10 July 2019

Definition and Dogma

When, in 1950, Papa Pacelli defined the dogma of the Corporeal Assumption of the Mother of God, the formula with which he did so very carefully avoided saying either that she died before her Assumption, or that she did not die (expletu terrestris vitae cursu). This definition had the practical effect of eliminating from the devotional life of Catholics much of the 'apocryphal' narrative which, in both the East and the West, had surrounded the Eschaton of the Theotokos. Prayers which are found in earlier Western liturgies (e.g. festivitas ...in qua dei genetrix mortem subiit temporalem ...) became unusable; many iconographic representations became problematic; tropes, such as that of S Gregory Palamas, explaining to prepon that she had to die to be like her Son, while by no means excluded as pious opinions, became beliefs which it was impossible to describe as the Teaching of the Church. In effect, far from being a novel imposition, the doctrine proclaimed in 1950 constituted the elimination of 95% of what had previously been taught or believed. What was left was but an austere and minimalist doctrinal skeleton of the rich narrative tapestries which nourished Christians from Ireland to India before the Definition.

The root within the verb/noun definire/definitio is -fin-, meaning a boundary. To define a proposition is thus to place boundaries round it, to limit it. While, therefore, a definition may make an additional claim upon the consciences of some, upon others it is likely to have the quite opposite effect. Foliage surrounding the defined doctrinal core has, in effect, been scythed away.

In 1870, the Decree Pastor aeternus did, I would have to concede, impose an additional claim upon 'Gallicans' and 'Conciliarists': they were obliged to believe that the Roman Pontiff ex cathedra was infallible. But he was only described as infallible in matters of Faith and Morals. That is limiting. The Council admirably discerned and even boasted that it was narrowing the notion of Infallibility which Catholics were free to accept before the Council. Neque enim Petri successoribus Sanctus Spiritus promissus est ut eo revelante novam doctrinam patefacerent, sed ut, eo assistente, traditam per Apostolos revelationem seu fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent.

As we prepare to have a Bean Feast ... or do I mean a Bun Fight ... to celebrate the canonisation of Saint John Henry Newman, we might revisit the vexing question of the exact binding force of a canonisation.

Theologians had for centuries discussed the possession by the Roman Bishop of an infallible magisterium. But they had not conducted that discussion within the tight boundaries of the 1870 Definition. If a theologian writing BEFORE 1870 asserted that X had been infallibly taught, you cannot fairly claim that he asserted X to have been infallibly taught in THAT sense of Infallibility which was only to be defined in 1870. He may be thinking in broader, or narrower, categories than those of Pastor aeternus.

Thus, when writers of the eighteenth or earlier centuries argue that Canonisations are infallible, they are not claiming that a canonisation concerns Faith or Morals and that it is part of the Revelation handed on by the Apostles ... for rather obvious reasons: if the Saint lived in the sixteenth century, their sanctity can clearly not be part of that immutable body of truth which was taught and believed also in the fifth and fifteenth centuries; and Saint So-and-so did not exist within the depositum which the Apostles tradiderunt.

I share the view of Benedict XIV, writing as a private doctor, that questioning a canonisation is temerarious. Nor do I deny the propriety of any use of the I-word with regard to canonisations. But it seems to me clear that a canonisation cannot claim that infallibility, that binding force, which the Decree Pastor aeternus of 1870 attributes to the Roman Pontiff when speaking ex cathedra.

I have returned to this question because the current, apparently politically motivated, frenzy for canonising recent Bishops of Rome may have tainted for many the very concept of canonisation ... may have rubbed off it some of the gloss. How can we enjoy the oncoming event with proper exuberance when the currency of canonisation has been so devalued, so reduced to a political formality?

I have no problems. Since Saint John Henry taught a great deal which is directly in opposition to the attitudes of the current pontificate, his canonisation cannot be seen as a political act intended to subvert the Great Tradition.

On the contrary.

I regard it as a triumph of divine Grace in the midst of the dark clouds of this pontificate; as a sudden bright burst of sunlit glory piercing the clouds and giving us a certain pledge of the ultimate triumph of orthodoxy!

Deo gratias!


Red Pill Pharmacy said...

