On the Infallibility of the Church (I)

On the Infallibility of the Church (I)

“To understand this we must consider that everything, in so far as it is good, is willed by God. A thing taken in its primary sense, and absolutely considered, may be good or evil, and yet when some additional circumstances are taken into account, by a consequent consideration may be changed into the contrary. Thus that a man should live is good; and that a man should be killed is evil, absolutely considered. But if in a particular case we add that a man is a murderer or dangerous to society, to kill him is a good; that he live is an evil. Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently wills the murderer to be hanged. In the same way God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned, as His justice exacts.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, q.19, a.6 ad 1.

“Accordingly, what is in question here is man in all his truth, in his full magnitude. We are not dealing with the “abstract” man, but the real, “concrete”, “historical” man. … Man as “willed” by God, as “chosen” by him from eternity and called, destined for grace and glory-this is “each” man, “the most concrete” man, “the most real”; this is man in all the fullness of the mystery in which he has become a sharer in Jesus Christ, the mystery in which each one of the four thousand million human being s living on our planet has become a sharer from the moment he is conceived beneath the heart of his mother.”
St. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis §13

When I started my research on Proclus’ theodicy four years ago, I was in for a nasty surprise. Proclus’ theodicy had drawn my attention because it seemed to me then and it still seems to me now that it required the philosopher to affirm the divine plan according to which most human beings inevitably end up leading vicious lives. This affirmation of vice was particularly shocking to me as I had at one time turned to Neoplatonists as moral guides. During my MA, I had a crisis of confidence reading Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo: “I will never be able to do metaphysics, I will never attain the heights of contemplative virtue”. By the end of the MA I had pretty much given up investigating metaphysical themes, thinking they were “too high” for me – despite the Kantian encouragement of my good friend Edward upon reading my MA thesis “You’ve certainly got the lungs for it!”. So, it came as a shock and a feeling of betrayal when I realized that Proclus (and Damascius too, as far as I can tell) thought that the world is purposefully set up so that most of us will fail at virtue. It was an exaggeration, but I imagined him saying to me in my struggles: “Well, maybe your purpose in life is to be reborn as a penguin.”

Proclus’ embrace of vice was the scandal that set me off on my research. The scandal I found during my investigaitons came from Church history. Wanting not just to conduct a historical investigation, but also to approach the things themselves, I decided to better inform myself of the Church’s teaching on the mystery of evil. Furthermore, I knew that there was a sense in which Calvinist double predestination also involved an analogous affirmation of evil, so I thought it important to understand the Church’s exact doctrine on the matter. Here is where things started to surprise me. First of all, I learnt of the teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas (very much opposed to what I had been catechized in) according to which God only qualifiedly wantד to save all people. And yet I also saw the strength of their position and I was interested in attempts to reconcile it with the stronger universal desire of salvation I had grown up with. But the attempts of, for instance, Matthew Levering and von Balthasar to balance opposing affirmations seemed ultimately to demand of me opposing mental acts. To both hold that God desires to save all and also that He has chosen only some is like trying to stand and sit at one and the same time. I could imagine this, the way I can imagine a perpetual motion machine or appreciate an M.C. Escher drawing, but I could not believe this, I could not embrace contradictories in a single intellectual act of faith.

Yet, my troubles truly began when I became fully convinced of the traditional, Thomistic view of predestination, which to me really comes across as simply strict Platonic philosophy. (I have laid out my current understanding of this in my “Letter on the Love of God” Part I, Part II). When I “flipped” and came to embrace the Thomistic view, the whole situation of contemporary Church teaching came to seem much darker – it seemed to have changed. I give one example of this in the epigraphs above, with Redemptor Hominis making clear a desire for the salvation of each concrete human being, whereas St. Thomas holds that God wills the salvation of every human being only considering them in the abstract as “a human being” and not concretely in their sinful existence. But the occultation of predestination is much broader than a single papal document. Jean-Miguel Garrigues (referred to often by Thomas Joseph White in this regard) argues that there has been true “development” on the question and that after Vatican II especially any limited view of the universal desire for salvation is untenable (See his “La persévérance de Dieu dans son dessein universel de grâce” in Nova et Vetera 77 (4):35-59 (2002)). It is also seen in countless apologetics videos and websites that glibly offer “free-will” as an explanation for the problem of evil, when any Augustinian account of grace shows that this is a non-answer. Everywhere I turned I encountered fellow Catholics puzzled that I should be at all disturbed by predestination, even priests told me that predestination was a non-issue or not even Catholic (!), and the teaching was practically absent from the Masses I attended. It seemed clear that a change had occurred. So, in late April 2018 my trust in the Church finally broke: she seemed to have changed her teaching and shown that she was not truly divine. Furthermore, the old teaching seemed to be the rational one, not the new one, which takes God to be at once omnipotent and frustrated in his desire for universal salvation. his was change, and change for the worse.

