First, let me set the stage by offering three brief anecdotes about the anxieties raised by doctrinal development and change within the church. Once, when the Reverend Myles M. Bourke, former professor of Sacred Scripture at Dunwoodie, the major seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, was presenting an interpretation that denied the complete historical character of a scriptural passage, a student in the back of the class made a sound like that of a page being ripped from a book. A couple of years later, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office, tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Cardinal Francis Spellman to remove Bourke from the seminary faculty because of his interpretation of the infancy narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. A few years later, a New York priest unhappy with developments in Catholic biblical scholarship noticed a copy of the slim journal titled The Bible Today and asked a colleague, "Is that all that’s left of that great big book?"

These anecdotes illustrate the difficulty that some Catholics experienced roughly around the time of Vatican II in accepting the application of modern critical methods to the interpretation of the Bible, particularly when it called into question the historicity of important biblical stories, such as the creation, actions, and fate of Adam and Eve but, even more acutely, the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. A draft document prepared for the approval of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council taught "the absolute immunity of all Holy Scripture from error" as a simple logical conclusion from the divine inspiration of the Bible, which, it said, necessarily excludes "any error in any matter." During the conciliar debates it was urged that a simple reading of the Bible should be enough to require people to nuance that statement. In the end the council issued instead a document on divine revelation (Dei verbum) which stated that the authority of the Scriptures, including its inerrancy, had to be considered in the light of God’s purpose in inspiring the Bible, which is that of our salvation.

The final conciliar text represented a significant step in the Catholic church’s struggle with an issue that modern science and history had thrust upon believers concerning the divine authority of Scripture, a struggle which still disturbs some other churches, as the type of literalism and concordism represented by "creationism" illustrates. Among Catholics, instead, the struggle concerns the authority of the teaching office they believe was instituted by Christ and promised the assistance of the Holy Spirit. As this symposium illustrates, we are still working our way through this problem and have not yet arrived at as peaceful a solution as we have reached, at least in principle, with regard to biblical authority.

This is odd. After all, we have worked our way through the difficulties of admitting the divine inspiration of a psalm which begins with a beautiful lament beside the waters of Babylon but ends by blessing the one who dashes the children of the daughter of Babylon against the rocks. Should it be more difficult to admit that Pope Leo X erred when he condemned Luther’s saying that "it is a sin against the Holy Spirit to burn heretics"?

By his many expressions of regret for the mistakes, failures, and sins of Catholics over the centuries, the present pope has gone far, at least in principle, toward settling the issue. His regrets do not exempt predecessors in his office; they concern not only what was done but also what was thought and said. John Paul II recently included among them "acquiescence in methods of intolerance and even of violence in the service of the truth," words which must surely intend not only the Inquisitions but also, to cite only a few cases, the condemnation of Luther’s view mentioned above, Benedict XIV’s scolding of Polish bishops for not being zealous enough in enforcing civil disabilities on Jews, and his predecessors’ condemnation of religious freedom in the nineteenth century. (The last of these was explicitly mentioned by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as an example of papal teachings that have since been overturned; on another occasion the cardinal infuriated traditionalists by calling Gaudium et spes a "counter-Syllabus.")

Still there is opposition to the pope’s expressions of and calls for repentance. In Italy the pope is being accused of "mea-culpa-ism," and in the United States a satire is circulating that shows a mock article in L’Osservatore Romano purporting to contain John Paul II’s apology for the mistake of his first predecessor in condemning Ananias and Sapphira. More seriously, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna has expressed the fear that "the ordinary faithful...may find their serene adherence to the mystery of the church shaken by these self-accusations." In response to similar criticisms the pope recently explained that his requests for forgiveness should not be regarded "as a display of faked humility or as a denial of the church’s bimillennial history, which is certainly rich in merits in the fields of charity, culture, and holiness. It corresponds, rather, to an obligatory demand for truth which recognizes, along with positive aspects, the human limits and weaknesses of various generations of the disciples of Christ."

The opposition perhaps arises from several causes. The first is the belief that the magisterium was given to us precisely to compensate for the obscurities and uncertainties of the Scriptures, a view brought to a lopsided height when Pope Pius XII ridiculed the idea that one might judge the magisterium by the Scriptures, which would amount to judging the clear by the obscure, the explicit by the implicit. As Joseph Ratzinger has pointed out, the council restored proper balance by insisting that the magisterium is subject to the Word of God and that its first duty, a condition of its rights, is that it listen to it.

Second, there is a purely deductive reasoning which is believed to settle issues beforehand and almost by definition: The magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit will not misguide the magisterium; therefore, whatever the magisterium teaches cannot be misguided. Such exaggerated claims have their mirror-image in those who think that if a teaching office is not infallible, it is not worth listening to, that if it makes a mistake on one point, it cannot be trusted on any point—a position, by the way, that would put all us professors out of work. Yves Congar once wrote of "a veritable inflation of the category of infallibility, as if between the infallibly true and error there did not exist an immense realm of partial truth, of probable certitude [sic], of search and approximation, even of quite precious truths that are not guaranteed to be free of the risk of human finitude." And he quoted from Antoine Vergote, a religious psychologist: "The theological abuse of infallibility derives from a pathology with regard to truth just as legalism is a pathology with regard to morality."

Finally, there is the not always tacit assumption that the purpose of authority, including that of teaching, is to relieve those subject to it of the burden of exercising their own intelligence and freedom, to which is often associated the assumption that the Spirit’s assistance to the teaching office is so powerful and assured as to make the intelligence, morals, and holiness of its occupants an irrelevancy. Neither assumption is correct.

If I may end where I began: The comparison with the Scriptures and their authority is illuminating. As one has to read the Scriptures in order to determine to what degree and in what respects their inspiration entails their inerrancy, so, if one wishes to arrive at a balanced view of the magisterium and its authority, one must undertake the sort of "serene and complete historical reconstructions" of the past that Pope John Paul II recommended at his audience on September 1, 1999, avoiding generalizing statements not only of condemnation but also of absolution.


Read more: Can the Church Admit Error?

Published in the 1999-11-19 issue: View Contents

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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