28 August 2016

(2) The Magical Magisterium: now you see it, now you don't

I would like to put the argument of my first piece with the above title a trifle more crudely, just to prove that I am as adept as the next man at smelling of the sheep. 'Demotic' is my middle name.

As we have seen, we now have a situation in which a Pope, or an Episcopal Conference, can apparently disregard or treat with contempt what a Pope taught or enacted as little as seven (or nine) years previously. Let us explore the implications of this. Are you sitting comfortably?

Suppose you have a Church which claims a Magisterium, a Teaching Authority which (it says) possesses a divine guarantee. Now ... be realistic. Such a body might, if sufficiently dishonest, be able to get away with unobtrusively ditching some unwanted doctrine in a few centuries. Only dusty old pedants might notice. What I am suggesting is that such a Church will find it much, much less easy to get away unnoticed with ditching a dogma in less than a decade. People remember; people notice ... people who accepted the earlier teaching and have a problem with the change will notice it; and so will the people who disagreed with the original formulation and are now cock-a-hoop about the fact that our wonderful new pope Francis IV has just dumped it. The change will be obvious to both sides.

What is going on now is, in my view, gravely worrying, for the following reason: the whole plausibility of the Papal Magisterium, and of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, is being severely undermined. Perhaps, already has been.

Suppose this pope, or any pope hereafter, puts out some, any, piece of teaching. Any Catholic will have every right to ask a question somewhat along these lines:

"Thank you very much indeed, Holy Father. Most interesting. Lovely stuff. Now ... can you just clarify one detail ... that teaching you've just given us ... when is its use-by date? Is it one of the cut-price Seven Year Decrees favoured by the English bishops, or one of your own much more durable Nine Year Jobs?"

So when ... for example ... will Laudato si get to the seven-year expiry date which the CBCEW has with such sophistication imposed on a magisterial enactment of Benedict XVI? By my calculation, on 24 May, 2022. Then we shall all be able to heave a great sigh of relief and happily get back to the agreeable occupation of trashing "the Common Home". Yes?

But stay: what's so Magical about seven years? Surely the CBCEW will not want to be reported to Bergoglio as being Inflexible and lacking in Mercy? I'm sure its members all have salami slicers in their kitchens. Why not five years? Three? One? Or ... yes ... surely, "Six Months" has a rather lovely flavour to it?

So perhaps Laudato si expired on November 24 2015? Or will you accuse me of irrationally fetichising the Sixness of that? "You idiot, three months is more than long enough", I hear you all noisily cry. I "fess up", as the young people say. I have not a leg to stand on. Perhaps, just for bureaucratic neatness, we should assume that a papal teaching enjoys validity between the date of its official promulgation, and the date when its text is released.

To be, just for one moment, dead serious and to drop all that irony: I very much fear (1) lest this pontificate go down in history as the occasion when Pope Francis I cut off the magisterial branch he was sitting on; and  
(2) that it may be very much more difficult for a future pope to glue the branch back onto the tree.

We did once see, in Ireland, a man demolishing a wall by standing on top of it and whacking it with a crowbar. Happy days. Happy country.

Deo volente, this piece will continue with two more sections.


Joshua said...

A priest told me, speaking of a certain extremely high-ranking prelate (let the reader understand), "He will be condemned".

Surely a (near-)future condemnation of various propositions extracted from certain presently-much-vaunted documents would cut the Gordian knot, much as, say John XXII's opinions on the next life were quickly trashed by his successor.

Roll on Pius XIII!

Fr PJM said...

Same thing applies to Vatican II. If you can change the teaching on Church-state relations, then someone else can change *your* teaching. Same thing with the liturgical reform. And also, please don't call ecumenism "irrevocable", cuz apparently NOTHING is irrevocable.

mark wauck said...

"ditching a dogma in less than a decade."

Have I missed something in the last decade? Was there some dogma defined during that decade that I failed to notice? Or is this a reference to the teaching of JP2 in Familiaris Consortio? If the latter, I would suggest that for clarity sake we recall that the reason JP2's teaching is authoritative is that it restates the constant teaching of the Church, rooted in the Apostolic Tradition--not because a pope has some independent teaching authority that allows him to come up with new "stuff".

I really think we need to be very clear about where the authority comes from, on what it's based, or we'll find ourselves in no end of intellectual difficulties.

Hrodgar said...

Someone, I believe Zippy Catholic in a response to a comment on his blog, once suggested Canticle for Leibowitz as a good example of how little the indefectibility of the Church really meant. I believe it was Benedict XVI who suggested that probably it means no more than that the thing cannot be utterly destroyed.

