8 July 2014

Definition and Dogma

When, in 1950, Papa Pacelli defined the dogma of the Corporeal Assumption of the Mother of God, the formula with which he did so very carefully avoided saying either that she died before her Assumption, or that she did not die (expletu terrestris vitae cursu). This definition had the practical effect of eliminating from the devotional life of Catholics much of the 'apocryphal' narrative which, in both the East and the West, had surrounded the Eschaton of the Theotokos. Prayers which are found in earlier Western liturgies (e.g. festivitas ...in qua dei genetrix mortem subiit temporalem ...) became unusable; many iconographic representations became problematic; tropes, such as that of S Gregory Palamas, explaining to prepon that she had to die to be like her Son, while by no means excluded as pious opinions, became beliefs which it was impossible to describe as the Teaching of the Church. In effect, far from being a novel imposition, the doctrine proclaimed in 1950 constituted the elimination of 95% of what had previously been taught or believed. What was left was but an austere and minimalist doctrinal skeleton of the rich narrative tapestries which nourished Christians from Ireland to India before the Definition.

The root within the verb/noun definire/definitio is -fin-, meaning a boundary. To define a proposition is thus to place boundaries round it, to limit it. While, therefore, a definition may make an additional claim upon the consciences of some, upon others it is likely to have the quite opposite effect. Foliage surrounding the defined doctrinal core has, in effect, been scythed away.

In 1870, the Decree Pastor aeternus imposed an additional claim upon 'Gallicans' and 'Conciliarists': they were obliged to believe that the Roman Pontiff was infallible. But he was only described as infallible in matters of Faith and Morals. That is limiting. Neque enim Petri successoribus Sanctus Spiritus promissus est ut eo revelante novam doctrinam patefacerent, sed ut, eo assistente, traditam per Apostolos revelationem seu fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent.

How does this bear upon the vexing question of the exact binding force of a canonisation?

Theologians had for centuries discussed the possession by the Roman Bishop of an infallible magisterium. But they had not conducted that discussion within the tight boundaries of the 1870 Definition. If a theologian writing BEFORE 1870 asserted that X had been infallibly taught, you cannot fairly claim that he asserted X to have been infallibly taught in THAT sense of Infallibility which was defined in 1870. He may be thinking in broader, or narrower, categories than those of Pastor aeternus.

Thus, when writers of the eighteenth or earlier centuries argue that Canonisations are infallible, they are not claiming that a canonisation concerns Faith or Morals and that it is part of the Revelation handed on by the Apostles ... for rather obvious reasons: if the Saint lived in the sixteenth century, their sanctity can clearly not be part of that immutable body of truth which was taught and believed also in the fifth and fifteenth centuries; and Saint So-and-so did not exist within the depositum which the Apostles tradiderunt.

I share the view of Benedict XIV, writing as a private doctor, that questioning a canonisation is temerarious. Nor do I deny the propriety of any use of the I-word with regard to canonisations. But it seems to me clear that a canonisation cannot claim that infallibility, that binding force, which the Decree Pastor aeternus of 1870 attributes to the Roman Pontiff when speaking ex cathedra.

I have returned to this question because the current, apparently politically motivated, frenzy for canonising recent Bishops of Rome will not, I very much fear, be sated until Paul VI has been given his gong too. And his case may be more problematic for decent faithful Catholics than that of S John XXIII or S John Paul II. I think we had better get our thinking straight before it happens, so that we know what we are going to say that it means. That means addressing the question I have touched upon here and which Ad tuendam fidem touches (i.e. with what precise degree of authority is a canonisation proposed to us); as well as the next question: what precisely, not according to opinions but in terms of the express words of the Magisterium, does a canonisation expect us to believe with regard to the one canonised?


Don Camillo SSC said...

I would say that holiness consists in the perfect fulfilment of the two-fold commandment, to love God with all one's heart and soul and strength, and one's neighbour as oneself. A saint is someone who, at least by the end of his or her life, attained this. Holiness does not imply the correctness of all opinions or judgements. Was Paul VI holy in this sense? I do not doubt it.

