan on his speculations over the possibility of whether some future pope could determine that a teaching of the ordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church that was considered infallibly held is not actually an infallible teaching because it was not formally defined and to address the particular matter that led to his speculations~the Catholic Church’s teaching with respect to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

TF stated:
The document itself is not an exercise of papal infallibility. The document merely alleges that the teaching is something "set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium." But this document itself is not the ordinary and universal Magisterium. This document is fallible.

So it is possible (whether or not it is likely), that some future pope's prefect may decide that Ratzinger erred. The practice of non-ordination of women is just something culturally conditioned and a long-standing discipline ... and hey-presto, this document ceases to have any authoritative weight against the new document.
This post will attempt to answer Mr. Fan's objection and clear up any misunderstanding on how doctrine taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium can be infallibly held.  To provide some context, here is the letter that he was referring to in its entirety:


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


November 8, 1995

The publication in May 1994 of the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was followed by a number of problematic and negative statements by certain theologians, organizations of priests and religious, as well as some associations of lay people. These reactions attempted to cast doubt on the definitive character of the letter's teaching on the inadmissibility of women to the ministerial priesthood and also questioned whether this teaching belonged to the deposit of the faith.

This congregation therefore has judged it necessary to dispel the doubts and reservations that have arisen by issuing a responsum ad dubium, which the Holy Father has approved and ordered to be published (cf. enclosure).

In asking you to bring this responsum to the attention of the bishops of your episcopal conference before its official publication, this dicastery is confident that the conference itself, as well as the individual bishops, will do everything possible to ensure its distribution and favorable reception, taking particular care that, above all on the part of theologians, pastors of souls and religious, ambiguous and contrary positions will not again be proposed.
The text of the responsum is to remain confidential until the date of its publication in L'Osservatore Romano, which is expected to be the 18th of November.

With gratitude for your assistance and with prayerful best wishes I remain,

Sincerely Yours in Christ,

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Mr. Fan's comments suggest that the above cover letter is not a document constituting an example of a doctrine infallibly defined by the pope. True, but that does not decide the question. Here is the responsum ad dubium which in conjunction with Pope John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does CONFIRM an infallible doctrine that already has been established by the ordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church:

Responsum ad Dubium


Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis


Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Dubium: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.

Responsum: In the affirmative.

This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith. The Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved this Reply, adopted in the ordinary session of this Congregation, and ordered it to be published. Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the Feast of the Apostles SS. Simon and Jude, October 28, 1995.

+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger

+ Tarcisio Bertone
Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli


Turretinfan’s article states that he has difficulty with how a non-fallible document can state that a doctrine is infallibly established. Such is understandable as Calvinist apologists most often wrestle over Catholic dogmas infallibly defined in a papal encyclical or by an ecumenical council. However, these are but two ways that the Catholic Church uses to infallibly determine dogmas-two examples of the way dogma is defined through the exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church. There is a third way as evidenced by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s correspondence-doctrine can be infallibly taught by the universal and ordinary Magisterium on occasion as well. While it is true that neither Pope John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis nor his permitting Cardinal Ratzinger to issue the above letter are the kinds of document utilizing the formulaic statements to which Catholics and Protestants apologists are most familiar when interacting with teachings of the Catholic Church, nevertheless, the matter that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women is just as infallibly held as any of the dogmatic expressions from the Council of Trent or papal determinations that the Blessed Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived and was assumed to heaven.

As I outlined above, there are three ways that the Church defines doctrines infallibly. They are:

1. Papal infallibility. That dogma, defined by the First Vatican Council and Pope Pius IX in 1870, affirms that God preserves the pope from error when he definitively teaches a doctrine of faith or morals. The dogma of papal infallibility was decisively reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council (1962- 1965) in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). By way of clarification, the Second Vatican Council makes this important point. Infallibility is essentially a gift of God to the Church. When the pope teaches infallibly, he is not acting by his own prerogatives. He is exercising this divine gift as a steward on the Church's behalf.

2. Ecumenical Councils. When the Pope and bishops convene in an ecumenical council, they join in a solemn teaching act which is considered infallible. When the Pope ratifies the actions of the bishops when they convene in council. The actions so ratified also become infallible teachings as well. The Second Vatican Council is an example of the former. The First Council of Nicea is an example of the latter.

