Sullivan and Infallibility

Author: Christopher Y Wong

Sullivan and Infallibility

Christopher Y Wong -------------------

"I wonder at the adroitness of theologians who manage to represent the exact opposite of what is written in clear documents of the Magisterium in order afterward to set forth this inversion with skilled dialectical devices as the 'true' meaning of the documents in question."{1}

Cardinal Ratzinger's words, spoken in 1984, are all the more appropriate today in the light of S.A. Sullivan's article in the Jesuit weekly magazine AMERICA for Dec. 9, 1995. The Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) had sought to clarify that the Pope in his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis infallibly taught that women could not be ordained. His Responsum ad Dubium was short. The bulk of the response was in a single, 2-sentence paragraph.

Sullivan, by contrast, appears to determined to undermine this simple message with a lengthy article. He confuses the issue by taking an irrelevant detour concerning the "ordinary and universal magisterium." Perhaps the Prefect should have answered the Dubium with a one-word Responsum of "YES," with a footnote: "Which part don't you understand?"

Infallibility of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium -------------------------------------------------------

Once past the preliminaries, Sullivan zeroed in on the words "it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium." For some reason, he seems to think that the CDF was obliged to prove that this was the case. For the rest of the article, his thesis was that the it is not clear that the doctrine was indeed taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. What is the "infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium"?

"Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter's successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively." (From Lumen Gentium 25)

Bishops in union with the magisterium can teach infallibly if they authentically (i.e. authoritatively{2}) teach the same doctrine: namely Christ's doctrine. In union with Rome, the universal Church, they achieve a moral unanimity.

Sullivan ignores LG 25 completely in his article, choosing not to argue that the doctrine was not infallibly taught. Rather, his plan is that of fear, uncertainty and doubt: he tries to convince the reader that there was no way to KNOW if the doctrine was infallibly taught. He does so by proposing three ways to determine that the doctrine was infallibly taught, and proceeds to shoot down his strawmen. Note the reasoning: he proposes three POSSIBLE ways, but does not - and cannot - show that they are the ONLY ways. By attacking three "proofs" that were not used by the CDF in the first place, Sullivan has failed to prove anything.

Sullivan's final paragraph questions whether "they [the bishops] have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith."{3} He wants a literal counting of heads. He expects the CDF's short Responsum to prove conclusively that ALL bishops have taught authoritatively on this issue. Does he mean every living bishop? Every bishop throughout eternity? In the past? Sullivan does not say; he is merely content in giving the CDF an impossible condition to satisfy. This same Sullivan had acknowledged that:

"There have been times in the past and may be again in the future when a considerable portion of the faithful has been led into error, usually by erring bishops, and then it has been the role of the supreme teaching authority to pronounce a decisive judgement in order to resolve the dispute and led the faithful to a consensus in the truth."{4}

Dissent is inevitable; our long history of heresies is testimony to that. Is he saying, then, that a single dissenting bishop could undermine Christ's truth?

Keep in mind that the absence of proof of a consensus does not disprove its presence in the past. This aside, there is a much simpler assurance that the magisterium has been teaching an irreformable doctrine: namely, if the Pope infallibly teaches that same doctrine.

The real proof --------------

In his fixation on the ordinary and universal magisterium, Sullivan ignores the second sentence of the CDF Responsum's main paragraph. It reads "Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith."

This is the key sentence. It is the Pope who exercised infallibility in his Apostolic Letter, "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis." It is this confirming exercise in infallibility that gives us the confidence that the ordinary and universal magisterium has taught infallibly. The CDF Responsum only serves to emphasize the Pope's intention. Sullivan perhaps hopes to undermine the papal letter indirectly, by attacking the CDF's statement. Do not be misled.

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: an exercise of infallibility{5} ----------------------------------------------------

The Catholic Church's teaching on infallibility is very clear:

"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of this office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals."{6}

The four tests we can discern from the above are that the Pope:

1. intends to teach ("teacher of all the faithful")

2. by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority ("supreme pastor")

3. a matter of faith or morals ("pertaining to faith or morals")

4. to be held by the universal church. ("of all the faithful")

A word on the phrase "definitive." The root word for "define" here is "finis," meaning "end" or "limit." Defining a doctrine "puts an end to freedom of opinion on the matter, and sets limits to the communion of faith."{7}

Is the Pope's Apostolic Letter an exercise in infallibility? Let us apply the four criterion. From Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:

"Wherefore, in 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 (c.f. 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."

