“Not even an ecumenical council”? Unpopular Church Teachings and the Appeal to Impotence

David Cruz-Uribe quotes Cardinal Mueller in his piece on Two Perspectives on Two Vexing Questions over at Vox Nova. I’m not engaging with his piece here, which is well worth a read; but this quotation leapt out at me:

Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because its founder, Jesus Christ, has entrusted the faithful custody of his teachings and his doctrine to the apostles and their successors.

Erm, isn’t an ecumenical council precisely a gathering of the successors of the apostles, to whom Christ entrusted the faithful custody of his teachings? Isn’t it therefore implicit in the concept of an ecumenical council that it can change the doctrine of the church, if and when the council discerns that the doctrine of the church has departed from, or could be made more faithful to, the teachings and doctrine of Christ? Isn’t that, in fact, what ecumenical councils are for?

And that’s not even invoking the power to bind and loose.

I’m increasingly losing patience with the argument that “the Church has no authority to…” do whatever it is, whether it’s to ordain women priests or revise the doctrine of marriage. Yes, the church does have that authority, because Christ gave it to us: that’s part of the remarkable foolish risk that our God takes in entrusting the work of the kingdom to our fallible human hands.

The church has no authority to change truth: but doctrine and truth are not the same thing. Doctrine is an inevitably inadequate attempt to express the truth of the faith: an attempt, moreover, that is invariably and inescapably historically conditioned. Sometimes we get it wrong; and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, sometimes we realize we got it wrong and we change it.

It is a historical fact that church teaching has changed over time. Roman Catholic church doctrine was not dictated to Peter by Jesus. The ahistorical paradigm insisted on by Trent was rejected by Vatican II, when that ecumenical council accepted that historical fact and the human and ecclesiological truth that it revealed.

The church has the authority. It’s time to stop hiding behind this appeal to impotence: if prelates oppose this change or that change, they should man up (and I use the phrase advisedly) and make their case.

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7 Responses to “Not even an ecumenical council”? Unpopular Church Teachings and the Appeal to Impotence

  1. Ignatius says:

    I must disagree. The doctrine of the Church cannot change, because it is from God. Not all straight from Jesus lips, but all from God, under His careful guidance. The Church only has authority to explore and clarify and restate its doctrines, because they are not its own. I don’t know about the paradigm of Trent, but if it was authoritatively stated then it couldn’t have been rejected. The Church can only restate and after further exploration clarify, its earlier position.
    You say doctrine and truth are not the same thing, but if the Church’s doctrine isn’t always truth, it has no authority anyway. To say the Church has authority to alter doctrines is to remove all authority from the Church’s teachings.
    The only question is, what are the Church’s doctrines, and what are just teachings common in the Church today?
    God bless you

    • Thanks for your comment. I think that in some ways, we might be closer than it seems, depending on how “explore and clarify and restate” is understood, and on how “authoritatively stated” is understood. As I’m sure you know, church statements have various levels of authority, with some statements being more authoritative than others, and with the constitutions of an ecumenical council being the most authoritative.

      There’s also a difference between dogma and doctrine; typically dogma is understood as a foundational element of the faith, whereas doctrine is an elaboration of, or derivation from, revelation. Thus, all church teachings are not created equal; and here we do agree, as you distinguish between doctrine and “common church teachings.”

      Where we disagree, though, is here:

      You say doctrine and truth are not the same thing, but if the Church’s doctrine isn’t always truth, it has no authority anyway.

      and I think the source of our disagreement may be that we have rather different underlying understandings of both truth and authority. I would never say that any doctrine is truth; I would say it is true, and it can be more or less true, depending on how adequately it captures and conveys truth.

      Likewise, I would never dismiss church teaching, or any other teaching, as having “no authority” if it were not “always true.” Human attempts to understand and articulate any truth are always limited, because human capacity is limited: even when under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as I believe the church is, because human discernment and fidelity to the Holy Spirit is limited by human frailty. I perceive authority to be enhanced when it admits error and acknowledges change in its teaching; and diminished when it insists, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that no such error exists or ever existed, or that no such change has ever occurred.

      God bless you, too.

      • Ignatius says:

        And thank you for the very helpful reply. I agree, although I think it worth noting that (as far as I’m aware) the authority of an ecumenical council’s statements comes from the apostolic authority of the Bishops, and the infallibility of the Church. The statements are only the most authoritative because they are the clearest demonstration of universal, apostolic agreement showing infallibility.

        I should have said ‘no binding authority’, if it’s not always true. I don’t like talk of being “more or less true”, but apart from being pedantic, I agree. Statements can capture and convey more or less truth.

        If it is not always true, it cannot have truly binding authority, since we are always bound to truth. I agree that we’ll make mistakes, even with the Holy Spirit, however, there is still what is handed down to us, and though individuals and groups will be more or less faithful to the truths we are given, by the Holy Spirit, the Church as a whole will properly preserve the truths it is given. The Church’s full authority can have no error, but where the Church has errors, I agree.

