The Rule of Doctrine

424px-Codex_Manesse_Schulmeister_von_EsslingenCiting studies and polls, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism notes that much of the lay faithful disagree with the Catholic hierarchy about the morality of birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage.  “It’s the tiny handful of Catholic hierarchs, and their apologists, who are out of step with everyone else and who remain stubbornly stuck in the past, refusing to give up archaic doctrines that are now widely recognized as immoral and rejected by everyone else,” he writes.

Lee is right to the extent that many Catholics openly dissent from their church’s teaching on these matters, in some cases strikingly so. Reasons vary.  Many don’t believe that the teachings on sexuality and nascent life are essential to Catholicism. Others just don’t care about doctrine.  Lee’s analysis falls short, however, by not accounting for the role of doctrine in Catholic thought and belief and particularly in the teaching office of the hierarchy. The pope and bishops are not as dictatorial as he makes them out to be. After the resignation of Benedict XVI, Lee wrote:

The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy. The church hierarchy isn’t elected, doesn’t have any checks or balances, and it doesn’t solicit or care about the opinions of ordinary churchgoers as to how things should be run. On the contrary, the Catholic church is an absolute monarchy! It’s run by a dictator-for-life who’s not accountable to anyone, who can’t be overruled, and who effectively chooses his own successor.

It’s not a democracy, true, but the teaching authority of the hierarchy is neither absolute nor without any checks and balances.  If Pope Francis were to surprise us tomorrow by proclaiming, in the most certain terms and with the full authority of his office, that the Resurrection of Jesus never happened, he would cause an uproar, but he wouldn’t change church doctrine. His proclamation wouldn’t be taken as legitimate teaching even if he said it was and demanded all the faithful give assent to it.  Instead, he’d be ushered out of sight and hearing. The Pope must bow to the deposit of faith–to those doctrines that are fundamental to the faith and to those that follow logically from them.  The Resurrection certainly qualifies.

Do the teachings on sex also fall among these essential doctrines?  Progressives and traditionalists debate this question.  The latter point to the constancy of teaching over the centuries and passages in the Bible that imply, in their reading, a revealed, morally-binding purpose to sex.  The former argue that the church’s historical understanding of human sexuality owes more to cultural convention than to true ontological and moral insight.  Even if the progressives are correct, the hierarchy cannot change these teachings with anything approaching haste because a development here would logically necessitate significant changes to the church’s understanding of the human person, Sacred Scripture, its own development of doctrine, and the scope and degree of its teaching authority. In short, a major hermeneutic overhaul.

The whole of Catholic doctrine is complex, holistic body of belief and thought. Change is sometimes possible because doctrine has aspects that rely on presuppositions about the world that are not, strictly speaking, a part of divine revelation.  With developments in culture, philosophy, and science, the church has developed the formulation, interpretation, and application of its doctrines, but this process takes time and care because tinkering in one area has consequences and repercussions for other areas.  The hierarchy values consistency as well.

Conceivably, the majority of the hierarchy, the pope included, could believe that Church ought to embrace birth control and a more progressive understanding of human sexuality, but that shared belief doesn’t enable them to change doctrine. A hierarchy that doesn’t develop church teaching isn’t necessarily refusing to do so.  Established doctrine limits their authority.

Kyle Cupp is an author, freelance writer, and contract editor. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook,and his personal website.

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61 thoughts on “The Rule of Doctrine

  1. The whole of Catholic doctrine is complex, holistic body of belief and thought. Change is sometimes possible because doctrine has aspects that rely on presuppositions about the world that are not, strictly speaking, a part of divine revelation. With developments in culture, philosophy, and science, the church has developed the formulation, interpretation, and application of its doctrines, but this process takes time and care because tinkering in one area has consequences and repercussions for other areas. The hierarchy values consistency as well.

    I’m not sure this is something I would defend or find worthy; particularly if that glacial pace of change results in many generations of harm. And in the case of the Catholic hierarchy, which excludes the voices of half (or more) of practicing Catholics because of their gender. I don’t recall any divine revelation that suggests women are not as worthy of God, so the church’s reluctance disturbs me beyond speaking.