It took me about a year before I could believe once more. The separation pained me, I felt myself a Platonist without a god, abandoned before Descartes’ deceiving deity. During this year I expressed my previous views on being gay and Catholic for the first time in my Sermon to the Sodomites. Yet, on all sides God tugged. During this year, for the first time, I had a boyfriend who loved that I was Catholic, though I did not believe at the time. I lived with good Catholic friends, who sympathetically heard my issues and did not reject me when I found myself incapable of believing. In the late summer they organized a local Mass in the Dominican rite, which I attended and which was not only beautiful, but was celebrated by a very gifted preacher and understanding priest. Eventually, I gave myself to study the Church’s teaching again, deepening my readings in ecclesiology.

Two notions proved crucial in my return to the faith. The first was the distinction variously drawn by theologians (von Balthasar, Journet, Congar, Maritain, Vonier, inter alia) between the “spirit”, “person” or “(created) soul” of the Church as opposed to her “body” and “members.” This is a distinction most often drawn with regard to the Holiness of the Church: whereas she is made up of sinners, the Church herself is indefectibly holy: there is a holiness, a charity, subsisting separately from each of the members, a common participation in the Holy Spirit, a shared grace that constitutes the common life of the Church. Although the distinction is most often made with regard to the Church’s holiness, it applies equally well (it would appear) to its Infallibility: this Charity is also the Nous Christou, the Mind of Christ, in whose certainty the ecumenical councils and infallible papal definitions participate in the fullest manner. Therefore, it is not that the teaching of the Church is directly embodied in such texts as papal encyclicals. Rather, the soul of the Church that infallibly knows the faith and morals exists prior to all particular magisterial acts and they all participate in it to greater and lesser degrees. Establishing that “the Church teaches that p” requires more than reference to a document. That document must be read within the mind of the Church.

The second, connected notion was that this Nous is the primary object of tradition in the Church: it is what is primarily handed down, not any text, not any sacraments, not any propositions, but rather the charity of Christ has been communicated from one generation to the next since Pentecost. This is put forth by Möhler in his Einheit in der Kirche quite convincingly on the basis of his reading of the New Testament and the early Fathers. I appreciated that Möhler’s theory was not a “softening” of the Church’s teaching in the face of recalcitrant hard facts (like when one allegorizes Eden away in the face of an empirical challenge), but rather a return to early Christian self-understanding. In his presentation it is also clear that the Nous is not simply the holiness of the Church but also its knowledge. Furthermore, by specifying that this spirit is the object of tradition it becomes clear why a doctrine that a theologian arrives at by simply trying to make sense of the received data of revelation can itself both be an original synthesis and a development of what was received, because what is received is actually the principle of the synthesis, the intelligence of faith that the Catholic thinker uses in order to overcome the difficulties that the received texts and customs put before him. This systematic principle of development is something that I felt lacking in Newman, who gives a very good empirical account of how an idea develops, but not the principle that justifies the developed idea being seen as something received. As I excitedly put it to my friends at the time “Newman is English, but Möhler is German!!!”.

With this new understanding of “what the Church teaches”, I was able then to find the Church believable. I could differentiate authorities as participating more or less in the mind of the Church. The very theme of God’s universal desire of salvation being qualified and not unconditional also made sense to me of the fact that the Church’s light did not always shine with the same clarity and distinctness. If the Church is not made to be an instrument of saving every singe person, it makes sense that at times its teaching should be presented in a way that it is indeed difficult for many people to understand it. And finally, the papacy of Francis, with all the confusion and controversy, did much to weaken the weight of papal pronouncements in my eyes. And thus Redemptor Hominis did not weigh so heavily on my conscience.

I recalled all this recently because I have just finished reading John Noonan Jr.’s A Church that Can and Cannot Change, on the development of moral theology in the Church. In the follow up post to this one I will present my thoughts on that book and his final conclusion that the Church is “fallible” in her judgments.

PS. The banner image is a study in acrylic and gold leaf that I made inspired in part by von Balthasar’s reflections on the image of the Church as casta meretrix. I tried to combine motifs from the traditional representations of Ecclesia and Synagoga. Thus she is blindfolded but has a third eye, her crown is not on her head but it is also not falling down, she has the cup of the new covenant, but on the altar of sacrifice. Her banner is intact, but it is the cross of Jerusalem. (The blue stole like ornament is there for aesthetic purposes, I attach no specific meaning to it.) Here is the full image:


Antonio Vargas
Antonio Vargas

Antonio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society for the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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