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For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Back to the Bible

Reading this interview on Fr Tarazi's The Rise of Scripture, who preaches an almost Barthian notion of encounter with God in the sacred Scripture, I was surprised to find how much this resonated with a current in my thinking. Maybe my fundamentalist background predisposes me to this kind of thought, as I leave my reactionary twenties ever further behind and my inheritance comes back to claim me.

My discovery three or four years ago of Margaret Barker's "temple theology" and the realisation of just how deeply the various strands of Christian creedal orthodoxy might possibly have reached in the early Christian sect into a living liturgical temple tradition, have made me question just how necessary the "advanced" creeds really are to the life of the Christian. What I am driving at is the following: just supposing things like the divine sonship of Christ, his pre-existence, the Spirit (i.e. orthodox Trinitarian and Christological doctrines) are simply continuations of pre-Christian worship transfigured by the coming of Christ? The more conceptual creeds such as the Athanasian and the definitions of the early councils are in one sense an unnecessary and in certain respects a misleading Hellenisation of truths that we should be participating in and living out through the Scriptures primarily.

These statements of Christian orthodoxy ought to be relativised and questioned by the holy Scripture, once we have grasped the key to the whole (which is: Temple - Christ). Our understanding is not meant to terminate in a series of definitions that we grasp, but to appropriate and participate in the rich images of Scripture, being transformed in our minds in the mirror of the Word, and by participating in the sacraments.

I have read that in the debates leading up to the definitions of the council of Trent, that the decrees about holy Scripture and tradition were framed to fit in the arguments of some bishops that by "tradition" was to be understood only a handful of apostolic traditions such as the use of the sign of the Cross in baptism and the establishing of the threefold order - traditions which I think can probably be traced back to the temple and its rites in any case, but which had now been transfigured in Christ. For example, the sign of the cross "X" was originally the ancient form of the Hebrew letter Tau, with which the High Priest was anointed, and which was an abbreviation of the Tetragrammaton: the use of this sign in Christian baptism was a radical act, asserting (1) that the divine Name was in fact Jesus and had now been uttered and (2) that each of the baptised was being given the Name, being re-born as a child of God and declared to be one of the priestly people worthy to enter within the veil and offer the holy sacrifice.

There are a couple of points that I would like to have clarified in the interview given by Fr Tarazi, especially his characterisation of Platonist Christianity.

There are a number of tensions present in scholars' representation of the Old and New Testaments. Tarazi's is the latest I have come across: that of the pure prophetic shepherd's religion of Israel versus the urban, foreign philosophy of the Greek. There is also the tension explicit in a lot of Barker's work of the priestly Davidic king as a Son of God who is God made visible in the Temple, versus the Passover tradition of the Mosaic law of the Deutoronomist and the God who is utterly invisible.

The problem is that I cannot quite reconcile the New Testament as I find it with these scholarly tensions. In the Gospels Christ is the Son of David and the new Moses and the High Priest. He has a multi-valency so to speak, while contrariwise all the images point backwards in only one direction: to him. Similarly (and I look forward to reading Tarazi at some point to see what he has to say about the evidence running counter to his thesis) it seems that the Wisdom literature and the Prologue of St John come into contact with Alexandrian thought to put it mildly, although I am beginning to be persuaded that here the language whilst superficially Hellenised is pointing towards the temple primarily.

I am feeling my way towards something along the lines of Austin Farrer's thought as it developed from his 1948 The Glass of Vision to his 1967 Faith and Speculation. The images and story of Scripture are the primary revelation, the divine reason. The Apostles give the Christological key to the Old Testament - developed by Farrer in The Rebirth of Images (1949). What we need to develop is the understanding of the Temple and its iterations in the Old Testament (in the Pentateuch, Kings, Chronicles, the prophets and Ezekiel) - with the book of Hebrews as a model - along similar lines. The significance of the Fathers is not their philosophical framework but their development of the apostolic mode of reading the Scripture - traditionally known as the fourfold interpretation. We don't need so much to update Lombard's Sentences as to put the Fathers' approach back into practice, integrating some historical-critical findings along the way. The vast majority of this scholarship is neither historical nor sufficiently critical as it works within assumptions that are exploded one after the other by the next generation. The definitions of the councils are (so to speak) a side issue, a set of formulae to be understood afresh and brought into proximity to the primary images of Scripture.

