Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

How a Protestant can Accept Papal Infallibility

There is a rather interesting discussion on this blog as to whether the papal seat is empty by virtue of the “heresies” of the current Pope. Let me quote certain segments of this discussion:

JAMES N. writes:

…It seems to me that perhaps the sedevacantist position, substituting adherence to magisterial utterances rather than scripture, may be committing the same error. It IS internally consistent to say, “a heretic cannot be the pope, Jorge Bergoglio is a heretic, ergo, he is not the pope”, but this position holds up only because the sedevacantist, exercising private judgment (just like you-know-who) places Bellarmine, or a council, or a statement of Innocent III in a position superior to and therefore voiding the actions of the College of Bishops and the Cardinal electors who, according to eternal belief are guided by the Holy Spirit, in accordance with Christ’s promises on the matter.

It is equally internally consistent to say, “Bergoglio was validly elected by validly chosen electors, he is therefore the pope and by definition cannot teach error, SO, my understanding of apparent conflict with what the Church teaches or believes may be wrong.”

Notice that the internal consistency of either of these propositions does not tell us which one is true. But they cannot both be true. The selection of WHOSE statements guide our understanding in this matter is the exercise of private judgement, is it not?…

Laura writes:

Thank you for writing.

For readers who are new to this issue, sedevacantism is the view that the papal see is empty (sede is Latin for “seat”) because the man elected pope is a heretic or apostate. Most sedevacantists hold that by virtue of their explicit apostasies all of the popes since Pope John XXIII have been false popes. I accept this position too.

The idea that persons within the Church, even popes and bishops, can defect does not contradict the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope. I realize that’s a difficult point, but it does make sense. Papal infallibility, for one, must reasonably apply to a pope who is an actual member of the Church.

It is simply not true, as Anthony Layne, the blogger you quote, mentions, that no pope has ever taught that it is possible for a pope to be a heretic and thus by virtue of that fact lose his authority.

From an authoritative commentary on the 1983 Code of Canon Law, again quoted by Cekada:

“Classical canonists discussed the question of whether a pope, in his private or personal opinion, could go into heresy, apostasy, or schism. If he were to do so in a notoriously and widely publicized manner, he would break communion, and according to an accepted opinion, lose his office ipso facto.” [J Corridan et al., eds., The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America (New York: Paulist 1985), c. 333.]

As Cekada wrote:

“The principle that a heretical pope automatically loses his office, therefore, is widely admitted by a great variety of Catholic canonists and theologians.”

if the Pope told me that God didn’t exist, would I be exercising private judgment in arriving at the conclusion that he is a heretic and non-believer? Or would I be making a judgment based on what I know of Catholic doctrine, which has been formulated and taught for more than 2,000 years?

I suspect you would say no, I would not be relying purely on private judgment.

Now here’s an interesting question, is the person of the Pope infallible when he assumes the Papal office, that is, the person cannot and will not as a matter of fact perform any acts of official teaching containing erroneous faith and morals, or is it merely his office which is infallible, that is, there cannot possibly be an official papal teaching of erroneous faith and morals? The distinction is a bit hard to grasp but let me explain.

The argument seems to be that if the “Pope” makes an official erroneous declaration on faith and morals, the person may have erred, but the erring person simply automatically lose his papal office and thereby ceases to be pope and has not legitimately acted as a Pope.

Thus there is an ambiguity as to how does papal infallibility work, is the person of the Pope miraculously and supernaturally preserved, actually and empirically, from acting officially against faith and morals, such that as a matter of positive fact, there will never be a papal person who exercises his official teaching ministry erroneously, or is it merely a definition of the office, that the papal office can never err in matters of faith and morals and there can never be an official act of the Pope which errs in faith and morals and that the moment there is, that act ceases to be a legitimate official act of the Pope?

I can honestly accept the latter interpretation. Heck, I can even accept it for the episcopal ministry, that the episcopal ministry is infallible when it comes to official and public teaching of faith and morals and that when they teach sound doctrine and morals from the Scriptures, they act “infallibly” and communicate the Word of God. But the moment a pope or bishop officially teach erroneous faith and morals, then the person has erred and that “official act” automatically ceases to be a legitimate act of the episcopal or papal office. Thus in some ironic sense, my position has a higher respect for the Pope than the Sedevacantist position for I do not think the Pope loses his office the moment he teaches heresy but only that that act ceases to be an act of the Papal Office.

Therefore as a Protestant, I can accept Papal and episcopal collegial infallibility in this interesting and specific sense. To summarise:

I accept that the Papal Office, as the Bishop of Rome, is infallible in its teaching of Faith and Morals, because the episcopate, as a Ministry of the Preaching of the Word, has been ordained by Christ as a means of grace and salvation via the communication of the Gospel and the Word of God, as such it cannot and will not err. But I do not accept that every institutional, canonical or empirical ecclesiastical acts of the Pope to be a legitimate exercise of the Papal Office, and that only those acts of the Pope consistent with the Scriptures is an act of the Papal Office. When the Pope teaches rightly from the Scriptures he cannot fail to communicate the Word of God. Every other act however inconsistent or contrary to the Scriptures is not a legitimate act of the Papal Office. Not every papal bull or decree is infallible, as even the Romanist grants. Therefore as to the discernment between legitimate acts of the Papal Office and illegitimate acts, the final court of appeal must be to the Sacred Scriptures, for the Papal Office is nothing more than the Ministry of the Word and therefore cannot act contrary to it.

As Pope Damascus I declares in the Council of Rome 382 concerning the Scriptures and the Papal Office:

After the announcement of all of these prophetic and evangelic or as well as apostolic writings which we have listed above as Scriptures, on which, by the grace of God, the Catholic Church is founded, we have considered that it ought to be announced that although all the Catholic Churches spread abroad through the world comprise but one bridal chamber of Christ, nevertheless, the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other Churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Therefore the Catholic Church is founded upon the Scriptures and the Episcopate of Rome founded upon the “evangelical voice” of the Saviour as written in the Gospel and therefore cannot act contrary to it.

And of course being the good Philippist, I am merely following the example of Philip Melanchthon who wrote in the Augsburg Confession in the article on Ecclesiastical Authority,

…according to the Gospel or, as they say, by divine right, there belongs to the bishops as bishops, that is, to those to whom has been committed the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, no jurisdiction except to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked men, whose wickedness is known, and this without human force, simply by the Word. Herein the congregations of necessity and by divine right must obey them, according to Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth Me. But when they teach or ordain anything against the Gospel, then the congregations have a commandment of God prohibiting obedience…

And concerning the Pope in the Smalcald Articles:

…regarding the Pope I hold that, if he would allow the Gospel, his superiority over the bishops which he has otherwise, is conceded to him by human right also by us, for the sake of peace and general unity of those Christians who are also under him, and may be under him hereafter.

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This entry was posted on January 9, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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