Ephemera XV: Church Crisis Edition 2

Rod Dreher supports the Eastern Orthodox Church’s late-model practice of communing adulterers, that is, those who have divorced and remarried while their first spouse is still alive. In a blog post over at The American Conservative where Dreher discusses the ongoing turmoil in the Catholic Church over the dubia concerning Amoris Laetitia submitted by four cardinals to Pope Francis, he states that “what Pope Francis wishes to teach on communion and remarriage is closer to the Orthodox view of things, which I believe is true” (emphasis added). Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this, though there are still Orthodox out there who still believe in the indissolubility of marriage. Given Dreher’s time in the Catholic Church, I thought he may have been inoculated against some of Orthodoxy’s more questionable and incoherent practices, but so it goes. I should note, however, that it’s not entirely clear that Francis wishes to follow the Orthodox sensu stricto. He has not, after all, come out in support of dissolving the sacramental bond of marriage, nor has he suggested that abandonment, adultery, or apostasy during any point in the course of a marriage would be grounds for sacramental dissolution (which is now the common view among most Orthodox jurisdictions). On the other hand, between the Pope’s decision last year to loosen the canons government annulments coupled with the ambiguous passages found throughout Amoris Laetitia, it is certainly arguable that the Catholic Church, in practice, takes a far looser view of the marital bond than the Orthodox do. Unsettling times these be.

Oh, in the same piece where Dreher discusses Francis and the cardinals, he calls attention to a recent article by neo-Catholic extraordinaire John Zmirak in which the latter hyperventilates over what the Pope’s recent words and deeds mean for every teaching of the Church since 1054 A.D. (I’m serious). Buying into the contestable view that a pope can never be declared a heretic and deposed, Zmirak goes a step further by claiming that if Francis is indeed teaching errors, then not only is he a heretic but the doctrine of Papal Infallibility is rubbish. For Zmirak (and so many other Catholics intoxicated by papalotry), infallibility is a meta-surety over early everything a pope does while in office. Of course, the First Vatican Council taught no such thing, but don’t tell Zmirak that. It appears that his faith rises and falls with the papacy. Pray for him. Not only is the man caught in a delusion, but his writings are likely to lead other Catholics to believe that Francis’s sorrowful pontificate marks the end of Catholicism as we know it. I have to wonder at this point if Zmirak isn’t setting himself up for a trip on the Bosphorus where he and his package of liberal ideology will become Orthodoxy’s problem.

None of this is to say that there isn’t a real crisis in the Church — one that is extremely difficult to understand. Whenever I find myself losing heart, I return to Bishop Bernard Fellay’s sermon, given during the 2012 Angelus Press conference on the Papacy, in which he compares the mystery of the ongoing crisis of the Church to the mystery of our Lord’s Passion. Just as the Apostles could not initially comprehend how Christ, who is truly God, could suffer and die, many faithful Catholics today cannot fathom how to reconcile the Church’s indefectibility with the confusion being sown by so many of her shepherds, including the Pope. It is a painful mystery — one which the Church, in due time, will grasp and clarify just as the Church was called upon throughout the first millennium to to answer Christ’s question, “Who do you say I am?,” that is, to affirm over-and-against numerous heretical opinions what it means to say that Christ is fully God and fully man. Above all else, Catholics must not give in to fear; we must not despair. For what Christ promised 2,000 years ago, that the gates of hell will not prevail, has not ceased to be true. And for that we should give thanks to God.



  1. Brian M
    November 30, 2016

    Your readers who may wish to hear His Excellency’s sermon can download it for a modest price at http://angeluspress.org/2012-Conference-Audio

  2. Andrew
    November 30, 2016

    So what, exactly, did Vatican I teach?

    Did it teach that the Pope’s words must be confirmed by anyone else (like a council)?

    Did it teach that there is any equal or higher teaching authority than the Pope (like the college of bishops)?

    Did it provide an escape hatch for when a Pope declares a heretical teaching infallibly?

    Did it provide any way of determining which papal statements are infallible?

    (And whatever your answers to those questions, are they the commonly understood beliefs of Roman Catholic doctrine? Or are they, in fact, up for debate?)

    This is for the moral instruction of Catholics who read your blog and would like to know the definitive answers to these questions.

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      November 30, 2016

      Yes, there are answers to all of those questions, the most important of which being, “Did it provide any way of determining which papal statements are infallible?”

      This is a good place to start.