    I do not wish to dismiss anyone’s beliefs or to bash one particular set of beliefs; and I know Catholics do far more to aid women in severe poverty and distress than many other Churches.

    But the good done does not offset the evil. And I see little in the way of atonement for so many generations of that evil.

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    • I’m not sure this is something I would defend or find worthy; particularly if that glacial pace of change results in many generations of harm.

      Indeed. I would also point out that the Catholic Church’s resistance to change is an inevitable result of an institution that sees knowledge, not as something that must be discovered through careful observation, but is simply deposited in the minds of a certain class of person. The concept of Revealed Knowledge will make people naturally resistant to change since it starts with the premise that knowledge comes from within, not without thus granting people license to ignore new information that conflicts with their preconceptions.

      Furthermore, if the Catholic Church persistently lags wider society on moral questions then, in the words of Stephen Fry, what is it for? The Church can’t credibly claim to provide moral leadership when it’s persistently behind the curve on every moral issue.

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      • Science is also conservative about accepting new facts, theories, and conclusions. It has to be: not only because most of them are complete nonsense, but also because changing them too quickly would eventually erode its credibility.

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      • — I dunno. I mean, it took, what, one or two decades for Quantum Theory to be accepted. I mean, like, that’s forever, right? And Einstein was like, I hate this, but then slowly he kinda-sorta came around, while his colleagues ran with the ball. In one generation.

        That seems a pretty big change in a small amount of time. The church — seems slower.

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      • James K, this is a nitpick, but I do think it’s important to recognize the high quality of scientific education provided by Catholic schools and universities; it is not shaped by the moral knowledge. There are plenty of religious schools that teach creationism, but your child will learn about evolution in a Catholic school. So this really does reside in the realm of moral progress.

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      • This is not epistemologically correct; when Catholics say Christianity is a revealed religion, we mean it is revealed to all humanity for careful study and observation, not that it is revealed to a select few in each generation – that would be a form of gnosticism.

        I suppose that this only makes it look more confusing rather than less, but none of us harbor any particular notion that the hierarchy has a better understanding of revelation by virtue of their episcopal order; even if we do believe that they have a duty to defend and teach it. Indeed almost half the “Doctors of the Church” were not in the hierarchy.

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      • ,

        none of us harbor any particular notion that the hierarchy has a better understanding of revelation by virtue of their episcopal order; even if we do believe that they have a duty to defend and teach it.

        I spent a week in an inn in another country; across the street was a garage. Front and center inside, was a Madonna; absolutely immaculate, despite the nature of the business. The wall behind it pure white. I have trouble reconciling what I saw with a notion that these men didn’t feel the church’s teaching were divine revelation.

        Indeed almost half the “Doctors of the Church” were not in the hierarchy.

        Out on the street, their wives and daughters walked, often pregnant, a baby at the breast, a toddler at the side, and older children in tow; they were given no recourse in family planning due to their religious beliefs. I suspect they were left out of the roster of Chruch Doctors who weren’t amongst the hierarchy, so were doubly overlooked.

        I grow concerned when people talk about the Catholic Church from an American-centric position.

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      • I am responding the the notion expressed above that [religious] knowledge “is simply deposited in the minds of a certain class of person.” This is a sort of comment that I haven’t read since looking over some good 17th/18th century anti-popery tracts.

        The vignette you paint is rather the point; those people (from what you write) seem to exhibit a real interest and Christian imagination that informs their lives since they seem to take special care to make special allowance for the images… or is it your contention that they do this because the notion was deposited into the mind of someone else? You may think it folly, but I at least know it to be genuine.

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      • What does Christian imagination entail? How does it develop? What provides the symbols for it?

        I’m a story teller and writer; I know how tradition and hierarchy work. And it’s as often the belief in the shaman and the magical as it is the weight of centuries of pondering. It’s not simple; I grant; but it often includes the notion of divine revelation and holders of sacred knowledge. If not, I doubt so much of the Catholic tradition would embrace ceremony and celebration in a language not understood by the flock; this is, on the time-scale Kyle’s describing, an incredibly new innovation.

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      • Marchmaine,

        I am responding the the notion expressed above that [religious] knowledge “is simply deposited in the minds of a certain class of person.”

        Isn’t that notion the fundamental distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism?

