Question about Magisterial Failures

Question about Magisterial Failures May 25, 2015

A reader writes:

I was baptized but not raised in the Church and in my adult life am slowly and cautiously working my way back there. I love your blog and your books, and I was hoping you could bring your articulate, coherent, and intellectually honest style to bear on a problem I’ve run into.

I was reading a history book and came across this:

“But the transition away from Renaissance and towards the next phase of human history is, perhaps, even more apparent in the events of the year before [the fall of Constantinople]. The Italian pope Nicholas V had just issued a papal bull called Dum Diversas. In recognition of the expense and effort that the Portuguese had put into exploring the African coast, the Church gave official approval to the enslavement and sale of Africans by the Portuguese crown–a sanction confirmed again three years later in the charter Romanus Pontifex. 

“Wooing the allegiance and support of the powerful king of Portugal, the pope had transformed slavery into an institution that all Europeans could profit from without guilt. Historians do not normally speak of an Age of Enslavement, but in hindsight we can see that the decrees of the 1450s shaped the future of three continents and began a whole new story.” (Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Renaissance World, p. xxv)

The author is not a Catholic as far as I know, and the text is written for high school students, but there was no reason to consider the information not trustworthy, so it disturbed me. A little digging online has revealed Not Much; there’s no official English translation of the 1452 bull, and the Catholic responses to it online are generally of the “well, the Turks were scary, it was an existential threat, maybe ‘perpetual servitude’ didn’t actually mean slavery the way we think of it today” hand-waving variety. Here is a word-for-word translation on a blog, but I don’t know how accurate it is:

I don’t really care for excuses; there doesn’t seem to be any way to spin this that makes it less awful. I just want to know what this says about Church authority.

The best treatment I know of the Church’s engagement with slavery is “A Necessary Bondage?: When the Church Endorsed Slavery” by historian David Curp.

What exactly is a papal bull? Is it a Magisterial document?

Go here.

 If it is, then this is a clear case of the Church changing its teaching on the doctrine of human life and dignity.

There’s no question that the Church has changed its teaching on human life and dignity.  Of course it has.  That’s what development means.  The question is, does the change represent a development or a mutation?  That the mustard seed changes from a seed to a plant is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  But the mustard seed does not become an octopus or a pine tree.  In the same way, hostility to the institution of slavery (an institution that is absolute endemic everywhere on planet earth in antiquity) is in the DNA of the Church (see Christ’s remarks on the truth setting us free, Paul’s remarks on freedom in Christ, his letter to Philemon suggesting that Onesimus be set free, and Revelation’s harsh judgment against those who trade in the “bodies and souls of men”).  But at the same time, the gospel is not launched as a political movement to liberate slaves.  But under its influence, slavery goes into abeyance and, by the high middle ages, is pushed to the fringes in Europe.

That said, slavery is *always* ready to return because it is the natural, room temperature state of fallen man.  What gave it opportunity was the rise of the colonial nation state (“look! pagan Indians we can exploit!”) and the conflict with Islam (tit for tat!).  It came roaring back and had to be beaten back for the next four centuries.  And it lurks on the borders of our civilization and promises a return in wage slavery, sex slavery, and corporate slavery in the third world.

Meanwhile, the Church (particularly with the help of Dominican  Bartolme de las Casas) was slowly working through its own tradition to try to work out relatively newfangled notions like “human rights” and “the dignity of the person” and similar things incipient in the tradition but not thought through.  Along the way, she made mistakes and committed sins (like the “perpetual servitude” thing).  It’s what happens in a messy communion of sinners.  If Peter could chicken out in Galatians 2, we shouldn’t be surprised by that.

 If it’s not, then what the heck is the purpose of the doctrine, if it’s held in such low esteem that “pastoral” or “disciplinary” decisions can be made that completely flout it, with such far-reaching consequences?

