On the Infallibility of the Church (II)

On the Infallibility of the Church (II)

In the previous post, I laid out two principles for understanding the Infallibility of the Church. First of all, that what is primary infallible is no document or set of documents, but rather the Mind of Christ, the Soul of the Church, that since its creation has been in possession of the fullness of the Truth. The second is that what is primarily handed down is the Mind of Christ and to the Mind of Christ and to its tradition belong not only texts, rites, beliefs and standards of action that are handed down, but also every new thing that is created and developed with the Mind of Christ as its origin. I explained how these two principles assisted me in correctly seeing that “What the Church teaches” is not a matter of some few documents, and that therefore the appearance of a discrepancy between ancient and modern documents need not imply that the Church changed its teaching or that it is fallible.

My concern in the last post was a contemplative matter – the predestination of the saints and God’s universal will for salvation. In this post, I am interested in the development of moral teaching of the Church and the Church’s infallibility in matters of morals. There are today many claims made about contemporary developments in the Church’s teaching. The most notorious, I guess, is Pope Francis’ changing the catechism to indicate that capital punishment is inadmissible because of it is an offense to human dignity, but the changes of sacramental practice following “the only possible interpretation” of Amoris Letitia and the pope’s express support for civil unions of same-sex couples at least indicate other developments. The degree to which there is actual change behind any of these steps remains controversial and I will cowardly escape present controversy by talking about history in this post.

I recently read A Church That Can and Cannot Change by John T. Noonan Jr, which deals with development in moral teaching with regard to slavery, usury, freedom of religion and divorce (of non-sacramental marriages). Most of the book is about slavery and that will be the focus of my post too, though I think the usury example is also instructive. Noonan shows convincingly as far as I can judge that indeed there has been a development in Catholic morals on this count: once slaveholding was thought to be an acceptable institution, owning, buying and selling enslaved human beings was not seen as intrinsically evil and one could even recommend slaveowners as examples of moral virtue. Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Pius V and also St. Alfonso de Liguori, for instance, all owned slaves. Nowadays, slavery is seen as intrinsically evil and was condemned by the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, the very encyclical that underlined the teaching that there are acts that are intrinsically evil and to be condemned in every circumstance. It is interesting that such an encyclical should itself be a herald of development.

I cannot present Noonan’s entire account here. He draws on a number of different sources and examples to illustrate the developing history of the institution of slavery in the Church and this constitutes both a strength of the book, which makes it quite readable, but also a weakness, as at times the narrative jumps back and forth and for a couple of moments I lost my bearings and became suspicious. Many interesting acts are brought to light, such as Bologna’s purchase and emancipation of all the city’s slaves in 1256 and the transformation of France and England into territories without slaves already in the thirteenth century, largely due to the fact that Christians, without any clear directive from above, had for some time then stopped enslaving other Christians defeated in war. More interesting perhaps is that Pope Paul III who issued Sublimis Deus, which condemned the slavery of the to-be-catechized newly discovered peoples also emitted an edict abolishing a practice of freeing any slaves that managed to escape and make it to the Capitol: all the fugitives were to be returned to their owners. The devotion to Our Lady of Victory certainly takes on a different light when one learns that Pius V acquired slaves from the Battle of Lepanto. Finally, interestingly enough Roman Law and the Church Fathers all saw slavery as against nature, but that was not enough to condemn it as sinful.

The credibility of Noonan’s book is increased also by the critical review by Avery Cardinal Dulles in First Things. He quotes a number of alleged previous papal condemnations of slavery that Noonan is supposed to have overlooked, but as far as I can tell, they are nothing so total. Some condemn the enslavement only of the baptized or those to be baptized. Others like Sublimis Deus coexisted with the affirmation of slavery in Europe. And Dulles’ argument that John Paul II could not have meant to condemn slavery as intrinsically evil as it is listed with “sub-human living conditions and degrading conditions of work” which might be required after a natural catastrophe, say, is laughable: if the conditions of work are inevitable, they cannot be subhuman or degrading; Furthermore, the other parallel, “deportation”, simply referring to the fact that governments practice it is not enough to justify it.