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      • when Catholics say Christianity is a revealed religion, we mean it is revealed to all humanity for careful study and observation, not that it is revealed to a select few in each generation

        And yet the Catholic Church traditionally dealt with people who disagreed with their positions by threatening, torturing and murdering them. They clearly thought they had a better understanding then everyone else.

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      • Well, no… if we are talking fundamentals, the fundamental distinction between Catholicism and Reformed sects is the Theology of Grace. And, to tie it back to Kyle’s original post, small changes in doctrine in one area will have repercussions on the understanding of doctrine in other areas. Such that Luther’s Augustinian ruminations on Grace against the Church’s (re-)lapse into crude Pelagianism opened the door to Calvin’s sophisticated and relentless logic of un-merited Grace that provides a compelling case for double-predestination.

        Within Western Christendom, where you stand on Grace and Man’s relationship to it will place you (broadly speaking) in one of those three camps. The logical working out of the implications of these different notions of Grace will impact doctrinal positions on Baptism, the Eucharist and Holy Orders (to name a few things).

        And that’s about all that can crudely be said in a com box on that topic.

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      • Marchmaine,

        I don’t disagree with your view (if I’m understanding it right) that the various challenges to Catholicism realized in the reformation arose out of a consideration of particular, specific interpretations of doctrine. But it seems to me (and I may very well be wrong about all this what with not being a Catholic nor a student of the history of Christianity) that in the end, the disagreement was ultimately that Church leaders, exemplified by the Pope, had (and still have, it seems to me) attributed to themselves the role of sole determiner of doctrine and biblical interpretation. That is, the Church via the Pope unilaterally determines doctrine and deposits those beliefs and practices into the minds of church members.

        All of that may be a horrible over-simplification which borders on meaninglessness. It also may be wrong, and therefore actually is meaningless. But that’s how it seems to me.

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  2. The Pope must bow to the deposit of faith–to those doctrines that are fundamental to the faith and to those that follow logically from them. ….. Established doctrine limits their authority.

    I’m confused. Your argument seems to be that even tho the laity effectively determine their own doctrines, the church hierarch’s are prevented from altering official doctrine to match those prevailing views out of deference to … what exactly? Consistency over time? (Is that what you mean by “established”?)

    On the other hand, it seems that the church hierarchs do in fact have the authority to make these changes – papal infallibility and all that – as well as the cultural capital to justify it on political grounds. So there really isn’t anything preventing them from making those changes except … deference to history? Admitting that the Church was wrong? Dealing with the inevitable mess?

    I mean, I get that you think Francis is limited by a preponderance of established beliefs, but he’s the Pope for cryin out loud. It seems to me your argument is simply that politics – rather than anything fundamental to Church doctrine – prevents him from making the types of changes mentioned in the OP. But maybe I’m misunderstanding you.

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    • I think it’s more that very few Catholics would go along with a Pope who said the resurrection never happened.

      To me, that’s an ironic twist that seems to support Adam Lee’s argument, although perhaps not in the way that Lee intended (I didn’t read Lee’s piece). “Absolute monarchs” of the traditional stripe were in practice checked by many constituencies and in some formulations checked in theory by the restraint of “reasonableness.” I’d go further to say that even the more powerful absolutists/totalitarians of the 20th century and later also had some checks against their power

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      • Yeah, I could very well be confused. But the final paragraph of the post

        Conceivably, the majority of the hierarchy, the pope included, could believe that Church ought to embrace birth control and a more progressive understanding of human sexuality, but that shared belief doesn’t enable them to change doctrine. A hierarchy that doesn’t develop church teaching isn’t necessarily refusing to do so. Established doctrine limits their authority.

        makes me think the problem is more political than anything else. Why else would the church be committed to a doctrine that neither the laity (eg., 87% of catholic women use or have used birth control) nor the hierarchs (hypothetically anyway) accept as valid?

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      • Thanks for clarifying. That confuses me, too.