3. Ordinary Magisterial Teachings. Certain teachings of the bishops of the Catholic Church may be treated as infallible teachings as well. As pointed out in Section 25 of Lumen Gentium:
Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.
As this passage demonstrates, four criteria must be met for an infallible exercise of the ordinary Magisterium of bishops around the world:
1. That the bishops must be in communion with one another and with the Pope.

2. That they are teaching authoritatively on a matter of faith or morals.

3. That they are virtually in agreement in one judgment.

4. That they propose this as something to be held definitively by the faithful
.Now lest Mr. Fan may object to this latter method of determining doctrine infallibly, many, if not most, of the doctrines of the Church are infallibly taught this way. Among the doctrines recognized as infallible teachings of the Church in this manner include that Jesus is the sole savior of the human race, that man has a soul and is of a spiritual nature, the verity of individual particular judgment after death, the truth that guardian angels are entrusted to protect human souls, that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the spiritual mother of all Christians, that abortion can never be condoned, that the use of evil means (commission of sin) can never be justified by the good that might come from it, and as shown in this particular case, that women can not be ordained as priests. Recourse to the use of the extraordinary Magisterium is used only when doctrines are no longer peaceably held by the Church and such doctrines need to become explicitly defined. A more detailed and systemic explanation of this can be found here in this article and here.

As shown above, doctrines to be believed as divinely revealed or to be held definitively through actions which are either defining or non-defining. Defining actions are truths solemnly defined through the exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium by an "ex cathedra" pronouncement by the Pope or by the promulgation of defining documents by an ecumenical council. However, the ordinary and universal Magisterium determines doctrine infallibly through non-defining acts. Such doctrines may be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Pope without resorting to an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium by declaring explicitly that it belongs to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium as a truth that is divinely revealed or as a truth of Catholic doctrine. Such declarations of confirmation or reaffirmation through means of a dubium ad responsum, as utilized in the case of women’s ordination, or through an Apostolic letter, such as the case in Evangelium Vitae § 57ff , are not to be viewed as new dogmatic definitions, but serve as formal attestations of the truths already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church. In other words, the Pope’s affirmation or confirmation is sort of like a notary seal on a document already attested to be true by a signatory. I would note that Dr. Michael Liccone, in an article entitled Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium, offers a much more thorough presentation than I have set forth here and more importantly I heartily urge the reader to review it as well as Lumen Gentium, particularly Chapter 25.

One can only deduce that Mr. Fan finds this to be confusing because he later brings up the doctrine of Immaculate Conception as an example of how dissent becomes dogma. However, linking the subject of the Immaculate Conception to this one is not appropriate as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was a dogma that developed over the centuries and was pronounced by the Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, not as a result of the teachings of the ordinary magisterium (which he notes were varied), but from the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) which is a concept that it is the Holy Spirit who matures sensus fidei of the Christian people enabling it as a community to a spontaneous understanding of the revealed fact and inward maturing of the fact thanks to reflection, experience and preaching. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was promulgated by Pope Pius IX in response to the unanimous acclaim of the members of the Church at that time. That said, sensus fidelium is not a notion of majority vote where if enough Catholics support the notion, the Pope can be made to change or add doctrine. Rather it is something that is considered in rendering decisions.

Thus the issue of whether women can be ordained is a closed issue and dissent on this issue is illegitimate. The doctrine has been infallibly held by the ordinary universal magisterium and confirmed by the Pope. The responsum ad dubium which he authorized is a papal pronouncement of confirmation showing that the doctrine being confirmed enjoys the same charism of infallibility shared by other doctrines infallibly defined by the Magisterium.

So Mr. Fan’s test case scenario turns out to be nothing more than an open book quiz, I will leave it to the reader to grade my response.

God bless!
Posted on the Feast of Saints Cosmos and Damian.

Update:  Mr. Fan objected to my characterization of his argument over on his blog.  In the interests of fairness, I have altered the statement that I have highlighted in red to reflect his assertion, "But in my article, I wrote: "I didn't say that it is possible for a pope to come along and change an infallible doctrine" and reconcile that with what he did write, "So it is possible (whether or not it is likely), that some future pope's prefect may decide that Ratzinger erred. The practice of non-ordination of women is just something culturally conditioned and a long-standing discipline ... and hey-presto, this document ceases to have any authoritative weight against the new document."