Fatal flaw?

On the Fatima Center website, Mr. Ferrara attacked the sedevacantists for what he calls self-contradiction, a “fatal flaw” in their thinking. He first accurately sums up the sedevacantist position:

So, according to sedevacantist thinking, one cannot legitimately recognize yet resist a true Pope because while not every papal magisterial act is infallible, every papal magisterial act is (1) authoritative, (2) binding on consciences, (3) safe to follow, and (4) free from pernicious error. [emphasis added]

He then proceeds to attack this position as containing a contradiction.

What the sedevacantists are really saying, then, is that a Pope who errs in his teaching on a matter of faith and morals, even once, ceases to be Pope (or never was Pope) because every exercise of the papal magisterium must be free from error.

Notice that the word pernicious has disappeared. In leaving this word out, Mr. Ferrara has manifested that he does not understand the whole point of the sedevacantist argument.

We are saying that non-infallible papal magisterium is indeed fallible — obviously — but that if it should err, it cannot teach or command something which is evil or pernicious, that is, something contrary to Catholic doctrine or morals. He cannot teach a doctrine which is contrary to the Church’s teaching, nor can he teach something condemned by the Church. The pope can teach, for example, that the moon is made of green cheese, but he cannot teach that non-Catholic religions are means of salvation. And I challenge the neocons to produce a single point of pontifical magisterium which violates this rule.

This is not a question of infallibility but of indefectibility, which has a much broader object than infallibility. Infallibility has as its object truths which are immutable and irreformable. Indefectibility has as its object not only doctrine but also discipline, in such a way that the Church could never teach or prescribe or command something contrary to Catholic doctrine, impious, evil, or pernicious. While this gift of indefectibility does not preserve the pope from error in his non-infallible teachings — what we call pontifical or authentic magisterium — it nonetheless preserves him and the universal Church in general from requiring that the faithful assent to any pernicious doctrine, or observe any discipline which would be sinful to observe. Pope Gregory XVI taught this very thing in his encyclical Quo graviora of 1833:

Is it possible that the Church, which is the pillar and ground of truth, and which is continually receiving from the Holy Ghost the teaching of all truth, could ordain, grant, or permit what would turn to the detriment of the salvation of souls, to the contempt and harm of a sacrament instituted by Christ? Would it not be the most insolent insanity, as Augustine said, to dispute whether something, which the universal Church does throughout the whole world, should be done or not?

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Sapientiæ christianæ said:

Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.

Mr. Ferrara is confusing positive infallibility with negative infallibility, a distinction made by theologians. The first is that which pertains to his solemn declarations, such as the Immaculate Conception, which are the object of divine and catholic faith. The second refers to his non-infallible teaching, such as pontifical magisterium, which is not free from error, except in that he cannot require religious assent to doctrinal or moral teaching which would be contrary to Catholic doctrine, or command a discipline which would be sinful to observe.

Anything which falls under the category of pontifical magisterium, that is, non-infallible papal teaching, requires something called religious assent, which, although not being the assent of faith, nonetheless is an assent made out of obedience to the Pontiff as Supreme Teacher. In other words, we cannot blithely “blow it off” because we disagree with it. Furthermore, while these teachings could be erroneous, they cannot contain pernicious error, that is, something sinful to accept or observe.

Pope Pius XI said in his encyclical Casti connubii:

For it is quite foreign to everyone bearing the name of a Christian to trust his own mental powers with such pride as … to imagine … that they must obey only in those matters which she has decreed by solemn definition as though her other decisions might be presumed to be false or putting forward insufficient motive for truth and honesty. Quite to the contrary, a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered or unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals by the Holy Church of God through its Supreme Pastor the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Pope Pius XII said in the encyclical Humani generis:

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their teaching authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me.”

I have given these lengthy quotations from the Roman Pontiffs to show that my assertions about the non-infallible magisterium have not been “pulled out of a hat.” Cardinal Franzelin, a very prominent theologian of the nineteenth century, who was the principal theologian at the Vatican Council of 1870, summed it up in this way: “In this sort of declarations [which are not made with the intention of binding infallibly by a definitive sentence], there is not the infallible truth of doctrine, since, in this case, there was not the will to bind; but there is infallible safety of doctrine, by reason of which all Catholics can safely embrace it, and it is not safe, nor can it be free from the violation of due submission toward the supreme Magisterium, that they should refuse to embrace it.” [emphasis added]

Reducing the Catholic Church to a Protestant church. While Mr. Ferrara is of good will, no doubt, and is doing his best to make sense of the present problem of a deviating “magisterium,” what he is proposing is the reduction of the Catholic Church to a Protestant church.

I reiterate: It would be contrary to the very purpose of the founding of the Catholic Church by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the assistance He promised to it, if it were capable, through its universal teachings and practices, to lead souls to hell through pernicious error and/or sinful laws and disciplines.

On the other hand, the Protestants see their preachers and hierarchies as human beings who are not assisted by Christ, but who merely propose to us what they think is true doctrine and sound morals. It is up to the individual to decide if he thinks that their teaching is in conformity with the Scriptures or not. For this reason, there is no unity of faith among the Protestants. It is a dogma-less religion, dogma being the sole domain of the individual. For this reason, despite the variety of their sects, they are all in communion with one another as “Christians.” This means that despite their doctrinal differences, in the end it does not matter, since doctrine is your decision, and not the Church’s. This is the very soul of Protestantism.

By recognizing as the true Catholic hierarchy the Vatican II “popes,” the Recognize-and-Resist people are protestantizing the Catholic Church by treating the hierarchy in the same manner as that of the Protestants. The pope proposes a doctrine, then we see if it is in accordance with Tradition. If not, then we reject it out of hand, but at the same time recognizing the erring pope to be the head of the Church, Vicar of Christ on earth.

The sedevacantist position, on the other hand, insists that if there is a deviation from Catholic doctrine in the teachings and disciplines of a Roman Pontiff, it is an infallible sign — as smoke is of fire —that he does not bear, for whatever reason, the assistance of Christ, and therefore cannot be a true Roman Pontiff. It is an infallible sign since the indefectibility of the Church is a de fide dogma of the Church.

Only this position preserves the nature of the Catholic Church, which is a supernatural organization of which the universally taught and prescribed doctrines and disciplines may and must also be accepted as being safe and conducive to salvation.

Deny this and you destroy the Catholic Church.