6c51 said...

"If a theologian writing BEFORE 1870 asserted that X had been infallibly taught, you cannot fairly claim that he asserted X to have been infallibly taught in THAT sense of Infallibility which was defined in 1870."

An interesting point, but am I alone in being reminded of the "Need to know" speech from Yes, Prime Minister?

Tee Pee Gee Eff said...

Ad Tuendam Fidem of course does not mention canonisations at all except by reference to a particular section of the Profession of Faith in n.3. The CDF's commentary on the Profession of Faith, issued with Ad Tuendam Fidem, also does not mention canonisations in its discussion of the same section (nn.6-7).
Canonisations are mentioned among the examples of truths protected by that section of the Profession of Faith. Also mentioned are Papal elections and the fact of celebration of Ecumenical Councils.
In other words we have three general examples (the CDF says nothing about This Pope, this Council, this Saint).
There is a fourth example given which is specific. Does everybody know what it is? If not go have a look. Para beginning "With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity…"
If you have not read these documents before it is probably easiest to do so in the order given on that page. But you will have to scroll backwards and forwards to get the cross references.

Tee Pee Gee Eff said...

Saints are not infallible but their devotional life is sometimes taken as a guide. When Paul VI died Mother Teresa told a journalist "He was holy, he was a loving father. He had a great love for children and the poor and a special love for the Missionaries of Charity. He has gone home to God and now we can pray to him." How do we know? Because in 1993, fifteen years later, she went to the trouble of telling us.


The Rad Trad said...

This is something many internet commentators and even professional theologians need to consider when they examine and adduce past papal statements. Before the era of television one could say a papal sermon during Mass was just a sermon by the bishop of Rome to the people of Rome, whereas now it is counted as some level of magisterium. When were past popes simply preaching? When were they simply condemning? When were they simply sorting out difficulties and when were they outright binding people forever to definitions? It is a matter that requires more rumination.

Greco said...

Dear Fr. Hunwicke,
Would you be willing to weigh in on Louie Verrecchio's theory that Vatican II did not qualify as an ecumenical council but was rather a glorified synod of bishops? He makes an interesting and well supported case.

dmw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rick allen said...

I have always assumed that the act of canonization drew from the pope's ruling authority, rather than his teaching authority.

As a lay Catholic I can ask for the prayers of whomever I want, in my private devotions. Canonization does not make someone a saint. It doesn't touch the saint at all. Rather, it is a directive that that saint's intercession can be invoked in the public prayer of the church.

The canonization, of course, implicitly makes a judgment about the individual's holiness, but that's based on a historical investigation that has nothing to do with the fundamental truths of the Faith.

It's not up to me to question a canonization. But that's not because a new truth of the Faith is being proposed. It's because the pope is the ruler with authority to regulate public intercessory prayer and patronage. He never rules infallibly, but he does have that responsibility entrusted to him by divine law, and I'm not terribly inclined to take it from him.

rick allen said...

As a follow-up to my previous comment, you ask, specifically,

"what precisely, not according to opinions but in terms of the express words of the Magisterium, does a canonisation expect us to believe with regard to the one canonised?"

Now I understand that the Code of Canon Law is, again, not an expression of the magisterium, but of the power of rule. But, as a formal expression of that power, I think it unmistakably implies that canonization does not propose something for belief, but rather exists to authorize something to be done:

Canon 1187: Cultu publico eos tantum Dei servos venerari licet, qui auctoritate Ecclesiae in album Sanctorum vel Beatorum relati sint.

AllEarthsVanities said...

As this might affect the discussion, one should remember that those commemorated as Saints are not equivalent to those canonized by an act of the Pope in Rome. A case in point is St Patrick, who is commemorated, although never canonized according to a Papal brief. Thus, modern canonization is just a particular development of the church constitution.
Others, more learned than I, might consider just what is de fide regarding figures such as St Patrick.