A respect for the Scripture as primary argues for a form of life, a life not just of prayer within the ancient liturgy - meaning especially the Psalms as Christ's hymnbook - but with a respect for Creation as Christ's alphabet, which we should handle as if the bodily symbols participated in their author... because they do.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Irish option

Some of the reviewers of Dreher's Benedict option idea have suggested that it is actually early Irish monasticism that presents us with a practical outworking of his ideas, rather than the Benedictines. In some of these communities in Ireland there were monks and nuns, along with those who were married, in a common cenobitic life. There was often a threefold purpose: firstly worship, then scholarly pursuit including teaching of the young, and missionary activity.

I'm prompted to write this on hearing news of a community in formation who have the following blog, and who are drawing on this tradition:

It looks like the sort of thing I would aspire to - a loosely based community of prayer, working out a rough and ready Benedictine rule adapted to suit its own circumstances.

Columbanus was a monk of a then-thriving abbey in my native Bangor in Ireland, an austere man who wore himself out in missionary work in what is now Northern France, Switzerland and who died in Northern Italy. I once made a pilgrimage of sorts to Bobbio where he ended his life - one can reach it by a long bus journey from Piacenza, up a winding valley where the rocky Trebbia runs down to the Po. I tried to get to see the famous Antiphonarium Benchorensis (Antiphonary of Bangor in Latin - a clue as to my blog's web name) at the Ambrosian Library in Milan, but they more or less laughed at me. It's never on public display.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Roman Canon & the Interpretation of Scripture

I wrote a couple of pieces about the intriguing structure of the Roman Canon recently. I have found a dissertation on-line by Matthew Gerlach (now teaching at University of Mary in Ohio) who gives a very thorough, lucid and systematic treatment of the chiastic structure of the anaphora that I found persuasive. He uses the modern form of the Canon as the basis for his study.

He also correlates the theology underlying the Roman Canon with the spiritual exegesis of the Fathers, and the fourfold sense of Scripture (literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical senses). The claim is that there is a strong parallel and even identity between the patristic understanding of the symbols of Scripture and the symbols of the Eucharistic offering. In addition, spiritual exegesis and the fourfold sense is not an arbitrary reading but is integral to the holy commercium or exchange between Christ and his Body the Church, between its past, its present and its future glory. On reading and re-reading this part of the thesis, I found this extremely stimulating and fruitful and will be returning to it again.

There is also a section about Aquinas's Eucharistic theology which is well worth the read. Acording to Gerlach's perspective, the Aristotelian substance/accidents distinction in Aquinas is utilised because it fits in with his Eucharistic theology of the consecrated gifts being sacramental signs (like the symbols of Christ in Holy Scripture). That is the right way round to read Aquinas; not through the lens of Aristotelian philosophy primarily. The substance/accidents distinction doesn't do justice to Thomas's thought on the importance of the figural significance of the bread and wine, the respect that he gives to the sign qua sign.

It is a while since I have read something that brought things together that I thought I already knew and created a sense of freshness and space for the mind and soul from their synthesis.

A couple of tentative ideas have surfaced as I have been reading about the Roman Canon of late, from various sources including Gerlach's thesis.

Chiasmus is a very good structure for memorisation. If one walks into a room to do something and forgets why one is there, the best way to remember is to try to think of what one was doing just before, and then just before that, i.e. to retrace one's steps in reverse. In memorisation of a text, a series of parallels that pivot on the centre of the text is a very helpful aid. Some people argue that chiasmus is a natural product of an oral tradition: linearity is more of a written textual phenomenon.

Might this be some help to solving the problem of the construction of the Roman Canon? If it was primarily a remembered and orally transmitted prayer initially, with at least some chiastic elements (the verbal and grammatical identity of the memorial of the living and dead in the first and second halves of the anaphora respectively is a case of chiasmus staring us in the face, surely), then might its later and final written form - say, in the fourth century - have been so arranged and augmented to preserve and reinforce its chiastic structure?

Here's a speculation.