        To answer your question, “where does its power to limit church decision-making reside?”, here’s my guess at an answer (keeping in mind that my knowledge of Catholicism is very weak):

        Certain positions are regarded by the Church as fundamental. I suppose here “fundamental” is a term of art, and is best thought of as part of a spectrum. For example, the resurrection would be more fundamental than the Church’s teaching on birth control, which would be more fundamental than its teaching, say, on women in the priesthood. I’m suggesting that the fundamental position, and the degree to which it is more less fundamental, is a matter of convention, but I’m not sure a professing Catholic would necessarily believe so. I suppose this places me more along the side of “progressive” than “traditionalist” per Kyle’s illustration in the OP.

        The “constraint” on decision making, in this case, is actually the amount of work required to argue over, through, and against it. The “fundamental” position acts as a goal post, and the more fundamental we can call it, the stronger and more immovable it is as a goal post. That doesn’t mean a majority of laity and clergy cannot surmount the goalpost, but it does mean they’d have to prove a lot to do so. The majority must be a strong one. The arguments made with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. A reason for going against the fundamental position needs to be pressing enough to justify the exercise at all.

        At least that’s how I see it. Again, I’m no expert on the Church and I might be off base. But if I can use an analogy, it’s in some ways like the levels of scrutiny in our court system. The most fundamental liberties of the individual and constraints on government action are not inviolable when it comes to the Court, but they are subject to “strict scrutiny” requirement. In this case the goalposts are set by the constitution, along with certain precedent-setting court decisions. I’ve heard similar arguments about British common-law jurisprudence. Violations of certain principles, say that one cannot be a judge in one’s own cause, are closely scrutinized. In that case, it’s parliamentary intent that’s closely scrutinized, and the question isn’t so much “is this constitutional?” but “did parliament really mean to do that?”

        The part about the British jurisprudence I take from an essay by Richard Helmholtz that discusses “Bonham’s Case” in English law: http://jla.oxfordjournals.org/content/1/1/325.full.pdf [PDF]

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      • Politics would play into it. On that basis alone, you’re not likely to see the church admit that it was wrong. But there’s also the issue of consistence and coherence. Its understanding of sexuality, for example, affects more than its teachings about behavior in the bedroom: humanity’s relation to God is framed in terms of sexual complementarity (God the Father, the Church as the Bride of Christ, etc.). If the church were to alter its understanding of the meaning of human sexuality and the moral norms associated with it, the church would also need to alter its understanding of all doctrine affected by the initial change. In this event, the church might find that it cannot make a change across the board that would work theologically, and that realization might prevent it from making the initial change.

        Changes in doctrine have happened, but they’re relatively rare, and usually subtle.

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      • You know Catholicism much better than I do, but find it hard to believe that sexuality is so central to the problems of consistency and coherence as you seem to say. The father and bride of Christ tropes can be read as metaphors while leaving the rest of the core beliefs intact. At least, that’s my suspicion.

        Another suspicion, also based on my relative ignorance of Catholicism, is that the Church’s teachings on sexuality, or at least the supposed centrality of sexuality to its teachings, are of a somewhat more recent vintage than it might appear. I know the Church “fathers”–Augusting, Aquinas, and probably scores of others I haven’t heard of–commented on sexuality over the last two millennia, but I strongly suspect that their positions evolved more along the lines of what the progressives you mention in the OP may have predicted.

        I admit that a lot of my “suspicions” are part of a game of Rohrshach tests. History, like religious hermeneutics, are or can be contentious.

        All of that said, I’ll add that I agree with your main point about coherence and consistency. Those are checks, especially in a community in which temporal membership is and has been for some time increasingly optional (thanks to
        ‘s comment below).

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      • Kyle,

        If the church were to alter its understanding of the meaning of human sexuality and the moral norms associated with it, the church would also need to alter its understanding of all doctrine affected by the initial change. In this event, the church might find that it cannot make a change across the board that would work theologically, and that realization might prevent it from making the initial change.

        I understand the desire for theological consistency over time. For some reason, changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness or something, and in this case, it might mean that a previous Pope was (gasp) actually wrong about something.

        I also understand the practical difficulties in maintaining an internally consistent set of principles and commitments in the face of changing even one of them. Even if it’s out on the edges.

        I get all that. I just don’t get why it matters. (I also understand you’re just describing here rather than defending anything.)

