Creeping, Sliding, Ignoring

Jessica M. Murdo, a professor of theology at Villanova University, has a timely article up over at First Things entitled “Creeping Infallibility.” In it, she attempts to set the record straight concerning the various magisterial “layers” one finds in the Church and pushes back against the trend whereby an increasing number of lower level papal documents are given undue weight. Arguably, this “pushback” has been going on for some time, though there is a great deal of disagreement out there over when and where that’s appropriate. For instance, traditional Catholics have been pushing back against the “creeping infallibility” of the Second Vatican Council for half-a-century; their neo-Catholic critics claim that this is beyond the pale. Neo-Catholics, particularly those enamored with political and economic liberalism (e.g., Acton Institute), regularly push back against the possibility that any papal document can speak authoritatively on socio-economic matters unless it first conforms to the tenets of “economic science” (whatever that means). When Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was issued, Fr. Robert Sirico — the head of Acton — was quick to remind everyone that exhortations carry less magisterial weight than encyclicals and that it’s not clear that Catholics need to follow the Holy Father when he speaks about things economic.

Truth be told, the on-the-ground reality in the Catholic Church is that most of the would-be faithful live by a “sliding-scale magisterium” where those parts they like are exalted and those they do not are belittled, if not ignored outright. Neo-Catholics who love ecumenism treat certain documents from Vatican II as sacrosanct but have absolutely no time for the long list of papal and ecclesial condemnations of heresies, schisms, and false religions. When pressed on this point, these Catholics will claim that doctrine “has developed,” as if “development” means a new theological outgrowth can fully cover, nay, replace the trunk from which it allegedly spawned. To be fair, one should not ignore the opposite tendency, championed in some sectors of the traditional Catholic world, to ignore in full the Church’s post-Vatican II magisterium or even much of what happened in the Universal Church prior to the Council of Trent. Traditionalists, for better or worse, have a tendency to absolutize the magisterium as articulated by the 19th and early 20th Century popes as if the Church began and ended there.

For Eastern Catholics, the situation is even more confusing. While it stands to reason that a majority of Eastern Catholics believe they hold to the Faith as articulated in, say, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, there exists a noticeable contingent — the so-called “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” — who have no problem playing de facto sedevacantist when it comes to the Roman Pontiff. That is, they blissfully ignore as authoritative almost everything the Pope says because he is not, according to them, “their bishop.” Moreover, this same crowd openly treats most post-1054 councils as “local councils of the Latin Church” which lack binding authority over Eastern Christians. Their vision of the Church is “Orthodox” insofar as they embrace the East’s confederate model of governance. The fact that the Catholic Church, as recently as both Vatican Councils, rejects this approach is of little-to-no consequence, and if one tells the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” otherwise, they will scream and howl that  they are being oppressed by “Latin innovations.”

From an outsider’s perspective, particularly an Eastern Orthodox one, this all must look terribly ironic. After all, one of the biggest charges Catholics have brought to bear against the Orthodox is that the latter lack doctrinal and governmental unity. While this is true, it’s equally true that the Catholic hierarchy, with their magisterial statements on faith and morals, has not done a particularly good job shepherding their flocks and leading them on the sure path to holiness. It is not difficult to see why certain Orthodox apologists call Catholicism to the carpet for “developing” ways out of its own teaching. The ongoing nonsense involving Amoris Laetitia is just one more in a long line of examples of Catholicism — by Orthodox lights — shifting gears while still claiming to maintain the Apostolic Faith.



  1. Paul
    September 27, 2016

    I don’t think many people remotely understand how the ordinary magisterium works. People look at everything as if it’s an act of the extraordinary magisterium: either the pope wrote it and it’s infallible, or the pope wrote it and it’s his opinion, to which I can assent if I like.

    Cardinal Schönborn is clearly today in the group who doesn’t understand the topic.

  2. Andrew C.
    September 27, 2016


    What’s your take on the distinction between “propositional infallibility” and “personalist infallibility”? These are terms I hear ecclesiology people using sometimes. The idea is that one concept considers infallibility through a correspondence theory of truth: the Church is infallible in the sense that when one of their infallible personages says proposition X, then proposition X must correspond with reality.