Just suppose that there were a series of orally transmitted prayers used in the Eucharistic prayer of the Roman church from the early part of the second century, but not all of them in every celebration. Some of the prayers might therefore overlap and repeat what the others said (like the intial sentences of the Te igitur and the Hanc igitur, or the quasi-epicletic material of the Quam oblationem and the Hanc igitur) because they were once alternative formulations. Some (like the central parts of the anaphora) may have been simply invariable. Suppose the original recited formula was something close to the Alexandrian anaphora, with a rough rule of order in oral recitation, so that the celebrant would have improvised some less central parts of the anaphora from a choice of several traditional prayers that were not identical in wording but carried the same euchological meaning in around the same place in the anaphora. The "through Christ our Lord" at the end of each prayer would therefore have a function partly as a brief break from the effort of recall, to serve as a moment of recollection for the celebrant who would then follow the traditional sequence in his recitation of the next prayer.

Just suppose, when the Roman Canon came to be a written text, that several succeding bishops or their clergy, or just one particular bishop, augmented the natural, oracular chiastic form of the prayer as it already stood - there being some very strongly chiastic elements present already, viz. the central part of the prayer from Qui pridie to the Unde et memores, and the commemoration of the living and dead. Some of the variable prayers of similar euchological function were moved around or altered so that the naturally existing chiasmus of the anaphora would be completed as nearly as possible, without violating the integrity of the oral tradition overly, preserving the variable prayers within the new text.

What one would end up with would be a chiastic structure which had some clearly parallel elements, some not so clearly parallel, and a slightly untidy overlap and anticipation within the latter group (because of prayers with duplicate function having been moved from their original position, or two prayers of the same function being altered slightly so that they could both be included). Which is more or less how the Roman Canon reads.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Mueller on First Things

I've just skimmed Mueller's article about papal authority on First Things, which is obviously trying to outline some limits to make people feel easy about dissenting from Pope Francis, and to give them the tools (and to invoke their right) to critique him.

But... as an addendum to what I have already written in the last few articles, it struck me that even an attempt to limit the power of the Pope by means of the Tradition of the church by the conservative churchman falls short of what I have been trying to suggest. The hypostatising of the "Magisterium", or the "teaching authority of the bishops" and the Pope which "always" teaches the truth or "always" does this or that beneficial thing: this kind of talk is (or can be) a way of avoiding responsibility. Suppose bishops all act like sheep sometimes... suppose this isn't the first time they have... suppose that the hypostatised "Magisterium" turns out to have produced teachings that are the product of that mentality... shouldn't one object when one can't find these teachings in the Scriptures or the Fathers? One has to make up one's mind about whether Amoris Laetitia is traditional, and as Mueller has discovered "making up one's mind" can be caricatured as an act of private judgment by the papal party. One also has to make up one's mind about Vatican I, and lots of other things too.

The freedom that Mueller asks for us from Pope Francis's pronouncements, I ask from the sometimes stifling and stultifying consensus about who and what the Pope is, that has been hanging around since the West became collectively and insanely ultramontane. Find it in the Fathers, please.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A Conclusion to Some Cogitations

Thus far in these posts I have been feeling my way to an idea of papal infallibility that is (1) collegial, in which Peter of necessity speaks with the Apostles and their successors and not unilaterally, because they share in Peter's primacy and charism that is vere episcopale (2) ecclesial, according to which the unanimity of the Church catholic and the Fathers is needed to judge of the truth of any pronouncement, (3) provisional, in that the reception and interpretation of the entire Church of any papal pronouncement over the centuries following is of great significance, (4) prophetic, in the sense that the gift of the Spirit to proclaim the truth is not to be presumed by the Pope purely by a decision to make a self-consciously "infallible" proclamation according to a set form, but is to be discerned by the believer in the content of what is proclaimed, whether the proclamation has followed a pre-set form or not, (5) eschatological, because the image of Peter and the Apostles as the foundation stones of the Holy City is one of the images of the Bride in Holy Scripture, (6) not presumptuous, in that it is folly to suppose that a sinful man, as are all Popes, could not either feign to utter an infallible statement according to a set form, or fondly imagine himself possessed of the Spirit to make an infallible statement when he is in fact in error, and (7) not haughty, ergo the papal office has no power to raise a secondary teaching not revealed directly by God -- or taught plainly by Christ and His Apostles -- or taught unanimously in Tradition of the Church -- to the level of a creedal dogma which must be believed and proclaimed as part of the saving Gospel.