        The way things look to me, tho, is that the church leadership is concerned about the first issue because admitting they were wrong undermines their authority as a conduit to God’s will. The second one expresses – again, just to me – that the lack of will to change church doctrine in the face of compelling evidence creates a schism between certain formal properties (like consistency internally and over time) and the actual practices of catholics. At some point, the formal becomes so divorced from practice that it doesn’t even mean anything. (It also suggests that the reluctance to do the hard revisionary work derives from diminished authority, at least to me.)

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      • Or in other words (because I’m struggling a bit here), I’m just not seeing how “established doctrine” justifies refraining from making changes, given (on the one hand) that for most catholics contraception use is an established practice, and on the other that the church leaders have the power to determine doctrine by decree, in this case consistently with the majority of the laity.

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    • You can make an analogy to how a common law judicial regime is supposed to work. Even though a judge’s decision is binding, a judge cannot decide willy nilly because he himself is bound by a huge body of precedents. In fact, in the absence of statutory change, at least ideally, judges are supposed to be severely constrained in their capacity to let their conscience influence their decision. Of course in practice laws are more open textured and judges of violate precedent anyway if they can get away with it, but if there is even a sort of institutional commitment to respect the existing body of law/doctrine, someone who even technically is able change doctrine is in practice unable to do so except at the margins.

      Let me take an example from Pratchett: City dwarves in ankh morpork are often more modern than the deep downers. And while they themselves are not willing to keep to the traditions, they are very glad for the deep downer grag who does and so long as the traditions are kept they are satisfied and the one who keeps the traditions is respected nad has authority even among the more modern dwarves.

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  3. It is of endless fascination the way that truth revealed by the (an?) ultimate, inerrant creator is – in application – a hypothesis that’s is – in the hands and minds of believers – as malleable as warm taffy.

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  4. tl;dr, if a Pope commands a major hermeneutic overhaul, then a major hermeneutic overhaul there will be. No check. No balance.

    You’ve attempted to describe doctrine as some sort of impediment, but who, ultimately, sets the doctrine? Who determines which understandings has what interpretation?

    the teaching authority of the hierarchy is neither absolute nor without any checks and balances

    That seems difficult to reconcile with (by command of the Pope*) Canon Law,

    …By virtue of his office he [the Roman Pontiff] possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely….
    No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.**

    Absolute monarchy seems like an accurate description.

    There’s also the saying that “personnel is policy”. With ultimate authority over the personnel (bishops, cardinals, etc.), the Pope has ultimate authority over the policy (interpretations, teachings, doctrines, etc.). And lastly, a capacity that even absolute monarchs don’t possess, infallibility (when speaking ex cathedra). In case the authority vested by “no appeal or recourse” is unclear, infallibility further clarifies who provides the right interpretations. Even if rarely deployed as such, papal infallibility is a pretty strong background condition of decrees, pronouncements, and the like.

    * If you get to use the words “I command” it is pretty clear who has the authority: “I command that for the future it is to have the force of law for the whole Latin Church…” http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_25011983_sacrae-disciplinae-leges_en.html

    ** http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P16.HTM

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    • I suspect the notion of infallibility ex cathedar, though, is constrained by practice and procedure. My understanding is that the Pope can’t just say one evening and on a whim, “okay, and I’m speaking ex cathedra here, I get to watch the Simpsons on the Vatican’s TV even though the rest of you cardinals want to watch Jersey Shore.” He has to follow certain procedures before he can claim to be acting ex cathedra, and if he deviates too far and too quickly from what most of his subordinates regard as what ought to be established doctrine, they’ll either refuse to believe that proper procedures were followed, or will revolt.

      Also, my understanding is that the Pope rarely has invoked ex cathedra infallibility, and when there are innovations in doctrine, the Pope, in practice, has tried to cultivate a consensus, or at least a majority faction. Vatican II, as I understand it, may or may not have invoked infallibility (I don’t know), but it was the result of a discussion.

      Now, I admit that if the Pope does seriously advance a proposition, even if it’s not a putative ex cathedra declaration, then the issue might become discussable in a way that it hadn’t been before, and that itself might lead to change. The extreme example, mentioned in the OP, is a Pope declaring the Resurrection to be bunk. If the Pope seriously stated that, all of a sudden that position would have a respectability as something debatable even if almost none of the hierarchy endorsed it.

