Is it really possible that a synod in October is going to repudiate the solemn teaching of the Church concerning the sanctity and indissolubility of Marriage? I don’t know. Perhaps there is a silent majority in the episcopate which will throw off the terror of dissenting from Papal policy that afflicted them at Vatican II. Perhaps there will be a great reaffirmation of the ancient and unchanging doctrine of the Saviour. Perhaps there will be a shameful fudge (e.g. delegating the power to make declarations of nullity to parish priests) that holds up the doctrine to contempt without technically surrendering it. But what if the synod simply violates the teaching (either indirectly, by saying that a pastoral solution should be found by each bishops’ conference, or directly by saying that civil cohabitees may receive communion)?
If the last and most terrible possibility is realised what should a faithful Catholic do? This prospect raises the question of what a faithful Catholic is to do when a non-ireformable teaching that demands obsequium religiosum issued by the organs of the supreme magisterium (but by definition not in the exercise of the supreme power of teaching) errs. This possibility is by definition possible. It is implied by the distinctions involved in the concept of obsequium religiosum itself. Lumen Gentium 25 states:
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.
This seems to imply that the difference between the sermon of a bishop in communion with the Roman Pontiff and a papal or synodal teaching act (that does not define) requiring obsequium religiosum is one of degree not kind. In themseves these criteria are quite straight forward and helpful. Definitive doctrinal judgements of Popes and Ecumenical Councils are infalible and their contents irreformable. In contrast, the general teaching of Popes and Bishops is the normal way in which the faithful and converts will receive the faith it should be presumed to be correct with a presumption that varies in strength in accordance with the character of the documents, the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, and their manner of speaking. It is not infallible or irreformable it is reformable and fallible. The problem arises that the 1870 definition of papal infallibility lays down four criteria for an infallible act of the papal magisterium: a) that the Pope as pastor and teacher of all Christians b) teach the universal church c) in a matter of faith and morals d) defining. It is not possible by ecclesiastical positive law to lay down the manner in which d) is effected because the right is of divine law and the Pope can implicitly dispense himself from any limitations that he or his predecessors may seek to put upon its exercise. Consequently, criteria a)-c) can be fulfilled and a certain obscurity persist about whether d) has been fulfilled and thus an obscurity persist as to whether the text requires obsequium religiosum or the ascent of faith. Formerly this problem either did not occur or was much less acute because a Pope did not fulfil b) unless he was going to fulfil d). After all there is no point in a Pope fallibly teaching the universal church, this is what bishops are for. Since 1832, however, the Popes have taken to addressing the universal church non-definitively with texts of ever increasing frequency and volume. To make things worse, entirely non-magisterial agencies of the Holy See pump out documents constantly which are widely confused with this non-infalible church teaching but in fact do not even require obsequium religiosum. In fact, the texts taken singly which do require the ascent of faith are usually quite obvious but since 1870 when they do occur they are usually buried and lost in the middle of book length encyclical letters. In the 1990 ‘Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian’ Donum Veritatis 24 the CDF grudgingly concedes:
The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions. Here the theologian will need, first of all, to assess accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed. When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.
The possibility therefore of heretical statements coming out of the forthcoming synod turns our attention to the elephant in the room: the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. This was, we were assured, a ‘pastoral council’ and, on 16th November 1964 just prior to the final vote on the text of Lumen Gentium, the following note was given to the council fathers.
A question has arisen regarding the precise theological note which should be attached to the doctrine that is set forth in the Schema de Ecclesia and is being put to a vote.
The Theological Commission has given the following response regarding the Modi that have to do with Chapter III of the de Ecclesia Schema: “As is self-evident, the Council’s text must always be interpreted in accordance with the general rules that are known to all.”
On this occasion the Theological Commission makes reference to its Declaration of March 6, 1964, the text of which we transcribe here:
“Taking conciliar custom into consideration and also the pastoral purpose of the present Council, the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding. The rest of the things which the sacred Council sets forth, inasmuch as they are the teaching of the Church’s supreme magisterium, ought to be accepted and embraced by each and every one of Christ’s faithful according to the mind of the sacred Council. The mind of the Council becomes known either from the matter treated or from its manner of speaking, in accordance with the norms of theological interpretation.”
But Vatican II only openly declared to be binding four things:
Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven
- Dei Verbum 19
The Sacred Council, therefore, not only accords to this ecclesiastical and spiritual heritage the high regard which is its due and rightful praise, but also unhesitatingly looks on it as the heritage of the universal Church. For this reason it solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls.
- Orientalium Ecclesiarum 5
Already from the earliest times the Eastern Churches followed their own forms of ecclesiastical law and custom, which were sanctioned by the approval of the Fathers of the Church, of synods, and even of ecumenical councils. Far from being an obstacle to the Church’s unity, a certain diversity of customs and observances only adds to her splendor, and is of great help in carrying out her mission, as has already been stated. To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls.
- Unitatis Redintegratio 16
First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you” (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.
This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.
Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.
Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.
- Dignitatis Humane 1-2
Does that mean that the remaining texts of Vatican II constitute, as the CDF puts it, merely ‘interventions in the prudential order’? Would that not mean that its documents, these four statements excluded, require a level of obsequium religiosum lower than that of another Ecumenical Council or even than of the non-definitive elements of a Papal encyclical professedly dealing with faith and morals but not describing itself as ‘pastoral’. It would seem so.
One of the great problems in the Church since Vatican II (and during it) has been the fact a vast number of clergy and laity have abandoned Catholicism in favour various modern superstitions and yet chosen to remain within the structures of the church. This already became clear during the council but the shocked ranks of the faithful bishops were too dazed and fearful of scandal to declare it openly as they should have done. The reason for this is the confusion of orthodoxy and ultramontanism that has prevailed since the nineteenth century. If some catastrophic act of erroneous teaching is about to occur then if that leads to the exposure of the hidden schism within the visible structures of the church and the disentangling of orthodoxy and ultramontanism that might end up being a necessary, even life saving, procedure.