What is left after all these caveats? One is left with a teaching about infallibility as a gift to Apostles and Peter ("He will guide you into all truth", said Christ to the eleven), the occasions of the exercise of which are in the gift of the Holy Spirit and are not to be had simply by some kind of quasi-sacrament, a following of a particular set of forms and rules by which a statement is announced to the Church. And the recognition of infallible teaching is not to be found in the set form of a papal pronouncement - such a thing was unheard of until the 19th century - but (like the recognition of the teachings of a council as binding), by its consonance with Apostolic truth, and by its reception.

Infallibility is "in the mix", so to speak, of those gifts by which the truth of Christ is discerned by each Christian through the gift of the Holy Spirit - the Holy Scripture, the teaching of the Fathers, the Tradition that is manifested in the ancient and sacred liturgy, etc.

These are my thoughts about infallibility, and now a few thoughts about the authority of the Pope. If you want a full discussion of how the Pope gradually came to exercise such a monarchical role in the Church, you can find this explained and detailed much more fully elsewhere. Of course, nowadays - to take an example - when a bishop gets to 75 years of ago and proffers his resignation, and the Pope says, "Thanks yes, please do retire", it is assumed that this is within the Pope's right. His rule is supreme and universal and ordinary. Students of the words used in Vatican I ("supreme", "ordinary" and so on) know as well as I do that there are strict limits in the technical definitions of these words, but how it all plays out in the life of the Church is pretty much as it is sounds. No-one seems to have any idea about what kind of legitimate restriction might be placed on the Pope: he is legislator after all. If he says that bishops should retire at 60 from now on, so let it written, so let it be done. I have chosen what seems to me to be an extremely silly example of arbitrary legal positivism, and how the hale and hearty 75-year-old bishops who leave their flocks square it with the theology of the episcopate I haven't the foggiest, but no-one seems to have the nerve to face it down. But it is the tiptoeing down the Headmaster's corridor and all the standing cringing outside his door that makes this arbitrary nonsense have force; and it relies upon an interfering, slavish and unmanly notion of authority that has seeped into every modern bureaucratic legislative system. What one needs is a Prince Caspian to walk into His Excellency Gumpas' courtroom and to turn the table upside-down, sending all the pettifogging regulations flying.

All of the discussions I have read about liturgy on the internet over the last ten years, have given me a very strong notion of what de jure restrictions there are upon the exercise of papal power. Perhaps those who write about such things, and quote Benedict XVI's words to the effect that the sacred rites of ancient Christian prayer "cannot suddenly be forbidden", do not quite realise the far-reaching conclusions that their readers may draw from these words. For me, this principle has ramifications far beyond the rites themselves, into other traditions of a local church also.

The unity of the Church is a mystical and eschatological truth, and union with Christ precedes union with Peter; but episcopacy and the Petrine office are (as I have said above) part of the image of the Church. For those bishops and churches who are not in formal union with Peter, some of the thoughts that I have about infallibility extend - I believe - to this question also. The primary questions of the Gospel and of faith determine the question of unity, not those which are secondary: the last and least important questions with respect to unity with Peter are whether one follows the procedures issued by the Roman bureaucracy in the appointment of one's bishops and in the pettier details of church administration. Some people will say that the true Church subsists in the Catholic: I would reply with the Orthodox that the true Church subsists wherever the Eucharist is celebrated in unity with the Apostles and their successors. And as regards the status of episcopacy in Anglicanism and the continuing bodies, recent developments may have compromised a large number of Anglican ordinations (the mainstream part of the "two integrities"). However, I can't take Apostolicae curae very seriously, when it would damn almost the entire Catholic episcopate ordained since Vatican II. I certainly wouldn't tie myself in knots and write to an Ask Father column if I were attending an SSPX chapel or the right kind of continuing Anglican or Anglican jurisdiction before receiving Holy Communion.

These are my current thoughts about the whole business of church affiliation and true church claims, and the Pope and all the rest of it. I think it is important that I clear all this up for myself, and make it clear to others as well, if I am one day in a position where I will be asked to declare fidelity and obedience to a bishop as a candidate for the diaconate.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Some Cogitations: Secunda Pars

Infallible papal pronouncements are called "irreformable", but I confess that this term seems to carry a very limited meaning. Words and phrases are often intended in one way, but come to mean something quite different because the context changes, or the words themselves shift in meaning, or the ramifications of what has been said become clearer. Nothing that is uttered by man has a static meaning that cannot develop and gain significance and a deeper context with history and usage. All that irreformable can mean, I think, is that the original wording of a dogmatic papal pronouncement forms an integral part of the understanding of the doctrine, not that a particular understanding of a particular set of phrases at a particular time is the exclusive and final truth.

