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I agree with Dr. Feser 99.953%

November 24, 2015

Dr. Edward Feser’s recent post on papal infallibility will be required reading next time I take students through Book III of the Code, especially Canons 749-750. But in any post of 6,328 words dealing with papal infallibility (and, I might add, only with papal infallibility, that is, not with, say, collegial or ecclesial infallibility, but just papal infallibility), it should not be surprising if I find a few words with which to disagree. If Feser disagrees with Cdl. Dulles in regard to a technical point (as Feser does once, correctly in my view), then I may demur from Feser’s phrasing in one respect, too.

Feser writes in regard to John Paul II’s ap. lit. Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994) that “The reason [Ordinatio] is to be regarded as infallible is not that the papal document in question constituted an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium, but rather because of the teaching’s status as part of the constant and universal doctrine of the Church.”

Hmmm. Of course documents aren’t infallible, acts are infallible (under certain circumstances, etc., etc.). But infallible acts can be, and usually are, performed through documents. Ordinatio is, I suggest, an example of extraordinary, papal infallibility being exercised through a document.

St. John Paul II wrote in Ordinatio: “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 (cf. 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.”

Now, if that language—language acknowledging that the assertion in question is already knowable by the ordinary infallible magisterium but is still in evident need of authoritative reiteration, language that states the matter in question to be doctrinal (specifically, ecclesiological) in nature, language that quotes Vatican II’s explanation of papal infallibility (Lumen gentium 25) and quotes the same foundational passage from Luke, language that asserts the ‘definitive’ (not prudential, not advisory) character of the assertion, and language that refers to the assertion as needing to be ‘held’ (as a secondary object of infallibility), not ‘believed” (as if it were a primary object),—if, I say, the language used by the pope in Ordinatio does not represent an infallible act of papal magisterium, then one will never know what language does qualify as connoting such infallibility, not, that is, short of setting up ‘magic word’ criteria for infallibility precisely of the sort repeatedly rejected by all teachings on infallibility.

Yes, I know that then-Cdl. Ratzinger said he did not regard Ordinatio as infallible and there is language from John Paul II suggesting the same thing. What can I say? Ordinatio is infallible, Ratzinger was not; John Paul’s infallible teaching authority was engaged when he issued Ordinatio, not when he briefly commented on it.

As this post is, as mentioned above, simply a demurral from—and not a refutation of—Feser’s brief comment on Ordinatio, and is made mostly to preserve the argument for another day, I’ll not defend my views further, except to quote from a respected scholar of infallibility, Rev. James O’Connor, who, in discussing Ordinatio, said this: “It is clear that here the pope meets all the requirements set forth by Vatican I and explained by Gasser for an infallible papal definition. … Some have thought that the papal teaching in Ordinatio [s]acerdotalis was not itself infallible, but a ‘witness’ to the infallible teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium. Such was the personal theological opinion of Cardinal Ratzinger … However, the teaching of Ordinatio [s]acerdotalis is probably best viewed in light of what has been said above.” J. O’Connor, The Gift of Infallibility (Ignatius, 2008) 115-116.

Now, back to Feser.


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