      On less fundamental issues, I believe Francis is doing that when it comes to certain issues, like gay rights. He makes statements against judgment of gays and those statements create a debate that might lead to liberalization on the issue. (Whether that’s enough to answer James K’s very well-put objection above about the Church lagging on moral issues is another question entirely. For me it’s not enough, but then, I’m no longer Catholic.)

      As I said above, I do believe that is how absolute monarchies and dictatorships work in practice, so I still don’t have a problem calling the Papacy an absolute monarchy. I do, however, opt for what I see as a slightly more nuanced view of what an absolute monarch can and cannot do.

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      • The American church, itself, is already “fairly” liberal on gay stuff.
        Again, this is a church that teaches masturbation as a sin.
        Gay sex is on the same level as masturbation.

        What folks don’t seem to realize is that the Catholic church wants to be
        “an ideal place that promulgates ideal teachings”. To the extent that Francis
        can change things — it will probably be “accept that people sin, and welcome
        them in the flock of people trying not to.”

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      • Let’s take the Catholic Church out of it.

        Suppose the President of the United States had final say on elections to Congress (goodbye Ted Cruz, people of Texas choose again). The President also determines what committees members sit on and who the chairs are (goodbye Darrell Issa as Government Oversight Chair); the President may add members of the Senate up to a total number of his choosing. The President selects the Speaker and Senate Majority Leader, as well as what some countries would call the Great Offices of State. Congress members periodically report to the President as to their conduct (goodbye David Vitter). The President disciplines members of Congress, members of Congress may not discipline him. And “no appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the”President. With all those carrots and sticks, could a President Pierre Corneille “cultivate consensus” in Congress?

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      • I still don’t have a problem calling the Papacy an absolute monarchy.

        I would tend to agree with this but the Catholic Church has this weird thing where you can opt out if you’re already in it and, if you’re not in it, you don’t have to opt in (though, granted, this is a relatively recent development).

        It’s an opt in absolute monarchy.

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      • I’m not sure that analogy holds true. Does the pope have such an ultimate say in who fills what position in the hierarchy, and how the hierarchy operates? I imagine it’s a “on the advice of x person or body, following y procedures, the Pope decides to place or remove y person in, err. xx office. However, I don’t know much about the Pope’s authority here. And to be fair, you didn’t criticize the disanalogies in my own analogy, and you’re right….if the president had that power, I’d say he’d be an absolute monarch. So yes, fair’s fair and I’d see your point. But a President Corneille would probably botch it. I’m trained as an academic, and academics make horrible presidents (*cough* Wilson *cough*)

        What’s more….I was actually going to use the presidency as an example, but within what most of us probably think are what his powers should be. Namely, he can hire or fire anyone who is in the executive branch and not a civil service employee or otherwise there because of a binding contract or whatever. I’m talking about the higher ups who “serve at the pleasure of the president.” But in practice, even that broad-seeming discretionary power is not necessarily as broad as advertised.

        Alberto Gonzales (let’s assume he was acting under the color of the president’s authority) tried to fire some US District Attorneys for what seemed (and seem) to be purely political reasons, and he got caught up in a kerfuffle and had to resign himself. My understanding and memory of that fiasco is that there would have been no legal problem if he hadn’t lied about the reasons for the firings (I think he claimed incompetency or some such reason), but the reason he lied was that a blatant mass firing for political reasons would have raised an outcry.

        I should stress, though, that I agree with the basic premise that the papacy is an absolute monarchy, although as points out, it’s a kingdom from which exit is easy. I’m making more of an argument about absolutism than about the papacy.

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    • Just because someone has a final say doesn’t mean there are no checks and balances.

      Infallibility simply means free from error, but “error” in Catholic-speak has a specific meaning. Error is what, if accepted, would lead you away from God. The pope is said to be infallible, under certain conditions, when he teaches, but this only means that what he teaches is free from error, not that it is right. The pope, when speaking infallibly, will not (so the thinking goes) lead the faithful astray. What he says may be open to revision and reinterpretation.

      There’s no list of infallible teachings proposed by the church because infallibility has more to do with the act of teaching that with the content of what is taught. In practice, popes make official pronouncements that are later rejected or revised by the hierarchy.