Holy Scripture contains a series of images in words that illuminate God's truth; even the Son (as the utterance of the divine Word) is Himself called the express Image (cf. the Epistle to the Hebrews). The visible Incarnation is both a revelation and a veil - note the imagery of the veil of Christ's flesh being torn at His death. The revealed images have been given in Scripture: but for those who read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, the river of the divine truth is always finding new channels to run in. Each Scriptural image, taken as an image of the divine which both reveals and veils the Godhead, is capable of taking on new poetic power as it works in our imagination by the power of Spirit, and as each revealed image masters ever more of the stuff of this mortal world.

There is therefore no power that can define not only an authoritative form of words but prescribe the significance of those words for all time. To argue that there is, would be (1) to take a particular image or set of images and set it or them up as an idol or idols, a fixed and static image of the divine, and (2) to give the power to divinise a particular image - or the power to create an idol to be worshipped - to a particular person or office.

What is therefore to be understood by the idea of papal infallibility? And by the dogmatic proclamations held to be infallible? My understanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility is that is quite simply a tautology. The Petrine office (as Vatican I says) is truly episcopal. It is not a fourth order in the Church, or an added charism of the See of Peter on top of the proper episcopal charism. Here an understanding of the traditional conception of who and what a bishop is, is helpful: he is Peter among the Apostles (his presbyters). Therefore each and every bishop shares in the Petrine office in his own diocese with his own clergy; each and every bishop shares in the charism of infallibility when he teaches ex cathedra and defines the truth in union with the faith of the Church Militant and Triumphant. The bishop of Rome, in the traditional understanding, possesses this charism when its bishop speaks with the voice of that church's faith diachronically as well as synchronically; of course the role of the Roman church gains added weight from the witness of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome, and from the very ancient tradition that its bishop is Vicar of Peter.

The only thing that Vatican I clarifies in this traditional understanding, is that the power of utterance of the truth comes to Peter and the Apostles by the gift of the Spirit and not from consensus. However, I wonder if we should consider the following.

Can a Pope err in any way when he supposes himself to be proclaiming an infallible truth? I believe on the authority of Holy Writ that the Church is holy and spotless but that doesn't prevent me from seeing that its members are sinners. That the Church is holy and immaculate is an eschatological image that is ultimately and (let me coin a word) anagogically true. Holy Scripture is inerrant: this I also believe. But how it is inerrant, when it contains a good deal of factual inaccuracy by the historical and scientific notions of error, needs a good deal of explanation. That the ex cathedra utterances of the Vicar of Peter are infallible is also an image; a collective failure to recognise this will make the papacy an idol set up at the centre of the church to dominate all the other revealed images. It seems to me that the papacy images the gift of the Holy Spirit that leads his Church into all truth, especially by means of the teaching of Christ's Apostles, with Peter their chief. But surely we shouldn't accord this image a higher status than Holy Scripture itself, and if the Vatican can cope with an inerrant Holy Scripture that contains mistakes, then I think it can learn to cope with an infallible Pope who isn't always right even when he thinks he is speaking infallibly.

Just as Holy Scripture is inerrant when its images are interpreted and orientated by the Holy Spirit to enlighten the revelation of Jesus Christ in its pages, so the Pope's ex cathedra utterances are infallible not when the Pope self-consciously proclaims them to be so, but when they are understood through the lens of the historic teaching of the Church. That unanimous teaching contextualises the truth of the Pope's utterances as they stand, not vice versa. And if some things in the "infallible" declarations cannot be obviously reconciled with the teaching of Fathers and the consent of the Councils, then I suggest that it would be safer to leave them quietly to one side and add them to some of the puzzling statements in Scripture which a lot of people struggle to understand.

