Monday, August 28, 2006

Infallibility of Tradition

I've said that I don't have time to keep up with the discussion I was engaged in at the Preacher's Files forum. The time and effort needed to continually respond there is just not something I can keep up for long, especially because I know there won't ever come a point in time where they will agree to disagree. I also prefer to discuss with people who are a bit less confrontational, and who are willing to practice active listening, with the goal to understand their opponent's POV rather than the goal to prove them wrong. (This, from the ex-CoC discussion board, explains active listening well.) Otherwise, it's much too easy to completely talk past one another, and that accomplishes nothing.

With that in mind, I would like to take a look at the last responses to me from Mr. Cauley. Because of time restraints, I may not answer everything at once, but doing it this way allows me to talk about these issues with no pressure, with the goal in mind to simply explain the Catholic view, not to prove it right or them wrong.

The first topics in need of explanation are Tradition and infallibility. There is obvious confusion on the part of Mr. Cauley when it comes to these things, and this is certainly not surprising, as they are complicated issues. I know "complicated" is probably a dirty word to most CoC members, but it isn't in the Catholic world view. What I do find distressing, however, is to see people, especially non-Catholics, talk as if they understand the whole of Catholic teaching, but then make such inaccurate statements about it that it's obvious they don't. I don't see why there's any need to be afraid of admitting that one doesn't know everything, or even much, about a given belief system. There's no shame in being honest.

Onto the discussion...

In a previous post, I said:

If you can find me an example of a teaching that was once seen as unchangeable, and later was changed, that might help.

See below.

I was quite excited to see this, and eagerly read on...

I have to wonder whether past Catholic doctrines which, at the time were consider big "T" Tradition, were later, after the doctrines were abandoned, decided only to be little "t" traditions. One such example would be the scientific discovery of a heliocentric solar system. The Catholic Church opposed that teaching for many years (and even persecuted some for believing it, such as Galileo) before finally accepting it. Was that not a change in big "T" Tradition?

This is largely an exaggeration that has been perpetuated by people trying to prove that science is incompatible with religion, and that religion tries to stifle science. Suffice it to say, the problem was not the heliocentric theory itself, as Galileo was not the first to propose it, rather, it was the fact that Galileo claimed he had proven it (when he had not), and tried to move it into the theological realm.

But was it a change in Tradition or not?

That's easy enough to answer - no, it was not.

When heliocentricity was finally adopted by the Catholic Church was this not an example of a teaching that was once seen as unchangeable?

Whether it was seen by individuals as unchangeable or not is quite irrelevant, what matters is whether it had been defined formally as an infallible teaching or not. The Church doesn't rule on whether or not scientific theories are true or not, they let scientists handle those questions. They will only touch on science formally when it gets into the theological and/or moral realm. So, no, there was never a formal teaching that geocentricism was correct, nor was there ever a formal teaching that heliocentricism is correct. They leave science up to the scientists.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states regarding this:
But what, more than all, raised alarm was anxiety for the credit of Holy Scripture, the letter of which was then universally believed to be the supreme authority in matters of science, as in all others. When therefore it spoke of the sun staying his course at the prayer of Joshua, or the earth as being ever immovable, it was assumed that the doctrine of Copernicus and Galileo was anti-Scriptural; and therefore heretical.

Notice what is highlighted above. It was a universal belief that the letter of Holy Scripture was supreme authority in matters of science. Would we not say that they believed such a teaching to be unchangeable at the time?

Again, a "universal belief" does not mean an infallibly held belief. It was never officially declared that the scriptures were completely and wholly scientifically accurate.

Was not geocentricism the official teaching of the church at that time?

No, it was never a teaching, geocentricism is a scientific theory, not a theological one.

Moreover, what about the literal beliefs that the Catholic church held regarding scripture? Can it be doubted that those beliefs were doctrine at the time?

Certainly the scriptures were often taken literally, the idea that they did not need to be, and in fact shouldn't be in some places had not yet developed. At that point in time, there was no reason to doubt that the scriptures were literal...until science showed otherwise. But again, this was never formally defined one way or the other.

Yet, relatively recently, the Catholic Church has disavowed a literalistic understanding of the scriptures when it comes to conflict between the Bible and science. See Catholic Church no Longer Swears by Truth of the Bible.

This is again a misunderstanding of how the Church works. It is not relatively recently that this idea came about in the Church, it has been a long held belief that when confronted with apparent contradiction between science and scriptures, we should perhaps amend our understanding of scripture rather than ignore the science. In fact, St. Augustine had this to say in the early fifth century:

From The Literal Meaning of Genesis
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world...and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn....Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

So it is not true that this is brand new, though admittedly St. Augustine was a bit ahead of his time. It is simply necessary for the Church to be clear on their stance on this issue now because of the climate in which we live, namely, one where there are fundamentalist and literalist Christians all around.