1. Is it at all doubtful that the Pope intends to teach? In fact, he seeks to do so that "all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance."

2. He is clearly operating as supreme pastor. Note the correspondence between his words ("in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren") and LG 25 ("supreme pastor . . . who confirms his brethren in the faith"). His intention to issue an infallible teaching is undeniable.

3. This is clearly a matter pertaining to faith. Rather than "merely disciplinary force," the doctrine is a "matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself."

4. That this is binding on the universal church can be seen by his insistence that the doctrine "is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

Keep in mind that it is the Pope - not the documents - that practices infallibility. His intention to do so is clear, and amplified all the more by the CDF Responsum. Insistence on particular wordings and phrases and other linguistic games looks silly in view of this. This should give pause to those "adroit theologians" who insist on creative private interpretation of Church documents.

Conclusion ----------

Pope's recent Apostolic Letter, "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," is an exercise in infallibility. The response from the CDF merely emphasizes this to those who heroically attempt to misunderstand the Pope's intention. Sullivan's article, by ignoring the obvious object of infallibility in favor of the less definable, only serves to distract the reader from the undeniable.

Appendix: assorted straw people -------------------------------

Buried in his article, Sullivan presents a number of examples that purportedly shows that official teachings of the Holy See can change over time. He writes:

"To give an example: The bishops gathered at the Council of Florence in 1442 no doubt expressed the common teaching of the whole episcopate at that time when they said that all pagans and Jews would certainly go to hell if they did not become Catholics before they died. This is certainly not the doctrine of the modern Catholic Church. Other examples of doctrines that had a long tradition but were subsequently reversed concerned the morality of owning slaves and exploiting their labor, and the obligation requiring rulers of Catholic nations to prevent the propagation of Protestantism in their territories."{8}

Sullivan is presumably referring to the Decree for the Jacobites from the Council of Florence in 1442:

"It firmly believes, professes and preaches, that none who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can partake of eternal life, but they will go into eternal fire . . . unless before the end of life they will have been joined to it . . ."{9}

Even if this passage is to be interpreted so as to conflict with what the Church believes today (as apparently Sullivan does), it fails miserably to illustrate Sullivan's point. The Feeneyite doctrine was not a teaching that was held from the Church's genesis until recent times, as various patristic and magisterium writings show. As an example, in AD 148-155 St. Justin the Martyr wrote "Those who lived according to Logos are Christians, even if they were considered atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus."{10}

A careful reading will reveal that the 1442 decree does not demand a formal membership in the Catholic Church. One needs to be "joined" to the Church, but a formal juridical membership was neither required nor implied. In other words, the decree does not conflict with the view that a meritorious pagan could be in union with the Church by an unconscious desire.

On the issue of slavery, it should be noted that there was never a doctrinal teaching making slavery acceptable. The Church - struggling to survive - needed to grow before it was ready to challenge slavery and may not have fought it as vigorously as it could have. But these are pragmatic, not theological reasons. Still, as early as 873 AD Pope John VIII taught:

"There is one thing about which we should give you a paternal admonition, and unless you emend, you incur a great sin, . . . many in your area, being taken captive by pagans, are sold and are bought by your people and held under the yoke of slavery. . . . Hence we exhort you and in fatherly love command that when you redeem some captives from them, for the salvation of your soul, you let them go free."{11}

So the justification of slavery was not a long standing tradition either. The issue of religious freedom (concerning Protestantism) is also a non-issue, being a disciplinary rather than a moral or doctrinal question.

The Church's stand on women's ordination is unchanged from the time of Christ. By contrast, all of Sullivan's examples fail to show that official teachings of the Holy See can prove wrong over time.

Notes -----

{1} Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report p. 26, Ignatius Press.

{2} c.f. Sullivan, Magisterium p. 26.

{3} Sullivan, Guideposts from Catholic Tradition, AMERICA Dec 9, 1995.

{4} Sullivan, Magisterium p. 105.

{5} This section is shamelessly derived from Jeff Mirus' electronic article of the same name. That file can be found as ordin.txt at

{6} The Catechism of the Catholic Church 891, citing LG 25 c.f. DS 3074.

{7} c.f. Sullivan, Magisterium p. 60.

{8} Sullivan, Guideposts from Catholic Tradition, AMERICA Dec 9, 1995.

{9} DS 1351

{10} St. Justin the Martyr, "First Apology" 46

{11} DS 668