So what about the declarations of Mary's Assumption and the Immaculate Conception and so on? I believe, for example, that Paul VI's affirmation of the historical teaching of the Church on contraception is a remarkable instance of Peter confirming his brethren in the faith - but one can make this judgment primarily because it was the teaching of the ancient Church, not on the basis of personal infallibility. Both the Marian dogmas, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, are arguably dogmas of the undivided Church (the East holds the Palamite doctrine of the Pre-purification of the Virgin) and have ancient roots. But to say that they have been revealed by God without qualification or nuance? And to suggest that they are necessary for salvation without stating their secondary and derivative character in Christian truth? And to proclaim them publicly as revealed dogma when they are not primary and essential to a public proclamation of the saving Gospel of the Cross? And to proclaim them unilaterally as a monarchical exercise (seemingly just because I'm Pope and can) rather than in council, as a theological necessity to safeguard against some truth under attack?

In Dulles book about the papacy (see previous post) he advances a degree of doubt as to whether or not these are even cases in which any definition could be held to be infallible, because of the lack of episcopal consent from the Orthodox churches. There may also be difficulties, because the images defined were secondary and derivative, and (particularly in the case of the Immaculate Conception), because the context and backdrop for the doctrine (original sin) remains under dispute. Perhaps, one could argue that in God's providence, what may have been an act of papal hubris may turn out to have a divine purpose: that we may in some way at this point in history have needed the affirmation that our frail human nature, revealed as capable of bearing God in the Theotokos, has been sanctified and chosen before eternity, and has been raised into heaven, with Moses and Elias. Only God knows.

I have got all this off my chest because we are supposed to speak with parrhesia these days; because I can't abide fearful silence on theological questions one which one has queries and doubts as I think it is profoundly unhealthy for spiritual maturity; and to clarify my own thoughts and to have the benefit of the thoughts of others. Of your courtesy, show me where and how I err.

I want to write one final piece about the exercise of papal authority.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Some Cogitations: Prima Pars

I was given a book by a wise man about ten years ago, Avery Cardinal Dulles' book on the history and theology of the papal claims and office. It is a slim, simple volume, and is ecumenical in a good way. I took a couple of things away from that reading that have leavened my thinking since, and have pushed themselves up into my consciousness again recently. Over the next couple of blog posts I will give a list of cogitations that have been with me since then, some directly influenced by Dulles' book, and others indirectly so. They all seem (to me) to be points largely overlooked in people's normal thinking about the papacy, and come under the following broad heading:

The problem of papal infallibility and the development of doctrine

Future developments in the understanding of papal dogmas, e.g. infallibility, may cause a dramatic retrospective change in how they are understood. As with any doctrine, if it is stated in an incomplete way, a more complete future statement can negate many of the conclusions that people will naturally draw from the present and incomplete understanding of the dogma. Take the OT understanding of the Temple, for example, and then consider how that was completely revolutionised by the words of Christ when he identified himself as the Temple. The symbols remained, but their reference seemed to be completely changed by what Christ was saying beyond all recognition for some, and yet remained instantly intelligible to others.

Dulles in his book does not shrink from suggesting that the dogma of the Assumption of Mary (and also the Immaculate Conception) may not have been infallibly proclaimed... because the conditions for the exercise of infallibility (from memory, he is referring to the lack of consent of the Orthodox bishops) may not have been met. Dulles does not dispute the content of these dogmas as such, but he does suggest that a future understanding of the need for consensus of East and West as a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition of infallibility would change the Church's evaluation on whether or not these papal pronouncement had been infallible.

This is (in general) a valid point. No-one supposes that the truth of any particular papal pronouncement depends on the consent of the world's episcopate. Truth isn't decided by a vote and is a gift of God to His Church. But the truth of any ex cathedra statement on faith and morals does require a kind of unanimity of Christian witness across the centuries and throughout the Church as a whole.

My main and fundamental objection to the doctrine of infallibility as it is commonly understood, is that it is either a tautology, or else it says too much. If a tautology: Christians have always believed this; the successors of the Apostles have always taught this; I proclaim it to be true as the successor of Peter; I'm definitely right! What work is the doctrine doing then? Merely confirming truths which are already believed? But it seems that it is understood to be doing something more, viz. defining truths which are under dispute - cf. the Dominicans vs. the Franciscans on the (Immaculate) Conception of the Blessed Virgin. And that isn't quite the same thing. Previously, during the Christological disputes for example, the people who ended up on the wrong side were plainly declared as heretical (even if it were posthumously). However the question about the Immaculate Conception involved an open declaration contra the doctrine from a Doctor of the Church (Aquinas). Here, it seems that two options lie open. (a) If the doctrine were always de fide then why is not Aquinas now denounced as holding heretical opinions? (b) And if it is not de fide in such a way as to be necessary for salvation, then why define it? A third possibility opens up, (c) the doctrine has not always been de fide because it has not been declared to be so by an infallible definition before, but now that it has been, it is de fide. But here alas, we have said far too much. Because to argue (c), i.e. that the doctrine of infallibility is now a dogma that demands the consent of the Christian because it is necessary for salvation, but it wasn't until now... well, here a host of problems raise their head.