And this demonstrates how the Church works. Often, an issue is not formally defined or declared until and unless that issue is challenged. Until then, there are often several acceptable theological possibilities. It is only once something has been formally defined that Catholics are bound to that specific definition.
So, while I understand that Catholicism teaches that their "Tradition" never changes, it is really a clever ruse. What they really are saying is that if "Tradition" is ever proved to be wrong, then it must never have been part of "Tradition." Additionally, if Catholicism decides to accept a new doctrine, they can simply proclaim that it was always part of their "Tradition" even though it started as a "tradition." In that way, "Tradition" never changes, but it does so by definition, not by factuality. That is to say, Catholicism defines "Tradition" as "never changing doctrine" and thus, if a doctrine changes it either wasn't "Tradition" to begin with or it always was depending upon the change. This is the logical fallacy known as begging the question.

Again, you may find it "convenient," but you haven't shown an proof that it is begging the question.

Here's the proof.

Alright, let's get to the good stuff!

Catholic Tradition is said to be infallible. The doctrine of infallibility, however, is explained in terms of the infallibility of either 1) The Pope or 2) The teaching office of the Catholic church. But what happens when either the Pope or the teaching office of the church are historically shown to be mistaken?

I don't believe they CAN be shown to be historically mistaken, not within the perameters that have been set to distinguish which teachings have been declared infallibly, and which have not. Not everything the pope says is assumed to be infallible, even if it's an encyclical or other writing. There are relatively few instances where the charism of infallibility is necessary, it is mostly when trying to dispel incorrect teaching which is cropping up and to guard against heresy.

Whatever the mistake is, it is pronounced to be an obvious example of a mistake on some individual's part, but never on the part of the church as a whole or the Catholic Tradition, even though said Tradition is supposed to be kept infallible by the Pope and the teaching office of the church.

True, but this is not because we go about it in a backwards way as implied. We don't say, "Oh, it changed, therefore it must not be infallible." In other words, infallibility is not assumed unless proven otherwise. It's quite the opposite...while we take all Church teaching (whether it's been infallibly declared or not) as authoritative, something is only considered infallible if it has been declared ex cathedra by the pope, or if it has been decided upon by an ecumenical council. So often, the things that are pointed out in an attempt to disprove infallibility are things which the Catholic Church does not claim to be infallible in the first place.

So, by definition, neither the church nor the Pope are allowed to make errors in matters of Church Tradition.

Right, WHEN they are formally defining a matter pertaining to faith or morals.

So, in that way, Church Tradition never changes; by definition it's not allowed to. That assumes what must be proved.

And this conclusion has been incorrectly reached because this assumes an inaccurate understanding of what falls under infallibility.

This article explains further.
Other people wonder how infallibility could exist if some popes disagreed with others. This, too, shows an inaccurate understanding of infallibility, which applies only to solemn, official teachings on faith and morals, not to disciplinary decisions or even to unofficial comments on faith and morals. A pope’s private theological opinions are not infallible, only what he solemnly defines is considered to be infallible teaching.
Here's another example. Pope Gelasius I said regarding the Eucharist in a work titled "De Duabus Naturis":
The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, which we receive, is a divine thing, because by it we are made partakers of the divine nature. Yet the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease. And assuredly the image and the similitude of the body and blood of Christ are celebrated in the performance of the mysteries.

How do current Catholic apologists handle this obvious contradiction to the doctrine of Transubstantiation? In essence, they say he simply made an error. As in this such example. But why didn't the doctrine of infallibility kick in and keep the Pope from saying such?

Because he was not attempting to define something infallibly. In fact, this mention of the Eucharist is in passing within a piece of writing which has a completely different purpose than to talk of the Eucharist. The work is focused on the divinity of Christ, not the Eucharist. Why does that matter? Because we should not use a fleeting mention of something as a proof of what they do or don't believe on the matter. It's much better to look at writings that have to do specifically with the subject at hand.

Why didn't it prevent him from contradicting the doctrine of Transubstantiation?

Once again, firstly because he was not trying to define anything formally, and so infallibility does not apply here, and secondly because the Church was still developing their theological terms, and had not yet defined transubstantiation. As I mentioned previously, until something was defined, it was acceptable to have differing theological views (within reason). In this case, whether the Eucharist was transubstantiated or consubstantiated had yet to be defined, so he was perfectly within his rights to say what he did. And that's assuming he held a firm belief one way or the actuality, it's much more likely he was just using making a passing comment on the Eucharist without much thought to the language being used.

The link provided by Mr. Cauley explains all of this, but perhaps he didn't read it thoroughly.

That's my point. If "infallibility" can't protect the Pope from saying such things, then it, as a doctrine, is meaningless.

Not if one actually looks at what the doctrine professes to be instead of making incorrect assumptions about it. Infallibility never claims to protect the pope in all his writings, nor to reach backwards in time before something has been defined and protect any previous writings. As Vatican II explains, it is simply a charism the pope "enjoys in virtue of his office, when... he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter."

Hence, whenever someone shows an obvious contradiction of doctrine in the Catholic church, it is automatically dismissed as NOT being part of Catholic Tradition.

That's because it IS not part of the infallibly defined Tradition. Try to see if there is anything that everyone agrees has been formally defined and is an infallible teaching that has ever changed. There is no such thing.

If such things are assumed, then there is no way to prove that Catholic Tradition has changed. Hence, it is unchangable by definition, not by historical verifiability and that is why I say it is begging the question.

And I hope it is apparent why the conclusions reached here have been reached incorrectly because of a misunderstanding of what the Church teaches regarding infallibility and Tradition.

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