      1. Andrew
        December 1, 2016

        Yep, Adam’s argument that PA actually limits rather than increases the pope’s power is sound thinking. This idea is actually addressed in Brian Tierney, only for him it is part of the larger problematic that infallibility presents. I agree with Tierney. All the epistemological problems of PA still remain.

        The article you linked didn’t directly answer how we know which statements are infallible, but it suggests that the answer is “whichever ones align with the Tradition.” Isn’t that a question-begging fallacy?

        If I tell you I have an infallible Crystal Ball that’s only speaking infallibly some of the time, your next question needs to be “how exactly will I know when those times are?”

        Generally you’ll hear the argument that certain formulas demarcate infallible statements (we declare/define/pronounce) but this is problematic as well because then there are historically several contradictory statements
        that are all “infallible”.

        Any tips on solving this problem? The latest book that came out on this topic suggested that the key was to read it all through the lens of some post-modern literary critic I’d never heard of. I noticed that this book was read by about seven people, who gave it polite reviews and promptly forgot about it.

        1. Gabriel Sanchez
          December 1, 2016

          I can’t tell if you’re serious or if you’re trolling…

          The definition of when a pope is infallible is laid out in PA. It’s not really that complicated is it?

          As much as I don’t want to link to EWTN, this seems simple enough.


          “When the Pope (1) intends to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme authority (3) on a matter of faith and morals (4) to the whole Church, he is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error.”

          It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to drop over to Fr. Hunwicke’s web-log and search for “infallible”; you will find a wealth of material.

          1. Andrew
            December 1, 2016

            No, not trolling. I think it’s an interesting conversation and I figured you’d be well-read on the subject. I noticed Wikipedia has a pretty good article on this topic.

            Problem is: How does one know when the Pope intends to speak Ex Cathedra? Remember that Innocent III spoke ex Cathedra to legitimize Henry’s conquest of the Irish as a matter of faith and morals. Also, Boniface VIII said ex Cathedra in Unam Sanctam that “subjection to the Roman pontiff is necessary for salvation.” If a modern Pope made a claim using the same definitive language (we declare/define/pronounce) that Innocent and Boniface made their claims, by any reasonable standard, those would be taken today as “Infallible pronouncements”…just as the Immaculate Conception and Assumption doctrines were in the 19th century.

            I’m concerned that this is a complex epistemological question often oversimplified.

          2. Gabriel Sanchez
            December 1, 2016

            “If a modern Pope made a claim using the same definitive language (we declare/define/pronounce) that Innocent and Boniface made their claims, by any reasonable standard, those would be taken today as “Infallible pronouncements”…just as the Immaculate Conception and Assumption doctrines were in the 19th century.”

            I think you hit the nail on the head. It isn’t a matter of a pope using a pre-set, magic formula; it’s a matter of what the pope intends to do as clearly expressed in the words that he uses. Moreover, it was well known in advance that when Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception and Pius XII defined the Assumption that they were intending to bind the Church on a matter of faith; there was nothing ambiguous about either gesture.

            What gets lost in all of this is that the pope defining something infallibly is part of the extraordinary magisterium; it’s not common. If anything, the tendency for the past 50+ years is for the Church to rely upon the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church, and even then there are legitimate questions surrounding many documents and meetings that are intended to be “pastoral.”

            In the end, the infallibility question doesn’t concern me all that much and given ongoing “ecumenical sensitivities,” I cannot imagine a liberal pontiff such as Francis ever contemplating such a move. Francis seems to have very little regard for doctrine. If anything, doctrine just gets in the way of “being pastoral,” which seems to be his only concern. Indeed, it has been the primary concern of a great many churchmen for decades now. The last thing they want to do is define more of it.

  3. georgiosscholarios
    November 30, 2016

    “many faithful Catholics today cannot fathom how to reconcile the Church’s indefectibility with the confusion being sown by so many of her shepherds, including the Pope”

    In my view, the Church has always been a bit of a mess. Catholic apologetics has probably obscured this by emphasizing “the one Church with its clear teaching versus Protestant/Orthodox confusion.” A blog comment Sam Noble made a few years back gives something to think about: a genuine return to first millennium ecclesiology would amount to enshrining the modern Orthodox ecclesiological free-for-all, with disputes settled through ad-hoc negotiations or councils calling outside bishops from wherever seems convenient, following temporary mini-schisms . . . And I think such a ridiculous, messy non-system is a good thing. Very often Roman arguments for the papacy (and for much else besides!) rest on nothing more than a kind of emotional need to feel like there’s a system behind it all when really there’s not, never has been, and wouldn’t be even if we pretended there was one.