Contra, Dr. John Lamont has published at least two essays on the authority of canonizations. The follow search should yield them:

rorate caeli john lamont canonizations

The first:

“The authority of canonisations": Do all canonisations need to be accepted as infallible? -- a special guest article

The second:

Follow-up Article - Paul VI: The Infallibility of Canonizations and the Morals of the Faithful

Calvin Engime said...

The good Tridentine phrase "faith and morals" had been conventional for a long time before 1870, and it is not a synonym for "the content of the deposit of faith." Rather, the scope of infallibility is defined by its purpose. You have said it yourself: ut ... fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent. The object of infallibility is not only the deposit, but all that is necessary to guard and expound it. This includes doctrines that do not strictly belong to the deposit, but are connected with it by logical or historical necessity. Vinzenz Gasser stated this very clearly in his relatio of July 11, 1870, explaining the proposed definition to the Council Fathers.

That dogmatic phrase, "the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed," means that the scope of the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is not lesser than that of an ecumenical council. (It is, potentially, a much more limiting phrase than "faith and morals"; the Council Fathers in no way intended to deny that it is a grave error to reject the infallibility of the Church in the matters connected with the deposit of faith, but it was formulated this way to leave open the question of whether it is itself a dogma revealed by God that the Church is infallible in these.) If it is to be denied, then, that the Roman Pontiff is infallible in any doctrine concerning facts arising after the death of the Apostles, then the canons of ecumenical councils are not infallible. For example, the Council of Trent in its Twenty-Second Session defined concerning the Roman Canon, which "is composed both out of the very words of the Lord, and the traditions of the apostles, and the pious institutions also of holy pontiffs": "If any one shall say, that the canon of the mass contains errors, and is therefore to be abrogated; let him be anathema." The legitimacy of a particular recension of the Canon surely does not per se belong to the deposit of faith. The Tridentine Council also, in the Twenty-Third Session, defined the existence of the subdiaconate and the minor orders, which are of ecclesiastical institution: "If any one shall say, that, besides the priesthood, there are not in the Catholic Church other orders, both greater and lesser, by which, as by certain steps, advance is made unto the priesthood; let him be anathema." Sisto Cartechini, on page 46 of his book De Valore Notarum Theologicarum et de Criteriis ad Eas Dignoscendas, cites as another example of a council defining something "objectively new, if we compare it to the truths of revelation," the definition of the Council of Constance that it is legitimate to receive the Eucharist under one species. Joseph Kleutgen made this point in his relatio on the schema on the Church (which was not finally able to be voted on) as one reason why there would be no issue with defining that the Church is infallible even in condemning errors with a censure less than heresy, or with no particular theological note. Further, he says, if this doctrine is denied, it would vitiate the force of certain papal bulls in the mode of damnatio in globo, such as Unigenitus and Exsurge Domine, in which a whole series of propositions is condemned as variously heretical, false, rash, etc., without individual notes attached to each one. It would create great problems for theologians, Kleutgen says, if these documents, hitherto received as sound rules of faith, were held not to be infallible.

Calvin Engime said...

I should like to add a comment here filled with mock anger that you have "decided to ignore" my previous comment, but my better judgement tells me I had better not go ahead with the joke because it is too liable to be mistaken for real anger...

Unknown said...

Concerning the death of the Blessed Virgin - although as you say it was deliberately excluded from being solemnly defined, it is nonetheless the position favoured by the Ordinary Magisterium, and so in a broader sense could be said to be 'the Teaching of the Church'.

Thus St John Paul II taught: 'Pius XII did not intend to deny the fact of her death, but merely did not judge it opportune to affirm solemnly the death of the Mother of God as a truth to be accepted by all believers. Some theologians have maintained that the Blessed Virgin did not die...However, this opinion was unknown until the 17th century, whereas a common tradition actually exists which sees Mary's death as her entry into heavenly glory...Since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother. The Fathers of the Church...had no doubts in this regard...

'To share in Christ's resurrection, Mary had first to share in his death...As to the cause of Mary's death, the opinions seem groundless that wish to exclude her from death by natural causes...The experience of death personally enriched the Blessed Virgin. By undergoing mankind's common destiny, she can more effectively exercise her spiritual motherhood toward those approaching the last moment of their lives.' (General Audience, 25 June 1997)