In talking about this subject, I have found my traditionalist friends wary about condemning slavery outright. One often hears claims of the sort “ah but not all slavery is the same; sometimes slaves have rights; sometimes slaveowners are benevolent.” But I think this misses the point of “intrinsically evil”. If something is evil in itself, the consequences and conditions do not matter. A good example is lying in traditional natural law. Lying is wrong. The best explanation I have seen for this is in Zena Hitz’ Lost in Thought, which I will be writing about in my next post. Lying in this account is an abuse of the cognitive powers of the person lied to. These powers, instead of being directed toward the truth, are perverted by the liar to the fulfillment of their own wishes. Thus, lying is wrong because it is lying, no matter the worlds of good, the festivals of peace, the prosperous fortunes that could possibly be maintained or obtained by “a little lie”. Similarly, slavery is intrinsically evil because it is slavery, and even if the slave has a perfectly just master and belongs to a household that is the ideal environment for progress in virtue it will still be evil.

I take slavery to be evil because of the pretense that one human being can own another and sell them and buy them. Noonan makes a clear case for the long enduring acceptance of this institution in the history of the Church, including such interesting documents as a contract “in Christ’s name” for the purchase of a human being. That the pretense to own a human being is intrinsically evil follows from the fact, best articulated by Othmar Spann, that we are socially embedded beings, who are constituted in our spiritual capacities by our relationships with another. As Plato put it, we are constantly giving birth in our minds to thoughts and feelings and it is our friends, teachers and pupils who are the midwives of our spiritual life. To treat someone as a thing then, as a dead object that remains identical to itself when bought and sold, as a dead thing without an inner life and will of its own that is embedded in a greater whole is a denial of their spiritual nature and accordingly evil. Slavery is only one way that this happens, but it is a clear one.

Now, there is one argument against holding slavery to be intrinsically evil that I think is important and that Noonan does not properly respond to. He quotes the argument in Cardinal Newman’s voice. It is that slavery is an accepted institution in scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments. Ownership and proper treatment of slaves are legislated about in the old law. Paul does not write to Philemon “Free all your slaves now!” I find this an important argument because I don’t think that we can take scripture as simply evidence of the intentions and mental horizons of its inspired human authors. Humans can do more than mean what they are capable of understanding at a time. Especially if they are delivering a message of someone else. A soldier can perform menial tasks “to win the war”, though winning the war is in the general’s mind. A couple can “continue the family line”, without knowing where it came from or where it will go, trusting in the family genius. A doctor of the Church can mean to hand over by his teaching “the Mind of Christ” and his words will be appropriately interpreted if they are interpreted in light of dogmas that were only later defined. We mortals can do the Good by giving up control over the meaning of our actions and entrusting ourselves to providence.

Therefore, I think that the meaning of the text can outstrip the intention of its authors. This actually opens the possibility that although the authors thought slavery was acceptable, the meaning of the text is that it is not. But it also means, on the other hand, that the meaning of the text can be that slavery is acceptable – and not only within the horizons envisaged by its authors. But what is key here is that scripture is to be read as the Word of God, as bearing eternal, not local truths. This introduces a new argument. Since it is the Word of God, then it is the Word of the Omnipotent. A fact we recognize by what is called a “literal” reading, that is, a reading of the text as referring to the empirical world. A literal reading, or a presupposition in favor of a literal reading whenever it is possible, is an act of faith in the divine origin of the text and is the basis for searching for a spiritual and divine meaning. These passages therefore need to be dealt with theologically, and they cannot simply appear at the beginning of a history of development as evidence for the views of the authors of the Old and New Testament. And a straightforward literal interpretation would indeed indicate that slavery cannot be intrinsically evil.