I would suggest that something similar applies to the Magisterium. Infallibility probably means only that there cannot be any statement binding on the consciences of Catholics which cannot be reasonably interpreted in accordance with the Truth. Regardless, however, of exactly what is in fact protected by infallibility, certainly presuming on it (epitomized by the whole "Ecumenical Council can do anything" crowd, but exclusively them) is a large part of our current crisis.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, bless you, and may God magnify your goodness, Father! I have been struggling awfully with this issues for the past few weeks and months, tottering on the edge of the ecclesiastical precipice. You put it simply and well. If your reasoning keeps so amicably grumpy a priest as yourself from leaving the Magisterium behind, however, I can at least say I'm in safe intellectual territory for hanging about despite the mess we're in.

Matthew Roth said...

My vote were I to be polled on preferred papal names is Clement XV. It is related to clementia, yet it will strike fear into the hearts of a certain society.

GOR said...

In my view Laudato Si expired prior to birth. Thus it was stillborn - as it should be. While one is, of course, opposed to the abortion of any human life, one draws the line when it comes to certain patently un-Magisterial expostulations.

Laudato Si should never have seen the light of day. It should be appropriately buried as a papal meandering devoid of reason or catholic orthodoxy.

The exequies should, however, be delayed as it may yet have further company.

mark wauck said...

Another blog recently made some similar points: Company Way or Timeless Magisterium?. I recommend the whole thing, including the highly amusing video. Here are some highlights:

"So Veritatis Splendor–with its forceful restatement of Catholic moral teaching–has been round-filed after less than a quarter of a century?

"Anyone else see the problem here?

"What I have not been able to suss out is precisely why I should salute Francis’ newest flag when he burnt John Paul II’s. His actions completely undercut his claimed “authority.”


"Of course, progs are brandishing it like new holy writ. ... But I don’t see any honest reason why I should regard it similarly.

"... The defenders of Pope Francis often play out the worst stereotypes of Catholics by bitter anti-Catholics: That we are all simply papal yes men and women without minds of our own, and that if a Pope [amusing metaphor omitted]. This is a caricature of Catholicism. Popes doing unwise or wrongheaded deeds, or writing something foolish, is not uncommon in Catholicism. However, Popes are creatures of the moment, not to be confused with the Church, Christ’s Bride."

And there's lots more.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"Such a body might, if sufficiently dishonest, be able to get away with unobtrusively ditching some unwanted doctrine in a few centuries."

1633 Heliocentrism is condemned (like in 1616, except one perpetrator is personally locked up, not just his book forbidden as previous time).

1820 (or 1822?) books about it are no longer on the index. No direct mention of doctrine itself being licit. Certainly none of it being obligatory.

Even in early 20th C. Benedict XV did not endorse Heliocentrism very directly when pushing it into a subordinate clause and tagging a maybe on it in his encyclical on Dante Allighieri.

Francis said...

The only way for us to deal with the possibility of a breakdown in the Church's magisterial system is to tough it out and adopt a hermeneutic of "Amoris Laetitia" that is in line with the pronouncements of the Prefect of the CDF and the Bishop of Portsmouth on the matter. These can be read here and here.

Titus said...

Have I missed something in the last decade? Was there some dogma defined during that decade that I failed to notice?

Father is speaking, of course, of the ordinary magisterium: the cumulative consensus of the pope and the bishops. If the pope has his own ordinary magisterium, and is not merely an expostulator of the magisterium of the bishops in union with him, then the things he says as teaching (as opposed to, say, advice, or culinary preference) matter: they either add bricks to or knock bricks out of the magisterial wall, insofar as they reinforce or undermine the consensus existing up to that time.

That's how the ordinary magisterium works: it is not an assortment of discrete pronouncements, but rather the product of all the pronouncements together, a thing greater than the sum of its parts.

1633 Heliocentrism is condemned

Well, no, not precisely: a heliocentrist was condemned, and certain theological ramifications that were posited to flow from heliocentrism were condemned. And they were condemned not as a matter of doctrine, or via a dogmatic process, but by a judicial process. The whole affair reflects the reality that ordinary magisterium is not a guarantee of the absolute veracity of every sort of decision ever made by every sort of ecclesiastical personage.

Valdemar said...

One of the worst and most serious of repercussions to this entire pontificate is the possibility that the Papacy will have been so utterly reduced in integrity, respect and admiration, not to say obedience, that future Catholics and others will simply not take future Popes seriously, seeing them as doctrinal buffoons, crowing about whatever fleeting and momentary idea happens to skirt across the relevant portions of their gray matter. This I think is how many are in fact treating Pope Francis even now, not necessarily in public, but certainly in practice.

Stephen said...

May I submit the possibility of some good lemonade being made from these lemons? Specifically, that the ability and impulse of the laity to question anything from any ordinary or cleric is, within the bounds of civility and Christian charity and obedience, is very much a good thing; that it represents a desire of the laity to "own" Tradition and tradition on par with those who are ordained.

That we are witnessing the crumbling of this notion of a "magisterium" as developed and promoted in the west these last 500 years or so is all to the good; when you push the pendulum too far in one direction (endowing those ordained with so much power as to atrophy the sensus fidelium), it will inevitably come crashing through the middle with more force than those who had done the pushing can control. And this you are seeing now.