        God bless you again.

        • I agree that the statements of a council are the most authoritative because they are the clearest demonstration of church-wide apostolic agreement. (I would not say “universal agreement” because that sounds to me like “unanimous agreement,” and we can see from studying the councils that there was rarely unanimous agreement.) That’s essentially the point I was making at the start of my post: that’s what a council is, the clearest expression of apostolic authority.

          I would cautiously agree with the emphasis on the bishops’ authority in your comment, though I would nuance it in two ways: I think the authority comes from the college of bishops united with and under its head, the bishop of Rome, per Lumen Gentium. And I think that the authority of each bishop contributing to that college arises from, and is conditioned by, the efficacy of his episcopate, which is intrinsically bound up in the state of the relationship between the bishop and his church — Francis’ description of the several ways in which a bishop leads his flock is relevant here — because that efficacy is an indication of faithfulness to and fruitfulness of the episcopal charism.

          Thus for example I think the church should be concerned about administrator-bishops who are so remote from their people that they are no longer acting as pastors.

          In terms of binding authority, I agree we are always bound to truth, but I think your statement is too narrow. Church disciplines, for example, have binding authority on church members: not because they are true, but because the church has discerned that this particular discipline in this particular context has value in building up the Christian life. To take what I consider the canonical example, it was a sin for Catholics to eat meat on Friday up until the day on which that discipline was lifted. This involved no change in truth or in the perception of truth about eating meat or Fridays; what changed was the church’s discernment of the value of this practice in this place in this time.

          About the infallibility of the church: I was always taught that this gift of infallibility is, first, limited to faith and morals; and, also, that it is ordered towards our salvation. Thus the gift of infallibility is a promise that we can always trust the church’s teaching with regard to matters that affect our salvation. Thus I see this not as a promise of absolute truth, but as a promise that if we follow the church’s teachings in good faith, then God will keep faith with us.

          The dynamics strike me as similar to those at play in one of the questions that arose around the Donatist controversy: if a heretical or wicked bishop administered a sacrament, did the recipient really receive the grace of the sacrament? The church decided yes, and then worked out a point of sacramental theology which explained how; but the principle that “the faithful can always trust the church” was prior to the details of ex opere operato. Because this understanding of infallibility is grounded in God’s faithfulness, it strikes me as more central to the revelation of Christ than any other approach.

          Also, I’m curious as to why you don’t like to talk in terms of more true or less true?

          This is a very interesting conversation! I’m glad you stopped by. 🙂

          God bless!

          • Ignatius says:

            I used “universal agreement” because I wanted to use it in terms of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, and “Catholic agreement” doesn’t quite express that. But neither does “universal”. Oh well.

            I agree on both nuances. I think it helpful to note, that the efficacy of his episcopate is also bound up with how he relates to the Church’s apostolic teachings. I had actually thought about making a similar point myself.

            I agree, that does sound concerning. Is it common?

            Actually, I believe that truth is the only binding force in action also, since John writes,
            ‘But he that doth truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest: because they are done in God.’ (3:20)
            Church disciplines have the force of truth, because it is true that we ought to obey the Church, based on the truth of the Church; that God gave the Church to look after us. It is a sin against truth to disobey the Church, just as to disobey parents, but what that means in practice can change.

            It seems to me, you’re taking “ordered towards our salvation” to further limit the gift of infallibility; though I thought it covered all matters of faith and morals, and having so much relevant truth, it is clearly given by God in order to aid our salvation.

            I see what you mean. I think this broader idea of infallibility is more grounded in God’s providence, and through this in His faithfulness, and focused on continuing to bring us the full revelation of Christ.

            I like the understanding of truth from propositional logic, where each proposition has a truth value of either 1 (true) or 0 (false). The only exceptions are not propositions, and have no truth value, e.g. ‘this sentence is a lie.’ Sometimes I will say something (for example ideas of other religions) is a half-truth, though what I mean is, elements are true, but with added falsehoods so that the whole is not true, and really is false (as you can see, “half-truth” is a way for me to be polite, and see the glass half-full). Apart from this, the only reason I can see why truth or falsehood should be considered non-absolute is because of the imperfection, and perhaps arbitrariness, of language; but I believe the Bible’s idea of words (and names) shows that a pure and perfect version of both exists (in the Logos), and our language can approach such perfection.

            I agree!

            God bless you in abundance!

  2. ninjanurse says:

    Jesus was a great teacher, and the radical statements He made about sharing, forgiveness and nonviolence are such a high bar that few can follow His example. But the Catholic Church, and Christianity in general ignore what He said about the accumulation of wealth and the consequences of violence, and even what He said about kindness to children.
    I’m not any longer a Catholic, or a Christian, so I’ll leave it to them to make sense of this.

  3. Pingback: Pride, Ecumenism, Contraception, and Divorce | Gaudete Theology

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