However, there are a few strategies that can be taken here. On the one hand, there are many puzzling passages where God commands things that are intrinsically evil: the extermination of the Canaanites and the binding of Isaac. Slavery can be one more dark edict. On the other, it can be a sign of that the Old Covenant needs to be surpassed, the institution of bondage being a symbol that the Law itself was still a kind of bondage, but now we are friends. But why then does St. Paul not condemn it? Perhaps because the Spirit had yet to lead the Church into the fullness of truth and it does so like a good teacher, gradually. There was certainly a use of the institution of slavery to teach total devotion to God. Perhaps the institution was “permitted” for a time in accordance with the wisdom of the Spirit, but now we have been taught more about human dignity and nature and are in a position to condemn it. We also understand the equality of husbands and wives and are appalled at violence in a marriage in a way that most Christians throughout history would not.

In whichever way one solves this apparent contradiction in scripture, it changes one thing about the way the story of development is told: no matter whatever external factors eventually lead Christians to realize the evil nature of the practice, they only ever awakened the Church to the message of its own text. The change cannot be entirely from without, and indeed, Noonan does not tell the story that way. Some might say this is whiggish and writing history from the viewpoint of the end. But teleology is natural in recounting the development of a divine-human organism.

The issue having been raised, and vague gestures towards a solution having been made, I think Noonan does indeed show that there has been development in the Church’s moral teaching. And there are two important points here. First of all, it is not just a matter of something that was accepted (slave-owning) becoming forbidden. It is also a matter of things that were forbidden (helping a slave escape) becoming praiseworthy. This seems to be generally the case with moral change. If you are more lenient to the creditor who lends at interest, you are stricter towards his debtors. If you accept the death penalty, you condemn the executioner who recuses his duty because of their (from your point of view ill-formed) conscience.

Second, it seems that change in moral matters will always involve contradiction, in a way that development in contemplative theological matters does not. Noonan himself observes that one of Newman’s criteria for development is that there is no contradiction with previous teaching; but then he further points out that it is not very organic to evaluate development by a list of bullet points. I think we can go beyond this and show why change in moral teaching does not need to imply that one needs to accept change in dogma. The reason is that in theoretical matters things can be left open. We do not need to decide every question. We can contemplate and puzzle and wonder and argue for centuries before we reach an answer, if we ever do. We cannot do the same thing in practical matters. While we are reflecting on the goodness of a deed, we are also either carrying it out, or we are not doing so. It is true that there are morally indifferent areas of life. In my life it is indifferent which color clothes I choose to wear each day. But I still have to make a choice. And that means that also in the fundamental areas of our life, where our choices are never a matter of indifference, we are always making choices. Thus, the moral teaching that is to be our guide to life will have to be fully determinate in a way that our theoretical doctrine is not. And that means that it will have to change and condemn what it once approved of and approve of what it once condemned, if it is going to change at all. Here there can be no development without contradiction.
How then are we going to avoid Noonan’s conclusion that the Church is fallible in her judgments? He quotes other institutions that become more worthy of trust by admitting their fallibility, like science or parents recognizing that they are wrong, but they also promise less certainty than the Church. He observes that when people read St. Augustine or St. Thomas, or a papal bull, they do not read them as the views of their authors, but as “the teaching of the Church”, so he thinks drawing a distinction here is unhelpful. But I think it is precisely a distinction that has to be made. The Church in itself is infallible, but individuals can participate it to a greater and a lesser extent. And recently we have come to participate in a greater extent in the knowledge of human dignity contained in the Mind of Christ and have for that reason come to explicitly condemn slavery as intrinsically evil.

Finally, Noonan’s short discussion of usury in this book (he has another longer monograph on the subject) is quite interesting in what it teaches about the mechanisms of development. In particular, the impression I get is that it took place in the confessional, with priests needing to solve tough cases of conscience, till Rome hit upon the formula “do not disturb them”, i.e. to not burden them with scruples in this regard. I have often come out of the confessional troubled by a confessor’s apparently liberal attitude to one situation or another. Was this development in the making?

Header image credit: By FU NWO - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3415735

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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