The curious thing about the faith is that it claims only infallibility, not impeccability.  The Church is promised that the Holy Spirit will make sure that the Church does not, in its doctrinal formulations, pervert the Faith.  But that’s it.  She is not promised that her members will never sin, nor that her prudential judgment will never err or be influenced by cowardice, stupidity, ignorance, or corruption.  The archetype of this is Peter himself, who (Acts 15) is guided by the Holy Spirit to articulate the foundational doctrine that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works of the law.  Yet he himself chickens out on that and, as Paul points out, had to be chewed out by Paul.  But note:  it is precisely *because* the Church has the doctrine that the pope himself can be rebuked and brought to heel in conformity with the teaching of the Church.  That is exactly why we need the doctrines of the Church.

 Obviously I know that the enslavement of Africans was probably already occurring and that likely the Portuguese would have continued to do so even if the Pope had told them to stop; it’s also possible that the wording of the bull was unclear and people took advantage of it. But to me, the author’s point stands: at the very least, papal authority gave people an excuse to commit grave evil and pass it off as No Problem from a Christian perspective.

That’s more than I know, not being a historian of the period.  There are probably different ways to read the text.  Bear in mind that medievals saw Muslims, not as pagans but as Christian heretics (Dante put Mohammed in the circle of the heretics, not with the pagans).  And bear also in mind that medievals see the task of the Christian prince in terms of Romans 13.  That is, it is his job, as the *civil* authority to punish the criminal (and that includes the Muslim heretic since he assaults the civil order and has been doing so for seven centuries), including, where appropriate, with “perpetual servitude”.  We call that “life in prison” today and I don’t hear very many people wringing their hands about it.  indeed, when Francis suggested recently that life sentences should be abolished, many people got up in arms.  A lot of our anger at the brutality of the medievals masks our enthusiasm for our own culturally approved forms of brutality.

I’ve only recently come to a sort-of comfort/trust about the Magisterium, and now I feel shaken again. Help!

The main thing to remember is that if we see further than our ancestors on some matters, it’s because we stand on the shoulders of giants.  We are the beneficiaries of the painstaking work they did.  We imagine that what is now obvious to us (because they *made* it obvious to us) is something they should have instantly seen.  But this is just not so.  They struggled, as we do, to apply the gospel in world full of hostility to it just as ours does.  The claim has never been that everything the Magisterium does is perfect.  Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the gospel is that the Church, precisely because it is a communion of sinners led by an all-wise God, doesn’t know what it is talking about.

There’s a reason that Paul tells his flock to “bear with one another”.  The Church, including the bishops, is not made of anything but sinners.  Infallibility is a very minimal protection so that the essence of the faith is preserved and all the teaching and the graces Christ intended for the Church remain available down through the ages.  But it is our task to grow in  grace and wisdom over time and to build one another up in loved.  And like it or not, God has so ordered the body of Christ that we who can (in some areas at least) see further than our ancestors are typically able to do so because of the sacrifices and struggles they undertook by grace to transcend their own culture limitations.  We should not be too smug because the day will inevitably come when our children will look at us and ask exactly the “How could you?” questions we so blithely ask of our ancestors.

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  • Paul

    What the bull actually says is that when Muslim princes attack Christians, the Portuguese Crown can invade and conquer their lands and reduce the persons of their subjects to perpetual servitude. The text doesn’t mention “sale of Africans”, and it is very unlikely that the pope intended this “perpetual servitude” to be taken to mean what we would now understand as chattel slavery, for the very simple reason that what we would now understand as chattel slavery *grew out of* the Atlantic slave trade, that did not yet exist in 1452. That said, the way the Portuguese implemented this papal document did a lot to bring about what we now understand as chattel slavery.

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      Thank you for giving more detail on this. I’ve often heard that slavery as it was practiced in the New World was different, but no one has ever detailed how it was different.

      • Alma Peregrina

        Rebecca: From my limited understanding, the slavery as proposed in the papal bull was “if muslims attack you, you can turn them into perpetual servants”. As opposed to chattel slavery, which was more like “you guys were just hanging around here, minding your own businesses, and we raided you and now own you.”

        The slavery in the papal bull is more akin to “penitenciary labor” for a crime that you commited than chattel slavery (which is what we call slavery today).