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      November 30, 2016

      No one is saying the Church isn’t and hasn’t been messy. There is no “golden age,” and that is not just true today; it’s always been true. Noble, who despite certain talents with the Arabic language, is a raging relativist who seems to think that even many Orthodox teachings that clash with his liberal sentiments ought to be dropped, isn’t really a reliable analyst of things Catholic (or even many things Orthodox). While I don’t doubt that some Catholics have an “emotional need to feel like there’s a system behind it all,” his conclusion amounts to little more than a longing for the sort of doctrinal chaos which allows Christians to be “both in the world and of it.” What does the Zeitgeist say? Let’s follow that — and say we are being faithful to the Gospel!, etc. Protestantism has been doing that for 500 years; may the Orthodox and Catholic communions have nothing to do with it.

      1. georgiosscholarios
        November 30, 2016

        I was simply trying to say that certain ways some Catholics have presented their Church in the last hundred years or so have contributed to the current problem. Is this far from what you yourself have said about current papolatry? Surely Zmirak didn’t come out of nowhere.

        I never meant to agree fully with Noble’s comment, I just thought it was relevant. In any case, I would like to see a more developed response to his point. I haven’t seen anything from him to make me think that he is “a raging relativist,” and even if that is true, it still wouldn’t invalidate his historical claim.

        By the way, I want to add that it sometimes seems that quite a few Orthodox also have an emotional need to feel like there’s a system behind it all. I think this might be why we see such an emphasis on Tradition/the Fathers. I wasn’t trying to be especially critical of Catholics.

        1. Gabriel Sanchez
          November 30, 2016

          Well, first one would have to be clear on what they mean by a “system.” Even the calling of a council is a “system,” as is the reception of that council’s teachings by the Universal Church. Arguably, there has always been a “system” of some sort, only less developed at certain points than others. So, sure, it’s always possible to suggest returning to some earlier point in the development, say, when schisms were more prevalent and disputes messier (and nastier), particularly when political authorities got involved. But why would we want to? If today isn’t a golden age, then certainly yesterday wasn’t either. Moreover, it’s important to keep in mind that one (though certainly not the only) engines for schisms, disputes, and other misunderstandings was due to linguistic and cultural barriers, the sort which don’t exist in quite the same way today.

          Second, yes, there is a desire for things to proceed in the Church in a neat and orderly manner. Modern communication makes us impatient and if the bishops meet with the Pope in a council or synod, Catholics expect results. I do think that is a relatively unique problem in the history of the Church, one closely related to the other problems brought on by mass media (e.g., “the cult of the pope” or the “celebrity pope”).

          Third, I have had online dealings with Noble for years. I am not going to get into dirty laundry, but outside of translating Arabic texts, I don’t trust him at all. In Orthodoxy he’s found a liturgically pretty, doctrinally messy abode. I suspect that’s why liberal Protestants have found their way out East, too. It’s not just conservative Evangelicals who convert.

  4. jacopo
    December 1, 2016

    Papal Infallibility as setting limits on papal authority? Sounds like counterintuitive sophistry that would strip infallibility of its purpose and meaning. Was limiting the pope’s authority the majority view of the bishops at VI? Were they just joining in on piling on Mr. I am Tradition, who was losing his temporal authority, by reducing his spiritual authority to acts from his throne? How would fencing in his doctrinal authority be consistent with contemporaneously recognizing his supreme and immediate jurisdiction over all the churches in communion with him?

    Perhaps if Francis declares infallibly that no modern financial instrument is usurious, Zmirak will calm down.

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      December 1, 2016

      The different ideas and concerns in play during Vatican I concerning infallibility are fascinating to study, and the story is not a simple one. By defining infallibility in a particular manner consonant with tradition, the Church sought to clarify when, and under what conditions, the pope is protected by the Holy Spirit from error. The irony, however, is that despite this intention, a mixture of modern confusion, the advent of the celebrity pope, and the desires of so many to see the pope effectively rework the Faith in his image and likeness in the manner people expect a sitting President to do has cast a dark cloud of confusion over what the First Vatican Council Fathers, in union with the Pope, taught. It is also deeply unfortunate that it took nearly a century for the Church to try and “finish” Vatican I (remember there was a lot left undone). By that point, things had started to get…how shall we say…out of hand.

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