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  5. “Power resides where men believe it resides; it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
    – Lord Varys ‘The Spider’, Master of Whispers.

    The Pope’s power to make doctrine comes entirely from the fact that people have faith in his ability to make those pronouncements. And that faith is maintained by the Pope not changing too radically nor quickly the terms of service in the license agreement.

    If he were to make a small change, like allowing women priests, most people would go along. If he were to make a medium change, like recognizing gay rights, many people would go along, but more would dissent. (see the split in the Episcopal church over this issue). And if the Pope were to do something off the wall like deny the divinity of Christ in the Resurrection, or even something less drastic – ‘Hey those Arianists were onto something’ – he would lose a lot of people.

    I mean, it’s not like telling the Pope to go stuff it is without ample precedent. Even more recently, there are schismatic sects of nominal Catholics that reject the whole of Vatican I & II. (Mel Gibson’s family is somewhat famously part of one of these offshoots)

    In other words, I agree with Mr. Cupp.

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    • And if the Pope were to do something off the wall like deny the divinity of Christ in the Resurrection, or even something less drastic – ‘Hey those Arianists were onto something’ – he would lose a lot of people.

      No, he’d lose one person. There would be a public statement that His Holiness had taken ill with some mental collapse, a few days later it would be revealed that he’d had a terrible stroke, and needed to resign from his duties in the Papacy, and the College would convene.

      The details might be slightly different, but one way or the other, “remaining in the seat” is off the table.

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    • I understand the point your making, but I see your Lord Varys and raise one Cersei Lannister: “Power is power.”

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUpwvweFIR8

      Let’s say I’m charged with coming up with a shortlist of hires for you Kolohe. I submit the list to you and no one is appointed until you assent. You have absolute, unquestioned veto over the appointment, and can say “Creon Critic, I didn’t like that shortlist. Start again”. What’s more, you can say, “I don’t like the shortlists Creon Critic has been coming up with, I appoint Mr. J. Doe to compose the shortlists from here on out.”

      This is not a complex relational web of shadows on a wall, depending on who perceives who has what authority, and so forth. Perceptions in the imaginations of yourself, myself, and Mr. Doe don’t really matter much in this example (very simplified, very rough approximation of how bishops and cardinals are appointed). If you can say “Your fired” and “Your hired”, that is a substantial form of raw power. Among the many, many tools a Pope possesses is precisely that kind of unreviewable authority over who gets what offices.

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      • Cersi winds up (almost literally) eating her words, though.

        ” You have absolute, unquestioned veto over the appointment, ”

        The point is though, whence does this power come from? Sure you can set up boundary conditions the way a thermodynamics problem can postulate an adiabatic space (or an economist can assume a can opener) – Truman can fire MacArthur, Ford can pardon Nixon, etc – but even in those straightforward cases of clearly delineated authority, there are second and third effects that may, in the long run, wind up changing the very nature of that authority.

        To go back to this specific case, yes, certainly, the pope has de jure and de facto plenary authority in, for example, elevating people to the College of Cardinals. And all his appointments have been (like the last guy’s were, and the guy before that) senior Bishops in good standing* selected for their records and to increase geographic diversity (+ population shifts). But if the Pope were to elevate Sinead O’Connor to the College, people certainly would start to talk. And possibly take action similar to what Patrick says below.

        *I think guys that were embroiled in the worst of the pedophilia scandals were yanked, but I’m not actually sure of that.

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      • But if the Pope were to elevate Sinead O’Connor to the College, people certainly would start to talk.

        If so, then doesn’t it mean that in practice people reject one of the fundamental doctrines of the church, certainly more fundamental than proscriptions against birth control: papal infallibility?

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      • I take your point, also touched on in the original post and in Pierre Corneille’s comments: the norms, practice, and procedure matter. And certainly you’re correct the Pope doesn’t act without consequence, radically changing the license agreement conditions, as you put it, could result in a schism. A Pope would have to keep that consideration in mind. So very unlikely a rejection of the resurrection, very unlikely a Cardinal Sinead O’Connor, and very unlikely an ex cathedra pronouncement that we’re watching the Simpsons tonight.