        Also, my understanding is that when portuguese and spanish got out of their limits and started to use chattel slavery, the popes condemned it (even more so because those african and native american peoples were the focus of evangelization and, many times, brothers in faith).

        • SteveP

          Thank you for the concise summation.

        • Hank

          And yet Jesuits in Maryland owned slaves through the American civil war. I’d need to check, but I’m pretty sure the Catholic Church didn’t actually proscribe slavery until well into the 20th century. Yes, some Popes wrote against it, and there were some Catholic abolitionists, but as a religious body, the Church was not exactly out front on slavery. Slow and steady, and in the right direction. But slow. I’ll double check the date on the definitive proscription, and correct, if I’m wrong.

    • Enders_Shadow

      Hmm – maybe. However given that

      1) Serfdom is endemic in Europe until the 19th century
      2) The Muslims were already practising ‘chattel slavery’ and had been raiding Europe for such slaves for centuries

      it is equally possible that the Pope knew exactly what he was doing.

      • GeorgeLeS

        1. Serfdom is very different from slavery. While a serf was not free, he did not belong to the liege, as a slave would. The fact that he could not leave the manor also entailed that his lord could not sell him. And the amount of labor due from him varied.

        A further point to remember is the context of medieval law, which was largely custom based. Inevitably, over time, the serfs in a given region would acquire rights, simply by usage. It is also true that, over time (and long before 1450) it had replaced slavery almost throughout Europe. The problem is that we look at serfdom from our perspective, as a wholly bad thing, hard to distinguish from slavery. (This isn’t helped by the frequent use of “servus” for either.) But from the perspective of what it grew out of, it was an obvious advance.

        2. OTOH, slavery had not entirely died out in Europe, and Iberia was perhaps the place it held on strongest. This was inevitable, as most slaves, if not born in servitude, were captives of war. It would be a lot to ask of the Spanish and Portuguese to resist enslaving their Moslem captives, given that this was exactly the fate awaiting their own people, when they were captured. But however we might be able to understand the matter, it remains that they were more open to slavery than most Europeans.

  • Paul

    The key phrase in the historian quoted is “in hindsight we can see”. In the 1450s there was no way that the popes could know that 40 years down the line a new continent would be discovered and, in the century after that, “slavery” would be transformed from something like “life with hard labour” to what it became in the Atlantic slave trade: one human being “owning” another like property, with the “owned” having no legal or human rights. When they did see this starting to happen, the result was “Sublimus Dei” in 1537 (which Catholic colonists greeted with about the same docility that “Humanae vitae” would meet).

  • Paul

    Lest this be dismissed as “hand-waving”, let me be clear: it is not a question of “maybe ‘perpetual servitude’ didn’t actually mean slavery the way we think of it today”. The pope’s term *cannot have meant* what we think of as slavery today, because what we think of as slavery today *did not then exist*; and as what we think of as slavery today came into existence, popes *condemned* it.

    • Enders_Shadow

      Nice idea – evidence please? The Roman Empire saw slaves working on the church owned estates as Africans worked on plantations in the Americas and didn’t see the popes do anything about this. Serfdom – a slightly lesser form of slavery where you are free to work your own land but not free to leave the land – remained endemic in Europe until the 19th century. The failure of the church (West and East) to reflect the OT constraints on slavery (e.g. maximum term 6 years) once it was the dominant source of moral authority in ‘Christendom’ is one of its greater failures.

      • Alma Peregrina

        “Africans worked on plantations in the Américas and didn’t see the popes do anything about this

        This is not true. I don’t deny that there’s something to this debate about whether the Church’s teachings on slavery have changed or not. And I don’t deny that in earlier years the Church’s teaching could be construed as supporting (certain kinds of) slavery.

        But I do know that there were many later papal bulls disencouraging slavery, regulating abuses, etc… Namely Sublimus Dei onward.

        So your comment is completely off-mark. Maybe you would like to re-write without the hyperbole?

