Protestant asks: When would Catholics know they’re in a false Church?

Protestant asks: When would Catholics know they’re in a false Church? August 5, 2019

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Steve “Purple” Hays asks the question at Failablogue. (He calls it Triablogue, for optimistic reasons known to him alone.) I am happy to answer Mr. Hays’ question, which he puts like this:

“Hypothetically, what would the magisterium have to do for devout Catholics (or Catholic apologists) to conclude that the Roman Catholic church never was the one true church founded by Jesus Christ? Can the magisterium ever do anything, in principle or practice, to discredit Roman Catholicism? … What’s the standard of fidelity?

Yes, there is. Mr. Hays says he is asking the question purely to be hypothetical. I believe him and am happy to give a hypothetical answer. Let us say that Pope Francis or some future pope—say, Pope Honorius V—wrote an encyclical entitled “On the Total Depravity of Mary.” That would be a clear contradiction to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception taught by Pope Pius IX. But it would also be a contradiction to the teaching that popes can not formally teach error. So either Pope Honorius V is wrong or Pope Pius IX is wrong, but one of them taught error; and that would discredit the Catholic Church and make it clear that it is not in fact the Church founded by Jesus Christ. The only way out of it would be the unsatisfactory way of saying something like this: The Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ, but he never intended that it could not teach error. So all these errors are just happenstance, and I can still rest assured that whatever the Church teaches, I can take it or leave it, Jesus wants me to be here. That would be unsatisfactory, because at that point one should naturally ask: Well, what if some other church has a truer doctrine? Doesn’t Christ want me to follow the truth? I should be there instead of here.

Or say that a future Pope John Paul III were to teach that Christ is two persons in one divine nature. That would be a Christological heresy—the opposite of the true dogma: Jesus is two natures (human and divine) in one divine person. If a pope taught something like that, Catholics would be faced with the same problem raised by the first example.

It is my position that no such state of affairs could ever come about. It is impossible for the Church to teach error because the Holy Spirit protects it from doing so.



Mr. Hays knew I was going to say that. He writes:

In my observation, Catholics take the position that the pope can’t change dogma. The pope can’t change the deposit of faith. The pope can’t elevate a heresy to the status of dogma. The pope can’t make a moral teaching that contradicts natural law de fide doctrine. However, the hierarchy can say or do anything short of that without discrediting Roman Catholicism.

And that, in fact, is the correct answer. Christ guarantees Catholics this one thing: The Church will not teach error. If, then, the Church were to teach a heresy—or if it were to teach something in plain contradiction of itself—I would know that somewhere along the way I made a mistake about what Christ intended, and I should search about for a church that is truer to what Christ wanted from a church.

But Mr. Hays thinks a Catholic could worm his way out of even that. “[A] tenacious Catholic apologist,” he writes, “might find a loophole by saying that if a pope were to do that, it wouldn’t disprove Catholicism; rather, it would disprove the claim that he was speaking ex cathedra.” Mr. Hays finds this hypothetical position unsatisfactory for two reasons:

  • “If a pope cannot change dogma even when he intends to speak ex cathedra, even when he uses ex cathedra formulas, then it’s impossible to verify when or if a pope is speaking ex cathedra. If papal intent and ex cathedra formulas are insufficient criteria, then there’s no way to verify an ex cathedra pronouncement.
  • “It renders Catholicism unfalsifiable, which means that even if Catholicism is actually wrong, Catholics are never be in a position to know it’s wrong. In that event, they have an unshakable commitment to a false religion.”

By ex cathedra, I think Mr. Hays means “infallible”; and, contrary to his insistence here, we certainly do know when a statement is infallible. I’ll give you two of them:

  • The dogma of the Assumption is infallible. Pay attention to the language in Munificentissimus Deus: “By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This is an infallible teaching.
  • The exclusion of women from the priesthood is infallible. Pay attention to the language in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: “[I]n order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” This is an infallible teaching.

