A reader asks about papal infallibility and the perpetual virginity of Mary

A reader asks about papal infallibility and the perpetual virginity of Mary November 16, 2015

He writes:

     Obviously Pope Francis’s trip to America captured much attention but I wonder if Catholics are prepared for the fruit of that visit…..being asked questions about the Catholic Faith. In the last week I found myself in situations that when non Catholics found out I was Catholic started asking questions about the whys and hows of my Faith. I’m ok with apologetics and knowing my Faith but as you may agree the Catholic Faith is a never ending learning experience.


I was hit with two questions that I did not have answers for right off so I said I would get back with them. I haven’t found anything yet on the internet and I will be seeing these people in a couple of days. First question, actually questions, regards Papal infallibility…..

When a Pope puts out an encyclical how does one determine what is a teaching from what is opinion?

All of it is teaching.  Not all of it is infallible.  But as I have pointed out in the past, only a fool demands that something be infallible before being willing to consider it.  My garage mechanic and doctor are not infallible, but that would be a stupid reason to blithely dismiss them when they say I need a new radiator or I have to have surgery for that melanoma on my shoulder.  The more sensible approach to Magisterial teaching is to receive it with docility and try to listen to what the Pope is saying and how it reflects the historic teaching of the Church rather than pick over it looking for loopholes and avenues of escape. Very little of what the pope has to say is ever infallibly defined.

 It was in reference to Laudato Si. and he said it seems you have to know beforehand. Encyclicals are not ex cathedra statements right? But they may contain previous ex cathedra statements?

Ex Cathedra statements are rare in papal history.  But our approach to Church teaching as Catholics is not supposed to be Minimum Daily Adult Requirement obedience.  Here is Lumen Gentium:

Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (Lumen Gentium, no. 25)

A possibly germane post is  here, though it is directed toward fractious Catholics, not unbelievers.

Second question…..

Why is the teaching that Mary remain a virgin after the birth of Christ necessary?

It’s not, strictly speaking, “necessary” (as though the Church invented her perpetual virginity and then demanded that everybody believe it because of some weird fetish about virginity).  It’s “necessary” in the sense that it is “necessary” historians believe and profess that Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14, 1865: because it’s true.  It happened.  Mary was, in fact, perpetually a virgin and had no other children besides Jesus.  That’s the basis of all the Church’s dogmas: reality.

The real question is “Why does the Church think that *matters*?”  There are all sorts of historical truths that the Church has not defined dogmatically.  Mary drank water.  Mary breathed oxygen.  Mary ate food.  But the Church sees in her perpetual virginity what the prophet said She should see: a sign.  (“Behold, the Lord himself will give  you a sign: the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and you shall call his name Emmanuel.”)  For more info, go here, here, here, here and here.

Hope that helps!

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