Further, it won't swing so far in the other direction, as the laity are hopefully to busy with their lives so that they won't want to go congregationalist; and those who understand the whole business of pendulum swinging (traditionalist-oriented Catholics, Orthodox, etc) want it moving rather evenly around drop dead center, which is best done with everyone fulfilling their respective Christian duties and worshiping corporately with those gone before and those to come in the fullness of liturgical life.

Simple Simon said...

From the moment Francis endorsed Kasper (Angelus address) I was distressed. Francis made his agenda crystal clear. An absolute break with the previous Magisterium of JP and Benedict. No surprise then that Francis and his major fellow travellers have excelled in the dissemination of very dangerous purple coloured nonsense. Peddlers of Fools Gold. Unable to validate their peculiar teachings by an appeal to the sound and mandatory orthodoxy of the Church’s magisterial teachings they resort to pure invention (hermeneutic of rupture, God of Surprises, doctrinal unity pastoral plurality, misquoting sources, etc). All this in order to legitimize the illegitimate. And they are getting away with it. And will continue to get away with it. My personal distress deepened when it dawned on me that Francis enjoys very substantial support in the hierarchy. How much support? Their name is legion for they are many. Even money that the next Pope will be Francis 2 or Sarah 1? If Francis 2 appears, RIP RC Church as Universal. Only a faithful remnant would survive. If Sarah 1 appears, nothing much will change. Sarah 1 would reassert orthodoxy, but the dishonest dissenters would carry on dissenting and ignoring Rome, as was their wont. My view is that if Sarah 1 appeared, such is the malaise within the Church, of necessity he would have to issue anathemas galore. Otherwise we would be living in the era of a Game of Papal Thrones. Francis 2 trumping Sarah 1. However, whatever the appearance today, ultimately the truth will be victorious. ‘God’s providence rises before the sun’. The Good Shepherd sleeps not nor slumbers.

Jacobi said...

More important is what any Pope has said, any of the 268 of them. (We can discard Joan ).

This Pontificate will not go down in history as a good one. Mark you even the worst have had some good points. In the current case the initiative with the Russian Orthodox.

You raise a very important matter Father which is can a Pope be a heretic, or can he imply heresy. This is something in the back of all Catholic minds and something we are all reluctant to talk about or even think about.

But others have! Bellarmine and Suarez in the 17th century, Davies and Carroll in the 19th .

John XXII was heretical. That is agreed. He appears to have relented on his deathbed. And of course many would add Liberious, Vigilus, Honorious, and of course Peter!

Gadfly said...

As far as Laudato si is concerned, it can go in the bin straight away. I challenge anyone to read the opening paragraph and demonstrate how Pope Francis was speaking as teacher of the faithful in any form (I'll give them a leader: the stumbling block is in the word "suggestion").

Hans Georg Lundahl said...


"Well, no, not precisely: a heliocentrist was condemned, and certain theological ramifications that were posited to flow from heliocentrism were condemned."

To wit:

* the sun is immobile in the centre of the universe - heretical
* the earth moves, around the sun and around itself - at least erroneous

Those two theses were the ONLY and the SUFFICIENTLY condemned "theological ramifications". As for only one person being condemned, that is like saying Exsurge Domine was only judging Martin LUther personally, without being compulsory on Catholics now.

How "heliocentrism" could not be condemned while these two "ramifications" were condemned is beyond me.

"And they were condemned not as a matter of doctrine"

Yes, they were. The terms were "heretical" and "erroneous" and those are terms related to doctrine, not to personal behaviour of Galilei from Pisa.

"or via a dogmatic process, but by a judicial process."

A judicial process IS a dogmatic process, as much as for instance in US a supreme court decision is a legislative process.

Your comment is like saying "because Exsurge Domine was a preliminary warning in a judicial process directed at Martin Luther, it is not a doctrinal document" when in fact it condemns 40 or 41 THESES and not one single instance of some kind of personal misbehaviour on part of Martin Luther, not even nailing a list of theses to the Church door was such.

"The whole affair reflects the reality that ordinary magisterium is not a guarantee of the absolute veracity of every sort of decision ever made by every sort of ecclesiastical personage."

Exsurge Domine was made by the Pope Leo X and spread to the whole Church.

The judgement of Galileo was not per se made by Pope Urban VIII, but on his orders spread to all of the Church.

When the ordinary magisterium for centuries directly teaches or condemns one thing, it infallible therein.

Confer ordinary magisterium after 1820 (or 1822?) upholding "books defending Heliocentrism are not forbidden reading". That is NOT a direct doctrinal statement, since directed not to whether the Heliocentrism in the books is true or even perniciously false, only to whether it is licit to read them.


"May I submit the possibility of some good lemonade being made from these lemons?"

Like looking around if someone else claiming to be Pope could be it?


"More important is what any Pope has said, any of the 268 of them. (We can discard Joan )."

What Joan?

Do you believe the fable about "Popess Joan"?