And here I’m going to say something Mr. Hays may not have heard from a Catholic apologist before. But pay attention, because I’m going to back it up by reference to four Magisterial texts.

If a future pope were to issue an encyclical—or even just preach a homily—with the title “On the Total Depravity of Mary,” any Catholic who said, “Well, this is not infallible, it doesn’t have the magic words, so the pope may be a personal heretic but I can disregard it because he’s not teaching it infallibly: that Catholic would be dead wrong.

Here’s why: When a pope says something as an exercise of the Magisterium—encyclicals and homilies and Wednesday audiences count—it does not matter whether it meets the technical criteria of infallibility or not. It is authoritative and Catholics must give it religious assent.

How do I know that? I know it for four reasons:

  • Lumen Gentium says so. (This is in par. 25.) “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.”
  • The Catechism says so. That’s in CCC 892: “Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.”
  • The Profession of Faith says so (text here): “I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.”
  • And Canon 752 says so (text here): “Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

Any Catholic who says, “That’s not ex cathedra, I can disregard that,” does not speak the truth. Be careful, however. Doctrine can develop. Ordinary teachings that are bound to historical circumstances can change as circumstances change. But Christological dogmas, or Marian dogmas, can’t just be turned on their head, and it doesn’t matter if a pope turns them on their head in a non-infallible context. Even non-infallible contexts bind Catholics, and a pope can’t bind the Church to error. If he does, it’s not the true Church.



But Mr. Hays has led us down this path because he wants to propose a broader understanding of the word “fidelity.” Fidelity, he tells us, does not just mean propositions like the two natures of Christ or the assumption of Mary. It does not just mean verbal formulas like “I hereby define, declare,” etc. “Fidelity has a personal dimension,” he says. “If every pope, cardinal, bishop, and priest was an active sodomite,” Mr. Hays says, “the Catholic church would still be [considered] a faithful church [by those who restrict the concept of fidelity to propositions].”

Now, while Mr. Hays is correct about what the word “fidelity” means, I hope you see how he has shifted the ground of argument. He began by asking what the Magisterium could do to prove that the Church was not founded by Jesus Christ. But the Magisterium can’t be “sodomites” (Mr. Hays’ word) because the Magisterium is nothing more than the teaching authority of the Church. The Magisterium can neither do righteous deeds or sinful deeds because the Magisterim doesn’t do things at all. Church leaders as persons do. And if the pope keeps a gay lover, he’s not engaging in this kind of sex as a Magisterial act.

We would rightly say the pope is a hypocrite. We would rightly say that the pope has been unfaithful to the Church and unfaithful to his office and unfaithful to Christ. We would rightly say that grave harm and scandal had been done.

But Jesus never promised that popes or bishops would not be sinners, even grievous sinners. He never promised that the number of grievous sinners in the Church hierarchy would be limited to x percent. What he promised was that the Church, in its teaching, would keep the deposit of faith. Mr. Hays asked what would have to happen for me to conclude that the Church was not founded by Jesus Christ; he did not ask what would have to happen for me to conclude that Church leaders were unfaithful to Jesus Christ. Church leaders have been unfaithful to Jesus Christ, in every Christian church, since always.

The nation of Israel abandoned fidelity to God many times, but I trust Mr. Hays would not conclude from this that the Hebrews were not God’s chosen people. And even Jesus told his disciples that they ought to follow the Pharisees’ teaching despite their own personal infidelity to it:

The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach (Matt. 23:2-3).

As the Scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, so the pope sits in Peter’s chair and bishops succeed the apostles in their teaching office. Be obedient to their teaching, but do not do what they do when they’re unfaithful to it.

Mr. Hays is correct to broaden the concept of “fidelity” beyond mere verbal propositions. But he also conflates two different questions: the teaching of the Church and the personal righteousness of its leaders. I’ll conclude that the Church is not the Church founded by Jesus Christ if it teaches error, but not if the pope is a sinner.

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