        • Enders_Shadow


          Read the whole sentence; it reflects the fact that Pope Gregory the Great was a major landowner with many slaves working on his plantations. The comment was that THOSE popes didn’t respond to the issue when they had every ability to do so. The failure of the medieval church to respond appropriately to slavery is, of course, more nuanced outside the lands which were the papal states.

          • Alma Peregrina

            Indeed I stand corrected: when you said “The Roman Empire saw slaves working in church owned estates AS Africans worked on plantations in the Américas…”

            … I read the “as” as “and”, therefore my intervention.

            Since I do not know enough about those situations you mentioned, I’ll let someone else take it from here.

            God bless.

          • Facile1

            Here is one context:

            People now (and back then) really have (and had) only their lifetimes to barter with. The money supply and the army was owned by nation states; and the Church at one time owned the means of production (ie land) for food, clothing and shelter.

            So, it made sense for the truly destitute to trade in one’s lifetime (and even one’s children’s lifetimes) as slaves to secure perennial or preferential access to the properties of the Church or the STATE.

            The Church was always the better choice (of course) because she was not armed. However, the dissolution of the monasteries (from the time of St. Paul all the way until the Lateran Treaty of 1929) removed that choice for the truly destitute of today.

            There will always be people who will have nothing to trade except their lifetimes. And paying them in fiat currency that is subject to the inflationary policies of the STATE can turn these people into slaves overnight.

            Slavery will always be an issue for the Catholic Church for the poor will always be with us. And it is really difficult to tell who is really the ‘bad guy’ here — the slave or the slave owner.

            I guess (in the spirit of transparency), I should fully disclose that there were slave owners in my own family’s history. As for myself, I am truly grateful for the GOD-given financial independence that has allowed me so far to walk away from jobs (including a marriage) I did not care for in spite of being a woman and a Filipino.

  • It would also be helpful to remember that the author, Susan Wise Bauer, is a popular writer of “homeschool” textbooks in the “classical education” tradition that is highly favored among homeschool advocates. She is a professor of writing and American Literature at the College of William and Mary. Her education is not as an historian, and her degrees come from very conservative Protestant institutions (Liberty University and Westminster Theological Seminary). At the risk of the genetic fallacy, Bauer’s theological perspective is, *a priori* historically hostile to the Catholic Church, and she does not understand the nature of divine authority and how it operates in the Church’s Magisterium. This is not to dismiss anything she writes as without value, but to simply consider the source of her perspective as coloring how she presents and portrays the Papal Bull in question. Paul, who posted below, pretty well shows how the Bull should be historically read…

  • Steve Lauhoff

    Mark, the issue of infallibility in the magisterium and specifically regarding the edicts of the Pope has always fascinated me. The Wikipedia entry on papal infallibility ( gives a very detailed and well-referenced history and description. In that article, it states that there is not a definitive catalog of infallible proclamations of the popes over the years but several have been cataloged. It seems to me that the Church should be putting a great deal of effort toward assimilating a definitive catalog of infallible proclamations so that all people (Catholic and non-Catholic) can better understand immutable doctrine versus papal opinion. I have gotten into many, many discussions with Protestants and atheists who equate a papal encyclical with infallible teaching. And I am certain that the regular ‘Catholic in the pew’ couldn’t definitively describe the difference because it is something that is never spoken of in church (why is it that priests seem to shy away from homilies about Catholic doctrine?). It sure would be helpful, in my mind, to have a document to which I could point someone who is questioning Church authority. A simple reference of all papal documents issued ex cathedra that carry the seal of infallibility. It can’t be that many, I wouldn’t think. Why do you think this hasn’t been done yet?

  • LFM

    Many years ago when beginning to study history seriously, I was disappointed to learn that Bartolome de las Casas had himself not always been opposed to slavery. He initially supported the enslavement of Africans instead of native Americans on the spurious (to us) grounds that because Africans had been introduced to the Gospels by Christian missionaries but had then embraced Islam or paganism, they had rejected Jesus and were therefore “infamous by blood”. Native Americans, on the other hand, had never had such an opportunity and were thus innocent and did not deserve enslavement as a punishment. Sigh. He did change his mind and became a great campaigner against any form of slavery, but it’s hard to accept that he did not grasp its evil sooner, having seen it in action and indeed having given up his own Amerindian slaves as a result.