    The critique of this view is that proposition X must be interpreted, which could lead to an infinite regress of interpretation.

    The “personalist” view is an attempt to respond to the former concept with a relational idea of truth, namely that the Church is infallible in the sense that when people enter a relationship with the Church (through baptism, the Eucharist, etc.) the Church cannot fail to point them to the Truth, namely Jesus Christ. Because Truth is a person, a loving relationship with Him is all that’s necessary to have true knowledge (amor ipse intellectus est–Augustine).

    The critique of this view is that then you never really know what’s true or false in the correspondence-theory sense. Even the authority of scripture can be called into question in various ways.

    I would say that that’s the actual situation in the Church today though. There are going to be people on both sides of every issue claiming that their side has some kind of “infallible” teaching backing it up. Orthodox do this all the time by cherry-picking the fathers or Church councils, and I’m not sure we can ever have a council again without two camps arguing indefinitely about whether it “counted.” As for Catholics, you’ve already pointed out the ways that there is a “sliding scale” of magisterial authority that’s different for everyone.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    After many years of watching the Magisterium in action, I have slowly leaned more and more toward the second view.

  3. Woody
    September 27, 2016


    What are your thoughts on the recent pronouncement by the joint Orthodox-Catholic commission on primacy? A quick read suggests that there was agreement that modern Latin views on that were never shared in the East. In that connection also I am reading the Papdakis and Meyendorff book The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy. I started at the back, to explore the Great Western Schism, and found their discussion to be the best of what I have read so far. Not so much confessional propaganda, as Fr. Robert Taft would say.

    All the best.

    1. William Tighe
      September 28, 2016

      “that there was agreement that modern Latin views on that were never shared in the East”

      I have a problem with this. If “shared” means something like “embraced” or “generally accepted,” then the statement is historically accurate, but if it means “to be found” or “accepted on occasion by some,” then it is false.

      1. Woody
        September 28, 2016

        Dear Dr. Tighe, thank you for the clarification. Since I was speaking from memory, I was speaking colloquially and not with precision, but I think you have clarified it well. Also, do I recall correctly when I think that I remember reading somewhere that Fr. John Meyendorff once said that the primacy question cannot be answered on the basis of history, but must be answered on the basis of theology?

        1. Peregrinus
          September 28, 2016

          From an Orthodox perspective, that’s the most likely conclusion. To cite select historical incidences as proof of a tacit dogma within Christian tradition is generally seen as playing fast and loose with the patristic witness. Most thinking Orthodox will not budge on this point; otherwise we’d have to accept all sorts of bizarre “traditions of the fathers.” Even Florovsky admits that there is a place for “papism” in Orthodox tradition – the question is its reception.

          I am Orthodox, but be it disclaimed that the above does not necessarily reflect my own view on the matter.I for one think von Balthasar mounts an impressive theological apology for the papacy in its modern form on the basis of Peter’s unique relation to the Lord in the Gospels, somewhat analogous to that of the Panagia in hers.

        2. William Tighe
          September 28, 2016

          Because, of course, there are both statements and “practical applications” of “papism” in the East. I think of the statements of Theodore Abu-Qurrah (c. 750- c. 825) Bishop of Harran concerning the relationship of the reception of councils by the Pope as constitutive of their ecumenical status as an instance of the former, and of the explicit acceptance by the Eastern Emperor Marcian and the Patriarch of Constantinople Anatolius of Pope Leo’s “veto” (the word Leo used) of Canon 28 of Chalcedon, and of his authority to do so. (How Canon 28 came back would make an interesting study: “officially” at the Council in Trullo; “unofficially” earlier – and perhaps first as repromulgated on his own authority as part of, or as a lead-up to, his Henotikon, ca. 482, by the Emperor Zeno.)

          1. William Tighe
            September 28, 2016

            “… and of the explicit acceptance by the Eastern Emperor Marcian and the Patriarch of Constantinople Anatolius of Pope Leo’s “veto” (the word Leo used) of Canon 28 of Chalcedon, and of his authority to do so, as an instance of the latter.”

Comments are closed.