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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