    Please note that I’m not offering this as a correction or criticism, but as an elaboration. It illustrates your point that us humans take a long time to learn anything and are always casting about for excuses not to do so.

    • Alma Peregrina

      Seeing how many good catholics today believe in so many abominations that ideologies (the cultural context we live today) spoonfeed them, I’m really not surprised at all. Deo gratias for Bartolome de las Casas conversion.

  • Mark

    Can someone explain to me what, exactly, is the (“now that we know better”) morally absolutely forbidden aspect of slavery? Can someone provide a working definition here. “Owning another human being” just pushes the question back to what “owning” means. Having the right to all the fruits of someone’s labor? Is it the inability to change jobs or classes?

    What exactly?

    I’ve asked and asked people this, and wind up having to agree with Cardinal Dulles that, at the very least, even today we can’t say that slavery is against the primary precepts of the natural law (and therefore “intrinsically” evil).

    • Marthe Lépine

      And I would add to your question here: It is not rare to see a man who thinks that he “owns” his wife or the “object of his affections”, whoever she (or he) happens to be, to the extent that we see some extreme cases of a jilted “lover” killing another person for the “sin” of leaving the relationship (or what passes for a relationship). There are also cases of parents who think they own their children, and are fighting each other before the courts to have their “property rights” recognized. It seems to me that the question of owning another human being has very many facets. But I think that what we usually think about when slavery is mentioned is the selling and buying of human beings at a market as if they were cattle. There are also the unfortunate cases seen nowadays of, for example, criminal people taking total control of women to be used in the sex trade against their will, or (as I have seen in mystery novels, but I think it does happen) taking total control of foreign workers after bringing them to some country with false promises, and I suppose there are more such examples. Such actions would seem to me to be clearly intrinsically evil.

    • chezami

      Oh, look. A Trad dissenting from the Magisterium in favor or making the world a more hideous and inhuman place. How completely expected.

      Human beings are not property. They are persons, not things.

      • Deo Credo

        Hmmm. This seemed like more of an intellectual talking point than a rabid request to reintroduce slavery. Think of it more like discussing what one would do with the winning lottery ticket. I often have fun debating intricate subjects with my friends. But who knows Mark, maybe you are right and he’s an evil weasel. let’s tear him apart with our words and show him how Christian we are.

        • Deo Credo

          Oh and while I was reading this article I was thinking “gee Mark really handled that well.” No anger or sarcasm, just a nice response to a reader question. Good article…bad comment. Have a great day

      • LFM

        I think you misunderstood what the writer said. There are those who would argue that the system under which we all live, in which we *must* work, or not be able to eat or keep a roof over our heads, is merely a milder form of slavery. In fact, I understand that the ancients saw people who worked for a wage and were not “independently” wealthy as slaves, although I won’t swear by that. My left-wing professors used to enjoy saying that slavery was actually preferable to being a free worker because slave-owners were obliged to feed and house their slaves whether they worked or not, and employers were not. So there’s that, too.

        In short, the question of what precisely is meant by ownership of persons is worth asking, and more difficult to answer than you make it out to be.

        • Alma Peregrina

          I’ve often wondered about that too re: slaves had to be fed and housed, while wage-workers not neccessarily so.

          Not that I’m defending slavery, but I wonder if a Law-abiding jew, in the pre-christian era, that treated his slaves humanely would be more reprehensible than the profit-is-all-that-matters-humans-are-just-numbers-and-they-exist-solely-to-work entrepeneur from modern times.

          Maybe the traditional pre-Leo XIII understanding of the Church can be salvaged still? I don’t know, maybe I’m spouting non-sense. But still wonder, though.

      • LH

        Cut the snark.
        I like the question of Mark.

    • JM1001

      Can someone explain to me what, exactly, is the (“now that we know better”) morally absolutely forbidden aspect of slavery?