        And yet, I think the original post underestimates the amount of authority the Pope has (let alone the clergy collectively) and underestimates the capacity of the Pope to change norms, practice, and procedure. The boundary conditions I’ve presented in my hypotheticals, President decides on Congress and Kolohe’s hiring veto, are an attempt to reproduce the formal constraints on the Pope’s authority; they don’t capture the norms also operating. But the norms are not a given, they are mutable. In fact a good for instance is turning the Anglican Communion example around to demonstrate that yes, it is possible to shift from no women to women Primates (Katharine Jefferts Schori). It hasn’t been turning on a dime, but that’s a significant change. The constraint of doctrine and norms ultimately matter inasmuch as a Pope deems them to matter (accelerating the beatification of John Paul II, or deciding to increase the number of cardinals for instance). A constraint is a constraint, a doctrine is a doctrine, right up until the moment a Pope sets it aside. To me, that can’t be called easily the rule of doctrine.

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  6. If the Pope and all the priests and Cardinals and whatever said the Trinity was false, wouldn’t that change doctrine?

    By analogy think about Mormon leadership saying that doctrine really says no polygamy when before they thought it said polygamy is good.

    Sure, you risk losing some of your cult members when you change the doctrine, but it is up to the hierarchy running the religion to make that call one way or the other, especially with Catholicism.

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    • If the Pope and all the priests and Cardinals and whatever said the Trinity was false, wouldn’t that change doctrine?

      Probably not, there would be a schism, I’d guess. We might get the Eastern Orthodox folks back.

      Heh, we, force of habit still.

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      • This sort of thing — schisms in great social institutions over unprovable, untestable suppositions about the ineffable — dovetails into prejudices I hold about theism. But I push within myself to submerge and drown them, telling myself that they are the result of intelligent people of exceptionally good faith trying hard to search for the good.

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  7. I mean, you could say a King or Kim Jun Something’s power is checked by the fact that people might rebel if he is bad enough, but that doesn’t make him not a tyrant.

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  8. “The Church can’t credibly claim to provide moral leadership when it’s persistently behind the curve on every moral issue.” James K.

    The audacity of the Catholic hierarchy to presume to be in a position to dictate to society on sexuality; forming healthy relationships; and building families, when they shield grown men who have bullied defenceless, innocent, young children into participating in sexual activities. In a number of cases the Catholic hierarchy facilitated these offenders by moving them to pastures anew to continue preying on innocent children.

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    • It’s really distasteful to take the whole cloth and define it by a single thread.

      Some of those thread are vibrant and strong. Some are not.

      But you really have to consider the whole tapestry, not just the moth-eaten hole, to make a good criticism of the Catholic Church. I take severe exception with it when it comes to women and gays and sexuality. But Catholics, organized through their church and by its rules (which, on occasion, have the force of the state), do tremendous good in this world, and I’m very grateful for that.

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  9. “a single thread”

    Oh, if only that were true, unfortunately, it is not.

    The comment is not “distasteful”, but the acts of the many perpetrators are most distasteful and the work of others to cover up and shield the perpetrators is indefensible.

    The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has a responsibility to those who still believe and follow their guidance. Sometimes responsible acts require drastic actions, paedophilia and “greed” should be stamped out as soon as possible. I am not saying I believe that they can be totally eradicated, but the Catholic Church could show signs that they are moving in the right direction.

    On attending a religious sacrament in the church, the congregation had to listen to the local parish priest tell a story which commenced with “While eating my breaking this morning and watching the housekeeper go about her duties, I was pondering …” Why could he not make his own breakfast and clean up after himself, like the rest of us? Daily the local priests are in the coffee shop; I notice on my way to work, I cannot afford to attend the coffee shop on a regular basis.

    As a treat some years back, my family visited a hotel in Donegal for a few days. Daily a procession of fancy cars would arrive at around 12 noon for lunch and depart around 4pm. Each with one occupant: a priest. Such excess! At whose expense? I have worked all my life and cannot afford to lunch in hotels daily or employ a housekeeper.

    As long as many priests over indulge themselves and put themselves on pedestals, how can they expect the rest of us to respect them?

    I did once have the joy of walking across town to the bus stop with a lovely priest, who I believe was the genuine article.

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