I will try to put this into a colloquial form. X. You've got to believe in the Immaculate Conception! Y. Oh - but if Aquinas said it's not true, then, why?  X. Because it is necessary for salvation! Y. But is Aquinas not saved then? X. Yes he is! He was dead before all this happened. But now the Pope infallibly says that it is necessary for salvation. Y. So the Immaculate Conception became necessary for salvation because the Pope said so, just now, not because it was all that important? X. No! I mean yes! I mean just believe what you're told!

The difficulty is that it raises a papal definition about a theologically disputed statement that was once openly disputed without heresy into a statement that cannot be disputed without heresy, solely on the strength of the fact that it has been infallibly proclaimed by the Pope to be true, and not by virtue of the consent of Fathers and Christians across the ages, nor (crucially) by the intrinsic theological significance of the proclaimed dogma to the Christian Gospel. In other words an infallible pronouncement can raise a dogma into a position of being necessary to salvation when it wasn't before. This is either complete nonsense, or else it is puts the dogma of papal infallibility itself into a position of greater theological import than the dogmas that it supposedly defines. In effect: it is so, so important that you believe the Pope when he defines a dogma ex cathedra, that you will lose your soul even though you wouldn't have lost your soul if you had flatly denied the dogma if he had not so defined it, but not because of the necessity of the doctrine itself for your salvation.

The upshot of all this is to make the power to define dogma a greater matter than the dogmas it defines, and of the same power to save as the truths of the Holy Gospel. The Gospel - the blissful news - of our Lord Jesus Christ saves us, and the power of definition of what is necessary to that Gospel can only aid us by excluding certain understandings of that Gospel as intrinsically destructive of our salvation: it cannot change the import of teaching derived from the Gospel so that belief of derivative and secondary teaching becomes necessary for salvation when it was not necessary before. The medieval Church would have found this to be stark folly. To assert such a thing is surely to assert the priority of power over logic and truth, of force over meaning, of authority over wisdom. Heaven knows no such confusion: there the throne (dominion) is beneath the Word made flesh (the Divine Logos or Meaning).

There is a second, and not unrelated problem with the dogma of infallibility. Because it is a latecomer in the development of doctrine, the vast majority of papal pronouncements down the centuries, and the discussion of those pronouncements, have not utilised Vatican I's understanding of the definition of papal infallibility. So how is to apply the dogma retroactively? One can't, of course, with any precision. Prospectively, it is fairly easy to make it look scientific. The whole technical "Magisterium" terminology is an invention of the post-Vatican I church to give papal pronouncements an authority and infallibility ranking (it's a wonder someone hasn't thought of a 1-10 scoring system), in which one can back up the truth of any theological statement by quoting a papal document of the last 150 years, by a kind of "Papal Document Scoring System Calculus". But go back to the early middle ages and it is simply impossible to apply the infallibility dogma when the Popes themselves had no consciousness of utilising a charism to define something relating to faith and morals ex cathedra... they thought they were giving homilies or writing letters that affirmed Apostolic truth and betray no consciousness whatsoever that their pronouncements were on an "infallibility weighting scale".

People reading all this (I flatter myself) might ask - but do or don't you believe in the Immaculate Conception... and papal infallibility... which really isn't the point. I will state my beliefs about such things as clearly as I can at the end of the next post: what I am saying in this post is that there are certain ramifications of the doctrine of papal infallibility as it is usually understood that are very wrong, and that I find inherently unstable vis-à-vis the totality of Christian truth, and inimical to what I would call the rational life of faith. Mysteries, indeed, the Christian must embrace: but they issue in a depth of understanding of the world and human nature, they don't simply mystify. My aim is to air a series of thoughts and difficulties which I cannot really see a way around, and to let others decide what they think.

In a couple of later posts I want to write about the word "irreformable" with regards to infallible pronouncements, and also about the exercise of papal authority in general, and what I think it means to be in communion with the Vicar of Peter.