      I was tempted to respond with something like, “using another person as a means to your own ends,” but that probably wouldn’t be specific enough.

      According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the “now we know better” aspect of slavery concerns its consequences, not its moral object. Slavery (under certain conditions), while not viewed as contrary to the natural law, nonetheless came to be seen as

      hardly compatible with the dignity of personality, and is to be condemned as immoral on account of the evil consequences it almost inevitably leads to. It is but little in keeping with human dignity that one man should so far be deprived of his liberty as to be perpetually subject to the will of a master in everything that concerns his external life; that he should be compelled to spend his entire labour for the benefit of another and receive in return only a bare subsistence. This condition of degradation is aggravated by the fact that the slave is, generally, deprived of all means of intellectual development for himself or for his children. This life almost inevitably leads to the destruction of a proper sense of self-respect, blunts the intellectual faculties, weakens the sense of responsibility, and results in a degraded moral standard. On the other hand, the exercise of the slave-master’s power, too seldom sufficiently restrained by a sense of justice or Christian feeling, tends to develop arrogance, pride, and a tyrannical disposition, which in the long run comes to treat the slave as a being with no rights at all.

      Thus, Cardinal Dulles concludes that more “attenuated forms of servitude” can and should still be eliminated, if only “by degrees.”

      Come to think of it, this kind of moral reasoning — that something may be morally permissible in principle, but should be reduced in practice — is not unlike the Church’s similar statements on war and capital punishment. Consider Benedict’s question regarding whether a just war can even still exist, given all of the bad consequences that inevitably accompany war in the modern age.

  • Brian Van Hove SJ

    See “The Popes and Slavery” by Joel S. Panzer [New York: Alba House, 1996].

    • Alma Peregrina

      Thank you for sharing. I’ll give it a try, since this is an issue with which I too struggle. But I would like to ask… is it scholarly or biased?

      • Brian Van Hove SJ

        You will know when you have finished the book. It is only 120 pages.

        • Alma Peregrina

          OK. I’m always cautious, since this is something of which my knowledge if limited. But even if it was not scholarly or unbiased, we never loose anything by reading diferent points of view. I thank you.

          BTW, wouldn’t you also have some bibliography about the alleged genocides comited in the Old Testament?

  • Captain_America

    You forgot to mention the good Master O’Hara of Tara was both a devout Catholic and a slave-owner.
    And that the SBC was founded because the Yankee Baptists had just condemned slavery. (Methodists and Presbyterians had schisms also, IIRC.)
    But, hey, let’s condemn the Catholic Church because… Mary! At least, that’s the way it feels.
    One of these days, “delicate consciences” will have the honesty to admit they don’t like Catholicism, not for any doctrine, other than that it stands as a reproach to their sinfulness. And they HATE to be reminded of that.

    • Dave G.

      As a general rule, most of those denominations are perfectly aware of their history regarding slavery. If I remember correctly, the SBC made quite a stink about asking forgiveness for its role in American slavery. And I’m pretty sure that anyone today is more than aware of the history of slavery and the role our country and our religion played in that period.

  • Dave G.

    “when Francis suggested recently that life sentences should be abolished, many people got up in arms.”

    I think, at least in cases I read, because for all the years I’ve visited the Catholic blogosphere, life sentences were the go to solution for protecting the innocent and yet abolishing the death penalty.

    • sez

      The death penalty has been abolished (or very severely restricted) for most of the West. Except the USA.

      Life sentences, too, are less common than you might think. It has been abolished in most Spanish-speaking countries.

      When we take these facts into consideration, we can see that changing from death penalty to life imprisonment is not as big of a change as it might appear to Americans.

      • Dave G.

        That’s an interesting take. I’d be interested in seeing if there are any trends in those countries. Things like crime rates and all. Also where they stand on other life issues like sexual issues, abortion, assisted suicide and the like. Though moving to life imprisonment doesn’t seem to be an option if that option is being taken off the table. That’s why I imagined many were ‘shocked’, since that was often the solution given by those arguing to eliminate capital punishment.

  • GeorgeLeS

    There are a few problems with this:

    1. It is absurd to call the growth of slavery a ” transition away from Renaissance and towards the next phase of human history”. The dates alone should be a clue here, but the Renaissance seems to be established as an atemporal event. But it was really a classic example of what the Renaissance really was about: the exaltation of classical Rome and Greece. The revival of slavery was part and parcel of that.

    2. A key difference, overlooked here, between American Indians and Africans is that the former were subjects of Spain and Portugal, and thus not properly to be enslaved, in the view of the time. Africans were not, they were foreigners, and usually Moslem, or assumed to be so. Remember, in the mind of the 15th C, that entailed essentially a perpetual state of war, broken by occasional peace. As such captives were considered appropriately enslaved. (Non-Christian captives of war was one of the few classes for whom slavery was always countenanced.)

    3. The were not considered “heretics”, either.

  • LH

    “Along the way, she [The Church] made mistakes and committed sins (like the “perpetual servitude” thing).”

    I wish that people would stop saying that The Church has sinned. It’s the hierarchy that errs. The Church never errs. Whenever anyone is following the whole and complete teachings of The Church, they can never do wrong. I cannot imagine The Church sinning or erring in either Purgatory or Heaven. The Church is one whole fabric–one entire piece of cloth.

    I wish people would just say: “The Church hierarchy made mistakes and comitted sins.”

    – – –

    “The main thing to remember is that if we see further than our ancestors on some matters, it’s because we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are the beneficiaries of the painstaking work they did.”

    Awesomely stated. I wish everyone realized that. Unfortunately, we seem to live in an age when everyone thinks they’re the greatest mind to ever walk the Earth, and that everyone before them was stupid.

  • Rob B.

    Thank you Mr. Shea for another enlightening article. One minor nitpick: Dante places Muhammad in the eighth level of Hell reserved for sowers of discord (which has a truly gruesome contrapasso). The heretics are, strictly speaking, on Level 6.

  • Marthe Lépine

    I seem to have a problem here. Concerning the Magisterium, there appears to be two extremes: To cling to every word being expressed by church hierarchy and consider those as “Gospel truth” from which absolutely no deviation is allowed, or to completely ignore anything that is outside the strict limits of what is covered by infallibility as being only some expression of opinion from one or several old men who happen to have climbed the steps of the hierarchy and do not really know what they are talking about (since of course in America we know better) and feel free to apply OUR OWN prudential judgement, no matter what church authorities are saying. Of course I am aware of a multitude of intermediate steps… However, how is an ordinary Catholic such as myself going to know how to make a distinction between the times when docility to the Magisterium is reasonable and even required, and the times when it is ok to have different opinions and talk about them?

  • Norman

    I found these interesting when put in to context of what Mark Shea wrote above:

    Sicut Dudum – 1435

    Sublimus Dei – 1537

    In Supremo Apostolatus – 1839

    Catholicae Ecclesiae – 1890

    Also the fact that two popes were former slaves; Pope Pius and Pope Callixtus.

  • Jared B.

    Thank you Mark as always for being the big red letters spelling “DON’T PANIC” on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Church 🙂

    I try to be a ‘calm traditionalist’, meaning that I can listen to a long rant about Pope Francis or Cardinal Marx, then reply “Uh-huh. Well, even if I wave the point and grant that things are exactly as bad as you say they are (the ‘traditionalist’ part of me is willing to grant that many concerns are valid), it’s still no excuse for hair-on-fire running & screaming. The Church has been through worse sewers than the comparable puddle we’re walking through right now (the ‘calm’ part). Neither the great apostasy nor the abomination of desolation nor the three days of darkness are upon us just yet.”

    So for example if—if—the upcoming Synod concludes in a worst-case-scenario from the traditional-values point of view, one certainly wouldn’t have to be happy about it, but could still say “Hello, Ad Exstirpanda? Dum Diversas? The governing authority of the Church has condoned torture and slavery in the past, and if that didn’t constitute the gates of hell prevailing, then this hardly does either.”